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The Ten Commandments in American History
The Fourth 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 -- Fourth Commandment
From: kevin4vft@aol.com (KEVIN4VFT)
Date: 09 Jan 1999 18:19:18 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:

>8. Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.
>9 Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work:
>10 But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not
>do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy
>maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates:
>11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them
>is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day,
>and hallowed it.
>No U.S. law prevents me from working on Sunday.

This is true. And isn't it great that we are no longer bound by that harsh work-six-days mentality in the Bible? Isn't it great that we now can give half our income to a Secular Humanist government and work seven days a week on two jobs to try to keep up with the government's destruction of the monetary unit through inflation? Almost as good as the ten-day work week established by the French Revolution and similar experiments by other socialist regimes throughout history.

As I said, I concede the point that the US no longer observes the Ten Commandments, and has departed from common law traditions. This, however, does not prove that the common law was never based on Scripture, or that the Founding Fathers did not base America's law on the Christian Common Law. And when it comes to the Fourth Commandment, it's pretty obvious that our nation's law was once based on the Ten Commandments.

A 1695 New York Sunday law is typical of all the colonies:

Whereas, the true and sincere worship of God according to his holy will and commandments, is often profaned and neglected by many of the inhabitants and sojourners in this province, who do not keep holy the Lord's day, but in a disorderly manner accustom themselves to travel, laboring, working, shooting, fishing, sporting, playing, horse-racing, frequenting of tippling houses and the using many other unlawful exercises and pastimes, upon the Lord's day, to the great scandal of the holy Christian faith, be it enacted, etc.
cited by the Court in Maryland v. McGowan 366 U.S. 420, 434n10 (1961)

The McGowan Court continued:

Sunday Closing Laws go far back into American history, having been brought to the colonies with a background of English legislation dating to the thirteenth century. In 1237, Henry III forbade the frequenting of markets on [366 U.S. 420, 432] Sunday; the Sunday showing of wools at the staple was banned by Edward III in 1354; in 1409, Henry IV prohibited the playing of unlawful games on Sunday; Henry VI proscribed Sunday fairs in churchyards in 1444 and, four years later, made unlawful all fairs and markets and all showings of any goods or merchandise; Edward VI disallowed Sunday bodily labor by several injunctions in the mid-sixteenth century; various Sunday sports and amusements were restricted in 1625 by Charles I. Lewis, A Critical History of Sunday Legislation, 82-108; Johnson and Yost, Separation of Church and State, 221. The law of the colonies to the time of the Revolution and the basis of the Sunday laws in the States was 29 Charles II, c. 7 (1677). It provided, in part:

"For the better observation and keeping holy the Lord's day, commonly called Sunday: be it enacted . . . that all the laws enacted and in force concerning the observation of the day, and repairing to the church thereon, be carefully put in execution; and that all and every person and persons whatsoever shall upon every Lord's day apply themselves to the observation of the same, by exercising themselves thereon in the duties of piety and true religion, publicly and privately; and that no tradesman, artificer, workman, laborer, or other person whatsoever, shall do or exercise any worldly labor or business or work of their ordinary callings upon the Lord's day, or any part thereof (works of necessity and charity only excepted); . . . and that no person or persons whatsoever shall publicly cry, show forth, or expose for sale any wares, merchandise, fruit, herbs, goods, or chattels, whatsoever, upon the Lord's day, or any part thereof. . . ." (Emphasis added.)

McGowan 366 U.S. 420, 432.

Not just the seventh day, but the Biblical requirements of debt release in the seventh year were the basis for early American law. We still have a vestige of those older requirements in the limitation on declaring bankruptcy only once in seven years. A sabbath-oriented society is a more debt-free society.

A generation ago, railroaders in the United States worked seven days a week, ten hours a day, everyday of the year. Clearly, such working conditions were anti-Biblical, and in terms of Biblical law, criminal. Not surprisingly, the railroad tycoons were on the whole a group of thoroughly reprobate men. When the fourth commandment rules it unlawful to deny even the earth and domesticated animals their sabbath, how much more so the denial of rest to man? And yet, clearly, the shorter working hours, the paid vacations, five eight-hour-day working weeks have failed to give men true rest. The increase of heart attacks, ulcers, and other stress-induced ailments and diseases makes clear that the change in working conditions has not been any help to man. Because the older order, ungodly as it was, still was closer to a Christian faith and order, man had, in the face of lawless working conditions, a greater ability to rest than does man of the late twentieth century. In a sabbath-oriented society, the provident man, having lived debt-free, finding rest in Christ, and able both to work and to relax, has peace and joy in life lacking in a phrenetic generation.

R.J. Rushdoony, Institutes of Biblical Law, vol. 1, p. 157.

It cannot be disputed that the Common Law and early American law was based on the Ten Commandments.

It is interesting to note that the Constitution did not alter this foundation. Madison himself, at the time he submitted the Bill for Religious Freedom in Virginia, also submitted Sunday Law legislation. Madison wanted complete separation of church and state, complete religious freedom, but the sabbath law does not pertain to any particular church, but is a general Christian law, so does not violate Madison's understanding of "church/state separation." The McGowan Court gives the details:

This Court has considered the happenings surrounding the Virginia General Assembly's enactment of "An act for establishing religious freedom," 12 Hening's Statutes of Virginia 84, written by Thomas Jefferson and sponsored by James Madison, as best reflecting the long and intensive struggle for religious freedom in America, as particularly relevant in the search for the First Amendment's meaning. See the opinions in Everson v. Board of Education, supra. In 1776, nine years before the bill's passage, Madison co-authored Virginia's Declaration of Rights which provided, inter alia, that "all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience. . . ." 9 Hening's Statutes of Virginia 109, 111-112. Virginia had had Sunday legislation since early in the seventeenth century; in 1776, the laws penalizing "maintaining any opinions in matters of religion, forbearing to repair to church, or the exercising any mode of worship whatsoever" (emphasis added), were repealed, and all dissenters were freed from the taxes levied for the support of the established church. Id., at 164. The Sunday labor prohibitions remained; apparently, they were not believed to be inconsistent with the newly enacted Declaration of Rights. Madison had sought also to have the Declaration expressly condemn the existing Virginia establishment.14 This hope was finally realized when "A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom" was passed in 1785. In this same year, Madison presented to Virginia legislators "A Bill for Punishing . . . Sabbath Breakers" which provided, in part:

If any person on Sunday shall himself be found labouring at his own or any other trade or calling, or shall employ his apprentices, servants or slaves in labour, or other business, except it be in the ordinary household offices of daily necessity, or other work of necessity or charity, he shall forfeit the sum of ten shillings for every such offence, deeming every apprentice, servant, or slave so employed, and every day he shall be so employed as constituting a distinct offence."15

This became law the following year and remained during the time that Madison fought for the First Amendment in the Congress. It was the law of Virginia, and similar laws were in force in other States, when Madison stated at the Virginia ratification convention:

Happily for the states, they enjoy the utmost freedom of religion. . . . Fortunately for this commonwealth, a majority of the people are decidedly against any exclusive establishment. I believe it to be so in the other states. . . . I can appeal to my uniform conduct on this subject, that I have warmly supported religious freedom."16

In 1799, Virginia pronounced "An act for establishing religious freedom" as "a true exposition of the principles of the bill of rights and constitution," and repealed all subsequently enacted legislation deemed inconsistent with it. 2 Shepherd, Statutes at Large of Virginia, 149. Virginia's statute banning Sunday labor stood.17
[366 U.S. 420, 437-39]

Here we see more proof that the "separation of church and state" as understood by the Founders did not mean separation from Christianity, but separation from ecclesiastical structures.

General Order Respecting the
Observance of the Sabbath Day
in the Army and Navy.

Washington, November 15, 1862.

The President, Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy, desires and enjoins the orderly observance of the Sabbath by the officers and men in the military and naval service. The importance for man and beast of the prescribed weekly rest, the sacred rights of Christian soldiers and sailors, a becoming deference to the best sentiment of a Christian people. and a due regard for the divine will demand that Sunday labor in the Army and Navy be reduced to the measure of strict necessity.

The discipline and character of the national forces should not suffer nor the cause they defend be imperiled by the profanation of the day or name of the Most High. "At this time of public distress," adopting the words of Washington in 1776, "men may find enough to do in the service of God and their country without abandoning themselves to vice and immorality." The first general order issued by the Father of his Country after the Declaration of Independence indicates the spirit in which our institutions were rounded and should ever be defended:

The General hopes and trusts that every officer and man will endeavor to live and act as becomes a Christian soldier defending the dearest rights and liberties of his country.


Messages and Papers of the Presidents, Abraham Lincoln, vol. 5, p.3326

Anyone unsure about the place of the Ten Commandments in American history would do well to read more about Sunday Closing laws. The McGowan case can be found at:


The Constitution did not prohibit government observance of the Fourth Commandment. The Constitution itself honors the sabbath as evidenced in Art. I, sec. 7.

We stand for a living wage. Wages are subnormal if they fail to provide a living for those who devote their time and energy to industrial occupations. The monetary equivalent of a living wage varies according to local conditions, but must include enough to secure the elements of a normal standard of living--a standard high enough to make morality possible, to provide for education and recreation, to care for immature members of the family, to maintain the family during periods of sickness, and to permit a reasonable saving for old age.

Hours are excessive if they fail to afford the worker sufficient time to recuperate and return to his work thoroughly refreshed. We hold that the night labor of women and children is abnormal and should be prohibited; we hold that the employment of women over forty-eight hours per week is abnormal and should be prohibited. We hold that the seven-day working week is abnormal, and we hold that one day of rest in seven should be provided by law. We hold that the continuous industries, operating twenty-four hours out of twenty-four, are abnormal, and where, because of public necessity or for technical reasons (such as molten metal), the twenty-four hours must be divided into two shifts of twelve hours or three shifts of eight, they should by law be divided into three of eight.

President Theodore Roosevelt
(The speech contains excerpts from "A Confession of Faith," an address originally delivered to the national convention of the Progressive party in Chicago on August 6, 1912. See Social Justice and Popular Rule: Essays, Addresses, and Public Statements Relating to the Progressive Movement (1910-1916) by Theodore Roosevelt.)

See also:

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The Ten Commandments in American Legal History

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