Lectures on Religion and the Founding of the American Republic: [Chapter 4] Biblical Law in America: Historical Perspectives and Potentials for Reform

Lectures on Religion and the Founding of the American Republic: [Chapter 4] Biblical Law in America: Historical Perspectives and Potentials for Reform

Author John W. Welch

In the spring of 1786, Thomas Jefferson, then serving as ambassador to France, traveled to London to visit John Adams, then serving as minister to the Court of St. James's. On April 4, during a delay in trade and treaty negotiations, the two patriots set off for a coach tour of the English countryside. Among other places of interest they visited were Edgehill and Worcester, sites of the first and last battles of the English Revolution in the mid seventeenth century. From his diary it is clear that Adams was deeply moved to walk "the Scænes where Freemen had fought for their Rights."

Truly, the Hebrew scriptures influenced American colonial life in so many and profound ways that it is as difficult to take note of them as it is to be cognizant of the air we breathe. Of this period Perry Miller has said, "The remarkable aspect about . . . such daily conversation as we find reliably recorded, is that the Biblical vision out of which these particular examples come was so predominantly, almost exclusively, confined to the Old Testament." This Hebraic influence on the founders and founding of the American Republic is especially keen. Though we may think of the American Revolution as being under the direct influence of rationalists and rationalism, the images, even the language, from the pages of the Hebrew Bible were at least as powerful a force in shaping the new nation as Locke and Paine.

This article presents a sort of apologia, an apology for greater awareness of biblical law in connection with the study of American legal history and the underlying fabric of the common law. Following a brief introduction to the modern study and broad relevance of biblical law, I review the prevalence and importance of biblical law in American colonial law, consider the influence of these biblical foundations on American law in general, and finally draw attention to some of the ways in which biblical law generates prospects for legal reforms alleviating some of the problems and challenges faced by the American legal system as it continues on into the twenty-first century. This article strives to show that the study of biblical law has much to offer to anyone interested not only in the history of American law but also in its future.