Joseph Story: life, 1779-1845
U.S. Congressman, 1808-1809
Supreme Court Justice, 1811-1845
Author: Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States
Appointed in 1811 as a Justice to the United States Supreme Court by President James Madison (“The Chief Architect of the Constitution”). Being the youngest person ever to serve in that position, Joseph Story continued on the bench for 34 years, until his death in 1845. He was instrumental in establishing federal supremacy, Martin v. Hunter’s Lessee, 1816, and in establishing the illegality of the slave trade in the Amistad case. A professor at the Harvard Law School, 1821-1845, Joseph Story wrote tremendously influential works, including: Bailments, 1832; Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, 1833; Equity Jurisprudence, 1836; and A Familiar Exposition of the Constitution of the United States, 1840; in which he stated:
We are not to attribute this prohibition of a national religious establishment [in the First Amendment] to an indifference to religion in general, and especially to Christianity (which none could hold in more reverence that the framers of the Constitution)…. Probably, at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, and of the Amendment to it now under consideration, 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. Any 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.
In Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, 1833, Vol. III, Justice Joseph Story declared:
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.
In 1844 case of Vidal v. Girard’s Executors, Justice Joseph Story delivered the United States Supreme Court’s unanimous opinion:
Christianity… is not to be maliciously and openly reviled arid blasphemed against, to the annoyance of believers or the injury of the public… It is unnecessary for us, however, to consider the establishment of a school or college, for the propagation of… Deism, or any other form of infidelity. Such a case is not to be presumed to exist in a Christian country… Why may not laymen instruct in the general principles of Christianity as well as ecclesiastics… And we cannot overlook the blessings, which such [lay]men by their conduct, as well as their instructions, may, nay must, impart to their youthful pupils. Why may not the Bible, and especially the New Testament, without note or comment, be read and taught as a Divine Revelation in the [school — its general precepts expounded, its evidences explained and its glorious principles of morality inculcated? What is there to prevent a work, not sectarian, upon the general evidences of Christianity, from being read and taught in the college by lay teachers? It may well be asked, what is there in all this, which is positively enjoined, inconsistent with the spirit or truths of the religion of Christ? Are not these truths all taught by Christianity, although it teaches much more? Where can the purest principles of morality be learned so clearly or so perfectly as from the New Testament?
In his commentary of the First Amendment’s original meaning, Justice Joseph Story clarified:
The real object of the First Amendment was not to countenance, much less to advance Mohammedanism, or Judaism, or infidelity, by prostrating Christianity, but to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects [denominations] and to prevent any national ecclesiastical patronage of the national government.
America’s God and Country by William J. Federer
THE TEN OFFENSES
By Pat Robertson
Undermining a Nation’s Foundation SOME JUSTICES HOLD THE LINE:
Despite its radical swing to the left in the latter half of the twentieth century, the Supreme Court was supportive of the religious tradition of our nation and of the Christian faith during the first 150 years of its existence. John Jay, who was the first Chief Justice of the newly formed Supreme Court, wrote this:
“Unto Him who is the author and giver of all good, I render sincere and humble thanks for His mercy and unmerited blessings, and especially for our redemption and salvation by His beloved Son… Blessed be his holy name.”
Justice Joseph Story, who served from 1812 to 1845, was a prolific writer off the bench. His multivolume Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States are the first commentaries written on the Constitution and stand as the definitive nineteenth-century interpretation of the Constitution. In a section in his Commentaries concerning the First Amendment religion clauses, Story addressed the relation between religion and the state. He wrote: “Probably at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, and the amendments 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.” Story was saying that our founders, so often appealed to for the modern idea of strict separation between church and state, actually anticipated that government would encourage Christianity; For Story; the question was not whether government could foster religion, but how far government may rightfully go in fostering it. As he explained, the right of government to interfere in matters of religion was a foregone conclusion:
The right of a society or government to interfere in matters of religion will hardly be contested by any persons, who believe that piety, religion, and morality are intimately connected with the well being of the state, and indispensable to the administration of civil justice. The promulgation of the great doctrines of religion, the being, and attributes, and providence of one Almighty God; the responsibility of him for all our actions, founded upon moral freedom and accountability; a future state of rewards and punishments; the cultivation of all the personal, social, and benevolent virtues; these never can be a matter of indifference in any well ordered community. It is, indeed, difficult to conceive, how any civilized society can well exist without them. And at all events, it is impossible for those, who believe in the truth of Christianity; as a divine revelation, to doubt, that it is the especial duty of government to foster, and encourage it among all the citizens and subjects.
Story’s opinion reveals much about the favored status Christianity enjoyed in nineteenth-century America, both culturally and legally.
STILL A CHRISTIAN NATION in 1892, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision in the case of Holy Trinity v. United States, written by Justice David Brewer, that the United States is “a Christian nation.” Brewer said that America’s status as a Christian nation made it virtually untenable that Congress would pass a law detrimental to Christian or any other religion. He cited the Declaration of Independence, the colonial charters, and numerous state constitutions (which I mentioned in chapter 1). He cited the influences of Christianity in the First Amendment establishment of religion clause and the fact that the Constitution exempts Sunday from the calculated days in which a president can approve or veto legislation.
The Ten Offenses by Pat Robertson, pgs 24-25