Sir William Blackstone, Knt.
Commentaries
on the Laws of England

excerpts from
Book IV, Chapter IV

"Offences Against God and Religion"



Defined . These are crimes which more immediately offend God, by openly transgressing the precepts of religion, either natural or revealed, and mediately, by their bad example and consequence, the law of society also, which renders them amenable to censure...

Basis of Judicial Oaths. The belief in a future state of rewards and punishments, the entertaining just ideas of the attributes of the Supreme Being, and a firm persuasion that He superintends and will finally compensate every action in human life, are the grand foundation of judicial oaths, which call God to witness the truth of those facts, which perhaps may only be known to him and the party attesting. All moral evidence, all confidence in human veracity [are] weakened by apostasy, and overthrown by total infidelity...

Gross Impieties. We proceed now to consider some gross impieties and immoralities, which are punished by our municipal law, frequently in concurrence with the ecclesiastical; the spiritual court punishing pro salute animae, for the safety of the soul, while the temporal courts correct more for the sake of example, than for private amendment.
 

Blasphemy . An offence against God and religion is that of blasphemy against the Almighty, by denying His being or providence, or by contumelious reproaches of Christ. Also all profane scoffing at the holy scriptures, or exposing them to comtempt and ridicule. This is punished by fine and imprisonment, or infamous corporal punishment.

Cursing. This is somewhat allied to blasphemy. By statute of George II, which repeals all former acts, every laborer, sailor, or soldier profanely swearing, shall forfeit one shilling for every offence, and every other person under the degree of a gentleman, two shillings; and every gentleman or person of rank, five shillings, for the poor of the parish, and on the second offence, double, and the third offence, treble. In default of payment, the offender shall be sent to the house of correction for ten days. Profanity was expressly forbidden in stage plays...

Profanation of the Lordís Day. This offence is vulgarly called Sabbath-Breaking, and is punished by municipal law. Beside the indecency and scandal of permitting any regular business to be publicly transacted on that day in a country professing christianity, and the corruption of morals which usually follows its profanation, the keeping this day holy, as a time of relaxation, as well as for public worship, is of admirable service to a state, considered merely as a civil institution. It humanizes, by the help of conversation and society, the manners of the lower classes, which would otherwise degenerate into  a wild ferocity and savage selfishness of spirit; it enables the industrious workman to pursue his occupation during the ensuing week with health and cheerfulness; it imprints upon the minds of the people that sense of their duty to their God, so necessary to make them good citizens, but which would be defaced  by an unremitted continuance of labor, without any stated time to recall them to the worship of their Maker...

Drunkenness. By statute of James I, this vice was punished by a fine of five shillings, or by sitting six hours in the stocks, by which time it was presumed that the culprit would become sobered, and not liable to do the mischief.

Open Lewdness. This is either by frequenting houses of ill-fame, which is an indictable offence, or by some grossly scandalous and public indecency, for which the punishment is fine and imprisonment. In the year 1650, not only were incest and adultery capital crimes, but also the repeated acts of keeping a brothel or committing fornication, were upon a second conviction, made felony, without benefit of clergy.

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