Benefit of the Clergy


If you take the tour in Williamsburg, VA they will explain why, even to this day, we hold up our hand and swear that we “will tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God” whenever we give testimony in court.

Back in medieval England, when someone was being tried for a crime, and the evidence seemed overwhelmingly against him, there was a way out. He could plead “benefit of clergy.” At first this applied only to ministers of the church – but later it was granted to any who were laymen, the argument being that they should not be tried in a secular court.

If the one claiming benefit of clergy could read a passage from the Bible (usually Psalm 51 – David’s confession of sin) without stammering he would be set free even if evidence against him was overwhelming. If he stumbled just one time he was judged guilty. If someone read it per-fectly and was set free, they branded his hand (palm, fingers or thumb with the brand of the cross or a letter (T=theft, M=murder, F=felon).

You see, you could only claim benefit of clergy one time. So when-ever anyone testified in court he would have to hold up his hand so all could see if that person had previously claimed the benefit of clergy. If so, the brand was there. The practice was abolished in England by 1827.

But according to the Encyclopedia Britannica 2, “Benefit of clergy was adopted in most of the American colonies by judicial practice. Though generally abolished soon after the American Revolution, it persisted in the Carolinas until the mid-19th century.”

What if this practice was the way God dealt with mankind? One slip-up, one sin, and you are set free. But one more and there is no mercy.

God doesn’t deal with us in that fashion. His forgiveness is reached by obeying the Gospel of Christ: belief in Christ, genuine repentance and burial with Christ in baptism for forgiveness of sin. But no one is perfect. So we rely on His grace by “walking in the light as he is in the light and the blood of His son cleanses us from all sin (1 Jn. 1:7). Only if one willfully rejects Christ is there no more sacrifice for sin because persistent denial places one outside the atoning blood of Christ (Heb. 10:26).


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