Although we are told that Moses received the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, their presence has always been particularly strong in America. Regardless of who invokes them and for what purpose, the Ten Commandments have proved to be incredibly versatile and enduring in our cultural idiom. Below you’ll find ten moments in American history where the Decalogue has made its presence felt.
1. In June 1860, a man in Ohio named David Wyrick found an oddly shaped stone in one of the many Native American burial sites in the area which had indecipherable markings on it. He claimed to have found one of the stone tablets that God had bestowed upon Moses. Largely ridiculed at first, he then discovered another stone, shaped like the top of a church window which was covered in what was later confirmed as a variant of Hebrew script. When brought to experts the script did indeed feature a form of the Ten Commandments, abbreviated, but still the basic text. Was it authentic or an elaborate hoax? You can go to the Johnson-Humrickhouse Museum in Coschocton, Ohio to see the stones for yourself.
2. In 1897, Alabama Senator John Tyler Morgan proposed that all immigrants be given a test to display mastery of the Ten Commandments in order to gain American citizenship. He claimed that it was not a religious test but rather a “test that goes to the constitution of society.”
3. In 1905, the Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco revealed the stain glass window of its newly constructed synagogue. At first glance, the window seemed to depict a traditional scene of Moses descending from Mount Sinai with the stone tablets in his hand. Closer examination, however, revealed that the mountain in the background was not Mount Sinai, nor were the flora and fauna that of Israel. Rather, El Capitan of the Yosemite Valley loomed in the background, complete with the plant and animal life of central California, refiguring the Golden State as the Promised Land.
4. In 1921, the Chicago Tribune’s “Inquiring Reporter” asked people on the street if they could recite the Ten Commandments. Most could not. One man, G.H. Moy, a railroad employee, claimed as a boy he could “recite them backwards,” but with the passing of enough time, he “just naturally forgot them.”
5. The original 1923 Cecil B. DeMille film The Ten Commandments cost $1.5 million dollars to make (around $21.3 million dollars today) and utilized the largest set ever built at the time in the desert of Guadalupe, California. The cast numbered in the thousands, plus some three thousand animals, including camels, horses, mules, goats, and guinea hens. The parting of the Red Sea scene was filmed in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, and was a source of awe for all who saw it. Regarding the scene where Moses receives the Ten Commandments, The New York Times wrote, “There has been nothing on film so utterly impressive as the thundering and belching forth of one commandment after another.”
6. In the early to mid-1950s, Cecil B. DeMille enlisted the Fraternal Order of Eagles to help in the production of life-size stone tablets to be placed in cities around the country. The goal was two-pronged: to spread the message of the Ten Commandments in alignment with the history of the Eagles’ tradition of do-gooding and also to promote DeMille’s soon to be released film. For Judge E.J. Ruegemer, a Minnesotoan and Eagle, who had successfully pushed for paper versions of the Ten Commandments to be posted in juvenile courts throughout America, DeMille had a copy of the Ten Commandments carved out of the red granite of Mount Sinai itself.
7. The remake and expansion of The Ten Commandments cost $13.5 million dollars to make and was filmed on location in Egypt and Mt. Sinai, outdoing its own initial extravagance, and debuted to unanimous praise in 1956. In interviews, DeMille frequently claimed that The Ten Commandments was “as modern as this morning’s newspaper” and that one reason for the films massive success was because it was a testament to the power of democracy and the imperatives of brotherhood. Historically speaking, the film’s subject matter, although ancient, was utilized at a time when America needed a lodestone to unite itself internally and differentiate itself from the other postwar (and Godless) hegemon, the USSR.
8. In 1963, during the Birmingham demonstrations, Martin Luther King, Jr. required every participant, ranging from the demonstrators to those working the phones, to sign a pledge of nonviolence modeled on the Ten Commandments. For example, “WALK AND TALK in the manner of love, for God is love. SEEK to perform regular service for others and for the world. FOLLOW the directions of the movement and of the caption on a demonstration.”
9. Laura Schlessinger’s 1998 bestseller, The Ten Commandments: The Significance of God’s Laws in Everyday Life, co-written with Rabbi Stewart Vogel, took the format and traditional basis of the Ten Commandments and mixed them with pop psychology and self-help panache to repackage the Decalogue for contemporary life. Featuring catchphrases like “Have you hugged your kids lately?,” “Adultery: just say no,” and “Time-out!,” the original brevity and list format of the Decalogue have made it particularly conducive to the sorts of quick and punchy phrases that continue to thrive under the reign of advertising and the commercialization of everyday life.
10. In 2005, the Supreme Court heard two cases relating to the display of the Ten Commandments and its relationship to the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment. The court ruled in favor of removing the Decalogue from two county courthouses in Kentucky, but then ruled against removing a stone display on the grounds of the Texas state capitol building. The rationale of the court was based in a distinction between active and passive displays. The association of the Kentucky courts with the Decalogue “actively” promoted its role in the government, whereas the display on the grounds of the capitol building “passively” recognized the role that the Ten Commandments have played in the history of America.
All material has been derived and adapted from Set in Stone: America’s Embrace of the Ten Commandments by Jenna Weissman Joselit.
Featured image credit: Tablet with ten commandments, Civic Center Park, Denver, Colorado, USA by Daderot. CC0 public domain via Wikimedia Commons.