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  • Print publication year: 2019
  • Online publication date: June 2019

Introduction: Christianity and American Law

Summary

Since the first settlements in British North America, Christianity and the Bible have had a significant influence on American jurisprudence. This reflects Christianity’s extensive impact on Western legal traditions in general and the English common law in particular. Christianity’s influence on American law was most pronounced in the colonial era, especially in New England’s Puritan commonwealths. Early colonial laws drew extensively from biblical sources, especially Mosaic law as interpreted within the colonists’ theological traditions. Christianity also contributed to an evolving constitutional tradition in the colonies and, later, the newly independent states, culminating in the US Constitution framed in 1787. This is evident in broad principles, such as the separation of powers needed to check the abuse of government powers vested in fallen human actors, as well as in specific provisions such as the Article III, § 3 requirement that convictions for treason be supported by “the testimony of two witnesses” and the Fifth Amendment prohibition on double jeopardy. Although Christianity remained a dominant cultural force well into the nineteenth century and beyond, church–state separationists, secularists, and rationalists increasingly challenged its influence on law. This is seen, for example, in bitter political and legal controversies involving the Sunday mails, blasphemy laws, and the Bible’s invocation as authority in judicial proceedings. These disputes signaled Christianity’s declining influence in an increasingly secular age.