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The Ten Commandments in American History
The First Commandment

This page is taken from America OnLine's "Separation of Church and State" Bulletin Board. (Jump works only for AOL subscribers.) I was told by one of the Secular Humanist contributors that Christianity had nothing to do with the legal system created by the Founding Fathers. My response:

Subject: Re: The Decalog & U.S. law -- First Commandment
From: kevin4vft@aol.com (KEVIN4VFT)
Date: 09 Jan 1999 18:19:29 EST

In article <19990102133927.05500.00005977@ng-fa2.aol.com>, xaosjester@aol.com (XaosJester) writes:

>Kevin says: "All you asserted was that [all] other cultures prohibit the same
>things prohibited in the Bible. You did not prove that the Common Law
>was based on Chinese or Arabic law or the code of Hammurabi."
>I did not try to prove what common law was based on. What I did prove was
>that it was not based on the decalog.

Let's review his original post and see if there really is any "proof."

In article <19981229154902.11217.00003483@ng37.aol.com>, xaosjester@aol.com (XaosJester) writes:

>The claim by many christian accomadationists that the decalog is the basis of
>U.S. law is patently false and easily disproved.
> 1. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
>No U.S. law prevents me from worshiping any god who strikes my fancy.

That's it. That's all Mr. Jester wrote. This proves that the Common Law and American Law were not based on the Ten Commandments??

Mr. Jester is clearly mistaken. Even the federal judge who removed the Ten Commandments from the view of the people of Alabama admitted that

the first tablet also has secular aspects. As the Chief Justice pointed out in his speech unveiling the monument, Samuel Adams gave a speech, the day before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, referring to the King as a false idol, alluding to the Commandment that "Thou shalt have no other Gods before me."

From its beginning, America was based on establishing the worship of the True God. I have cited the early charters here:


This did not change at the time of the Constitution. The purpose of our nation was to advance the true faith, but not to do it through the establishment of a national church/denomination. The most remarkable thing about America was the possibility it created of a clergy-free Theocracy. That possibility was stillborn, but its future was not precluded by the Constitution.

Probably at the time of the adoption of the constitution, and of the amendment to it..., the general, if not the universal, sentiment in America was, that Christianity ought to receive encouragement from the state, so far as was not incompatible with the private rights of conscience and the freedom of religious worship. An attempt to level all religions, and to make it a matter of state policy to hold all in utter indifference, would have created universal disapprobation, if not universal indignation. It yet remains a problem to be solved in human affairs, whether any free government can be permanent where the public worship of God, and the support of religion, constitute no part of the policy or duty of the state in any assignable shape.
Joseph Story, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States; With a Preliminary Review of the Constitutional History of the Colonies and States, Before the Adoption of the Constitution, vol. 3 (Boston: Hilliard, Gray, and Company, 1833; reprint ed., New York: Da Capo Press, 1970), pp. 726-27.

Evidence to support Story's thesis may be gleaned, for example, from Nathan O. Hatch, The Sacred Cause of Liberty: Republican Thought and the Millennium in Revolutionary New England (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977), p. 168:

As intellectual heirs of a tradition with had entwined republicanism and Christian theism, New Englanders in the last two decades of the century were unable to perceive religion as free from matters of civil government. From ancient history they were convinced that 'the state cannot stand without religion' and from their own experience that 'Rational Freedom cannot be preserved without the aid of Christianity.'

He agreed with the sentiment that religion should be encouraged by the state but not through compulsion and not by showing sectarian preferences:

The real object of the amendment was, not to countenance, much less to advance Mahometanism, or Judaism, or infidelity, by prostrating Christianity; but to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects, and to prevent any national ecclesiastical establishment, which should give to an hierarchy the exclusive patronage of the national government.
Story, Commentaries, p. 728.

Near the end of the nineteenth century, Thomas M. Cooley, who publicly opposed Sunday closing laws, strongly reaffirmed the same judicial precepts held by Justice Story and Chancellor Kent:

By establishment of religion is meant the setting up or recognition of a state church, or at least the conferring upon one church of special favors and advantages which are denied to others. It was never intended by the Constitution that the government should be prohibited from recognizing religion, or that religious worship should never be provided for in cases where a proper recognition of Divine Providence in the working of government might seem to require it, and where it might be done without drawing any invidious distinctions between different religious beliefs, organizations, or sects. The Christian religion was always recognized in the administration of the common law; and so far as that law continues to be the law of the land, the fundamental principles of that must continue to be recognized in the same cases and to the same extent as formerly.
Thomas M. Cooley, The General Principles of Constitutional Law in the United States of America, ed. Andrew C. McLaughlin, 3rd ed. (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1898), pp. 224-25.

If worship is (wrongly) defined as going to some state-licensed building on one day out of the week and engaging in some irrelevant religious liturgies, Mr. Jester is correct. But in the Bible the basic meaning of the word "worship" is service. As The New Bible Dictionary puts it, "[T]he essential concept in both the Old and New Testaments is 'service.'" To "worship" God is to put every area of one's life under the His Law. Presbyterian theologian John Murray writes,

[Worship in the] generic sense is the devotion we owe to God in the whole of life. God is sovereign, He is Lord, having sovereignty over us and propriety in us, and therefore in all that we do we owe subjection to him, devotion to His revealed will, obedience to His commandments. There is no area of life where the injunction does not apply (I Cor. 10:31). In view of the lordship of Christ as Mediator all of life comes under His dominion (Col. 3:23,24).

In this sense, American law has (until the rise of Secular Humanism under the post-Everson Court) consistently enforced the First Commandment. Even Jefferson said that the state cannot enforce belief, but can interdict action, and the actions which will be the object of penal sanctions were always defined by Christian morality. Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists was first cited by the Court in Reynolds v. Unied States (1878), in which a non-Christian group claimed First Amendment protection for committing acts of polygamy because those acts were allegedly commanded by this group's god. Their appeal was denied. The laws in every single state granted freedom of religion or freedom of conscience, but were limited by penal sanctions against "lascivious," "licentious," or "immoral" conduct, where those words were always Biblically defined.

The First Amendment does not annul the First Commandment.

Schools in the Constitutional era taught the Ten Commandments through the Catechism. America's Founding Fathers knew the requirements of the First Commandment, and they encouraged the nation to obey them. Millions of Americans, through the New England Primer, learned:

Q. What is required in the First Commandment?
A. The First Commandment requireth us to know and acknowledge God to be the only true God, and our God; and to worship and glorify Him accordingly.

The Virginia Constitution speaks of the duty to Serve the Creator, and this is true religion:

That religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and, therefore, all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other.

Even Madison agreed that all men have a duty to worship God:

Because we hold it for a fundamental and undeniable truth, 'that religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.'

[note in original refers to section 16 of the VA Bill of Rights, quoted above]
The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right. It is unalienable; because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds, cannot follow the dictates of other men:
It is unalienable also; because what is here a right towards men, is a duty towards the Creator. It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage, and such only, as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is predecent both in order of time and degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society.

The Larger Catechism, though less familiar to us, summed up well known ideas:

Question 104: What are the duties required in the first commandment?
Answer: The duties required in the first commandment are, the knowing and acknowledging of God to be the only true God, and our God; and to worship and glorify him accordingly, by thinking, meditating, remembering, highly esteeming, honoring, adoring, choosing, loving, desiring, fearing of him; believing him; trusting, hoping, delighting, rejoicing in him; being zealous for him; calling upon him, giving all praise and thanks, and yielding all obedience and submission to him with the whole man; being careful in all things to please him, and sorrowful when in anything he is offended; and walking humbly with him.

I believe with a little work I could find every single one of those verbs in the Presidential proclamations of the century immediately following the adoption of the Constitution, or other government-approved proclamations. The last phrase of the answer, "walking humbly," has an attached prooftext (as all the key phrases do) which directs the reader to Micah 6:8, which we have seen was selected by Harvard President Charles Elliot to be inscribed in the Library of Congress. Adherents of other religions may have been encouraged to obey those parts of their religion which coincide with Christian morality, but never to follow those parts of their religion which contradict it (e.g., polygamy, child sacrifice, etc.).

The primary focus of the First Commandment is to prevent atheism. This American Founding Fathers and Presidents did:

It is the duty of nations as well as of men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God; to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon; and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations are blessed whose God is the Lord.

We know that by His divine law, nations, like individuals, are subjected to punishments and chastisements in this world. May we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war which now desolates the land may be a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins, to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole people?

We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven; we have been preserved these many years in peace and prosperity; we have grown in numbers, wealth and power as no other nation has ever grown.

But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us, and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that God should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November as a day of Thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.

--Abraham Lincoln - October 3, 1863

This is the First Commandment in action.

The myth of "separation of church and state" would have censored Lincoln.

In his Memorial and Remonstrance, Madison articulated the view that our civil society was based on the First Commandment: "Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governor of the Universe." Those who violated the First Commandment were therefore banned from public office, and could not obtain citizenship in most states.

A post-Everson Supreme Court Justice once said that the First Amendment prohibited any government action which showed "respect" for religion. While in Europe, Benjamin Franklin explained to his hosts that this is not what America was all about:

[B]ad examples to youth are more rare in America, which must be comfortable consideration to parents. To this may be truly added, that serious religion, under its various denominations, is not only tolerated, but respected and practiced. Atheism is unknown there; infidelity rare and secret; so that persons may live to a great age in that country, without having their piety shocked by meeting with either an atheist or an infidel.
Benjamin Franklin, Two Tracts: Information to Those Who Would Remove to America and Remarks Concerning the Savages of North America (London: John Stockdale, 1784), p.24.

The First Commandment requires us to reject false religions and advance the True God and True Religion. The Founding Fathers were unanimous in their hopes that America would have no other god but the True God.

The modern Supreme Court strikes down legislation which is motivated by a desire to obey God. Madison said it was proper to advance legislation on the grounds that it advanced Christianity, the true religion. Madison publicly opposed legislation in Virginia with these words:

Because, the policy of the bill is adverse to the diffusion of the light of Christianity. The first wish of those who enjoy this precious gift, ought to be that it may be imparted to the whole race of mankind. Compare the number of those who have as yet received it with the number still remaining under the dominion of false Religions; and how small is the former! Does the policy of the Bill tend to lessen the disproportion? No; it at once discourages those who are strangers to the light of (revelation) from coming into the Region of it; and countenances, by example the nations who continue in darkness, in shutting out those who might convey it to them. Instead of levelling as far as possible, every obstacle to the victorious progress of truth, the Bill with an ignoble and unchristian timidity would circumscribe it, with a wall of defence, against the encroachments of error.

Legislators should argue this way on the floor of Congress, in obedience to the First Commandment.

America is "One nation under God"; its official motto is "In God we Trust," which is an act of obedience to the First Commandment. Congressional debate during the adoption of the national motto rested on the ideals of the Founding Fathers.

Every single person who signed the Constitution expressed hopes that America would have no other God but the True God.

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