By Bill Federer
The first chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, being appointed by George Washington, was also president of the American Bible Society. Who was he? John Jay, who died May 17, 1829.
As president of the Continental Congress, John Jay approved the “Circular Letter from the Congress of the United States of America to their Constituents,” Sept. 13, 1779: “Friends and Fellow Citizens … In governments raised on the generous principles of equal liberty … the rulers of the state are the servants of the people, and not the masters of those from whom they derive authority. … The ungrateful despotism and inordinate lust of domination, which marked the unnatural designs of the British king and his venal parliament, to enslave the people of America, reduced you to the necessity of either asserting your rights by arms, or ingloriously passing under the yoke. … Remember we are contending against a kingdom crumbling into pieces; a nation without public virtue … betrayed by their own representatives; against a Prince governed by his passions; … against a government by the most impious violations of the rights of religion, justice, humanity and mankind, courting the vengeance of Heaven and revolting from the protection of Providence. … And can there be any reason to apprehend that the Divine Disposer of human events, after having separated us from the house of bondage, and led us safe through a sea of blood, towards the land of liberty and promise will leave the work of our political redemption unfinished. … or suffer us to be carried back in chains to that country of oppression from whose tyranny He hath mercifully delivered us with a outstretched arm?”
As chief justice of the State of New York, John Jay charged the grand jury of Ulster County, Sept. 8, 1777: “The infatuated sovereign of Britain, forgetful that kings were the servants, not the proprietors, and ought to be the fathers, not the incendiaries of their people. … What … can appear more unworthy of credit than … a prince should arise who, by the influence of corruption alone … to reduce three million of his most loyal and affectionate subjects to absolute slavery … binding them in all cases whatever, not even excepting cases of conscience and religion? … Will it not appear extraordinary that thirteen colonies … without funds … without disciplined troops, in the face of their enemies, unanimously determine to be free, and, undaunted by the power of Britain, refer their cause to the justice of the Almighty. …”
John Jay noted in 1777: “This glorious revolution … is distinguished by so many marks of the Divine favor and interposition … and I may say miraculous, that when future ages shall read its history they will be tempted to consider a great part of it as fabulous. … The many remarkable … events by which our wants have been supplied and our enemies repelled … are such strong and striking proofs of the interposition of Heaven, that our having been hitherto delivered from the threatened bondage of Britain ought, like the emancipation of the Jews from Egyptian servitude, to be forever ascribed to its true cause … and kindle in them a flame of gratitude and piety which may consume all remains of vice and irreligion. Blessed be God! The time will now never arrive when the prince of a country in another quarter of the globe will command your obedience, and hold you in vassalage. … Nor will you in future be subject to the imperious sway of rulers instructed to sacrifice your happiness whenever it might be inconsistent with the ambitious views of their royal master.”
John Jay signed the Treaty of Paris with Franklin and Adams which ended the Revolutionary War. The treaty began: “In the name of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity.”
Jay, together with Madison and Hamilton, helped ratify the Constitution by writing the Federalist Papers. John Jay wrote in 1777: “The Americans are the first people whom Heaven has favored with an opportunity of … choosing the forms of government under which they should live. All other constitutions have derived their existence from violence or accidental circumstances. … Your lives, your liberties, your property, will be at the disposal only of your Creator and yourselves. You will know no power but such as you will create; no authority unless derived from your grant; no laws but such as acquire all their obligation from your consent. … Security is also given to the rights of conscience and private judgment. They are by nature subject to no control but that of the Deity … Every man is permitted to consider, to adore, and to worship his Creator in the manner most agreeable to his conscience. …”
John Jay wrote in Chisholm v. Georgia, 1793: “The people are the sovereign of this country.”
With the support of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, he negotiated the Jay Treaty which resulted in ten years of peaceful trade with Britain while France was going through a bloody Revolution.
When America’s currency was losing value, giving rise to the idiom “not worth a Continental,” John Jay, as president of the Continental Congress, wrote Sept. 13, 1779: “Depreciation of the currency has … swelled the prices of every necessary article. … Depreciation is to be removed only by lessening the quantity of money in circulation. … A distrust … by the mass of the people … in the ability … of the United States to redeem their bills, is the cause of it. … A bankrupt faithless republic would … appear among reputable nations like a common prostitute among chaste and respectable matrons. … It has been already observed, that in order to prevent the further natural depreciation of our bills, we have resolved to stop the press.”
John Jay stated in 1777: “The constitution, however, has wisely declared, that the ‘liberty of conscience thereby granted shall not be so construed as to excuse acts of licentiousness.’ … The convention by whom that constitution was formed were of opinion that the gospel of Christ, like the ark of God, would not fall, though unsupported by the arm of flesh. … But let it be remembered that whatever marks of wisdom … may be in your constitution, yet like the … forms of our first parents before their Maker breathed into them the breath of life, it is yet to be animated. … From the people it must receive its spirit. … Vice, ignorance, and want of vigilance will be the only enemies able to destroy it. … Every member of the State ought diligently to read and to study the constitution. … By knowing their rights, they will sooner perceive when they are violated, and be the better prepared to defend. … Hence it becomes the common duty … to unite in repressing the licentious … and thereby diffusing the blessings of peace.”
On April 15, 1818, John Jay wrote to his Quaker friend, John Murray: “Natural Laws and Morality are given by the Sovereign of the Universe to all mankind. … It is true that the law was given to Moses, not however in his individual or private capacity, but as the agent or instrument, and by the authority of the Almighty. The law demanded exact obedience, and proclaimed: ‘Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.’ The law … by requiring perfect obedience, under a penalty so inevitable and dreadful, operated as a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ for mercy. Legal punishments are adjusted and inflicted by the law and magistrate, and not by unauthorized individuals. These and all other positive laws or ordinances established by Divine direction, must of necessity be consistent with the moral law. It certainly was not the design of the law … to encourage a spirit of personal or private revenge. On the contrary, there are express injunctions in the law of Moses which inculcate a very different spirit.”
Writing to John Bristed, April 23, 1811, John Jay recounted: “I was at a large party, of which … several … spoke freely and contemptuously of religion. … An atheist very abruptly remarked that there was no God, and he hoped the time would come when there would be no religion in the world. I very concisely remarked that if there was no God there could be no moral obligations, and I did not see how society could subsist without them.”
John Jay told the New York Convention, Dec. 23, 1776: “Let a general reformation of manners take place … united in preparing for a vigorous defense of your country. … When you have done all things, then rely upon the good Providence of Almighty God for success, in full confidence that without his blessings, all our efforts will inevitably fail. …
The Holy Gospels are yet to be preached to these western regions, and we have the highest reason to believe that the Almighty will not suffer slavery and the gospel to go hand in hand. It cannot, it will not be.”
On April 15, 1794, John Jay wrote to his wife, Sally, from England: “If it should please God to make me an instrument to the continuation of peace, and in preventing the effusion of blood and other evils and miseries incident to war, we shall both have reason to rejoice. … Let us repose unlimited trust in our Maker; it is our business to adore and to obey.”
On May 28, 1802, John Jay wrote to his children after his wife’s death: “Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead? … Behold I show you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed. … Death is swallowed up in victory. (I Corinthians 15)”
John Jay wrote to John Murray, a representative in the Pennsylvania House, Oct. 12, 1816: “Real Christians will abstain from violating the rights of others, and therefore will not provoke war. Almost all nations have peace or war at the will and pleasure of rulers whom they do not elect, and who are not always wise or virtuous. Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest, of our Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.”
On Jan. 1, 1813, John Jay penned a letter to Jedediah Morse: “Whether our Religion permits Christians to vote for infidel rulers is a question which merits more consideration than it seems yet to have generally received, either from the clergy or the laity. It appears to me that what the prophet said to Jehoshaphat about his attachments to Ahab (‘Shouldest thou help the ungodly and love them that hate the Lord?’ 2 Chron. 19:2) affords a salutary lesson. … Public measures may not be a proper subject for the pulpit, yet, in my opinion, it is the right and duty of our pastors to press the observance of all moral and religious duties.”
John Jay, at the age of 14, was admitted to King’s College in New York (Columbia University), which had as a requirement translating the first ten chapters of the Gospel of John from Greek into Latin. The American Bible Society was founded in 1816, with John Jay as the first vice-president.
In 1821, though in poor health, John Jay accepted the position as the president of the American Bible Society. He wrote: “They who regard these Societies as deriving their origin and success from the author and Giver of the Gospel, cannot forbear concluding it to be the duty of Christians, to promote the purposes for which they have been established; and that is particularly incumbent on their officers to be diligent in the business committed to them.”
John Jay is attributed with the statement: “No human society has ever been able to maintain both order and freedom, both cohesiveness and liberty apart from the moral precepts of the Christian Religion. Should our Republic ever forget this fundamental precept of governance, we will then, be surely doomed.”
On May 13, 1824, John Jay addressed the American Bible Society: “By conveying the Bible to people thus circumstanced, we certainly do them a most interesting kindness. We thereby enable them to learn that man was originally created and placed in a state of happiness, but, becoming disobedient, was subjected to the degradation and evils which he and his posterity have since experienced. The Bible will also inform them that our gracious Creator has provided for us a Redeemer, in whom all the nations of the earth shall be blessed; that this Redeemer has made atonement ‘for the sins of the whole world,’ and thereby reconciling the Divine justice with the Divine mercy has opened a way for our redemption and salvation; and that these inestimable benefits are of the free gift and grace of God, not of our deserving, nor in our power to deserve.”
John Jay stated: “In forming and settling my belief relative to the doctrines of Christianity, I adopted no articles from creeds but such only as, on careful examination, I found to be confirmed by the Bible. … At a party in Paris, once, the question fell on religious matters. In the course of it, one of them asked me if I believed in Christ? I answered that I did, and that I thanked God that I did.”
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John Jay wrote: “God is great, and therefore He will be sought: He is good, and therefore He will be found. If in the day of sorrow we own God’s presence in the cloud, we shall find Him also in the pillar of fire, brightening and cheering our way as the night comes on. In all His dispensations God is at work for our good: in prosperity, He tries our gratitude; in mediocrity, our contentment; in misfortune, our submission; in darkness, our faith; under temptation, our steadfastness, and at all times, our obedience and trust in Him. God governs the world, and we have only to do our duty wisely, and leave the issue to Him.”
John Jay was sent a letter from the corporation of the City of New York, asking him to join with them in the celebration of America’s 50th anniversary. John Jay, at 82 years of age, replied on June 29, 1826: “Earnest hope that the peace, happiness, and prosperity enjoyed by our beloved country may induce those who direct her national counsels to recommend a general and public return of praise to Him from whose goodness these blessings descend. … The most effectual means of securing the continuance of our civil and religious liberties is, always to remember with reverence and gratitude the Source from which they flow.”
In his last will and testament, John Jay wrote: “Unto Him who is the Author and Giver of all good, I render sincere and humble thanks for His merciful and unmerited blessings, and especially for our redemption and salvation by his beloved Son. He has been pleased to bless me with excellent parents, with a virtuous wife, and with worthy children. His protection has accompanied me through many eventful years, faithfully employed in the service of my country; and his providence has not only conducted me to this tranquil situation, but also given me abundant reason to be contented and thankful. Blessed be His Holy Name. While my children lament my departure, let them recollect that in doing them good, I was only the agent of their Heavenly Father, and that He never withdraws His care and consolations from those who diligently seek Him.”
On May 17, 1829, John Jay was drawing near death after a life of serving his country. As recorded by his son, Judge William Jay, John Jay was asked if he had any words for his children, to which he responded: “They have the Book.”
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