Amidst the summer swelter, the North Carolina legislature recently approved a bill that supported the posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools. Governor Michael Easley announced that he would sign the legislation. The state Attorney General predicted the legislation would pass constitutional muster. As a result leaders of the twenty-first century were rediscovering not only a valid public expression of faith, but also the freedom on which our country and their state was founded.
The only requirement is that the postings of the Decalogue and other religiously significant documents reflect the state’s history. This ought to be easily attained if earlier North Carolina legal precedents concerning religious faith in the public square are duly noted.
Whether or not legislators realize it, last week’s bill merely returns to a strand of North Carolina’s history that predates the Declaration of Independence. Earlier Christian influence played a major role in preparing several state constitutions (e.g., New Jersey, Pennsylvania, the Carolinas) as well as our own federal constitution. Thomas Paine described prototype state constitutions, such as the earliest version from Mecklenburg, North Carolina, as precursors for the national constitution in creating the grammar of liberty.
The many state-level experiences served as field tests for developments at Philadelphia in 1787. Prior to that constitutional convention, Christians had ensured that the New Jersey constitution included republican principles. North Carolina church members dominated the proceedings leading up to the Mecklenburg Declaration and the proceedings that formed the earliest North Carolina constitution. On one occasion, the British Parliament was so threatened by the possible formation of a non-Anglican academy in Mecklenburg in 1771 that they vetoed a proposal to erect it. North Carolina, thus, has a sturdy tradition of freedom combined with religious expression.
Here is a little more of the story.
The Mecklenburg, North Carolina, Resolutions (May 20, 1775) preceded the Declaration of Independence by more than a year. Indeed, that region of Carolina separated itself from Great Britain before the Continental Congress did. And they did so at a time when Jefferson was saying, "I would rather be in dependence on Great Britain, properly limited, than on any nation on earth, or than on no nation," and Washington abhorred the idea of independence. The Mecklenburg pre-constitution declared Carolina citizens to be a "sovereign and self-governing association, under the control of no power, other than that of our God and the General Government of the Congress." Such fierce independence would lead the constitution of North Carolina the following year to affirm these fundamental axioms:
I. That all political power is vested in and derived from the people only.
II. That the people of this State ought to have the sole and exclusive right of regulating the internal government and police thereof.
III. That no man or group of men are entitled to exclusive or separate emoluments or privileges from the community, but in consideration of public services.
IV. That the legislative, executive, and supreme judicial powers of government ought to be forever separate and distinct from each other.
While affirming no establishment of religion, the North Carolina Constitution did, however, stipulate that any office holders should believe in God and embrace the divine authority either of the Old or New Testaments. At the same time, state representatives in Pennsylvania were to swear: "I do believe in one God, the creator and governor of the universe, the rewarder of the good and the punisher of the wicked. And I do acknowledge the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by Divine inspiration." Similarly, in 1776 Vermont required: "I ____ do believe in one God, the Creator and Governor of the Diverse, the rewarder of the good and punisher of the wicked. And I do acknowledge the scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by divine inspiration, and own and profess the Protestant religion."
And lest one think the early North Carolina planks extreme, the explicit detail of this 1778 South Carolina constitution may stun moderns. It even specified requirements for the formation of a church, insisting on the following:
Each society so petitioning shall have agreed to and subscribed in a book the following five articles, without which no agreement for union of men upon presence of religion shall entitle them to be incorporated and esteemed as a church of the established religion of this State:
1st. That there is one eternal God, and a future state of rewards and punishments.
2d. That God is publicly to be worshipped.
3d. That the Christian religion is the true religion.
4th. That the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are of divine inspiration, and are the rule of faith and practice.
5th. That it is lawful and the duty of every man being there unto called by those that govern to bear witness to the truth.
This early South Carolina Constitution even mandated that ministers were to subscribe to an additional vow over and above the aforesaid five articles:
"That he is determined by God's grace out of the Holy Scriptures . . . to teach nothing as required of necessity to eternal salvation but that which he shall be persuaded may be concluded and proved from the scripture; that he will use both public and private admonitions, as well to the sick as to the whole within his cure, as need shall require and occasion shall be given, and that he will be diligent in prayers, and in reading of the same; that he will be diligent to frame and fashion his own self and his family according to the doctrine of Christ, and to make both himself and them, as much as in him lieth, wholesome examples and patterns to the flock of Christ.
These low-country children of faith thought it appropriate and even commonplace for the state to engage the religious faith of the people concerning matters of government when the Declaration of Independence was adopted. Any of these precedents can certainly provide a historic frame for the display of the Decalogue, as well as other items of the founder’s religious heritage in public facilities.
While the overt involvement of the state in religious affairs is puzzling to those of us in the twenty-first century, it is indeed part of the heritage of the founders of our state and national governments. So, if the recent North Carolina bill holds, it will return freedom of expression for faith to certain classrooms and to the wider public square.
Good for them . . . and for their descendants.
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