Legal Foundations: The Framework of Law
by Gerald R. Thompson
The Bible in Legal History
The use of the Bible in Anglo-American jurisprudence should not be underestimated. In structuring a society to secure the greatest liberty and promote the greatest happiness, the Bible was viewed not only as relevant, but also as authoritative guidance for the task. The present chapter will focus on how biblical principles of law and the Bible itself were used and acknowledged in the documentary history of England and America. Three sets of documents will be examined: 1) organic English documents; 2) American colonial documents; and 3) early state constitutions.
ORGANIC ENGLISH DOCUMENTS
The English constitution is often referred to as an “unwritten” constitution. This is because some key aspects of English social structure, government and laws are rooted in tradition rather than documents. And, no single document embodies the entire constitution of the nation. Nonetheless, there are certain documents which are organic English law and are revered above all others. Some of these organic documents are discussed below.
Magna Carta (June 15, 1215).
Magna Carta (“great charter”) is perhaps the preeminent legal document in English history, established at about the same time the modern era of English common law began. It is significant for American history as well, since it governed the colonies in America until independence from Britain was declared in 1776.
Magna Carta acknowledges, and pledges submission of its parties to, God’s governance of mankind. The English king is said to rule by the grace of God. A major purpose of the document was to bring honor to God.
- John, by the grace of God, king of England . . .. Know that by the inspiration of God and for the good of our soul and those of all our predecessors and of our heirs, to the honor of God and the exaltation of holy church, and the improvement of our kingdom . . . [Opening ¶.]
God was not claimed to be a party to the charter after the manner of ancient Israel, but He was nonetheless called to witness, and to some extent enforce, the charter.
- In the first place, we have granted to God, and by this our present charter confirmed, for us and for our heirs forever, that the English church shall be free . . .. [¶ 1.]
The charter acknowledges the existence of God and intends to be consistent with God’s will.
- Since, moreover, for the sake of God, and for the improvement of our kingdom . . . we have made all these concessions . . . [¶ 61.]
Magna Carta follows the biblical pattern of government by covenant: 1) the authority of the charter is based on honoring God; 2) mutuality is indicated by the assent of both king and barons; 3) the community of relationship is referred to as “our kingdom”; 4) irrevocability is shown by extensive use of the word, “forever”; 5) the purposes of the charter have never been modified; 6) the charter is binding on future generations – indicated by the term “for us and our heirs”; and 7) the charter continues to serve as a framework for the administration of English laws today.
Confirmatio Cartarum (November 5, 1297).
The primary purpose of the Confirmatio Cartarum (“confirming charter”) was to confirm Magna Carta. It also modified the means of enforcing Magna Carta by replacing the feudal assembly of 25 barons (Ch. 61), which was never used, with Parliament.
Like Magna Carta, the Confirmatio acknowledges God’s existence and that rulers rule by His grace and for His honor.
- EDWARD, by the grace of God, King of England . . .. Know ye that we, to the honour of God and of Holy Church, and to the profit of our realm . . .. [¶ 1.]
Magna Carta and the Confirmatio applied to the church as well as to everyone else.
- Moreover we have granted for us and our heirs, as well to archbishops, bishops, abbots, priors, and other folk of holy church . . .. [¶ 6.]
Bill of Rights (December 16, 1689).
The Bill of Rights came about during the Glorious Revolution in England and the accession of William and Mary to the throne. It is also a direct ancestor to many American bills of rights, including the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
The Bill of Rights acknowledged Christianity as a part of England’s legal heritage and claimed that the protestant religion is an integral part of its national identity.
- WHEREAS the late King James the Second . . . did endeavour to subvert and extirpate the protestant religion . . .. [Second Whereas ¶.] And thereupon their Majesties were pleased [to] . . . make effectual provision for the settlement of the religion, laws and liberties of this kingdom . . .. [¶ V.]
- And whereas it hath been found by experience, that it is inconsistent with the safety and welfare of this protestant kingdom, to be governed by a popish prince, or by any King or Queen marrying a papist . . .. [¶ IX.]
The Bill of Rights claims that God raised up the new civil rulers of England. Implicit is a submission to God’s governance of mankind and a recognition of divine intervention in civil affairs.
- [T]he throne being thereby vacant, his highness the prince of Orange (whom it hath pleased Almighty God to make the glorious instrument of delivering this kingdom from popery and arbitrary power) . . ..
- And the said lords spiritual and temporal, and commons, seriously considering how it hath pleased Almighty God, in his marvellous providence, and merciful goodness to this nation, to provide and preserve their said Majesties royal persons most happily to reign over us upon the throne of their ancestors . . .. [¶ VII.]
England is acknowledged to be a nation under God.
- [F]or preserving a certainty in the succession [of the throne], in and upon which the unity, peace, tranquillity, and safety of this nation doth, under God, wholly consist and depend . . .. [¶ VIII.]
AMERICAN COLONIAL DOCUMENTS
The American continent was colonized by English emigrants who were looking for the opportunity to establish a society based on the laws of God. This intention is manifested in the terms of the colonial charters by which the colonists were authorized to settle in the new world.
First Charter of Virginia (April 10, 1606).
The charter served to grant the king’s permission for the colonial enterprise. But, the colonists viewed it as more, since by it they claimed the rights of Englishmen 170 years later.
The charter acknowledges that the English king ruled by the grace of God and that it is proper for a civil ruler to be a minister of God to do His will.
- James, by the grace of God, King of England . . . Defender of the Faith. [Opening ¶.]
The charter recognizes that a purpose of civil government is to honor God. Two primary purposes of colonization are stated to be: 1) the religious conversion of the native peoples to Christianity; and 2) the establishment of a settled and quiet government. In essence, the colonists viewed their undertaking as being authorized by Christ’s Great Commission.
- We, greatly commending, and graciously accepting of, their Desires for the Furtherance of so noble a Work, which may, by the Providence of Almighty God, hereafter tend to the Glory of his Divine Majesty, in propagating of Christian Religion to such People, as yet live in Darkness and miserable Ignorance of the true Knowledge and Worship of God, and may in time bring the Infidels and Savages, living in those parts, to human Civility, and to a settled and quiet Government . . .. [3rd ¶.]
Inhabitants of the colony were guaranteed the privileges, immunities, and rights of Englishmen.
- [A]ll and every the Persons being our Subjects, which shall dwell and inhabit within every or any of the said several Colonies and Plantations, and every of their children, which shall happen to be born within any of the Limits and Precincts of the said several Colonies and Plantations, shall HAVE and enjoy all Liberties, Franchises, and Immunities, within any of our other Dominions, to all Intents and Purposes, as if they had been abiding and born, within this our Realm of England, or any other of our said Dominions. [15th ¶.]
Ordinances for Virginia (November 28, 1618).
Among other things, the Ordinances introduced the legislative assembly to the colonial government in Virgina.
The Ordinances acknowledge God’s governance of mankind and the divine intention to assist in the establishment of civil government.
- . . . intending, by the Divine Assistance, to settle . . . a Form of Government there. [Preamble.]
The purpose of civil government is to: 1) advance the kingdom of God; 2) establish lawful civil authority; and 3) maintain public virtue, in that order of priority.
- THE COUNCIL OF STATE . . . [shall] bend their Care and Endeavours to assist the said Governor; first and principally, in the Advancement of the Honour and Service of God, and the Enlargement of his Kingdom amongst the Heathen People; and next, in erecting of the said Colony in due obedience to his Majesty, and all lawful Authority from his Majesty’s Directions; and lastly, in maintaining the said People in Justice and Christian Conversation amongst themselves, and in Strength and Ability to withstand their Enemies. [Par. III.]
The colony’s laws and customs were to conform, to the extent convenient or appropriate, to the common law of England.
- WHEREAS in all other Things, we require the said General Assembly, as also the said Council of State, to imitate and follow the Policy of the Form of Government, Laws, Customs, and Manner of Trial, and other Administration of Justice, used in the Realm of England . . .. [¶ V.]
Mayflower Compact (November 11, 1620).
The Mayflower Compact was drawn up after the Pilgrims had arrived in America, but before they set foot on dry land. They were apparently unwilling to leave the ship until the matter of their government had been resolved.
The compact acknowledges that the English king ruled by the grace of God and that it is proper for a civil ruler to be a minister of God to do His will.
- IN THE NAME OF GOD, AMEN. . . . King James, by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith . . ..
The twin purposes of colonization by the Pilgrims were said to be: 1) advancement of the Christian faith; and 2) establishment of a civil government. The overall goal of colonization was to bring glory to God.
- Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country . . . [we] combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick.”
The compact, though very short, expresses and implies a covenantal character: 1) authority for the compact is based on “the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith;” 2) mutuality is indicated by “We, whose names are underwritten . . . mutually . . . covenant”; 3) a new legal relationship is evidenced by the words, “combine ourselves into a civil Body Politick”; 4) perpetuity is implied in “for our . . . Preservation”; 5) limited modifiability is implied in “we promise all due Submission and Obedience”; 6) binding on future generations is evidenced in “for the general Good of the Colony”; and 7) a legal framework is indicated by the words, “do enact, constitute and frame.”
- The document represents the application to the affairs of civil government of the philosophy of the church covenant which was the basis of Puritan theology. This theology found in the Scriptures the right of men to associate and covenant to form a church and civil government and to choose their own officers to administer both religious and civil affairs. [Perry, Sources at 57.]
The Charter of Massachusetts Bay (March 4, 1629).
The Massachusetts charter was obtained at a time when the English government was undergoing an intense power struggle. In 1629, king Charles I dissolved the Parliament and began an eleven year reign of tyranny. Against this backdrop, the religious Nonconformists went to America to reclaim a godly form of civil government by establishing it anew in Massachusetts.
- The men of the company were Nonconformists, and their goal was to found a state based on the principles of the Bible and governed by the laws of God. [Perry, Sources at 77.]
The principal purpose of colonization was to spread the Christian gospel. The lack of a Christian government gave rise to a presumption that the colonists had authority to establish a colony in Massachusetts.
- . . . for the planting, ruling, ordering, and governing of New England in America . . . PROVIDED always, That the said Islands, or any the premises by the said Letters-patents intended and meant to be granted, were not then actually possessed or inhabited, by any other Christian Prince or State. [Opening ¶.]
- . . . whereby our said people, inhabitants there, may be so religiously, peaceably, and civilly governed, as their good life and orderly conversation, may win and incite the natives of country, to the knowledge and obedience of the only true God and Savior of mankind, and the Christian faith, which in our royal intention, and the adventurers free profession, is the principal end of this Plantation. [11th ¶.]
The inhabitants of Massachusetts were guaranteed the privileges, immunities, and rights of Englishmen.
- That all and every the subjects of us, our heirs or successors . . . shall have and enjoy all liberties and immunities of free and natural subjects within any of the dominions of us, our heires or successors, to all intents, constructions, and purposes whatsoever, as if they and every of them were born within the Realm of England. [11th ¶.]
The Charter of Maryland (June 20, 1632).
The Maryland colony was one of the first colonies where significant religious diversity and toleration was the rule, not the exception.
The purposes of colonization were primarily to extend the Christian religion, and secondarily to extend the British Empire.
- Whereas our . . . Baron of Baltimore . . . being animated with a laudable, and pious Zeal for extending the Christian Religion, and also the Territories of our Empire, hath humbly besought Leave of us, that he may transport . . . a numerous Colony of the English Nation, to a certain Region . . . in the Parts of America. and partly occupied by Savages, having no knowledge of the Divine Being. [Opening ¶.]
The colonial laws and customs were to conform, to the extent convenient or appropriate, to the common law of England. By implication, the colonists desired to adopt those general laws which were founded on the law of nature and the Bible.
- . . . that the Laws aforesaid be consonant to Reason, and be not repugnant or contrary, but (so far as conveniently may be) agreeable to the Laws, Statutes, Customs, and Rights of this Our Kingdom of England. [¶ VII.]
Inhabitants of Maryland were guaranteed the privileges, immunities, and rights of Englishmen.
- . . . all and singular the Subjects . . . transplanted, or hereafter to be transplanted into the Province aforesaid, and the Children of them, and of others their Descendants, whether already born there, or hereafter to be born, be and shall be Natives and Liege-Men of Us . . . of our Kingdom of England and Ireland; and in all Things shall be held, treated, reputed, and esteemed as the faithful Liege-Men of Us . . . born within our Kingdom of England; . . . and likewise all Privileges, Franchises and Liberties of this our Kingdom of England, freely, quietly, and peaceably to have and possess, and the same may use and enjoy in the same manner as our Liege-Men born, or to be born within our said Kingdom of England. [¶ X.]
The charter was not to be interpreted in such a way as to diminish the religious rights of the colonists.
- Provided always, that no Interpretation [of this charter] be made, whereby God’s holy and true Christian Religion, or the Allegiance due to Us, our Heirs and Successors, may in any wise suffer by Change, Prejudice, or Diminution. [¶ XXII.]
Fundamental Orders of Connecticut (January 14, 1639).
The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut is often referred to as the first truly political constitution in America because it expressly defines the organs of political government in that colony.
The charter acknowledged God’s governance of mankind and His active participation in human affairs of state.
- FORASMUCH as it has pleased the Almighty God by the wise disposition of his divine providence so to order and dispose of things . . .. [Preamble.]
The charter not only acknowledged the Bible as part of the colonial heritage, but recognized it as authoritative in governing human affairs.
- And well knowing where a people are gathered together the word of God requires that to maintain the peace and union of such a people there should be an orderly and decent government established according to God. . . [Preamble.]
Although religious diversity existed in Maryland, Christianity was still acknowledged to be an integral part of the colonial identity. Thus, a chief purpose of the colonial government was to maintain and preserve the Christian gospel.
- [We] enter into combination and confederation together, to maintain and preserve the liberty and purity of the gospel of our Lord Jesus which we now profess, as also the discipline of the Churches, which according to the truth of the said gospel is now practiced among us . . .. [Preamble.]
Like many of its colonial predecessors, this “first American constitution” was structured consistently with a biblical covenant framework: 1) authority for the document is found in “Forasmuch as it hath pleased Allmighty God”; 2) mutuality is shown by, “we the inhabitants … now cohabiting and dwelling”; 3) community is indicated by, “conjoin ourselves to be as one public state”; 4) irrevocability and binding on future generations are both indicated by the words, “for ourselves and our successors”; 5) No provision is made for amendment, indicating a limited modifiability; and 6) that the document was intended to serve as a framework for future laws is evidenced by, “to order and dispose of the affairs of the people.”
The Orders acknowledged that the laws of God control the laws of the colony. The Bible is not only competent legal authority to declare civil justice, but God’s help is implored to assist in public service.
- I . . . do swear by the great and dreadful name of the everliving God, to promote the public good and peace . . . and will further the execution of justice according to the rule of God’s word; so help me God, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. [Oath of the Governor]
- I . . . do swear by the great and dreadful name of the everliving God, to promote the public good and peace . . . and will further the execution of justice for the time aforesaid according to the righteous rule of God’s word; so help me God. [Oath of a Magistrate]
Massachusetts Body of Liberties (December 10, 1641).
The Massachusetts Body of Liberties represents an attempt to add the principles of Puritan theology to the colonists’ rights as Englishmen to frame a government uniquely based on God’s divine law.
The Body of Liberties follows a biblical covenant framework; 1) its authority is based on “humanitie, Civilitie, and Christianitie”; 2) mutuality is shown by “our solemn consent”; 3) the new legal relationship is said to be the “stability of Churches and Commonwealths”; 4) irrevocability is indicated by “enjoyed and observed throughout our Jurisdiction for ever”; 5) limited modifiability is implied by the fact that “these rights and liberties, shall be audibly read and deliberately weighed at every General Court that should be held”; 6) binding on future generations is demonstrated by referring to “our posterity after us”; amd 7) a framework for the administration of law is shown by reference to “the further establishing of this Government.”
The Body of Liberties acknowledged that the laws of God controlled the laws of the colony. The Bible was competent legal and judicial authority to declare civil justice, and the court had proper non-ecclesiastical jurisdiction to make judgments based on the Bible.
- [No one could be deprived of life, liberty or property,] unless it be by virtue or equity of some express law . . . warranting the same, established by a General Court and sufficiently published, or in case of the defect of a law in any particular case by the word of God. And in capital cases, or in cases concerning dismembring or banishment, according to that word to be judged by the General Court. [Sec. 1.]
The enumeration of capital crimes followed the pattern of the Mosaic law, including biblical citations of authority for each offense. Thus, the Bible was viewed as a legitimate source for legal and statutory authority.
- If any man after legall conviction shall have or worship any other god, but the lord god, he shall be put to death. Dut. 13:6, 10. Dut. 17:2, 6. Ex. 22:20. . . . If any man shall Blaspheme the name of god, the father, Sonne or Holie ghost, with direct, expresse, presumptuous or high handed blasphemie, or shall curse god in the like manner, he shall be put to death. Lev. 24:15, 16. [Sec. 94, “Capitall Laws.”]
Religious liberties of the colonists were declared to be given by the Lord Jesus. Consequently, such liberties were understood to be given by God, not men, and therefore were inalienable.
- 2. Every Church hath full libertie to exercise all the ordinances of god, according to the rules of scripture. . . . 6. Every Church of Christ hath freedome to celebrate days of fasting and prayer, and of thanksgiving according to the word of god. [95. “A Declaration of the Liberties the Lord Jesus hath given to the Churches.”]
The structure of the Body of Liberties as a document evidences a social order structure built upon the legal institutions. The enumerated liberties were grouped in a way which reflects God’s social order. Individual rights were referred to as the rights of “free men” and “foreigners and strangers.” Familial or household rights were reflected in the rights of “Woemen,” “Children,” and “Servants.” Ecclesiastical rights were recognized as the rights of “the Churches.” And, the “Capitall Laws” recognized the civil state as a minister of God to do His justice.
- Liberties more peculiarlie concerning the free men. [Sec. 58-78.] Liberties of Woemen. [Sec. 79-80.] Liberties of Children. [Sec. 81-84.] Liberties of Servants. [Sec. 85-88.] Liberties of Foreigners and Strangers. [Sec. 89-91.] Capitall Laws [Sec. 94.] A Declaration of the Liberties the Lord Jesus hath given to the Churches. [Sec. 95.]
Charter of Rhode Island (July 8, 1663).
Rhode Island was founded primarily by Roger Williams, who objected to the exercise of both religious and civil authority by the magistrates in other colonies. Williams also declared that public officials had no right to punish offenses against the “first table” of the Mosaic law. Thus, religious freedom was a predominant theme in the laws of Rhode Island.
The colony, the full name of which is Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, took its name from the providence of God, acknowledging God’s active participation in human civil affairs.
- . . . by the good Providence of God, from whom the Plantations have taken their name. [Preamble.]
The purposes of the Rhode Island colony were: 1) religious conversion of the native peoples; and 2) establishment of a corporate polity.
- . . . they, pursuing, with peaceable and loyal minds, their sober, serious and religious intentions, of godly edifying themselves, and one another, in the holy Christian faith and worship as they were persuaded; together with the gaining over and conversion of the poor ignorant Indian natives, in those parts of America, to the sincere profession and obedience of the same faith and worship. [Preamble.]
The laws and customs of Rhode Island were to conform, to the extent convenient or appropriate, to the common law of England, and the inhabitants were guaranteed the privileges, immunities, and rights of Englishmen. [¶ 5 and ¶ 10.]
Concessions and Agreements of West New Jersey (March 13, 1677).
The West New Jersey Concessions reflected the theology of the Quakers, and probably were drafted by William Penn.
The Concessions acknowledged God’s reserved jurisdiction over the human mind.
- THAT no men, nor number of men upon earth, hath power or authority to rule over men’s consciences in religious matters. [Chap. XVI.]
According to the Concessions, good government depends on divine assistance.
- . . . that justice may not be done in a corner nor in any covert manner, being intended and resolved, by the help of the Lord, and by these our Concessions and Fundamentals, that all and every person and persons inhabiting the said Province, shall, as far as in us lies, be free from oppression and slavery. [Chap. XXIII.]
Frame of Government of Pennsylvania (April 25, 1682).
The Frame of Government of Pennsylvania was also authored by William Penn. It offers one of the most explicit statements and defenses of the use of the Bible as competent legal authority in ordering public life.
The document acknowledged the Creator God and his laws of creation, and further recognized man as God’s vice-regent to rule the earth. The document also acknowledged God’s law of nature as being within our hearts.
- When the great and wise God had made the world, of all his creatures, it pleased him to chuse man his Deputy to rule it; . . . the precept of divine love and truth, in his bosom, was the guide and keeper of his innocency. But lust prevailing against duty, made a lamentable breach upon it; . . . and his disobedient posterity . . . would not live comformable to the holy law within . . .. [Preface ¶ 1.]
The Frame of Government acknowledged the Bible as competent legal authority for constituting and ordering civil government.
- This the Apostle teaches in divers of his epistles: [here William Penn quotes Gal. 3:19, 1 Tim. 1:9-10 and Rom. 13:1-5 in full.] [Preface ¶2.]
The document acknowledged, and submitted to, God’s governance of mankind. It recognized that civil government is an authority and an institution established by God, the purpose of which is to punish evildoers and to praise what is right. Public officials are said to be ministers of God to do His will, and the need for civil government will continue even after Jesus comes to establish His earthly kingdom.
- This settles the divine right of government beyond exception, and that for two ends: first, to terrify evil doers: secondly, to cherish those that do well . . .. So that government seems to me a part of religion itself, a thing sacred in its institution and end. For, if it does not directly remove the cause, it crushes the effects of evil, and is as such, (though a lower, yet) an emanation of the same Divine Power, that is both author and object of pure religion . . .. [D]aily experience tells us, that the care and regulation of many other affairs . . . make up much of the greatest part of government . . . and will continue among men, on earth, under the highest attainments they may arrive at, by the coming of the blessed Second Adam, the Lord from heaven. [Preface ¶ 3.]
The biblical creation account is understood to be an accurate history and has legal significance. Further, the ordinances of God as revealed in the Bible are to be observed in public affairs.
- That, as often as any day of the month, mentioned in any article of this charter, shall fall upon the first day of the week, commonly called the Lord’s Day, the business appointed for that day shall be deferred till the next day, unless in case of emergency. [Art. XXII.]
- That, according to the good example of the primitive Christians, and the case of the creation, every first day of the week, called the Lord’s day, people shall abstain from their common daily labour, that they may the better dispose themselves to worship God according to their understandings. [Art. XXXVI.]
According to the Frame of Government, acknowledgement of the Creator God is a pre-condition to the exercise of full and true liberty.
- That all persons living in this province, who confess and acknowledge the one Almighty and eternal God, to be the Creator, Upholder and Ruler of the world . . . shall, in no ways, be molested or prejudiced for their religious persuasion . . .. [Art. XXXV.]
Pennsylvania Charter of Privileges (October 28, 1701).
The Charter of Privileges replaced the earlier Frame of Government in Pennsylvania to more explicitly secure the liberties of the people.
The Charter of Privileges acknowledged God’s reserved jurisdiction over morality, the heart and mind of man. The Charter also provided that acknowledgement of the Creator God is a pre-condition to the exercise of full and true liberty.
- And Almighty God being the only Lord of Conscience, Father of Lights and Spirits; and the Author as well as Object of all divine Knowledge, Faith and Worship, who only doth enlighten the Minds, and persuade and convince the Understandings of People, I do hereby grant and declare, That no Person or Persons, inhabiting in this Province or Territories, who shall confess and acknowledge One almighty God, the Creator, Upholder and Ruler of the World . . . shall be in any Case molested or prejudiced, in his or their Person or Estate, because of his or their conscientious Persuasion or Practice . . .. [“FIRST” ¶ 1.]
Under the Charter, Christian belief was a pre-condition to the holding of any public office. However, the required Christian belief was non-sectarian, or general Christianity. The document also presumes that civil citizenship and professing allegiance to civil authorities is in no way inconsistent with Christian citizenship or the Christian religion.
- AND that all Persons who also profess to believe in Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the World, shall be capable (notwithstanding their other Persuasions and Practices in Point of Conscience and Religion) to serve this Government in any Capacity, both legislatively and executively, he or they solemnly promising, when lawfully required, Allegiance to the King as Sovereign, and Fidelity to the Proprietary and Governor . . .. [“FIRST” ¶ 2.]
EARLY STATE CONSTITUTIONS
Beginning in 1776, the American colonies began formally preparing for self-government independent of the various colonial charters and compacts which had tied them to England. In other words, each of the colonies had to replace their prior charter documents with a state constitution. Although breaking from the British constitution as a basis for their laws, these state constitutions continued the legal tradition of a jurisprudence based on the laws of God and the Bible.
Virginia Bill of Rights (June 12, 1776).
The Virginia Constitution, of which the Virginia Bill of Rights is a part, was agreed upon less than one month before the Declaration of Independence was drafted.
The Bill of Rights acknowledged the Creator God and his laws of creation. It also recognized God’s reserved jurisdiction over morality, the hearts and minds of men. Section 16 of the Bill of Rights states what is probably the best available legal definition of religion: “the duty which we owe to our Creator,” necessarily implying that such duties are not owed to any man.
- 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 that it is the mutual duty of all to practise Christian forbearance love, and charity towards each other. [§16.]
Constitution of Pennsylvania (August 16, 1776).
The Constitution of Pennsylvania continued the biblical legal tradition of the earlier organic documents of Pennsylvania.
The Constitution acknowledged God’s reserved jurisdiction over morality, the heart and mind of man. Like the Charter of Privileges, the new Constitution provided that acknowledgement of the Creator God is a pre-condition to the exercise of full and true liberty.
- That all men have a natural and unalienable right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences and understanding . . .. Nor can any man, who acknowledges the being of a God, be justly deprived or abridged of any civil right as a citizen, on account of his religious sentiments or peculiar mode of religious worship . . .. [Art. II.]
The framers submitted to God’s governance of mankind and his laws of creation, and acknowledged that the laws of civil government come from God.
- We, the representatives of the freemen of Pennsylvania, in general convention met, for the express purpose of framing such a government, confessing the goodness of the great Governor of the universe (who alone knows to what degree of earthly happiness mankind may attain, by perfecting the arts of government) . . .. [Preamble.]
Similar to the Frame of Government of 1682, the Constitution is structured according to a biblical covenant framework: 1) the authority of the document is based on the “inherent and inalienable rights” of the people; 2) mutual assent is present because the document is adopted by “common consent”; 3) the new legal community is indicated by the creation of self-government in Pennsylvania independent of the prior charters; 4) irrevocability is shown by “permanent . . . government”; 5) limited modifiability is indicated by the fact that future officials are to be guided by “a frequent recurrence to fundamental principles”; 6) binding on future generations is demonstrated by its applicability to “future society”; and 7) that the constitution was intended to serve as a framework for law is shown by the accountability public officals have to enact laws consistent with the constitution.
Delaware Declaration of Rights (September 11, 1776).
A civil covenant is not merely convenient, but absolutely necessary as a means of exercising civil rule.
- That all government of right originates from the people, is founded in compact only, and instituted solely for the good of the whole. [§1.]
The Declaration acknowledged God’s reserved jurisdiction over morality, the heart and mind of man, and affirmed that inalienable rights were derived from God.
- That all men have a natural and unalienable right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences and understandings . . .. [§2.]
According to the Declaration, acknowledgement of the Creator God is a pre-condition to the exercise of full and true liberty. The document recognized that Christian belief confers no civil immunity upon any person.
- That all persons professing the Christian religion ought forever to enjoy equal rights and privileges in this state, unless, under colour of religion, any man disturb the peace, the happiness or safety of society. [§3.]
Constitution of Maryland (November 3, 1776).
A civil covenant is not merely convenient, but absolutely necessary as a means of exercising civil rule.
- That all government of right originates from the people, is founded in compact only, and instituted solely for the good of the whole. [Art. I.]
The Maryland Constitution provided that the form of a civil oath may be modified to match the swearer’s religious beliefs.
- That the manner of administering an oath to any person, ought to be such, as those of the religious persuasion, profession, or denomination, of which such person is one, generally esteem the most effectual confirmation, by the attestation of the Divine Being. [Art. XXXVI.]
Constitution of Vermont (July 8, 1777).
The Constitution of Vermont affirmed that the ordinances of God as revealed in the Bible are to be observed in public affairs.
- That all men have a natural and unalienable right to worship ALMIGHTY GOD, according to the dictates of their own consciences and understanding, regulated by the word of GOD; . . . nevertheless, every sect or denomination of people ought to observe the Sabbath, or the Lord’s day, and keep up, and support, some sort of religious worship, which to them shall seem most agreeable to the revealed will of GOD. [Art. III.]
Constitution of Massachusetts (October 25, 1780).
A civil covenant is not merely convenient, but absolutely necessary as a means of exercising civil rule.
- The body politic is formed by a voluntary association of individuals: it is a social compact, by which the whole people covenants with each citizen, and each citizen with the whole people, that all shall be governed by certain laws for the common good. [Preamble.]
The Massachusetts Constitution acknowledged the Creator God and his laws of creation as governing mankind, and that the ordinances of God as revealed in the Bible are to be observed in public affairs.
- We, therefore, the people of Massachusetts, acknowledging, with grateful hearts, the goodness of the great Legislator of the universe, in affording us, in the course of His providence, an opportunity . . . of entering into . . . solemn compact with each other; and . . . devoutly imploring His direction . . .. [Preamble.]
- It is the right as well as the duty of all men in society, publicly, and at stated seasons, to worship the Supreme Being, the great Creator and Preserver of the universe. [Art. II.]
* Copyright © 1993, 2010 Gerald R. Thompson. Used by permission.