Monday, September 23, 2013

Sir William Blackstone on Offenses against God and Religion (Theonomy Applied)

"[B]esides the notorious indecency and scandal of permitting any
secular business to be publicly transacted on that day in a country
professing Christianity, and the corruption of morals which
usually follows its profanation, the keeping one day in the seven
holy, as a time of relaxation and refreshment as well as for public
worship, is of admirable service to a state." --
Sir William Blackstone on the Lord's Day

Sir William Blackstone (1723-1780) was an English jurist, judge, legal scholar, and Tory politician. An influential writer, he is famous for his Commentaries on the Laws of England

Blackstone's Commentaries includes a section titled "Of Offences against God and Religion." This includes a very interesting historical overview and commentary on English laws influenced by Christianity and the law of God. 

While not all historical application conforms to Scripture (and we certainly do not endorse some of the practices of the Anglican church, some of which were imposed), and we do not agree with those statements by Blackstone that are soft on applying biblical civil law (although he is right to oppose abuses of it, which there were), Blackstone's discussion is helpful in terms of understanding both historic theonomic application and misapplication. For example, there was a time when witchcraft was rightfully a capital offense; but unfortunately, not all of those condemned to death were necessarily guilty of this crime. 

Blackstone's discussion is also helpful in getting ideas for modern application of theonomy; for instance, it was illegal "to publish a correct account of the proceedings in a court of justice if it contain matter of a scandalous, blasphemous, or indecent nature." There very well could be some wisdom hereat least in dealing with a blasphemy trialin order to keep blasphemous statements against God from circulating.

Finally, Blackstone's commentary itself is at times very insightful. For instance, he points out that historically, all countries have testified to the existence of witchcraft (such as through prohibitions of it), and also notes the corruption in morals that results in profanation of the Lord's Day. 

"Of Offences against God and Religion" (excerpts)
Commentaries on the Laws of England
Sir William Blackstone

On punishing apostasy:
Theodosius (above) and
Valentinian decreed
capital punishment for
apostates who
"endeavoured to pervert
others to the same

First, then, of such crimes and misdemeanours as more immediately offend Almighty God, by openly transgressing the precepts of religion, either natural or revealed; and mediately by their bad example and consequence the law of society also; which constitutes that guilt in the action which human tribunals are to censure.

1. Of this species the first is that of apostasy, or a total renunciation of Christianity, by embracing either a false religion or no religion at all. This offence can only take place in such as have once professed the true religion. The perversion of a Christian to Judaism, paganism, or other false religion, was punished by the emperors Constantine and Julian with confiscation of goods; to which the emperors Theodosius and Valentinian added capital punishment, in case the apostate endeavoured to pervert others to the same iniquity; a punishment too severe for any temporal laws to inflict upon any spiritual offence; and yet the zeal of our ancestors imported it into this country; for we find by Bracton that in his time apostates were to be burnt to death. Doubtless the preservation of Christianity, as a national religion, is, abstracted from its own intrinsic truth, of the utmost consequence to the civil state: which a single instance will sufficiently demonstrate. 

The belief of a future state of rewards and punishments, the entertaining just ideas of the moral attributes of the Supreme Being, and a firm persuasion that he superintends and will finally compensate every action in human life, (all which are clearly revealed in the doctrines, and forcibly inculcated by the precepts, of our Saviour Christ,) these are the grand foundation of all judicial oaths; which call God to witness the truth of those facts, which perhaps may be only known to him and the party attesting; all moral evidence, therefore, all confidence in human veracity, must be weakened by apostasy and overthrown by total infidelity. 

Wherefore all affronts to Christianity, or endeavours to depreciate its efficacy, in those who have once professed it, are highly deserving of censure. But yet the loss of life is a heavier penalty than the offence, taken in a civil light, deserves; and taken in a spiritual light, our laws have no jurisdiction over it. This punishment therefore has long ago become obsolete; and the offence of apostasy was for a long time the object only of the ecclesiastical courts, which corrected the offender pro salute animæBut about the close of the last century the civil liberties to which we were then restored being used as a cloak of maliciousness, and the most horrid doctrines, subversive of all religion, being publicly avowed both in discourse and writings, it was thought necessary again for the civil power to interpose by not admitting those miscreants to the privileges of society who maintained such principles as destroyed all moral obligation. 

To this end it was enacted, by statute 9 & 10 W. III. c. 32, that if any person educated in, or having made profession of, the Christian religion, shall, by writing, printing, teaching, or advised speaking, deny the Christian religion to be true, or the holy scriptures to be of divine authority, he shall upon the first offence be rendered incapable to hold any office or place of trust; and for the second be rendered incapable of bringing any action, being guardian, executor, legatee, or purchaser of lands, and shall suffer three years’ imprisonment without bail. To give room, however, for repentance, if, within four months after the first conviction, the delinquent will in open court publicly renounce his error, he is discharged for that once from all disabilities.

On punishing heresy:

II. A second offence is that of heresy, which consists not in a total denial of Christianity, but of some of its essential doctrines publicly and obstinately avowed; being defined by Sir Matthew Hale, “sententia rerum divinarum humano sensu excogitata, palam docta et pertinaciter defensa.” And here it must also be acknowledged that particular modes of belief or unbelief, not tending to overturn Christianity itself, or to sap the foundations of morality, are by no means the object of coercion by the civil magistrate. 

What doctrines shall therefore be adjudged heresy was left by our old constitution to the determination of the ecclesiastical judge; who had herein a most arbitrary latitude allowed him. For the general definition of a heretic given by Lyndewode, extends to the smallest deviation from the doctrines of holy church; “hæreticus est qui dubitat de fide catholica, et qui negligit servare ea, quæ Romana ecclesia statuit, seu servare decreverat.” Or, as the statute 2 Hen. IV. c. 15 expresses it in English, “teachers of erroneous opinions, contrary to the faith and blessed determinations of the holy church.” Very contrary this to the usage of the first general councils, which defined all heretical doctrines with the utmost precision and exactness. And what ought to have alleviated the punishment, the uncertainty of the crime, seems to have enhanced it in those days of blind zeal and pious cruelty. 

Henry VIII declared "that offences
against the see of Rome are not
It is true that the sanctimonious hypocrisy of the canonists went at first no further than enjoining penance, excommunication, and ecclesiastical deprivation for heresy; though afterwards they proceeded boldly to imprisonment by the ordinary, and confiscation of goods in pios uses. But in the mean time they had prevailed upon the weakness of bigoted princes to make the civil power subservient to their purposes, by making heresy not only a temporal but even a capital offence: the Romish ecclesiastics determining, without appeal, whatever they pleased to be heresy, and shifting off to the secular arm the odium and drudgery of executions; with which they themselves were too tender and delicate to intermeddle. Nay, they pretended to intercede and pray on behalf of the convicted heretic, ut citra mortis periculum sententia circa eum moderatur; well knowing at the same time that they were delivering the unhappy victim to certain death. 

Hence the capital punishments inflicted on the antient Donatists and Manichæans by the emperors Theodosius and Justinian: hence also the constitution of the emperor Frederic, mentioned by Lyndewode, adjudging all persons, without distinction, to be burned with fire who were convicted of heresy by the ecclesiastical judge. 

The same emperor, in another constitution, ordained that if any temporal lord, when admonished by the church, should neglect to clear his territories of heretics within a year, it should be lawful for good catholics to seize and occupy the lands and utterly to exterminate the heretical possessors. And upon this foundation was built that arbitrary power, so long claimed and so fatally exerted by the pope, of disposing even of the kingdoms of refractory princes to more dutiful sons of the church. The immediate event of this constitution was something singular, and may serve to illustrate at once the gratitude of the holy see and the just punishment of the royal bigot: for upon the authority of this very constitution the pope afterwards expelled this very emperor Frederic from his kingdom of Sicily and gave it to Charles of Anjou.

On Henry the VIII and the supremacy of the bishops of Rome:

Afterwards, when the final reformation of religion began to advance, the power of the ecclesiastics was somewhat moderated; for though what heresy is was not then precisely defined, yet we were told in some points what it is notthe statute 25 Hen. VIII. c. 14 declaring that offences against the see of Rome are not heresy, and the ordinary being thereby restrained from proceeding in any case upon mere suspicion; that is, unless the party be accused by two credible witnesses, or an indictment of heresy be first previously found in the king’s courts of common law. 

And yet the spirit of persecution was not then abated, but only diverted into a lay channel. For in six years afterwards, by statute 31 Hen. VIII. c. 14, the bloody law of the six articles was made, which established the six most contested points of popery, transubstantiation, communion in one kind, the celibacy of the clergy, monastic vows, the sacrifice of the mass, and auricular confession; which points were “determined and resolved by the most godly study, pain, and travail of his majesty: for which his most humble and obedient subjects, the lords spiritual and temporal, and the commons in parliament assembled, did not only render and give unto his highness their most high and hearty thanks,” but did also enact and declare all oppugners of the first to be heretics, and to be burned with fire; and of the five last to be felons, and to suffer death. 

The same statute established a new and mixed jurisdiction of clergy and laity for the trial and conviction of heretics; the reigning prince being then equally intent on destroying the supremacy of the bishops of Rome and establishing all other their corruptions of the Christian religion.

On push during Blackstone's time to return to punishing polytheism and anti-Trinitarianism:

The legislature hath indeed thought it proper that the civil magistrate should again interpose with regard to
one species of heresy very prevalent in modern times; for, by statute 9 & 10 W. III. c. 32, if any person educated in the Christian religion, or professing the same, shall, by writing, printing, teaching, or advised speaking, deny any one of the persons of the Holy Trinity to be God, or maintain that there are more Gods than one, he shall undergo the same penalties and incapacities which were just now mentioned to be inflicted on apostasy by the same statute.

On punishing the reviling of the ordinances of the established church:

III. Another species of offences against religion are those which affect the 
established church. And these are either positive or negative: positive, by reviling its ordinances; or negative, by non-conformity to its worship. Of both of these in their order.

1. And, first, of the offence of 
reviling the ordinances of the church. This is a crime of a much grosser nature than the other of mere non-conformity, since it carries with it the utmost indecency, arrogance, and ingratitude: indecency, by setting up private judgment in virulent and factious opposition to public authority; arrogance, by treating with contempt and rudeness what has at least a better chance to be right than the singular notions of any particular man; and ingratitude, by denying that indulgence and undisturbed liberty of conscience to the members of the national church which the retainers to every petty conventicle enjoy. 

However, it is provided, by statutes 1 Edw. VI. c. 1, and 1 Eliz. c. 1, that whoever reviles the sacrament of the Lord’s supper shall be punished by fine and imprisonment; and, by the statute 1 Eliz. c. 2, if any minister shall speak any thing in derogation from the book of common prayer, he shall, if not beneficed, be imprisoned one year for the first offence, and for life for the second; and if he be beneficed, he shall for the first offence be imprisoned six months, and forfeit a year’s value of his benefice; for the second offence he shall be deprived, and suffer one year’s imprisonment; and for the third shall in like manner be deprived, and suffer imprisonment for life. 

And if any person whatsoever shall, in plays, songs, or other open words, speak any thing in derogation, depraving, or despising of said book, or shall forcibly prevent the reading of it, or cause any other service to be used in its stead, he shall forfeit for the first offence a hundred marks; for the second, four hundred; and for the third shall forfeit all his goods and chattels, and suffer imprisonment for life. These penalties were framed in the infancy of our present establishment, when the disciples of Rome and of Geneva united in inveighing with the utmost bitterness against the English liturgy; and the terror of these laws (for they seldom, if ever, were fully executed) proved a principal means, under Providence, of preserving the purity as well as decency of our national worship. 

Edward VI (above) and Elizabeth I decreed "that whoever
reviles the sacrament of the Lord's Supper shall be punished
by fine and imprisonment." 

Nor can their continuance to this time (of the milder penalties at least) be thought too severe and intolerant; so far as they are levelled at the offence, not of thinking differently from the national church, but of railing at that church and obstructing its ordinances for not submitting its public judgment to the private opinion of others. For, though it is clear that no restraint should be laid upon rational and dispassionate discussions of the rectitude and propriety of the established mode of worship, yet contumely and contempt are what no establishment can tolerate. A rigid attachment to trifles, and an intemperate zeal for reforming them, are equally ridiculous and absurd; but the latter is at present the less excusable, because from political reasons, sufficiently hinted at in a former volume, it would now be extremely unadvisable to make any alterations in the service of the church; unless by its own consent, or unless it can be shown that some manifest impiety or shocking absurdity will follow from continuing the present forms.

On punishing non-conformists:

2. Non-conformity to the worship of the church is the other or negative branch of this offence. And for this there is much more to be pleaded than for the former; being a matter of private conscience, to the scruples of which our present laws have shown a very just and Christian indulgence. For undoubtedly all persecution and oppression of weak consciences, on the score of religious persuasions, are highly unjustifiable upon every principle of natural reason, civil liberty, or sound religion. But care must be taken not to carry this indulgence into such extremes as may endanger the national church: there is always a difference to be made between toleration and establishment.

Non-conformists are of two sorts: first, such as absent themselves from divine worship in the established church, through total irreligion, and attend the service of no other persuasion
. These, by the statutes of 1 Eliz. c. 2, 23 Eliz. c. 1, and 3 Jac. I. c. 4, forfeit one shilling to the poor every Lord’s day they so absent themselves, and 20l. to the king if they continue such default for a month together. And if they keep any inmate, thus irreligiously disposed, in their houses, they forfeit 10l. per month.

The second species of non-conformists are those who offend through a mistaken or perverse zeal.
Such were esteemed by our laws, enacted since the time of the reformation, to be papists and Protestant dissenters; both of which were supposed to be equally schismatics in not communicating with the national church; with this difference, that the papists divided from it upon material, though erroneous, reasons; but many of the dissenters upon matters of indifference, or, in other words, upon no reason at all. Yet certainly our ancestors were mistaken in their plans of compulsion and intolerance. The sin of schism, as such, is by no means the object of temporal coercion and punishment. If, through weakness of intellect, through misdirected piety, through perverseness and acerbity of temper, or (which is often the case) through a prospect of secular advantage in herding with a party, men quarrel with the ecclesiastical establishment, the civil magistrate has nothing to do with it, unless their tenets and practice are such as threaten ruin or disturbance to the state. He is bound indeed to protect the established church; and, if this can be better effected by admitting none but its genuine members to offices of trust and emolument, he is certainly at liberty so to do: the disposal of offices being matter of favour and discretion. But, this point being once secured, all persecution for diversity of opinions, however ridiculous or absurd they may be, is contrary to every principle of sound policy and civil freedom. The names and subordination of the clergy, the posture of devotion, the materials and colour of the minister’s garment, the joining in a known or unknown form of prayer, and other matters of the same kind, must be left to the option of every man’s private judgment. 

On laws against Papists:

The restless machinations of the Jesuits during the reign of Elizabeth, the turbulence and uneasiness of the papists under the new religious establishment, and the boldness of their hopes and wishes for the succession of the queen of Scots, obliged the parliament to counteract so dangerous a spirit by laws of a great, and then perhaps necessary, severity. The powder-treason in the succeeding reign struck a panic into James I., which operated in different ways: it occasioned the enacting of new laws against the papists, but deterred him from putting them in execution. The intrigues of queen Henrietta in the reign of Charles I., the prospect of a popish successor in that of Charles II., the assassination-plot in the reign of king William, and the avowed claim of a popish pretender to the crown in that and subsequent reigns, will account for the extension of these penalties at those several periods of our history.

A footnote reads: 
The Roman Catholics cannot sit in either house of parliament, because every member of parliament must take the oath of supremacy, and repeat and subscribe the declaration against transubstantiation, (see 1 book, 162;) nor can they vote at elections for the members of the house of commons, because before they vote they must take the oath of supremacy. 
The Roman Catholics in Ireland are permitted to vote at elections, but they cannot sit in either house of parliament.
A bequest or disposition for the purpose of educating children in the Roman Catholic religion is unlawful. But the fund will not pass to the testator’s next of kin, but it shall be applied to such charitable purposes as his majesty shall please to direct by his signmanual.

On acts to protect the established church:

In order the better to secure the established church against perils from non-conformists of all denominations, infidels, Turks, Jews, heretics, papists, and sectaries, there are, however, two bulwarks erected; called the corporation and test acts: by the former of which no person can be legally elected to any office relating to the government of any city or corporation, unless within a twelvemonth before he has received the sacrament of the Lord’s supper according to the rites of the church of England; and he is also enjoined to take the oaths of allegiance and supremacy at the same time that he takes the oath of office; or, in default of either of these requisites, such election shall be void. 

The other, called the test act, directs all officers, civil and military, to take the oaths and make the declaration against transubstantiation in any of the king’s courts at Westminster, or at the quarter sessions, within six calendar months after their admission; and also within the same time to receive the sacrament of the Lord’s supper according to the usage of the church of England, in some public church, immediately after divine service and sermon, and to deliver into court a certificate thereof signed by the minister and church-warden, and also to prove the same by two credible witnesses; upon forfeiture of 500l. and disability to hold the said office. And of much the same nature with these is the statute 7 Jac. I. c. 2, which permits no person to be naturalized or restored in blood but such as undergo a like test: which test having been removed in 1753, in favour of the Jews, was the next session of parliament restored again with some precipitation.

"The restless machinations of the Jesuits during the reign
of Elizabeth [above], the turbulence and uneasiness of the
papists under the new religious establishment, and the
boldness of their hopes and wishes for the succession
of the queen of Scots, obliged the parliament to
counteract so dangerous a spirit by laws
of a great, and then perhaps necessary,

On punishing blasphemy:

Thus much for offences which strike at our national religion, or the doctrine and discipline of the church of England in particular. I proceed now to consider some gross impieties and general immoralities which are taken notice of and punished by our municipal law; frequently in concurrence with the ecclesiastical, to which the censure of many of them does also of right appertain; though with a view somewhat different: the spiritual court punishing all sinful enormities for the sake of reforming the private sinner, pro salute animæ; while the temporal courts resent the public affront to religion and morality on which all governments must depend for support, and correct more for the sake of example than private amendment.
The fourth species of offences, therefore, more immediately against God and religion, is that of blasphemy against the Almighty by denying his being or providence; or by contumelious reproaches of our Saviour Christ. Whither also may be referred all profane scoffing at the holy scripture, or exposing it to contempt and ridicule. These are offences punishable at common law by fine and imprisonment, or other infamous corporal punishment; for Christianity is part of the laws of England.
A footnote reads: 
It is not lawful even to publish a correct account of the proceedings in a court of justice if it contain matter of a scandalous, blasphemous, or indecent nature, (3 B. & A. 167;) and a publication stating our Saviour to be an impostor, and a murderer in principle, and a fanatic, is a libel at common law. 1 B. & C. 26. The general law as to this offence, as collected from 2 Stra. 834, Fitzg. 64, Barn. R. 162, is that it is illegal to write against Christianity in general; that it is also illegal to write against any one of its evidences or doctrines, so as to manifest a malicious design to undermine it altogether; but that it is not illegal to write, with decency, on controverted points, whereby it is possible some articles of belief may be affected.—Chitty.

On punishing profane swearing and cursing:

V. Somewhat allied to this, though in an inferior degree, is the offence of profane and common swearing and cursing
. By the last statute against which, 19 Geo. II. c. 21, which repeals all former ones, every labourer, sailor, or soldier profanely cursing or swearing shall forfeit 1s.; every other person, under the degree of a gentleman, 2s.; and every gentleman, or person of superior rank, 5s., to the poor of the parish; and, on the second conviction, double; and for every subsequent offence, treble the sum first forfeited; with all charges of conviction: and in default of payment shall be sent to the house of correction for ten days. Any justice of the peace may convict upon his own hearing, or the testimony of one witness; and any constable or peace officer, upon his own hearing, may secure any offender and carry him before a justice and there convict him. If the justice omits his duty he forfeits 5l., and the constable 40s. And the act is to be read in all parish churches and public chapels the Sunday after every quarter-day, on pain of 5l., to be levied by warrant from any justice. Besides this punishment for taking God’s name in vain in common discourse, it is enacted, by statute 3 Jac. I. c. 21, that if, in any stage-play, interlude, or show, the name of the Holy Trinity, or any of the persons therein, be jestingly or profanely used, the offender shall forfeit 10l., one moiety to the king, and the other to the informer.

On punishing witchcraft:

VI. A sixth species of offence against God and religion, of which our antient books are full, is a crime of which one knows not well what account to give. I mean the offence of witchcraft, conjuration, enchantment, or sorceryTo deny the possibility, nay, actual existence, of witchcraft and sorcery is at once flatly to contradict the revealed word of God, in various passages both of the Old and New Testament: and the thing itself is a truth to which every nation in the world hath in its turn borne testimony, either by examples seemingly well attested or by prohibitory laws; which at least suppose the possibility of commerce with evil spirits. 

The civil law punishes with death not only the sorcerers themselves, but also those who consult them, imitating in the former the express law of God, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” And our own laws, both before and since the conquest, have been equally penal; ranking this crime in the same class with heresy, and condemning both to the flames. The president Montesquieu ranks them also both together, but with a very different view: laying it down as an important maxim that we ought to be very circumspect in the prosecution of magic and heresy; because the most unexceptionable conduct, the purest morals, and the constant practice of every duty in life are not a sufficient security against the suspicion of crimes like these. And indeed the ridiculous stories that are generally told, and the many impostures and delusions that have been discovered in all ages, are enough to demolish all faith in such a dubious crime; if the contrary evidence were not also extremely strong. Wherefore it seems to be the most eligible way to conclude, with an ingenious writer of our own, that in general there has been such a thing as witchcraft; though one cannot give credit to any particular modern instance of it. 

Our forefathers were stronger believers when they enacted, by statute 33 Hen. VIII. c. 8, all witchcraft and sorcery to be felony without benefit of clergy; and again, by statute 1 Jac. I. c. 12, that all persons invoking any evil spirit, or consulting, covenanting with, entertaining, employing, feeding, or rewarding, any evil spirit; or taking up dead bodies from their graves to be used in any witchcraft, sorcery, charm, or enchantment; or killing or otherwise hurting any person by such infernal arts, should be guilty of felony without benefit of clergy, and suffer death. 

And if any person should attempt by sorcery to discover hidden treasure, or to restore stolen goods, or to provoke unlawful love, or to hurt any man or beast, though the same were not effected, he or she should suffer imprisonment and pillory for the first offence, and death for the second. These acts continued in force till lately, to the terror of all antient females in the kingdom: and many poor wretches were sacrificed thereby to the prejudice of their neighbours and their own illusions; not a few having, by some means or other, confessed the fact at the gallows. 

But all executions for this dubious crime are now at an end; our legislature having at length followed the wise example of Louis XIV. in France, who thought proper, by an edict, to restrain the tribunals of justice from receiving informations of witchcraft. And accordingly it is with us enacted, by statute 9 Geo. II. c. 5, that no prosecution shall for the future be carried on against any persons for conjuration, witchcraft, sorcery, or enchantment. But the misdemeanour of persons pretending to use witchcraft, tell fortunes, or discover stolen goods, by skill in the occult sciences, is still deservedly punished with a year’s imprisonment, and standing four times in the pillory.

"To deny the possibility, nay, actual existence,
of witchcraft and sorcery is at once to flatly
contradict the revealed word of God ... and the
thing itself is a truth to which every nation in
the world hath in its turn borne testimony."
-- Sir William Blackstone

On punishing religious imposters:

VII. A seventh species of offenders in this class are all 
religious impostors: such as falsely pretend an extraordinary commission from heaven, or terrify and abuse the people with false denunciations of judgments. These, as tending to subvert all religion by bringing it into ridicule and contempt, are punishable by the temporal courts with fine, imprisonment, and infamous corporal punishment.

On punishing simony:

VIII. Simony, or the corrupt presentation of any one to an ecclesiastical benefice for gift or reward
, is also to be considered as an offence against religion; as well by reason of the sacredness of the charge which is thus profanely bought and sold, as because it is always attended with perjury in the person presented. 

The statute 31 Eliz. c. 6 (which, so far as it relates to the forfeiture of the right of presentation, was considered in a former book) enacts that if any patron, for money or any other corrupt consideration or promise, directly or indirectly given, shall present, admit, institute, induct, instal, or collate, any person to an ecclesiastical benefice or dignity, both the giver and taker shall forfeit two years’ value of the benefice or dignity; one moiety to the king, and the other to any one who will sue for the same. If persons also corruptly resign or exchange their benefices, both the giver and taker shall in like manner forfeit double the value of the money or other corrupt consideration. And persons who shall corruptly ordain or license any minister, or procure him to be ordained or licensed, (which is the true idea of simony,) shall incur a like forfeiture of forty pounds; and the minister himself of ten pounds, besides an incapacity to hold any ecclesiastical preferment for seven years afterwards. 

Corrupt elections and resignations in colleges, hospitals, and other eleemosynary corporations, are also punished by the same statute with forfeiture of the double value, vacating the place or office, and a devolution of the right of election for that turn to the crown.

On punishing Sabbath desecration:

IX. Profanation of the Lord’s day ... is a ninth offence against God and religion, punished by the municipal law of England. For, besides the notorious indecency and scandal of permitting any secular business to be publicly transacted on that day in a country professing Christianity, and the corruption of morals which usually follows its profanation, the keeping one day in the seven holy, as a time of relaxation and refreshment as well as for public worship, is of admirable service to a state, considered merely as a civil institution. 

It humanizes, by the help of conversation and society, the manners of the lower classes, which would otherwise degenerate into a sordid ferocity and savage selfishness of spirit; it enables the industrious workman to pursue his occupation in the ensuing week with health and cheerfulness; it imprints on the minds of the people that sense of their duty to God so necessary to make them good citizens, but which yet would be worn out and defaced by an unremitted continuance of labour, without any stated times of recalling them to the worship of their Maker. 

And, therefore, the laws of king Athelstan forbade all merchandizing on the Lord’s day, under very severe penalties. And by the statute 27 Hen. VI. c. 5, no fair or market shall be held on the principal festivals, Good Friday, or any Sunday, (except the four Sundays in harvest,) on pain of forfeiting the goods exposed to sale. And since, by the statute 1 Car. I. c. 1, no persons shall assemble out of their own parishes for any sport whatsoever upon this day; nor, in their parishes, shall use any bull or bear baiting, interludes, plays, or other unlawful exercises or pastimes; on pain that every offender shall pay 3s. 4d. to the poor. This statute does not prohibit, but rather impliedly allows, any innocent recreation or amusement, within their respective parishes, even on the Lord’s day, after divine service is over. 

But, by statute 29 Car. II. c. 7, no person is allowed to work on the Lord’s day, or use any boat or barge, or expose any goods to sale; except meat in public houses, milk at certain hours, and works of necessity or charity, on forfeiture of 5s. Nor shall any drover, carrier, or the like travel upon that day, under pain of twenty shillings.

On punishing drunkenness:

X. Drunkenness is also punished, by statute 4 Jac.
I. c. 5, with the forfeiture of 5s., or the sitting six hours in the stocks: by which time the statute presumes the offender will have regained his senses, and not be liable to do mischief to his neighbours. And there are many wholesome statutes by way of prevention, chiefly passed in the same reign of king James I., which regulate the licensing of alehouses, and punish persons found tippling therein; or the master of such houses permitting them.

On punishing open lewdness:

XI. The last offence which I shall mention, more immediately against religion and morality, and cognizable by the temporal courts, is that of
open and notorious lewdness; either by frequenting houses of ill fame, which is an indictable offence; or by some grossly scandalous and public indecency, for which the punishment is by fine and imprisonment. In the year 1650, when the ruling power found it for their interest to put on the semblance of a very extraordinary strictness and purity of morals, not only incest and wilful adultery were made capital crimes, but also the repeated act of keeping a brothel, or committing fornication, were (upon a second conviction) made felony without benefit of clergy. 

But at the restoration, when men, from an abhorrence of the hypocrisy of the late times, fell into the contrary extreme of licentiousness, it was not thought proper to renew a law of such unfashionable rigour. And these offences have been ever since left to the feeble coercion of the spiritual court according to the rules of the canon law; a law which has treated the offence of incontinence, nay, even adultery itself, with a great degree of tenderness and lenity, owing perhaps to the constrained celibacy of its first compilers. The temporal courts therefore take no cognizance of the crime of adultery otherwise than as a private injury.

Photo credits:

© Henryart / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Sir William Blackstone by Paul Wayland Bartlett (statue)
© Missvain / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Note about the Theonomy Applied Series: In quoting any particular law, we do not necessarily endorse every aspect of that law as biblical, whether it be the prohibition, sanction, court procedure, etc. Rather, we are merely showing the more or less attempt to apply biblical law in history, whether or not that application was fully biblical. Moreover, in quoting any particular law, we do not necessarily consider those who passed and/or enforced such a law as being fully orthodox in their Christian theology. Professing Christian rulers in history have ranged in their theology from being orthodox (that is, Reformed Protestants) to heretical (for example, Roman Catholics). 

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