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The Foundations of American Government Part 3–The Source of American Law: The Second Table

You ever wonder why the right wing keeps losing the argument over the Ten Commandments?

The struggle for liberty in America was first a struggle for the rights of conscience, it was a battle over what was known as the “First and Second Table of the Law.”

In the early 1630’s Roger Williams, the minister of the Gospel at the First Congregational Church in Boston, Massachusetts was fired from his position and banished from Massachusetts Bay. His crime? Williams held “various diverse and dangerous OPINIONS.” Williams escaped to Rhode Island where he and the dissenter Baptist physician and pastor, John Clarke, founded the first government in the world that guaranteed the liberty of conscience. No laws were allowed to punish thought, opinion or belief.
Williams, in his dispute with the Puritans argued correctly that civil authority had no right to criminalize the conscience. His argument is made crystal clear by understanding the early colonial view of the Ten Commandments.

In discussing civil law, the early Puritans and Separatists divided the Ten Commandments into two tables. The “First Table,” (the first five commandments) had to do with man’s relationship with God. The “Second Table” (the remaining five commandments) governed man’s relationship with his fellow man. The Puritans and the established denominational church of the day maintained that both First and Second Tables were to govern society and be enforced by civil government.

The dissenters argued correctly that if forced to worship according to the principles of the established church, they would be made to violate their own consciences. The little known facts are that Baptists, Quakers and other dissenters were duty bound to disobey laws that violated their consciences and were made to suffer the consequences. Roger Williams was the first American to tell a tyrannical government (in this case, the Massachusetts church-state government) that to thrust the “First Table” upon all of civil society was fundamentally wrong. The true meaning of “Separation of Church and State” is made clear by understanding the “First and Second Table” controversy.

All of this means that it is incorrect to say that America’s laws are based upon the Ten Commandments. This is only half correct. America’s laws are based upon only the “Second Table of the Law,” the part that deals with man’s relationship with man. The “Second Table” is all about life, liberty and property. The founders and framers were very keen on life, liberty and property. We should be, too.

We all better take a second look at the “Second Table.” We need an understanding of this before “Hate Crimes” take us into tyranny. Our cry should be: “Hands off our Consciences, and Protect our Lives, Liberty and Property.”

1 comment

1 Josh Rivers { 09.25.09 at 2:16 am }

This is so true. It seems to be easy for Christians to get trapped in this mind frame. We can become like Paul described the Jews in Rom. 11:1, that we "have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge." We must zealously try to win the lost, plead with them to turn from sin, and encourage them to live for God. But we are to "compel them," not force them by law.