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On Health Insurance, Non-Profit Hospitals, Cabbages, and Kings

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The Walrus and the Carpenter

The Walrus and the Carpenter (Public Domain)

Update 2/12/15:  Coincidentally, Memorial-Hermann’s billing department called to offer me a 50% discount off the total hospital bill for self-pay.  This is probably not a result of seeing this article, which was only published one day previous.  I am gratified to have received this fair offer, however belated.  ~Author

Allow me to relate, for the public record, my experience, from a financial standpoint, as a person with no health insurance receiving emergency medical care in the Texas Medical Center, Houston. On July 21, 2014, I entered the emergency room in the small town of Liberty, Texas, experiencing what was determined to be hypotension (low blood pressure) and bradycardia (low pulse rate). For several days, I had been unable to walk at a normal pace or otherwise exert myself without getting dizzy and beginning to black out. I was transported by county ambulance to the Memorial-Hermann Heart and Vascular Institute in the Medical Center. I spent, to my recollection, 3 days in the ICU, under observation, and afterwards was transferred to an identical room, but one not classified as Intensive Care. My treatment culminated in the placement of a heart pacemaker. I was finally released from the hospital on the evening of July 26.

On July 22 of my stay, I was visited in ICU by a Financial Counselor employed by the hospital, who helped me to fill out a Financial Assistance Screening Form. He further instructed me to send in my previous year’s IRS Tax Return as proof of financial need. I mailed this proof the weekend of August 2, but shortly thereafter received a letter from the Financial Counselor, dated August 6, denying financial assistance on the basis of failing to provide proof of income. This was obviously sent before receipt of my letter containing proof, and a scant 11 days after my release from the hospital.

As I began to receive bills from the various medical providers involved in my care, my research revealed that medical providers routinely allow for a discount of 40 to 50 percent to insurance companies. Moreover a self-pay patient is well within his or her rights to request an equivalent discount for cash payment up-front. I therefore began to request a self-pay discount from all providers, the results of which are shown in the table below. For the most part, the providers were not surprised at the request, and readily offered a substantial discount off the billed price in return for prompt payment.

The major exceptions to this accommodation were those submitting the two largest bills, UT Physicians and Memorial-Hermann Hospital. After months of wrangling and sending certified letters, including an offer to pay 60% of the bill promptly, UT Physicians finally sent a bill, dated January 24, 2015, reflecting a 34% discount.






UT Physicians





Texas Heart Rhythm





Texas Heart Rhythm (follow-up)





Liberty County EMS (A/R Concepts, Inc.)





Liberty-Dayton Reg. Med. (emergency room)





Houston Cardiovascular Associates (follow-up)





Physicians Billing Service





Memorial Pathology Consultants





Milwaukee Radiologists





Memorial-Hermann Hospital






Memorial-Hermann Hospital, on the other hand, has consistently demanded payment in full within a short payment period, an utter impossibility under my present circumstances. Their billing department has discouraged partial payment (though they took the $4,000 paid to date), failed to offer any kind of payment plan, and refused to negotiate any kind of a discount. Their billing officials, those authorized to discuss and negotiate arrangement, remain bastioned and anonymous behind an opaque automated phone system.

It would appear that M-H has every intention of holding out for payment of the full, unmitigated amount they have assessed, and proceding toward a collections lawsuit. Attorney Robert Painter of Houston recounts the case of Ignacio Alaniz, a low-income worker injured in a car crash and life-flighted to Memorial-Hermann. Painter remarked, “We believe that Memorial Hermann’s billing practices regarding the uninsured are unconscionable and violate the Deceptive Trade Practices Act. Why should a hospital try to collect from someone without insurance double or more what an insured patient would pay for the exact same care?”


Dianna Wray, in a Houston Press article, also reported on this case:

Attorney J. Thomas Black notes that hundreds of patients are sued by tax-exempt Memorial-Hermann every year. “They are the only hospital that I can recall that actively sues for unpaid hospital bills,” he wrote. According to Black, filing for personal bankruptcy might be the only recourse for low-income patients unable to pay up-front.


The hospital’s own billing documents state:

Memorial Hermann Health System recognizes there may be times when patients will have difficulty paying for the services provided. The Hospital provides a discount to qualified patients with limited income who have no insurance or who have used all of their health insurance benefits. Payment from all possible sources must be exhausted before a patient can qualify for financial assistance. We can help you apply for free or low-cost insurance, if you qualify.

To find out if you qualify for partial or fully discounted medically-necessary hospital services, you must apply for financial assistance and provide supporting documentation.

To date, however, M-H has offered none of these allowances, apparently based on the Financial Counselor’s initial denial of assistance.

According to reporter Wray,

Memorial Hermann is a nonprofit, but the hospital system’s annual revenue in fiscal year 2010, according to the most recent annual report filed with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, was more than $2.9 billion. Expenses came in at under $2.7 billion, leaving more than $228 million in revenue on the table, according to the report. Even after subtracting the $582 million Memorial Hermann donated in care — the bulk of it made up of unreimbursed medical expenses from Medicaid patients — the nonprofit still recorded a profit of more than $200 million and an endowment of more than $3.8 million. Memorial Hermann President and CEO Daniel Wolterman was paid a salary of close to $2.2 million that year.

Further in Wray’s article, legal aid attorney Tariq Gladney described M-H lawyers being “like cowboys in an Old West shootout, unwilling to back down and acknowledge that they wouldn’t be collecting the debts. Memorial Hermann dropped the cases in every instance, but Gladney is still mystified as to why the hospital’s lawyers pursued these suits in the first place.”

“I have yet to see another hospital do this,” Gladney is quoted. “It doesn’t make much financial sense. Most of my clients are judgment-proof.”

Paul Kiel of ProPublica writes that the same thing is happening in Alabama:


Kiel concludes that these aggressive actions by tax-exempt hospitals are the result of weaknesses and loopholes in state laws, yet there is some promise of future relief when pending laws come into effect:

Senator Charles Grassley, who has helped investigate the tax-exempt status of non-profit hospitals in the past, was shocked that hospitals were still aggressively pursuing patients who could not afford to pay. In particular he cites Mosaic Life Care, which in various cases “failed to identify patients who would qualify for financial assistance and who have since been subject to abusive billing and collection practices,” as Kiel quotes him. “The practices appear to be extremely punitive and unfair to both low income patients and taxpayers who subsidize charitable hospitals’ tax breaks.”


In my case, I am perfectly willing to pay, as I am able, reasonable remuneration for services rendered.  I consider my self-pay status to warrant the offering of a substantial discount, commensurate with that offered to insurance payers; and as a matter of necessity, moreover, require the extension of a reasonable payment plan.  Keep in mind that as an emergency patient, I had no opportunity to shop around for healthcare, and was helpless except to accept M-H’s aid and recommendations.  Further, as a low-income ordained minister, I remain unable to afford conventional health insurance.  The present state of affairs could hardly be solved short of filing for personal bankruptcy, in which case M-H would receive nothing more than the growing ill-will of the public.

© 2015 Paul A. Hughes


Written by biblequestion

February 11, 2015 at 7:38 PM

Græco-Roman Elements in New Testament Palestine

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Roman Official in Uniform

Roman Official in Uniform

It was a wondrous time, a wondrous and terrible time — a time of new empires, of new peoples, and of new languages; a time of new religion and old religion; a time of conquest, of reeducation, and of organization.  Such were the days preceding — pointing for it — the birth and death of Christ.  It was an unprecedented time, a time when a universal rule and the universal time paved the way for the evangelism of the known world — and, in time, the metamorphosis of an ungodly empire into a Christian empire.  The time, some say, when God himself engineered world situations according to his purposes.

It is said that no Scripture can be correctly interpreted apart from its context.  Unfortunately, many would-be interpreters of the Bible today have failed to give sufficient attention to its historical, as well as its literary, context.  When reading the New Testament, and the Gospels and the Acts in particular, one whiffs the wind of Græco-Roman influence in Palestine during the life of Christ and early evangelical outreach.  There is much that is misunderstood about this influence.  It is fitting and necessary, then, that we give attention to some basic elements of the Greek and Roman influence in the Palestine that Jesus Christ in the apostles knew.

“Roman” and “Greek”

There is a certain ambiguity of terminology when discussing things “Roman” and “Greek.”  On the one hand, it must be considered that Rome, after all, was both a city and an empire.  A resident of that empire, although freed from slavery, was not necessarily a Roman citizen (until the late Empire).  Conversely, a Roman citizen was not necessarily of Roman extraction.  Again, a “Roman soldier” was not necessarily either a Roman citizen or of Roman blood.  These details of Roman citizenship and the extraction of the soldiery shall be discussed in a later section.

On the other hand, when one considers things “Greek,” one must know the following:  the word “Greek” comes from the Latin word Graecus.1  However, the Greeks called themselves, in their own tongue, Hellenes.  Originally, this terminology, in either language, applied to certain tribes who from ancient times occupied the area we now know as Greece.  But with the conquests of Alexander, a change took place:  Greek culture was spread far and wide, becoming particularly entrenched in Asia minor, Syria, and North Africa, and “Greek” became applicable to any people who had embraced Greek culture.  They had become “hellenized.”2  The Greeks, by their advanced and attractive culture, and the Romans, by their organizational abilities and almost irresistible imperialism, had together virtually taken over the known world by the time of Christ.  Just how much, and in what ways, their influence affected first century Palestinian culture and thought — and, therefore, the Biblical documents — is still much under debate.  We must, in many cases, wait for the enlightenment of further research and discoveries.


Latin, of course, was the official language of Rome.  In the early Empire, it was generally expected of every citizen, whether born in Rome itself were born in the farthest province, or granted citizenship as an adult, to learn to speak Latin.  The emperor Claudius is recorded to have once retracted the citizenship of a certain provincial who was found to have neglected to learn the state language.3

However, during this same period, and continuing until about the third century, the major language in the eastern half of the Empire was Greek.  The major reasons for this are discussed in an expert source:

And the Greeks were a very aggressive people, and early learned seafaring from the Phoenicians, and vied with the latter in the extent of maritime activities.  As a result Greek colonies were planted on nearly all the shores of the Mediterranean.  One of the strongest of these colonies was on the eastern coast of Italy, not far from the center of the Latin world.

The mingling of representatives from all the Greek tribes in Alexander’s army matured the development of a common Greek, and the wide introduction of Greek culture under his direction distributed the common tongue throughout the Macedonian empire.  When Rome conquered this Hellenized territory, she in turn was Hellenized, and thereby the civilized world adopted Koine Greek.4

This describes, in simplified terms, the complex situation by which Greek became the lingua franca of the Eastern EmpireIn the third century B.C., the Jews of Alexandria in Egypt thought it necessary to translate the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, and thus the Septuagint.  The official seal of Caesar Augustus himself was inscribed in Greek.5  Then, when the apostles and the first century Christian historians wrote what we know as the New Testament, it was distributed in Greek.

An argument rages concerning the idiom expressed in the Greek of the New Testament:  do the thoughts expressed in Greek describe Hebrew/Aramaic thought with its origins in the traditions of antiquity, or are the thoughts corrupted and paganized by Græco-Roman idiom?  The fact is, there is sound evidence of both.  Some ideas have been traced rather conclusively to Semitic thought, others to Western.  As one might imagine, the correct interpretation of many New Testament passages depends greatly upon this question.  Many such passages remain clouded.  It bears upon us to continue our research for the discovery of the truth of Scripture.


Along with the proliferation of the Greek tongue in much of the Empire, the Romans also adopted many aspects of Greek culture.  Greek artistry reigned supreme.  The Romans accepted the Greek pantheon of gods, and gave them Latin names.  Roman leaders became enamored with Greek philosophy:  the great politician and philosopher or Cicero (106-43 B.C.) spent some time translating the writings of Plato into Latin.

Perhaps of even more consequence was the Greek influence upon the Roman educational system.  In ancient times, the people of Rome were very family-oriented.  Small children were traditionally taught at their mother’s knee, and older children were taught by their father.  In this family setting, each new generation learned from the former the high moral values of ancient Rome.

However, with their infatuation with Greek ways, prosperous Romans began to follow the fashionable Greek practice.  They employed a Greek slave or freedman in the capacity of pedagogue, a type of tutor.  The pedagogue served to take the children off their parent’s hands, escorting them to a Greek school, where they read the Greek classics, and were taught Greek grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic by a Greek teacher.  The children of Rome began to be more under the influence of these Greeks than of their own parents — and the Greeks were not known for their moral fiber.6

Because of the cultural and lingual blending heretofore described, the cultural effect of the Greeks and the Romans can in many ways be seen as one.

Certainly, it must be said that such Græco-Roman influences were not received in Palestine, and in Judea especially, with the open arms they had met with elsewhere.  After the death of Alexander (323 B.C.), his empire had been divided among his generals.  From these rulers came the Seleucid kings of Syria, and the Ptolemies in Egypt.  Beginning in the third century B.C., when Philopater ruled in Egypt and Antiochus III in Syria, the two powers began to vie for that land which lay in-between.  Repeatedly, the armies of both kingdoms invaded Palestine.

In the second century B.C., Antiochus IV, called Epiphanes, decided to force the hellenization of Judea, to the point of depriving them of their religion.  Antiochus authorized the building of a gymnasium in the heart of Jerusalem, where young Jewish men were encouraged in practices contrary to the Law.7  He took over the Temple, dedicated it to Zeus, and polluted it with ceremonial prostitutes and unlawful practices.  He placed a ban up on the right of circumcision, upon penalty of death.8  A rebellion of the Jews began with Mattathias and his sons, who came to be called the Maccabees.

Stubbornly, the Jews seem to have maintained their religion and traditional way of life throughout the New Testament period, to a great extent — but there were still avenues by which Græco-Roman influences crept in:  there were those of the Jewish aristocracy (the germ of the sect of the Sadducees) who were in its favor.9  For instance, the idea of building the gymnasium in Jerusalem actually originated with Jason, the high priest.10  Later, when Herod the Great was king, he catered to the Romans by building the Roman-style city of Caesarea, as well as a temple to Augustus Caesar in Samaria.  Herod renamed the fortress adjacent to the Temple Antonia, after Mark Antony.11

In 63 B.C., Pompey the Great, soon to become a member of the Roman Triumvirate, besieged and captured Jerusalem, leveling its wall.  Judea was forced to pay tribute, and fell under Roman domination.12  Later, Judea (A.D. 6) and Galilee (A.D. 44) became actual Roman provinces, with Roman governors and military personnel.  Then, with the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, Israel as a nation ceased to exist.  The Jews became a people without a country.

The extent of Greek and Roman influence is evident in the history of many New Testament cities.  Tyre and Sidon, originally Phoenician, were hellenized after the Alexandrian conquests.  (The Stoic philosopher Apollonius was from Tyre.)13  Due to Seleucid rule, much of the territory of Palestine was arranged in “toparchies,” based upon the Greek city state, in which isolated cities control their surrounding territories.  Bethsaida, Caesarea Philippi, and Jamnia (in Judea) were known to have been toparchical capitals.14  Philip the Tetrarch rebuilt Panias as a Greek city, renaming its Caesarea Philippi (after Caesar Augustus).  Likewise, Herod Antipas built Tiberius on the Sea of Galilee, naming it after Tiberius Caesar.15  The cities of the Decapolis (“ten cities”) which included Damascus, Gadara, Gerasa, and Philadelphia, were populated by Greek colonists about 200 B.C.16

As an aside, it should be noted that Egypt, to which Joseph and Mary fled with the infant Jesus, had been largely hellenized as well.  A large Greek-speaking Jewish population resided there.  Egypt was incorporated into the Empire in 30 B.C., after the defeat of Antony and Cleopatra.17

The Roman Army

The Roman army in Judea consisted, Sherwin-White insists, not of Roman legionnaires (of actual Roman extraction), but of provincial auxiliary troops.18  It stands to reason that there were not enough men in the city of Rome itself to keep the world in check.  It was Roman practice to recruit provincials from its ranks and secure provinces.  Still, it is unlikely that they would have used native Jewish soldiery in such a headstrong nation in such a recent acquisition as Judea.  The common troops in Judea, therefore, were probably neither Roman nor Jewish.

The argument against Jewish soldiery is supported by the fact that the province of Judea was governed by a procurator rather than a proconsul.  A proconsul was used only in secure provinces, which did not require a standing army, and were administered by the Roman Senate.  Proconsuls which are mentioned in the New Testament are Sergius Paulus, governor of Cyprus (Acts 13:7), and Junius Gallio, governor of Achaia (Acts 18:12).

A procurator, on the other hand, had military powers, and was placed over troublesome provinces.  Procurators mentioned are, in addition to Pontius Pilatus, Antonius Felix (Acts 23:24 ff.) and Porcius Festus (Acts 24:27 ff.).  The procurators of the Middle East were all subject to the imperial legate (Latin propraetor) of Syria.

Galilee, as mentioned before, did not become a Roman province until A.D. 44, with the death of Herod Agrippa I.  Therefore, Sherwin-White maintains, the centurion in Capernaum (Matthew 8: 5-13, Luke 7:1-10), obviously not a Jew, was not a Roman soldier — although Roman terminology is used.  Likewise, the executioner (Latin speculator, also rendered “bodyguard”) of Herod Antipas, who decapitated John the Baptist (Mark 6:21, 27), was not Roman.  Perhaps these men were Galilean Gentiles, or — more likely — foreign mercenaries.20

The offices of the Roman army were, in order of ascending rank:  centurion, tribune (tribunus militum), and prefect (or legate, if the troops were Roman legionnaires).21  Up to the reign of Claudius (A.D. 41-54), provincial centurions were commonly non-Roman, and it was possible for one to be promoted to higher rank.22  One commentator suggests that Claudius Lysias, the Tribune who rescued Paul in the Temple (Acts 21:31, 22:24, 23:10) was such a promoted provincial, who had been “enfranchised” (made a citizen by decree) by Claudius.  It was standard practice for an enfranchised citizen to precede his own single name with the name of the emperor who had granted his citizenship.  The same commentator further maintains that the “great sum” with which Lysias had purchased his citizenship was not a paid price, but rather of bribe made to the administrators in charge of the nomination process.23  Antonius Felix, procurator of Judea (A.D. 52-59), is known to have been a freedman (ex-slave, or son of a freedman), and may have been promoted in similar fashion.24  However, subsequent to Claudius, it developed that the officers of the provincial auxiliaries were no longer promoted from the ranks, but were commissioned from the Roman legions.  From Tribune up, officers were of Equestrian status, ranking as knights.  Late in the Empire, officers were appointed from the aristocracy.25

Roman Citizenship

“I appeal unto Caesar,” cried Paul.  The great Apostle was calling into action his rights under law as a citizen of Rome.  A total of three instances are recorded in the Acts in which Paul invoked his rights:  having been mistreated and jailed at Philippi (perfectly legal treatment in the case of a non-Roman), Paul and Silas announced their citizenship, lest they be unceremoniously banished as common malefactors, and their ministry discredited (16:37).  Again, Paul asserted his rights as he was about to be beaten by the Romans in Jerusalem (22:25).  Finally, he appealed for trial before Caesar in Rome (25:11, 26:32, 28:19).

In order to understand the ramifications of Roman citizenship, one must first comprehend the evolving nature of the Empire itself.  As the Empire grew in territory, as it incorporated other peoples, cultures, and civilizations, as its ideologies changed and its morals declined, so did its laws change.

At the beginning, of course, only men of the city of Rome itself held the rights of Romans.  As Rome grew into an empire, the Roman army began to recruit provincials to fill its ranks in foreign lands.  In time, these auxiliary forces outnumbered the Roman legions.26  Citizenship began to be granted as a reward for services rendered, especially to army officers.  At its height, citizenship ensured certain privileges, such as freedom from municipal taxes in the provinces, immunity to certain punishments and indignities, and appeal to Caesar in capital cases.  But as the Empire wanes, so did the value of Roman status.  In the third century A.D., the Constitutio Antoniniana declared all residents of the Empire, with the exception of slaves, to be Romans.27  This shows the effective obsolescence of special citizenship status by this time.

Of course, even after the Constitutio Antoniniana, a privileged class still remained.  While in the early Empire the social castes of free men consisted of cives romani (Roman citizens) and peregrini (non-citizen provincials) — with the ruling class of royalty, officials, and equestrians ranking yet higher — in the late Empire that classes consisted of honestiores or curiales (aristocrats) and humiliores (“the masses”).  Above the honestiores ranked the influential potentes.28

Paul held citizenship of both Rome and Tarsus.  During the Roman Republic (before the Caesars), it was impossible to hold such a dual citizenship.29  Some scholars have doubted whether the Acts record is accurate on this point.  However, Pliny mentions one Claudius Aristion, who held dual citizenship in A.D. 106, proving the existence of such a status during roughly the same period.30

A striking difference between the citizen and the provincial can then be seen when it comes to capital jurisdiction.  Before Judea became a province of Rome, the Sanhedrin held the power to administer the death penalty.  The Romans preempted this right, except for, perhaps, the execution of profaners of the Temple.31  Otherwise, only the procurator held capital powers:  therefore, the Jews brought Jesus to Pilate for judgment.  Pilate sent Jesus to Herod Antipas, who was visiting in Jerusalem, since Jesus was a Galilean.  This may have been a mere act of courtesy, or a matter of legality:  since Herod ruled Galilee, he had the right to judge Jesus, if he so chose.  It is also quite possible that Pilate merely would have preferred to avoid the matter.32

But if the Sanhedrin held no capital powers, how then could they execute Stephen shortly thereafter?  For one thing, this incident might have taken place after Pilate was recalled to Rome, and no replacement had arrived.  Also, the Jewish leaders showed a propensity for doing whatever they felt they could get away with.  Stephen’s murder could easily be termed a “lynching.”33  In fact, in killing Stephen without a trial, the Sanhedrin violated their own statutes.

Jesus and Stephen, of course, were provincials, not Roman citizens.  Paul, on the other hand, could not be sentenced for a capital offense, even by the procurator.  He had the right to be tried before Caesar himself, and not even Caesar’s highest officer could handle the matter for him.  Hence, Paul was escorted under guard — not in chains — to Rome.  Because of this and other peculiar circumstances, Paul was able to continue his ministry for at least two years in Rome itself, the heart and soul of the Empire.


The use of Greek currency in Palestine probably coincided with the infiltration of Greek language and culture after Alexander the Great, reaching its height during the Seleucid domination.  Judea and Galilee, after all, were sandwiched between the Greek cities of Alexandria in Egypt and Syrian Antioch, the largest in the world except for Rome.  Greek settlements dotted Galilee, Syria, and the Decapolis.  From Antioch, caravans branched out into the surrounding area.

Roman money was introduced later, when Pompey the Great conquered Jerusalem in 63 B.C.34  The Jews continued to produce their own currency, but Greek and Roman coinage were quite common from that time on.

Herod the Great (37-4 B.C.) was the first Jewish ruler to use Greek, rather than Hebrew, inscriptions on coins.  Herod Philip (4 B.C.-A.D. 34), king of Iturea and Trachonitus during the life of Christ, was the first to use pagan symbols on coinage, while his brothers evidently feared the Jews’ displeasure.  Later Herodian coins became unabashedly pagan.35

The Roman procurator’s also tried not to offend the Jews with pagan symbols, including facial representations, until the governorship of Pontius Pilate.  Roman coins in Palestine were minted locally, but nevertheless bore the name of Caesar and not the procurator.36  A number of Græco-Roman coins are mentioned in the Gospel:  the denarius was the “tribute money” mentioned in Matthew 22:19.37  No doubt it was hated by the Jews, not only for the tax it represented, but for the image of Caesar stamped on one side.  To the Jews this was a “graven image.”

The drachma of Luke 15:8 was of Greek origin, as was the didrachma of Matthew 17:24-27.  The tetradrachma (stater), which originated in Antioch (the former capital of the Seleucid kings), was equal to the Israeli shekel.  It is mentioned in Matthew 17:27.  The tax money was one didrachma — the tetradrachma was equal to two, enough for both Peter and Jesus.  Other coins were the lepton (the “mite” in Mark 12:42), the quadrans (the “farthing” in Mark 12:42), and the assarion of Matthew 10:29.38

Other Influences

Many other effects of the Græco-Roman culture and language are evident in first century Palestine, too many to list here.  Actually, it is quite possible that the use of the Greek tongue, in particular, was more widespread than previously thought.

In Nazareth, where Jesus Christ grew up, a stone was found which bears an edict of Caesar (probably Claudius), warning of capital punishment for grave robbing.39  The very fact that it is written in Greek presupposes that Nazarenes could read it.  An inscription on a gate of the Temple warned, in Greek, that no Gentiles were to enter the inner courts, upon pain of death.40  And, of course, the superscription on the cross of Jesus label him as “King of the Jews” in Greek and Latin, as well as Hebrew (Luke 23:38).


Now, perhaps, the “would-be interpreter of the Bible” mentioned earlier has had his mind intrigued, his heart inspired, and some of the blanks filled in by the information presented here.  This information is, technically speaking, “extra-Biblical” — yet the value of knowing a variety of facts and figures which surround the New Testament record can scarcely be estimated.  Ignorance of the concrete facts behind the Gospel is the worst enemy of true interpretation.  There has been much misinformation disseminated by those who have misunderstood the historical context of important passages.  If the earnest student of the Bible can but picture in his mind the exact situation in which words were spoken and acts committed, it will profit him much toward the cause of Christ, as well as his own personal life.


  1. P. G. W. Glare, ed. Oxford Latin Dictionary (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), p. 770.
  2. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Gerhard Kittel, ed., translated and edited by Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1964), p. 504-16.
  3. Cassius Dio Historiae 60.17.4., cited in A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1963).
  4. H. E. Dana and Julius R. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament (New York: Macmillan, 1927; rpt. ed., Macmillan, 1955), pp. 7, 8.
  5. Dana and Mantey, p. 8.
  6. Kenneth O. Gangel and Warren S. Benson, Christian Education: Its History and Philosophy (Chicago: Moody Press, 1983), pp. 51-60.
  7. II Maccabees 4:7-17.
  8. II Maccabees 6:1-11.
  9. William Menzies, Understanding the Times of Christ (Springfield, Mo.: Gospel Publishing House, 1969), pp. 14-15.
  10. II Maccabees 4:7-9.
  11. Merrill C. Tenney, New Testament Times (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1965), pp. 59, 61.
  12. Tenney, pp. 51-52.
  13. H. Wayne House, Chronological and Background Charts of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981), p. 59.
  14. A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1963), pp. 127-31.
  15. Menzies, pp. 23-24.
  16. House, p. 59.
  17. House, p. 49.
  18. Sherwin-White, p. 160.
  19.  “Procurator,” “Proconsul,” in New Bible Dictionary, ed. J. D. Douglas (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962), p. 1036.
  20. Sherwin-White, pp. 123-24.  Cf. Oxford Latin, p. 1802.
  21. Sherwin-White, p. 124.  Cf. House, p. 56.
  22. Sherwin-White, p. 155.
  23. Sherwin-White, pp. 153-62.
  24. NBD, p. 1036.
  25. Sherwin-White, pp. 154-55.
  26. Sherwin-White, p. 160.
  27. Sherwin-White, pp. 10, 69, 180.
  28. Sherwin-White, pp. 69-70, 108, 139, 173-74.
  29. Sherwin-White, pp. 181-82.
  30. Pliny Epistulae 6.31.3., cited in Sherwin-White, p. 182.
  31. Menzies, pp. 58-59.  Sherwin-White, pp. 38, 41-42.
  32. Sherwin-White, p. 31.
  33. Sherwin-White, pp. 38-43.
  34. J. A. Thompson, The Bible and Archaeology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962), p. 306.
  35. Thompson, p. 309.
  36. Thompson, p. 310.
  37. Stephen L. Caiger, Archaeology and the New Testament (London: Cassell and Co., 1939), pp. 146-47.
  38. Caiger, pp. 147-48.
  39. Tenney, pp. 221-22.
  40. See Tenney, p. 73.

© 2011 Paul A. Hughes.   Originally submitted to Dr. Raymond Levang, in partial fulfillment of the requirements in BNT 532, “Background of the New Testament,”  The Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, April 18, 1985.

Written by biblequestion

May 25, 2011 at 3:57 AM

The Illegal Alien Express

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Map of US Government Plan for High-Speed Rail

US Government Plan for High-Speed Rail

Yesterday, news outlets in Texas began to announce a new $5.6 Million grant toward the development of high-speed rail from McAllen, Texas, to Oklahoma City, OK (many outlets keep the McAllen point of origin quiet), noting that the plan has been in the works for 30 years without one mile of track having been laid.


The new funding, it seems, is part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), i.e., the failed 2009 Stimulus Bill.  In short, this is deficit spending, money we do not have, being fed into a program that big-government entities or special interests want.

The unspoken question is, who in Texas or Oklahoma even wants this?  What could be the purpose of a passenger rail line to and from the deep Texas border other than to enable Mexican workers, legal or illegal, not to mention drug smugglers and criminals like the infamous Rafael Resendez-Ramirez, a quicker, easier route into Texas and the Midwest?  High-speed rail is for passengers, not freight.

I have in the past joked that if Northern Yankees like illegal aliens so much, Texas should set up a special bus line to ship them directly across the state toward the Northeast.  I do not think that most Texans, however, are so ungenerous even to the rival Sooners as to pass the problem on to them.

© 2010 Paul A. Hughes

Written by biblequestion

October 30, 2010 at 9:10 PM

The Beverly Hills Solution

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The Left Might Have Already Given Us the Answer
to the Immigration Problem, without Realizing It

I watched this movie on television years ago; at that time, in a fit of inspiration I beheld the all-too-obvious but overlooked answer to the Homeless Problem. In the news around that time,  Barbra Streisand and other fabulously wealthy celebrities were speaking out on the plight of the Homeless. (But just speaking out.)

The 1986 movie stars well-known Liberals Richard Dreyfuss, Bette Midler, and Nick Nolte. Dreyfuss and Midler play a wealthy Beverly Hills couple. One day, disconsolate bum Nolte jumps into their swimming pool hoping to drown himself. Dreyfuss, a psychologist, rescues him and makes him his special project. Nolte becomes part of the family; 103 minutes of purported hilarity ensues. Meanwhile, Nolte sleeps with the Doc’s wife, daughter, and maid.

I foresee that herein lies the magic answer to homelessness. Wealthy Liberals should each take in as many poor, down-and-out people as they can afford, and their homes can accommodate. Since they are wealthy, they can each afford to buy more land, build more living quarters, and feed more hungry people. If enough wealthy liberals cooperate in this venture, problem solved — and no pesky raising of taxes burdensome to the hard-working middle class.

It is, after all, their civic and moral duty.

This solution, I assert, can also be applied to the problem of Illegal Immigration. Why not expect our wealthy Liberals to build not just homes but whole communities in Mexico and the other impoverished countries from which the illegals come? American dollars would go much farther in those countries. More than house and feed the poor, Liberals could set up shops, even communal factories and farms at which the poor could work:   in short, here is the perfect opportunity for the Elite Left to put their Socialistic idealism into practice (while leaving the rest of us alone).

Add to the mix all those rich Mexicans & other Latin Americans who live comfortably behind high walls topped with shards of broken glass to keep out their less fortunate compadres.

The solution seems so obvious. I wonder how Hollywood missed it?

© 2010 Paul A. Hughes

Written by biblequestion

June 16, 2010 at 5:37 AM

Politics and Religious Liberty in 17th-Century England

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A Practical Discourse Concerning Death Covers

Front & Back Covers, A Practical Discourse Concerning Death

The Case of William Sherlock

By Paul A. Hughes

The following was originally written as an historical introduction to a new edition of the once popular but now nearly forgotten theological work, A Practical Discourse Concerning Death (1690) by Dr. William Sherlock.  The volume, in hardcover, is also available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other online bookstores.  A paperback version has been made available, as well, from a single source.  The front cover features a portrait of John Donne (1572-1631) in his funeral shroud, which he commissioned before his death to remind him of his mortality.

William Sherlock was born in Southwark, a borough of London on the southern bank of the Thames, around 1641.  He was schooled at Eton and then Saint Peter’s College at Cambridge,[1] where he earned his bachelor’s degree in 1660 and his master’s degree three years later.  In 1669 he became rector of St. George’s Church in Botolph Lane, then was elevated to Master of the Temple (1685) and finally Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral (1691).  In spite of becoming involved in several well-known controversies, Sherlock was considered one of the most popular theological writers of the century.

The 17th Century was a watershed in English history, which saw the evolution of parliamentary government and new restrictions on the monarchy; the foundations of union with Scotland and Ireland; and the development of the principles of free speech, press, religion, the right to bear arms, the right to due process, and freedom from the billeting of troops which were later written into the Bill of Rights of the United States Constitution.  Events of the century also influenced development of the presumption of “inalienable rights” later expressed in the U.S. Declaration of Independence.

The Tudors

The changes of the 17th Century were rooted in the Tudor reign.  Prior to Henry VII, Parliament served at the behest of the king in an advisory rôle, meeting only for short periods, and disbanded at the king’s will.  Henry expanded this rôle, using Parliament to create favorable legislation.  For instance, he had Parliament pass a law stating that it was not treason to obey a de facto ruler (which he was).  This approach was used to even more advantage by his son.  Henry VIII broke with the Roman Church for personal as well as political reasons, notably to secure the right to divorce.  In calling the Reformation Parliament of 1529, following the failure of Cardinal Wolsey to win his release from Catharine of Aragon,[2] the king sought legislative support from Parliament for his takeover of the English Church.  Through the Act of Supremacy, Henry had himself declared Supreme Head of the Church of England.

Thomas More, Archbishop of Canterbury, along with Cardinal Fisher, were beheaded for opposing control of the Church by the State and refusing to acknowledge Henry’s right.  In 1536, the leaders of the Pilgrimage of Grace, protesting dissolution of the monasteries, were treacherously executed at the king’s order.

Henry and Thomas Cranmer, the new Archbishop, proceeded to create a new English Church.  The Ten Articles (1536) made Baptism, penance, and the Eucharist essential to salvation.  The so-called Bishop’s Book (1537) declared the statement of faith for the Church; and in 1539, the Six Articles mandated adherence to the Established Church.  When new English Bible translations such as Coverdale’s (1535) and Cranmer’s (1540) ignited public interest, however, Henry complained to Parliament that the Bible was being “disputed, rhymed, sung, and jangled in every alehouse and tavern.”[3]

With the death of Henry, nine-year-old Edward VI, son of Henry with Jane Seymour, assumed the throne.  Under the influence of his uncle, Somerset, government moved toward religious toleration.  Parliament repealed the Six Articles, along with various treason and heresy laws passed under Henry.

When Somerset was replaced by Northumberland, however, anti-Catholic activity resumed.  Cranmer designed a new communion service that denied Transubstantiation,[4] and issued a new Book of Common Prayer to which, in the First Act of Uniformity (1549) all clergy must conform.  Altars were removed from churches due to their association with Roman Catholicism.  1552 saw a Second Act of Uniformity and yet another Book of Common Prayer.  In his Forty-Two Articles (1553), Cranmer spelled out the official doctrine of the Church.

That year, Mary I, daughter of Henry and Catherine of Aragon, assumed the throne and attempted to re-establish the Catholic Church, with compulsory attendance to mass and enforcement of heresy laws.  Nearly three hundred Protestant “Dissenters” were burned at the stake during the reign of “Bloody Mary,” including Archbishop Cranmer, Bishop Nicholas Ridley, and scholarly reformer Hugh Latimer.  At his burning, Latimer said to Ridley, “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.”

Cranmer, suffering two years in prison, recanted Protestantism, yet in the end publicly denounced the Pope.  At his execution, he held his “unworthy right hand,” which had signed the recantation, in the flames.  Many Protestants fled to the Netherlands and other regions to escape persecution.

Taking the throne in 1558, Elizabeth I again broke with Rome, but was named “Supreme Governor of the Church” rather than “Supreme Head,” to avoid offending Catholics because she was a woman.  Her Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity established the Ecclesiastical Commission, later called the Court of High Commission.  Under these acts, all clergy and officials were required to take the specified Oaths of Allegiance; those who did not conform were subject to a charge of treason.  Soon this requirement was extended to teachers, university graduates, lawyers, and Members of Parliament.  Clergy who dissented from this requirement were estimated at the time to number 177.[5]

Like her father, Elizabeth continued to keep Parliament on a short leash, insisting that members had no right to discuss any matter not on the royal agenda.

In 1563, the Convocations—assemblies of the higher clergy, with representatives from the lower clergy, in Canterbury and York, respectively—adopted the Thirty-Nine Articles, a revision of Cranmer’s original Forty-Two.  Some articles that were offensive to Puritans were pushed by Elizabeth against the wishes of Parliament.  Elizabeth further denied Parliament the latitude to legitimate Calvinism; religion, she asserted, was the province of Church and Crown, not Parliament.  For criticizing her policies, Peter Wentworth was detained in the Tower of London for a month.  Peter’s brother Paul, in combination with Sir Anthony Cope, attempted to debate replacing the Book of Common Prayer with the Geneva Prayer Book and Discipline.  They were both condemned to the Tower, where Paul Wentworth died.

After Elizabeth was excommunicated in 1570, the often lax enforcement of the religious code tightened.  Failure to attend Anglican services was punishable by a £20 fine.  Beginning in 1593, offenders were prohibited from traveling more than five miles from home.  Two hundred people were executed for treason during Elizabeth’s reign, and four were burned for heresy.

Meanwhile, the Court of High Commission instituted a sort of Inquisition, administering the Oath to anyone suspected of disloyalty, and probing for heresy, absenteeism, etc.  Later, under Charles I, the High Commission would be used to drive nonconforming clergy, especially Puritans, from their offices.

Puritans began to hold conventicles, secret religious meetings, according to their own faith, outside the Established Church.  Attending conventicles was made punishable by death.  “Adherence to the Church” came to be considered “a test of loyalty to the state.”[6] In 1599, “Martin Marprelate” (pen name of an anonymous author) attacked Anglican bishops in a widely-circulated series of pamphlets, precipitating an anti-Puritan reaction.

The Stuarts

Elizabeth designated James VI of Scotland, son of her cousin Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, heir to her throne.  After Elizabeth died in 1603, Robert Cecil arranged his accession as King James I of England.  The English Parliament should have expected trouble, for James had long dealt firmly with the Scottish Parliament, as did he with Presbyterians and Calvinists.  He had recently published True Law of Free Monarchies, in which he asserted, though the phrase was not yet coined, the Divine Right of Kings.  It did not bode well that while coming from Edinburgh, arriving at the town of Newark, he happened upon a thief who had just been caught, and ordered his summary execution.[7]

Meanwhile, a group of Puritans assembled the so-called Millenary Petition—claiming the support of a thousand clergy—asking for church reforms.  James instead arranged a debate at Hampton Court the next January, during which he also approved the production of a new Bible, hence the King James Version.  After several days, however, when James perceived a Presbyterian (in his word, “Scotch”) church structure being proposed, he stormed out of the room, declaring, “If this be all that they have to say, I shall make them conform themselves, or I will harry them out of the land, or else the worse,” thus ending the conference.[8]

In 1605, a group of Jesuits conspired to blow up the king and Parliament together at once, loading the cellar of the meeting house with casks of gunpowder.  The plot was leaked and one Guy Fawkes captured, who under torture revealed all he knew about the conspiracy.  The conspirators who were not killed resisting arrest were executed.

James had initiated an adversarial relationship with Parliament, which continued throughout his reign.  He had dictated to the Scottish Parliament, and he intended to do the same in England.  He scolded members of Parliament like disobedient children, which the members deeply resented.  James needed the legislative branch to raise taxes in order to meet his expenses, both Court and private, but Parliament was called just eight times in more than twenty years.  From 1614, the year of the “Addled Parliament,” so called on account of intransigence on the part of both king and Commons, there was no session at all for seven years.

The Stuarts were not known for intensive burning of heretics, but there was active religious persecution and political repression.  James persecuted religions other than strict Anglican, expelling Catholic priests and levying heavy fines for non-attendance to Anglican worship.  He reaffirmed the 39 Articles and Act of Uniformity, depriving two hundred clergy of their office.  In 1615, a clergyman named Peacham was examined by the Court of High Commission.  In his home were found notes to a sermon of Puritan sentiments which, though never delivered, was nevertheless deemed treasonous.  Moreover, when Spain demanded the head of Sir Walter Raleigh upon threat of war, James gave it to them.

Parliament itself was a battleground.  Sir Francis Bacon, one of its most famous members, was accused of corruption by the House of Commons and forced into retirement; and a Catholic known as Floyd was “fined, branded, pilloried, and imprisoned” for practicing free speech, even though Parliament had no legal right to discipline a non-member.[9]

James finally called a new session of Parliament in 1621.  To his chagrin, the Commons expressed their concern, respectfully, for the state of the country, foreign and domestic, the intended marriage of Prince Charles to Infanta Maria[10] in particular; and asked for his support of beleaguered Protestants on the Continent—for which he warned them of dire consequences of treading on his prerogative.  In what became know as the Great Protestation, the House of Commons proceeded to enter a formal protest against the king in their record, in which they asserted their right to free speech.  When James heard of this action, he sent for their book and tore the offending page from it.

James died in 1625, and Charles I began his reign intent on conducting a war with Spain, which then shifted to France.  He asked Parliament for a large endowment of money but would not disclose how it would be used.  Parliament refused to provide the funds if the king’s favorite, Buckingham, was in charge of it, by which they hoped to pressure the king to sack him.  Charles, angry that Parliament dared interfere with his choice of advisers, dismissed the session.  The new Stuart king was even less flexible than his father.

The next Parliament impeached Buckingham and was quickly dismissed, as well.  The third Parliament, in 1628, was concerned about successive military failures attributed to Buckingham, and even more with martial law, oppressive taxes, and the billeting of soldiers[11] precipitated by ill-conceived military excursions.  Parliament passed the Petition of Right, which Charles was compelled to sign, thereby acknowledging that his subjects had rights.

As Puritanism grew in the country, so did their power in the House of Commons, and disputes with Charles soon came to a head.  In 1629, the king, having prorogued Parliament for several weeks, i.e., ordered a hiatus, sent an order for a second prorogation.  As the Speaker, Sir John Finch, rose to announce the king’s proclamation, several members held him down in his chair until Sir John Eliot passed through several measures then in question.  Charles promptly dismissed Parliament for this defiance, and would not call it again for what became known as the Eleven Years Tyranny.  He consigned nine leaders of the House of Commons to the Tower for contempt (or according to some sources, “rioting”), including Eliot; where several remained after ten years, and Eliot died of tuberculosis.

Charles resolved to rule without Parliament, and used his High Courts to quash dissent.  A clergyman who did not precisely follow the prayer book might be hauled before the ecclesiastical Court of High Commission for discipline.  In 1630, the special court known as Star Chamber had a Scot named Leighton, who had criticized the bishops, flogged and his ears cut off.  William Prynne, a Puritan, was imprisoned, fined, pilloried, and his ears cut off for oblique comments taken as libel against the king and queen.  Likewise, John Lilburne, just 22 years old, arraigned before Star Chamber for illegally importing religious publications from the Netherlands, was flogged, pilloried, gagged, and imprisoned, all the while demanding his civil rights, earning him the popular nickname, “Freeborn John.”[12]

To raise money without Parliament, Charles broadened the application of certain fines and taxes.  Sir Charles Hampden, a Member of Parliament, refused on principle to pay a levy of twenty shillings.  He welcomed the “test case” which was tried in the Court of Exchequer in 1637; Hampden lost, but the vote of seven judges to five was so narrow that it handed the king a moral defeat.

The English Civil War actually began in Scotland, where Charles had himself crowned king in 1633.  He and his father had been gradually diluting Presbyterian power in Scotland by the appointment of bishops.  In 1637, he attempted to introduce a new prayer book:  when the Bishop of Edinburgh stood to read it at St. Giles Cathedral, an elderly woman threw a stool at him, and a riot ensued.  This event inspired the National Covenant, by which the vast majority of Scots swore to defend the Scots kirk.  Charles gathered a hasty army to invade Scotland but was readily defeated, and defeated again in 1640.  Desperate for money, Charles called the Short Parliament (so called because he dissolved it after three weeks) and finally the Long Parliament[13] later that same year.

Seizing the initiative, Parliament abolished the special High Courts and stripped the Privy Council of most of its power.  They executed the king’s adviser, Strafford, for high treason; and remanded Archbishop Laud, Charles’ ecclesiastical adviser, to the Tower, where he was executed in 1645.  Among other measures, the Commons appealed to the public in a document called the Grand Remonstrance, a list of grievances—plus a list of proposals—not unlike the future American Declaration of Independence.  Charles responded by personally leading five hundred troops to the Commons to arrest five of their leaders:  Pym, Hampden, Hazlerigg, Holles, and Strode, who had been forewarned and fled.  Soon the king thought it prudent to retreat north to Yorkshire; and the queen absconded with the Crown Jewels to her native France.

The Civil War began in earnest in 1642.  The Royal Navy sided with Parliament, as did the Scots by alliance.  On the king’s side, his nephew Rupert, trained in Europe, proved an able general; but was eclipsed by the genius of Oliver Cromwell, erstwhile Member of Parliament with no previous military experience.  Cromwell defeated the Royalist army in the North at Marston Moor (1644), and (with Sir Thomas Fairfax) broke the king’s last remaining army at Naseby (1645).

Afterward, Pym and Hampden having died,[14] Parliament withheld pay from the army and hedged on religious toleration.  Taking advantage of this dissention, Charles renewed the war.  This time the Scots sided with the king.  Cromwell defeated first the Scots, then the balance of the king’s forces.  Charles was imprisoned and, at the insistence of the army, finally executed at Whitehall in 1649.  England was declared a Commonwealth.

The Protectorate

Parliament, having been purged of most of its members by force,[15] began to remake England into a Puritan state.  The Sabbath was enforced, adultery made a capital crime, and Christmas celebration discouraged.  The established church would be Puritan, diverse faiths tolerated, but Catholicism and Anglicanism suppressed.  Over the years, Parliament and Puritanism would become increasingly unpopular with the masses.  Moreover, Parliament was unpopular with the army, and the army was the real power in the land.

When the Long Parliament failed to dissolve itself, Cromwell acted, driving the members from the hall and locking the door.  A bard of the day wrote,

Brave Oliver came to the House like a sprite,
His fiery face struck the Speaker dumb;
”Begone,” said he, “you have sate long enough,
Do you think to sit here till Doomsday come?”[16]

The Protectorate was formed via a document entitled, The Instrument of Government, the only written constitution in the history of England.  For sake of stability, Cromwell took the title Lord Protector, but refused kingship when it was offered two years later.

Cromwell ruled as a well-meaning and scrupulous dictator until his death in 1658.  His power passed to his son Richard who, insufficient for the task, abdicated in less than a year.  The army called for the reconvening of the Long Parliament which, concluding its business, finally dissolved itself.  The new Parliament of 1660 immediately called for restoration of the monarchy.

The Restoration

The younger Charles, age 30, was soon recalled from refuge in the Netherlands upon agreeable terms.  It was made clear on both sides that the new king would harbor neither illusions nor aspirations toward ruling without consent of Parliament.  There were, however, recriminations, as those who were deemed “regicides”[17] suffered the traditional fate of traitors:  to be “half-hung, drawn, and quartered.”  The body of Cromwell was dug out of Westminster Abbey, hanged, and ignominiously dumped into a pit to join the desecrated remains of Pym and various others.  The religious questions remained unsettled.

The “Cavalier Parliament” of 1661, said to be “more royalist than the king and more Anglican than the bishops,”[18] entered with a high hand.  Due to general animosity toward Puritans, and in spite of the new sects which had taken root during the Interregnum—Quakers, Baptists, Unitarians, etc.—the Anglican Church was re-established as the state religion.  Parliament passed the Corporation Act requiring an oath and conformation to Anglican worship of all local government officials.  A new Act of Uniformity was passed the next year, requiring all clergy and schoolmasters to recognize the established Book of Prayer.  About two thousand Dissenters resigned in protest.  The Conventicle Act of 1664 punished those who attended nonconforming worship, soon followed by the Five Mile Act prohibiting ousted ministers from approaching within that radius of their former places of ministry.  Together, these four laws became known as the Clarendon Code.

Charles II, sympathetic to Catholics, issued a Declaration of Indulgence, by which he proclaimed that the laws disenfranchising Dissenters would not be enforced.  In response, Parliament pressured Charles to withdraw his declaration and passed the Test Act of 1673 requiring all holders of public office to deny Transubstantiation and receive Communion under Anglican auspices.

Meanwhile, three great disasters were visited upon England in quick succession.  The Plague swept through the country in 1665, but was worst in crowded London, with disposal wagons plying the streets to the lament, “Bring out your dead!”  The next year, the Great Fire of London claimed the heart of the city, including St. Paul’s Cathedral.  Just as Christians had been accused of burning Nero’s Rome, rumors spread that the city had been set ablaze by Papists.  Finally, in 1667, Dutch ships sailed up the Thames and destroyed or captured much of the English fleet at Medway dockyard.  Many of the warships were unmanned and at anchor, having been de-funded by Parliament, which had withheld support of the king’s enterprises.  A popular cry was raised about that time, “No popery or wooden shoes!”[19]

As Louis XIV of France expanded his power, anti-Catholic feeling swelled.  In 1678, one Titus Oates revealed an alleged “Popish Plot” in which Louis would land an army in England, Charles would be assassinated, and his younger brother James, a known Catholic, would be crowned king.  Hysteria gripped London, and one entrepreneur began marketing a special “Protestant flail” with which men on the street might defend themselves against attack.  Parliament responded by proposing an Exclusion Bill designed to prevent James, the heir apparent, from acceding to the throne.  For once, Charles withstood Parliament and dissolved the session before the bill could pass—a measure which he was to repeat on subsequent occasions.  Soon, however, fear of renewed civil war and of Parliament, plus the failed Rye House assassination plot (1683), turned the tide of public opinion, and the inventor of the Protestant flail was among those executed for allegedly bearing arms against the king.

Titus Oates, convicted of sedition and perjury during the reign of James II, was pilloried, whipped through the streets, and sentenced to life imprisonment.  In 1688, he was pardoned by William and Mary.

In the meantime, William Sherlock, already a popular writer and preacher, published his treatise, “Discourse Concerning the Knowledge of Christ, and Union with Him” (1674), in which he objected to the Puritan tenet of mystical union with Christ.  Sherlock wished to assert the individual’s need to honor Christ’s covenant with believers by offering up due love and obedience.  “We must not,” he wrote, “dream of fetching life from the person of Christ as we draw water out of a fountain, but if we would live for ever with Christ we must stedfastly believe and obey His gospel.”   Moreover, he argued against Puritan John Owen’s “Satisfaction Theory” (that God required the sacrifice of Jesus for forgiveness of sins) and the Calvinistic doctrine of Election.   Rather, he insisted that “God hath sent His Son into the world to make a plain and easy and perfect revelation of His will, to publish such a religion as may approve itself to our reason and captivate our affections by its natural charms and beauties, and there cannot be a greater injury to the Christian religion than to render it obscure and unintelligible.”[20]

Sherlock’s treatise raised a storm of protest from other points of view.  The printing press facilitated widespread dissemination of printed materials, and publication of sectarian pamphlets had escalated dramatically.  As one commentator expressed it, “The printing press had permitted the spread of Protestantism, and it permitted the divisions of Protestantism.”[21]

Two replies to Sherlock are worthy of note.  Robert Fergusson, a Presbyterian, wrote the essay, “The Interest of Reason in Religion,” in which he accused Sherlock of Pelagianism and Socinianism.[22] A particularly virulent attack was that leveled by Robert South, an Anglican with a popular following and Calvinist sentiments.  South wrote defending Calvinism in general and the doctrine of Satisfaction in particular, holding its orthodoxy.  Sherlock’s treatise, on the other hand, he considered so “fraught with vile and scandalous reflections upon God’s justice with reference to Christ’s satisfaction that it might pass for a blasphemous libel on both.”[23] Dr. South, however, was in one estimation “more a rhetorician than a philosopher, more of a wit than a Divine,” more destructive than constructive, and more intent on winning than the Truth.[24]

As the king lay dying in 1685, a Catholic priest was brought by James to hear his confession and grant absolution.  An anti-Catholic element in Parliament had already approached James Scott, Duke of Monmouth, an illegitimate son of Charles but a Protestant, about taking the throne.  Monmouth raised a volunteer army of five thousand, many of them Dissenters of the common folk, but was defeated at Sedgemoor.  Prisoners were drawn and quartered, or hanged and tarred; and the Duke, when captured, was beheaded.

James afterwards became increasingly heavy-handed and intent upon imposing Roman Catholicism on the country, while those who had preached non-resistance to the monarch began to rethink their policy.  He reinstated the Court of High Commission, removed Henry Compton[25] from the bishopric of London, appointed Catholics as bishops and heads of colleges, and converted Magdalen College, Oxford, into a Catholic seminary.[26] John Sharp, Rector of St. Giles-in-the-Fields, who later became Archbishop of York, was suspended for expressing anti-Catholic sentiments.  Also among those disciplined for anti-Catholic rhetoric was William Sherlock, who in 1687 engaged in a public debate, via pamphlets, with Lewis Sabran, a Jesuit who was well-connected in the French court and royal chaplain to James.  Moreover, the king began to issue Declarations of Indulgence initially designed to foster Nonconformist support and, failing that, to undermine the Anglican Church.

In May 1688, James ordered that his second Declaration of Indulgence be read in every pulpit on a given Sunday.  Seven bishops, led by William Sancroft, Archbishop of Canterbury, and including Thomas Ken, John Lake, William Lloyd, Thomas White, Jonathan Trelawney, and Francis Turner, met at Lambeth to discuss a petition requesting withdrawal of the order.  When they presented the petition to James, who had been given by rumors to expect a different request, he replied, “This is a great surprise to me.  I did not expect this from your church; especially from some of you.  This is a standard of rebellion. . . .  God has given me the dispensing power and I will maintain it.”[27] The bishops were arrested on 8 June and held in the Tower pending trial.  Sherlock refused to read the Declaration,[28] which was estimated to have been read at two hundred churches, at most.[29] The Seven Bishops were acquitted by a jury on 30 June amid general celebration; while the king had suffered his first major defeat in court.  The papal nuncio wrote home, “the whole church espouses the cause of the bishops.  There is no reasonable expectation of a division among the Anglicans, and our hopes from the Nonconformists are vanished.”[30]

Public sentiment was turning against James.  He might have rejoiced at the birth of a male heir on 10 June by his Catholic wife, Mary of Modena; on the contrary, the birth helped seal his fate:  for surely, thought many, the child would be raised a Catholic and threaten the peace.  James Francis Edward Stuart would never rule England as James III.

The Revolution of 1688

Plans were already underway to invite William of Orange, husband of James’s eldest daughter, Mary, and chief defender of Protestantism in Europe, to take the throne.  As William’s army approached London, James lost both heart and support, and fled to France.

These events placed the Anglican Church in a dilemma.  Archbishop Sancroft and William Sherlock were of the High Church party which, in spite of the institutional damage of James’s policies to the Anglican Church, had continued to preach “non-resistance,” i.e., passive obedience, of subjects to the legitimate monarch.  In 1684, Sherlock had advocated non-resistance in his treatise, “The Case of Resistance of the Supreme Powers Stated and Resolved according to the Holy Scripture.”  It is generally presumed that in this and other such cases, Sherlock was acting as the pen for Sancroft and his party.[31]

As the Convention Parliament met to arrange the Revolution Settlement, Sancroft gathered with associates to devise how James might regain the throne, with qualifications; but the meeting broke up without agreement.  At the end of January, 1689, Sherlock wrote the “Letter to a Member of the Convention,” arguing against installing William as king, and lamenting, “The Dissenter is very busie to undermine the Church, and the Commonwealth Man to subvert the Monarchy, and the Lord have Mercy upon us all.”[32]

Parliament in the end determined that William and Mary were to rule jointly, with the executive power vested in William.  From this time forward, moreover, the monarch would be limited to governing constitutionally, according to laws passed by Parliament.  The Settlement added a Declaration of Rights, from which derive many principles later found in the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution, including the possession of arms; unfortunately, full rights initially were applied only to Protestants who conformed to the established Church.

Upon settlement of the accession, all clergy and public officials were required to take an Oath of Allegiance to William and Mary by 1 August 1689, or face suspension.  The Toleration Act of 1689 further required Nonconformists to agree to thirty-four of the Thirty-Nine Articles.  There were some exceptions made for Baptists and Quakers, but not for Catholics and Unitarians.[33] William moreover decreed that no “preacher whatsoever, in his sermon or lecture, should presume to deliver any other doctrine concerning the Trinity than that defined in the Creeds and Articles.”[34]

Eight bishops, led by Sancroft, and including Ken, Lake, Lloyd, White, and Turner, as before, and adding Robert Frampton and William Thomas, refused to take the oaths.  In all, about four hundred clergy, including Sherlock, refused to swear allegiance.  These became known as the “Non-jurors” or “Non-swearers.”  The bishops amongst them were all put out of their seats; Turner was implicated with William Penn and other well-known personages in a conspiracy to reinstate James; and Sancroft, who afterward became an increasingly bitter old man, was replaced by John Tillotson.

Sherlock was likewise suspended as Master of the Temple.  During this period of enforced reflection, being uncertain whether he would ever resume his clerical duties, he applied himself to writing his Practical Discourse Concerning Death.  This was to become his most popular work, and to continue in print for more than a century.

The Controversies

During this retirement, Sherlock committed himself to study, as well, on the question at hand:  the duties of the clergy toward sovereigns.  In his earlier treatise, “The Case of Resistance,” he declared that “all power is of God”; his only scruple on the accession William and Mary had been the question of legitimacy.  In 1690, he read the Convocation Book written but never published by John Overall, Bishop of Norwich, in 1606, in support of the accession of James Stuart; which justified recognizing his government as “settled” and had been endorsed by the convocations of Canterbury and York.  The book had lately been published by Sancroft with the intent of supporting James’s claim to the throne; but it had the opposite effect, particularly the statement overlooked by Sancroft that “the authority either so unjustly gotten, or wrung by force from the true and lawful possessor, being always God’s authority, is ever to be reverenced and obeyed.”[35] Sherlock had a change of opinion and recanted his refusal to swear allegiance.  The complex list of his reasons, real or imagined, is thus:

  1. His publicly stated reason, the influence of John Overall’s Convocation Book.[36]
  2. He was overheard to say that he deprecated schism.[37]
  3. His wife’s influence.[38]
  4. He wanted to preserve his position.[39]
  5. He wanted to wait to see who won, which was finally settled upon James’s defeat at Boyne, 1 July 1690.[40]

Therefore, in his treatise, “The Case of the Allegiance due to Sovereign Powers Stated and Resolved According to Scripture and Reason and the Principles of the Church of England,” which explained his reasons for recanting, Sherlock declared that the government having been “settled,” so was the question.  William was the de facto king:  ergo, his subjects owed their allegiance.[41] He went on to describe a fatalistic, almost Calvinistic view of God’s purposes.  Critics replied that neither the Convocations nor Overall’s book represented the position of the Church of England.[42] In a tract entitled, “Sherlock against Sherlock,” its author demonstrated contradictions to Sherlock’s prior statements under the Stuarts.  Samuel Johnson criticized Sherlock for taking so long to make up his mind, in “Remarks upon Dr. Sherlock’s Book, intituled, The Case of the Allegiance due to Sovereign Princes, stated and resolved, &c.”  Sherlock was called, in one treatise, “The Trimming Court Divine,” and the author of “Sherlockianus Delineatus” coined the rhyme, “He that recants against his will, / Is of the same opinion still.”[43]

“Numerous allusions to Sherlock and his wife,” writes historian Thomas Babington Macaulay, “will be found in the ribald writings of Tom Brown, Tom Durfey, and Ned Ward.”  He proceeds to record some of the popular verse inspired by Sherlock’s recantation:

When Eve the fruit had tasted,
She to her husband hasted,
And chuck’d him on the chin-a.
Dear Bud, quoth she, come taste this fruit;
‘Twill finely with your palate suit,
To eat it is no sin-a.

As moody Job, in shirtless ease,
With collyflowers all o’er his face,
Did on the dunghill languish,
His spouse thus whispers in his ear,
Swear, husband, as you love me, swear,
‘Twill ease you of your anguish.

At first he had doubt, and therefore did pray
That heaven would instruct him in the right way,
Whether Jemmy or William he ought to obey,
Which nobody can deny,

The pass at the Boyne determin’d that case;
And precept to Providence then did give place;
To change his opinion he thought no disgrace;
Which nobody can deny.

But this with the Scripture can never agree,
As by Hosea the eighth and the fourth you may see;
“They have set up kings, but yet not by me,”
Which nobody can deny.”[44]

As another historian summed up the aftermath,

A terrible storm assailed him after this.  Argument, satire, and abuse, sometimes, in vulgar prose, sometimes in doggerel rhyme, descended in torrents upon his devoted head.  Nonjurors reviled him on the one side, Revolutionists on the other; and people who did not care for either side joined in the old English cry against turncoats and time-servers.”[45]

Such attacks had apparently cultivated the habit in Sherlock, when not fighting back, of shrugging it off.  After taking the oaths, Sherlock resumed his post as Master of the Temple.  Presently, as Tillotson was elevated to Archbishop of Canterbury, vacating his previous position as Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, Sherlock was offered and accepted that position, as well.

During the same period, Sherlock took also a major rôle in the First Socinian (i.e., Unitarian) Controversy, which became the Trinitarian Controversy.  In 1687, Thomas Firmin had published “A Brief History of the Unitarians called also Socinians” by Stephen Nye, and other essays including “Brief Notes on the Athanasian Creed,” which in explicating the tenets of Unitarianism called into question the doctrine of the Trinity.  Sherlock replied with “A Vindication of the Holy and Ever Blessed Trinity and the Incarnation of the Son of God” (1690), in which he maintained the fact of the Trinity but denied human ability to understand it.  “I will not,” he wrote, “pretend to fathom such a mystery as this, but only to show that there is nothing absurd in it.”  The Trinity, he continued, is composed of three persons with “infinite minds.”  Sherlock defended the Athanasian Creed, declaring its orthodoxy and that it expressed the True Faith.[46]

Pamphlets began to fly off the presses from all directions.  Perhaps the bitterest attacks on Sherlock came from Robert South, his old nemesis.  In “Animadversions upon Dr. Sherlock’s book entitled ‘A Vindication of the Ever Blessed Trinity’” (1693, published anonymously), he challenged Sherlock’s reasoning.  Later, South accused Sherlock of teaching not the Trinity but Tritheism—“three Gods”—and convinced the heads of the colleges at Oxford to declare Sherlock a heretic.  Sherlock in reply deprecated the dubious Latin of the decree and questioned whether the “heads” were truly representative of Oxford; rather, “he would undertake, any day in the year, to procure a meeting of twice as many wise and learned men to censure their decree.”[47]

On a side note, John Wesley, seventy years later, being at some loss at how to handle his continuing debate with Bishop Warburton, apparently considered the Sherlock-South contest fair warning against meeting sarcasm with sarcasm:

I should never have suspected Dr. Sherlock of writing anything in a burlesque way.  He never aimed at it in his controversy with Dr. South, and seemed exceeding angry at his opponent for doing so. Probably he knew himself to be overmatched by the Doctor, and therefore did not care to engage him on his own ground.  ‘But why should you be angry,’ says Dr. South, ‘at wit?  It might have pleased God to make you a wit too.’

Wesley concluded,

I think the danger in writing to Bishop Warburton is rather that of saying too much than too little.  The least said is the soonest amended, and leaves an ill-natured critic the least to take hold of.  I have therefore endeavored to say as little upon each head as possible.[48]

John Locke and Jonathan Edwards were among the luminaries who weighed in on the controversy, which lasted till 1708.  Another writer suggested that Sherlock’s Trinity came from Descartes and South’s from Aristotle.[49] Sherlock and another opponent in the fray, Thomas Burnet, Master of the Charterhouse, were featured in a musical parody to the tune of “A Soldier and a Sailor”:

A Dean and Prebendary
had once a new vagary,
and were at doubtful strife, sir,
Who led the better life, sir,
And was the better man,
And was the better man.

The Dean he said that truly,
Since Bluff was so unruly,
He’d prove it to his face, sir,
That he had the most grace, sir,
And so the fight began, etc.

When Preb replied like thunder,
And roared out ’twas no wonder,
Since gods the Dean had three, sir,
And more by two than he, sir,
For he had got but one, etc.

Now while these two were raging,
And in dispute engaging,
The Master of the Charter
Said both had caught a Tartar,
For gods, sir, there were none, etc.

That all the books of Moses
Were nothing but supposes;
That he deserved rebuke, sir,
Who wrote the Pentateuch, sir;
‘Twas nothing but a sham, etc.

That as for Father Adam,
With Mrs. Eve, his madam,
And what the serpent spoke, sir,
‘Twas nothing but a joke, sir,
And well-invented flam, etc.

Thus in the battle royal,
As none would take denial,
The dame for which they strove, sir,
Could neither of them love, sir,
Since all had given offence, etc.

She therefore, slily waiting,
Left all these fools a-prating,
And being in a fright, sir,
Religion took her flight, sir,
And ne’er was heard of since,
And ne’er was heard of since.[50]


Even in the midst of controversy, Sherlock was busy attending to his ministry.  He preached a sermon before Queen Mary at Whitehall in June of 1691, and another before the House of Commons on 30 January.  In 1694, he gave a memorable memorial sermon for the recently departed Mary II at the Temple Church.  Late in his life, he delivered the thanksgiving message before Queen Anne, upon the Duke of Marlborough’s great victory at Blenheim.

William Sherlock died in Hampstead in 1707.  About his private life, little is now known.  He and his wife had a son, Thomas; and possibly also a daughter, Mary, married to Second Baronet Thomas Gooch (d. 1754).  Thomas Sherlock (1678-1761), like his father, was educated at Eton and Cambridge, and served as Master of the Temple.  He later became bishop successively at Bangor, Salisbury, and London.  Upon the death of Archbishop Potter, Thomas was offered his position, but declined for an unidentified reason.  He is best known for the Bangorian Controversy, writing in opposition to Bishop Hoadly; and his most popular work, “The Tryal of the Witnesses of the Resurrection of Jesus” (1729), written in reply to Thomas Woolston.  A collection of his works was published by J. S. Hughes in 1830.

Of William Sherlock, Macaulay writes,

Among the divines who incurred suspension . . . the highest in popular estimation was without dispute Doctor William Sherlock.  Perhaps no simple presbyter of the Church of England has ever possessed a greater authority over his brethren than belonged to Sherlock at the time of the Revolution.  He was not of the first rank among his contemporaries as a scholar, as a preacher, as a writer on theology, or as a writer on politics:  but in all the four characters he had distinguished himself.  The perspicuity and liveliness of his style have been praised by Prior and Addison.  The facility and assiduity with which he wrote are sufficiently proved by the bulk and the dates of his works.  There were indeed among the clergy men of brighter genius and men of wider attainments:  but during a long period there was none who more completely represented the order, none who, on all subjects, spoke more precisely the sense of the Anglican priesthood . . . .[51]


[1] Also known as Peterhouse, Saint Peter’s was the original college at Cambridge, founded in 1284 by Hugh de Balsham, Bishop of Ely.

[2] Upon the refusal of Pope Clement VII to grant a divorce so that Henry could marry Anne Boleyn.

[3] Colin Rhys Lovell, English Constitutional and Legal History:  A Survey (NY: Oxford University Press, 1962), p. 261.

[4] Ironically, the Six Articles had prescribed death for anyone who denied Transubstantiation.

[5] But perhaps as high as 2000.  Lovell, p. 266.

[6] Lovell, 270.

[7] George Macaulay Trevelyan, A Shortened History of England (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1942), 278.

[8] Edward P. Cheyney, A Short History of England (Boston: Ginn and Company, 1904), p. 389.

[9] Lovell, 304.

[10] Daughter of King Philip III of Spain, the latter of whom insisted that Charles convert to Catholicism.  The marriage never took place.

[11] I.e., forced quartering and boarding of soldiers in private homes; specifically proscribed in the Third Amendment to the United States Constitution.

[12] See, in part, Trevelyan, 289.

[13] Technically, the Long Parliament was not dissolved until 1660.  Members had passed a law against dissolution without its consent.

[14] John Pym died of disease, probably cancer, in 1643; John Hampden was mortally wounded at the Battle of Chalgrove Field the same year.

[15] Largely in Pride’s Purge, 1648.  The remainder became the Rump Parliament.

[16] Trevelyan, 311.

[17] I.e., murderers of the king.

[18] Quoted without attribution in Lovell, 367.

[19] Lovell, p. 379.

[20] John Hunt, Religious Thought in England:  From the Reformation to the End of Last Century, vol. 2 (London: Strahan & Co., 1873), 154-156.  John Calvin (1509-1564) is ranked with Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli as one of the great Protestant reformers.  Calvinist teaching, as it has been formulated, includes the doctrines of Total Depravity, Unconditional Election (Predestination), Limited Atonement (attributed to Theodore Beza), Irresistable Grace, and the Perseverance of the Saints—often represented by the acrostic TULIP.

[21] Geoffrey F. Nuttall and Owen Chadwick, From Uniformity to Unity 1662-1962 (London: SPCK, 1962), 5.

[22] Hunt, 156, see also 218.  Pelagianism is named for British monk Pelagius (c. 360-c. 420), who taught absolute free will against the Augustinian doctrines of Predestination and Original Sin.  Socinianism stems from Italian teachers Laelius and Faustus Socinus, who taught against the Trinity and other orthodox dogma.  Their rationalistic views helped spawn Unitarianism and liberal Protestantism.

[23] Hunt, 210.

[24] John Stoughton, History of Religion in England:  From the Opening of the Long Parliament to 1850, 4th ed., vol. 5 & 6 (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1901), 161, 162.

[25] Compton later performed the coronation of William and Mary.

[26] Trevelyan, 347.

[27] Nuttall, 239; Cheyney, 504.

[28] Charles F. Mullett, “A Case of Allegiance:  William Sherlock and the Revolution of 1688,” Huntington Library Quarterly 10 (November 1946), 86-87.

[29] Hunt, 59.

[30] Roger Thomas, “The Seven Bishops and their Petition, 18 May 1688,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 12 (1961), 69, translated from the Italian, in Nuttall, 240.

[31] Presumably because Sancroft was a poor writer, according to Thomas Babington Macaulay, History of England (NY: Harpers, n.d.), cited in Hunt, 68.

[32] Nuttal, 243.

[33] Lovell, 400; Hunt, 279.

[34] Stoughton, 165.

[35] Hunt, 61-2.

[36] Mullett, 85; Hunt, 61.

[37] Mullett, 85.

[38] His wife was compared by critics to the temptresses Xantippe, Delilah, and Eve (Stoughton, 125).

[39] Hunt, 60, 62; Mullett, 90.

[40] Mullett, 85; Hunt, 63.

[41] Mullett, 88.

[42] Hunt, 62-3.

[43] Mullett, 91, 92.  “Trimmer” described a moderate, midway between Whigs and Tories, perhaps used pejoratively as “compromiser.”

[44] Macaulay, The History of England from the Accession of James II, IV, Ch. XVII (1848), downloaded as text from  The poem quotes Hosea 8:4.

[45] Stoughton, 125.

[46] Hunt, 202-4.  In 1694, the government began to arrest Unitarians for publishing anti-Trinitarian tracts.

[47] Hunt, 221; and Ben Mordecai’s Letters, I. 70 (quoted in Toulmin, 182) in Stoughton, 164.

[48] Letter from John Wesley to Samuel Furly, December 20, 1762.

[49] Hunt, 212-13.

[50] Hunt, 222.

[51] Macaulay, History III, 361-62.

© 2007 Paul A. Hughes

A Fence Or an Ambulance

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Here is a wise old poem that not only says a lot about prevention, but is pertinent to the discussion of Government Health Care and Abortion. Looks to me like Conservatives believe in preventing misfortune, Liberals are all about spending tax dollars for feel-good solutions after-the-fact, & using “sob stories” to justify more taxes.

‘Twas a dangerous cliff, as they freely confessed,
Though to walk near its crest was so pleasant;
But over its terrible edge there had slipped
A duke and full many a peasant.
So the people said something would have to be done,
But their projects did not at all tally;
Some said, “Put a fence ’round the edge of the cliff,”
Some, “An ambulance down in the valley.”

But the cry for the ambulance carried the day,
For it spread through the neighboring city;
A fence may be useful or not, it is true,
But each heart became full of pity
For those who slipped over the dangerous cliff;
And the dwellers in highway and alley
Gave pounds and gave pence, not to put up a fence,
But an ambulance down in the valley.

“For the cliff is all right, if you’re careful,” they said,
“And, if folks even slip and are dropping,
It isn’t the slipping that hurts them so much
As the shock down below when they’re stopping.”
So day after day, as these mishaps occurred,
Quick forth would those rescuers sally
To pick up the victims who fell off the cliff,
With their ambulance down in the valley.

Then an old sage remarked: “It’s a marvel to me
That people give far more attention
To repairing results than to stopping the cause,
When they’d much better aim at prevention.
Let us stop at its source all this mischief,” cried he,
“Come, neighbors and friends, let us rally;
If the cliff we will fence, we might almost dispense
With the ambulance down in the valley.”

“Oh he’s a fanatic,” the others rejoined,
“Dispense with the ambulance? Never!
He’d dispense with all charities, too, if he could;
No! No! We’ll support them forever.
Aren’t we picking up folks just as fast as they fall?
And shall this man dictate to us? Shall he?
Why should people of sense stop to put up a fence,
While the ambulance works in the valley?”

But the sensible few, who are practical too,
Will not bear with such nonsense much longer;
They believe that prevention is better than cure,
And their party will soon be the stronger.
Encourage them then, with your purse, voice, and pen,
And while other philanthropists dally,
They will scorn all pretense, and put up a stout fence
On the cliff that hangs over the valley.

Better guide well the young than reclaim them when old,
For the voice of true wisdom is calling.
“To rescue the fallen is good, but ’tis best
To prevent other people from falling.”
Better close up the source of temptation and crime
Than deliver from dungeon or galley;
Better put a strong fence ’round the top of the cliff
Than an ambulance down in the valley.

— Joseph Malins (1895)

Written by biblequestion

April 27, 2010 at 9:13 PM

The Most Dangerous Branch

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Blind Justice

Blind Justice

A Thumbnail History of Supreme Court Revisionism

by Paul A. Hughes

Throughout the country, public officials solemnly swear to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.  The Constitution defines our government and protects the rights of citizens and sovereign states.

The Framers expended much less ink on the Supreme Court than any other branch of government.  The Court was expected to be, in Alexander Hamilton’s words, “the least dangerous branch.”  From the beginning, however, judges and legal philosophers have sought to reshape government in ways that they could not achieve by democratic means as prescribed by the Constitution:  legislation and amendment.  Those who gain the power of the Bench too often succumb to the temptation of oligarchy, rule by an elite by judicial fiat—making the Supreme Court, in the end, truly “the most dangerous branch.”

The following short history is hardly comprehensive, but lists pivotal Court cases and trends that have effectively changed the meaning and intent of constitutional provisions.  These items reveal the desire of revisionists to deny the letter of the Constitution, while showing preference for special interests; a disdain for precedents and the democratic process, as well as the people; tortured interpretations of provisions in order to insure desired outcomes and create new law; the erosion of state and individual rights while trumpeting new, special rights; lofty language envisioning a “living” Constitution that ignores the actual Constitution; and an expansion of raw judicial power.

This history should be sufficient to convince the reader how crucial it is to elect a president and senators who will nominate and approve justices that truly believe the law means what it says, not what it can be made to say.

Calder v. Bull (1798)

In a minority opinion, Justice Samuel Chase objected to a legislative act on the grounds that it violated the spirit, though no specific provision, of the Constitution.

Marbury v. Madison (1803)

In its decision, the Court originated the principle, and assumed the power, of judicial review of legislation, not explicit in the Constitution.  Consequently, the Court opened the door to undermining the democratic process by overruling the will of the people, as expressed by their representatives.  Judge Robert Bork called Chief Justice John Marshall’s opinion “a curious blend, an essay resting the power to invalidate statutes of Congress on the original understanding of the Constitution and yet reaching the question of that power without justification.”[i]

Fletcher v. Peck (1810)

This case stems from the infamous Yazoo Land Fraud of 1794.  Marshall in his opinion proposed that there are natural limits to legislative power, in this case regarding the seizure of property, referring to “the nature of society and of government” for justification.  Justice William Johnson supported Marshall, stating flatly that “my opinion on this point is not founded on the provision in the constitution of the United States . . . ,” but rather, “the reason and nature of things” which, he hyperbolized, “will impose laws even on the deity.”

Gibbons v. Ogden (1824)

Marshall, in his opinion, suggested that the bare fact that power to regulate commerce was vested in Congress by the Constitution was sufficient to strike down steamboat regulation in New York.  Since Congress had not indeed acted in the case, this approach would effectively insert the judicial branch in the process at will, bypassing Congress.  This insertion principle has been adopted and applied to various cases to this day.

Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857)

Chief Justice Roger Taney, backed by a pro-slavery majority, actively sought to read a right to own slaves into the Constitution.  He cited the Due Process clause of the Fifth Amendment, which states, “No person shall . . . be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.”  Ignoring the plain meaning of the text, which simply mandates a fair process before seizure, Taney created the principle of “substantive due process,” asserting a slaveholder’s inherent right to his property.  Law professor John Hart Ely called substantive due process “a contradiction in terms.”[ii] The principle was later applied to Lochner v. New York, Roe v. Wade, and other decisions.

Hepburn v. Griswold (1870)

In finding against an act of Congress to issue paper money, Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase found, following Marshall, that the act was not “consistent with the spirit of the Constitution.”  He held that paper currency, being of no inherent value, violated the restriction that “no State shall pass any law impairing the obligation of contracts” (Article I, Section 10).  He deflected criticism that the provision applied only to the states, suggesting that the Framers “intended that the spirit of this prohibition should pervade the entire body of legislation . . . .”  Chase also regarded that the spirit of the Due Process and Just Compensation clauses of the Fifth Amendment had been violated.

Loan Association v. Topeka (1874)

The Court struck down a Kansas law that allowed cities to issue public bonds to encourage private business.  In the lone dissent, Justice Nathan Clifford wrote, “Courts cannot nullify an act of the State legislature on the vague ground that they think it opposed to a general latent spirit supposed to pervade or underlie the constitution . . . .  Such power is denied to the courts, because to concede it would be to make the courts sovereign over both the constitution and the people, and convert the government into a judicial despotism.”

Davidson v. New Orleans (1877)

Justice Samuel Miller, who had lead the activist majority in Loan Association, applied the principle of substantive due process originated in Dred Scott, asserting that a fair hearing alone was insufficient to deprive a citizen of property.

Allgeyer v. Louisiana (1897)

In order to strike down a state insurance compliance law, the Court expanded “liberty” in the Due Process clause beyond “liberty of person” to “the right of the citizen to be free in the enjoyment of all his faculties; to be free to use them in all lawful ways; to live and work where he will; to earn his livelihood by any lawful calling; to pursue any livelihood or avocation, and for that purpose to enter into all contracts which may be proper, necessary and essential to his carrying out to a successful conclusion the purposes above mentioned.”  This language left the determination of what would be deemed “lawful” entirely open to future interpretation by the Court itself, in denial of the democratic legislative process of the states.

Lochner v. New York (1905)

Justice Rufus Peckham, who had written the unanimous opinion in Allgeyer v. Louisiana, also wrote the majority opinion in Lochner.  The Court struck down a statute that limited working hours for bakers, asserting an inherent right to buy and sell labor.  In his opinion, Peckham expressed consternation at the people being “at the mercy of legislative majorities.”  Most notable is Peckham’s claim of judicial police power, by which courts may strike down legislation even in the absence of specific constitutional provision.

The New Deal (1933- )

Once President Franklin Roosevelt succeeded in packing the Court with cooperative justices, the judicial branch largely ignored Tenth Amendment provisions limiting federal power.  Businesses could no longer count on due process of law, as the federal government vastly expanded regulatory activity without restraint.

United States v. Carolene Products Co. (1938)

The Court upheld legislation prohibiting interstate shipment of a certain milk product.  The crucial item in the opinion, written by Chief Justice Harlan Stone, are the words “discrete and insular minorities.”  Those words, which appear in a footnote, stem from Stone’s musings on the Fourteenth Amendment relative to Due Process, and presumably refer to certain undefined minorities not otherwise enumerated in the Constitution.  The footnote effectively opened the door to a new era of minority and special interest politics.

Skinner v. Oklahoma (1942)

Buck v. Bell (1927) had previously upheld the forced sterilization of the mentally retarded in Virginia.  Oklahoma now passed a law whereby certain classes of repeat criminals could likewise be sterilized.  Justice William O. Douglas objected that the statute made some crimes punishable by sterilization while other crimes of similar gravity were not.  Moreover, he conceived procreation to be “one of the basic civil rights of man” that was “fundamental to the very existence and survival of the race,” opposing the law on the basis of the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment   Robert Bork later observed that the decision created the principle of “substantive equal protection” by being “really a substantive due process case masquerading as a decision under the equal protection clause.”[iii]

The Warren Court (1953-1969)

Columbia Professor Milton Handler wrote that the Court led by Chief Justice Earl Warren was conspicuous for its “disrespect for precedent, even those of recent vintage, the needless obscurity of opinions, the discouraging lack of candor, the disdain for the fact finding of the lower courts, the tortured reading of statutes, and the seeming absence of neutrality and objectivity.”[iv]

Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954)

Brown combined multiple cases that were, as Justice Warren wrote, “premised on different facts and different local conditions, but a common legal question justifies their consideration together in this consolidated opinion.”  Together, they challenged the Plessy v. Ferguson precedent (1896), which had established the “separate but equal” principle.  Rather than rely on the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which had never historically been understood to prohibit segregation (and consequently thought weak), Warren’s opinion was based on evidence of unequal educational opportunity for black students and a “sense of inferiority” inherent to segregation.  In retrospect, some legal experts regret that the Court did not perceive in the text of the Constitution sufficient grounds for doing the right thing, resorting instead to a decision based purely on moral conceptions.  Others, however, consider Brown the archetype of a “living” Constitution and “progressive” judicial system freed from slavish dependence on obsolete language and ideas.

Bolling v. Sharpe (1954)

A school segregation case parallel to Brown, Bolling originated in Washington, D.C.  While Brown, not truly decided on Fourteenth Amendment grounds, was presumed to have satisfied its Equal Protection provision, that amendment applied only to the states, not to the federal District of Columbia.  The Warren Court, therefore, drew upon the Due Process clause of the Fifth Amendment, which is federal, gave it substantive status, and declared it equivalent to the Equal Protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  This scheme served to invent the concept of an Equal Protection component of the Due Process clause, and apply Equal Protection guarantees to all federal legislation.[v]

Griswold v. Connecticut (1965)

The State of Connecticut had on its books an 1879 statute outlawing the use of contraceptives, but no record exists that it had ever been enforced.  Estelle Griswold, Executive Director of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut, and Dr. C. Lee Buxton, a professor at Yale School of Medicine, opened a birth control clinic in New Haven in order to initiate a test case, with the support of the American Civil Liberties Union.  The case initially resulted in a fine of $100 each.  In his majority opinion, Justice Douglas asked indignantly, “Would we allow the police to search the sacred precincts of marital bedrooms for telltale signs of the use of contraceptives?  The very idea is repulsive to the notions of privacy surrounding the marriage relationship,” as if such action and the institution of marriage had actually been threatened.  Douglas cited “a right of privacy older than the Bill of Rights—older than our political parties, older than our school system,” describing marriage as “a relationship lying within the zone of privacy created by several fundamental constitutional guarantees.”  Lacking specific “right of privacy” and “zone of privacy” provisions in the Constitution, Douglas asserted that “specific guarantees in the Bill of Rights have penumbras, formed by emanations from those guarantees that help give them life and substance,” echoing resorts to “the spirit of the Constitution” in the past.

In his dissent, Justice Potter Stewart noted that “the Court refers to no less than six Amendments to the Constitution:  the First, the Third, the Fourth, the Fifth, the Ninth, and the Fourteenth.  But the Court does not say which of these Amendments, if any, it thinks is infringed by this Connecticut law.”  He concludes, “With all deference, I can find no such general right of privacy in the Bill of Rights, in any other part of the Constitution, or in any case ever before decided by this Court.”  Justice Hugo Black, in a separate dissent, concurred:  “The Court talks about a constitutional ‘right of privacy’ as though there is some constitutional provision or provisions forbidding any law ever to be passed which might abridge the ‘privacy’ of individuals.  But there is not.”  Robert Bork has described the “right of privacy” device as “a loose canon in the law.”[vi]

Katzenbach v. Morgan (1966)

According to Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution, states are reserved the right to set voter qualifications.  Following the passage of the Voting Rights Act (1965), a literacy test for voting in New York was challenged.  The Court was in the position of having to choose between support for the Act and a provision of the Constitution.  The majority opinion, written by Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., vested in Congress the power to overrule a clear constitutional provision by citing the general Enforcement Power granted Congress in Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment.

United Steelworkers of America , AFL-CIO-CLC v. Weber (1979)

In direct contradiction to Griggs v. Duke Power Co. (1973), the Court found that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 allowed racial preferences.  In Chief Justice Warren Burger’s dissent, he found the majority decision “contrary to the explicit language of the [Civil Rights Act] and arrived at by means wholly incompatible with long-established principles of separation of powers.  Under the guise of statutory ‘construction,’ the Court effectively rewrites Title VII to achieve what it regards as a desirable result.  It ‘amends’ the statute to do precisely what both its sponsors and its opponents agreed the statute was not intended to do.”  Justice William Rehnquist labeled the decision Orwellian, writing that “the Court rejects ‘a literal construction of § 703(a)’ in favor of newly discovered ‘legislative history,’ which leads it to a conclusion directly contrary to that compelled by the ‘uncontradicted legislative history’ unearthed in McDonald and our other prior decisions.

Eisenstadt v. Baird (1972)

Striking down a Massachusetts law that forbade sale of contraceptives to unmarried persons, the Court extended the “right of privacy” beyond the bounds described in Griswold to sexual relationships outside of marriage.  Moreover, put together, they suggest a constitutional right to sexual gratification.

Roe v. Wade (1973)

In 1970, Linda Coffee, a women’s rights advocate, and Sarah Weddington, soon to be elected a Texas state representative, sued in behalf of “Jane Roe” (Norma McCorvey) for the right to obtain a legal abortion.  Reaching far back into ancient history, and leaning heavily on the “right to privacy” created in Griswold, Justice Harry Blackmun’s majority opinion encompassed 51 pages.  In his lone dissent, Justice Rehnquist faulted the majority for violating its own rule of thumb never to “formulate a rule of constitutional law broader than is required by the precise facts to which it is to be applied” by a sweeping removal of almost all restrictions imposed on abortion by the states.  He expressed doubt that any “right of privacy” is involved in the case.  Even the liberties guaranteed by the Constitution, he wrote, are “not guaranteed absolutely against deprivation, only against deprivation without due process of law.”  Rehnquist worried out loud that in its handling of the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Court “will accomplish the seemingly impossible feat of leaving this area of the law more confused than it found it.”

Judge Bork is more blunt.  He writes that “in the entire opinion there is not one line of explanation, not one sentence that qualifies as legal argument.  Nor has the Court in the sixteen years since ever provided the explanation lacking in 1973.”[vii]

Bowers v. Hardwick (1986)

A police officer discovered Hardwick engaging in homosexual sodomy in his home, punishable by law in Georgia.  The District Attorney decided not to prosecute, but Hardwick filed suit on the grounds that the law was unconstitutional and “placed him in imminent danger of arrest.”  The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals found that “homosexual activity is a private and intimate association that is beyond the reach of state regulation by reason of the Ninth Amendment and the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”  If upheld, the case would effectively create a “right to homosexuality.”  The Court disagreed with the Eleventh Circuit that “prior cases,” including Skinner, Griswold, and Eisenstadt, “have construed the Constitution to confer a right of privacy that extends to homosexual sodomy.”  On the contrary, the Court asserted that “none of the rights announced in those cases bears any resemblance to the claimed constitutional right of homosexuals to engage in acts of sodomy that is asserted in this case,” and deprecated the attempt to expand the Due Process clauses of the Bill of Rights to include all kinds of consensual behavior.  A dissent by Justice Blackmun is conspicuous for resorting to the concept of a “right to be left alone,” described as “the most comprehensive of rights” by Justice Louis Brandeis in Olmstead v. United States (1928).  The Bowers decision was later overruled by Lawrence v. Texas (2003).

Texas v. Johnson (1989)

Gregory Johnson burned an American flag in downtown Dallas while a group chanted, “America, the red, white, and blue, we spit on you.”  No one was arrested for protesting, but Johnson was charged with Desecration of a Venerated Object under state law.  Five justices held that Johnson’s act was political speech protected by the First Amendment.  Justice Rehnquist’s dissent recalled at length the history of the flag, and cited a litany of federal and state laws prohibiting contemptuous treatment.  “I cannot agree,” he wrote, “that the First Amendment invalidates the Act of Congress, and the laws of 48 of the 50 States, which make criminal the public burning of the flag.  He quotes Chief Justice Warren’s dissent to Street v. New York (1969):  “I believe that the States and the Federal Government do have the power to protect the flag from acts of desecration and disgrace.”  In a separate dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens considered that “it cannot be true that the flag . . . is not itself worthy of protection from unnecessary desecration.

The Infiltration of Foreign Law

On the premise that the Constitution is insufficient to adapt to a complex and changing world, the liberal wing of the Supreme Court has begun to look to foreign and international legal philosophy for guidance and support.  In a dissent to the death penalty case Knight v. Florida (1999), Justice Stephen Breyer wrote, after consulting the laws of many countries, “A growing number of courts outside the United States—courts that accept or assume the lawfulness of the death penalty—have held that lengthy delay in administering a lawful death penalty renders ultimate execution inhuman, degrading, or unusually cruel.”  He granted that “Obviously this foreign authority does not bind us.  After all, we are interpreting a ‘Constitution for the United States of America.’”  Breyer continued, however, that “this Court has long considered as relevant and informative the way in which foreign courts have applied standards roughly comparable to our own constitutional standards in roughly comparable circumstances.  In so doing, the Court has found particularly instructive opinions of former Commonwealth nations insofar as those opinions reflect a legal tradition that also underlies our own Eighth Amendment.”  He summarized that “Willingness to consider foreign judicial views in comparable cases is not surprising in a Nation that from its birth has given a ‘decent respect to the opinions of mankind’” (which point is itself unsubstantiated).

In a speech to The American Society of International Law, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, “The notion that it is improper to look beyond the borders of the United States in grappling with hard questions . . . is in line with the view of the U.S. Constitution as a document essentially frozen in time as of the date of its ratification.  I am not a partisan of that view.  U.S. jurists honor the Framers’ intent ‘to create a more perfect Union,’ I believe, if they read the Constitution as belonging to a global 21st century, not as fixed forever by 18th-century understandings.”[viii] (One should note that in the preamble to the Constitution, it is properly “We the people” who act “to create a more perfect Union,” through their elected representatives and the prescribed amendment process.)  Ginsburg applied the 1994 United Nations International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination to her concurrence to the affirmative-action lawsuit Grutter v. Bollinger (2003).

Lawrence v. Texas (2003) was a homosexual conduct case resembling Bowers v. Hardwick.  In his majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy, a swing voter who occupies the seat on the Court originally intended for Robert Bork, made reference to “other authorities pointing in an opposite direction” to those guiding Bowers.  Those of foreign provenance were the 1957 Wolfenden Report advising repeal of homosexual conduct laws in England, codified in 1967; and Dudgeon v. United Kingdom (1981), based on the European Convention on Human Rights.

In Roper v. Simmons (2008), a juvenile death penalty case, Kennedy cited Article 37 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, other international conventions, and British law.  He noted “that only seven countries other than the United States have executed juvenile offenders since 1990:  Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and China,” and concluded, “It is proper that we acknowledge the overwhelming weight of international opinion against the juvenile death penalty . . . .”

Justice Antonin Scalia, in his dissent, provided a comprehensive, point-by-point repudiation of Kennedy’s opinion, especially the infusion of foreign law.  He began by proposing that “the basic premise of the Court’s argument—that American law should conform to the laws of the rest of the world—ought to be rejected out of hand.”  To illustrate his point, he enumerated elements of U.S. law, such as trial by jury and search and seizure protection, that he did not think his opponents would be willing to surrender; and relaxed separation of church and state, and greater restrictions on abortion, that they would never be willing to adopt.  “The Court,” he challenged, “should either profess its willingness to reconsider all these matters in light of the views of foreigners, or else it should cease putting forth foreigners’ views as part of the reasoned basis of its decisions.  To invoke alien law when it agrees with one’s own thinking, and ignore it otherwise, is not reasoned decisionmaking, but sophistry.”

“To the contrary,” he wrote, “they are cited to set aside the centuries-old American practice—a practice still engaged in by a large majority of the relevant States—of letting a jury of 12 citizens decide whether, in the particular case, youth should be the basis for withholding the death penalty.  What these foreign sources ‘affirm,’ rather than repudiate, is the Justices’ own notion of how the world ought to be, and their diktat that it shall be so henceforth in America.”

© 2008 Paul A. Hughes

[i] Robert H. Bork, The Tempting of America:  The Political Seduction of the Law (NY: The Free Press, 1990), p. 22.

[ii] John Hart Ely, Democracy and Distrust:  A Theory of Judicial Review (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980), p. 18.

[iii] Bork, 64.

[iv] Milton Handler, The Supreme Court and the Antitrust Laws:  A Critic’s Viewpoint, Georgia Law Review 339 (Spring 1967).

[v] See Bork, 84,182.

[vi] Bork, 97.

[vii] Bork, 112.

[viii] Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “A Decent Respect to the Opinions of [Human]kind:  The Value of a Comparative Perspective in Constitutional Adjudication,” speech to The American Society of International Law, Washington, D.C., April 1, 2005.

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April 22, 2010 at 3:51 AM