Great Christian Jurists in English History

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Mark Hill, R. H. Helmholz
Law and Christianity
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , June
     372 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


How ought Christian faith to impact the practice of law? Is one’s faith something to remain hidden below the surface, informing private matters of morality and motivation, but rarely making a formal appearance? Or should it have a more overt impact, measured perhaps in distinctively Christian patterns of thought or references to scripture? One helpful way of exploring these questions is to examine the lives and writings of those who have fought the good fight in years past, to see what insights may be appropriated today. The Great Christian Jurists series, forming part of the broader Cambridge Studies in Law and Christianity series, aims to do just that. Great Christian Jurists in English History is the first in the Great Christian Jurists series; a companion volume examining Spanish jurists has also been published. 

Great Christian Jurists in English History is a collection of essays written by leading experts on fourteen distinguished Christian jurists, many of whom were famous judges, from Henry of Bratton (Bracton) to Lord Denning. The typical format of each chapter is to present a brief overview of the jurist’s life and career, including any key religious influences; to expound any distinctive views held by the jurist; and to discuss the impact that Christianity had on his life or views (all jurists treated in this volume were men). The choice of jurists is broad in its acceptance of what counts as “Christian.” In at least one case—that of F. W. Maitland—perhaps too broad. Of course, the easiest complaint that could be leveled at a volume of this nature would be the choice of jurists made by the editors. The volume avoids triumphalism or hagiography; for instance, we learn of the irascible and parsimonious Lord Kenyon, whose miserly ways and threadbare clothes were the laughing stock of the profession (238–39). In another chapter we read that Lord Mansfield “left an imprint on virtually every branch of the law,” having practically invented modern commercial law, but was unwilling to challenge the government’s authority (190, 192). 

A summary or analysis of every chapter is beyond the scope of this review, but some highlights include a chapter explaining Coke’s battle against popery and defending the supremacy of the common law (chapter 5) and a revisionist chapter on Richard Hooker which seeks to reintegrate him within the juristic (as opposed to solely theological) canon, and which contains a helpful overview of Hooker’s view of natural law (chapter 6). A chapter written by John Witte, which incorporates material from an article by Harold J. Berman, explains the “integrative jurisprudence” of John Selden, encompassing elements of natural law, legal positivism, and historical jurisprudence (chapter 7). A chapter on Matthew Hale emphasizes the breadth of his learning and many theological writings, which have typically been neglected (chapter 8). Singling out these chapters is not intended to minimize the contributions of other chapters, all of which contain valuable information. 

The impact of Christianity on the jurists selected is evident in a wide range of ways. Some chapters emphasise the jurist’s conduct on and off the bench as exemplifying Christian virtue (e.g., chapter 9); others emphasize Christianity’s impact on jurisprudential thinking (e.g., chapter 8); while others emphasise the impact of religious beliefs on judicial decision-making (e.g., chapters 11 and 15). This is not always presented in a positive light; in the case of Lord Kenyon, his desperation to preserve moral decency in public life “blinded his judgment” in the many cases of “criminal conversation” (i.e., adultery) he was called upon to decide (244). 

Great Christian Jurists presents a fascinating diversity in the interaction between faith and law, dependent among other things on the person’s character and temperament, as well as the relevant historical context. Perhaps, therefore, the key lesson of the book is that the relationship between Christianity and law in a person’s life is a complex one, not susceptible of one single authorized mode of expression. Faith can be expressed in more than one legitimate way and it would be inappropriate to attempt to contrive a single model or blueprint. 

The volume succeeds in providing a helpful overview of the life and contributions made by leading Christian jurists, and makes a welcome contribution to the Cambridge Studies in Law and Christianity series.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Benjamin B. Saunders is Senior Lecturer in Constitutional Law at Deakin University, Australia.

Date of Review: 
October 2, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mark Hill, QC is Associate or Visiting Professor at the Centre for Law and Religion, Cardiff University; the University of Pretoria; King's College London; and Notre Dame University, Sydney. His most recent book is The Confluence of Law and Religion (Cambridge, 2016). He is Consultant Editor of the Ecclesiastical Law Journal, a Recorder of the Crown Court, Deputy Judge of the Upper Tribunal and Chancellor of the Dioceses of Chichester, Leeds and Europe.

R. H. Helmholz is Ruth Wyatt Rosenson Distinguished Service Professor of Law at the University of Chicago. His most recent book is Natural Law in Court (2015), in which he traces the role played by the law of nature in legal practice of the courts of Europe, England and the United States from 1500 to the mid-nineteenth century.


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