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Atheist And Chief Justice Marshall

( Originally Published 1902 )

HOW fortunate our Government was, at the beginning, in its judicial as well as executive and legislative departments. What a providence there was in the appointment of John Marshall as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States ! The centennial of his elevation to the Supreme judiciary was celebrated February 4, 1901, in a becoming manner at Washington, Richmond, and many of the great cities of the country. One has said of him, " By common consent, almost, he is pictured in the public mind as holding together the sovereign States, welding and solidifying them into a greater and nobler union than even the founders of the Government dreamed of as possible.' The bar and the bench consider him an ideal man, the ablest lawyer of his generation, the unrivaled jurist whose interpretation of the Constitution has never ceased to be a standard, the public man whose services to the people as a soldier, diplomat, statesman and judge entitle him to a place in the American heart, not inferior to the place occupied by Washington and Lincoln."

John Marshall was as deep in his religious convictions, and as consistent in his Christian life as he was great as a lawyer, or renowned as a jurist. His splendid character gave additional weight to his opinions, and his spiritual nature irradiated his life and gave to it an inexpressible charm. One evening Justice Marshall rode up to the village hotel at Winchester, Virginia, in his little two-wheel buggy. The gig was in a dilapidated condition. One of the shafts had broken and was tied up with a piece of hickory bark. He was never very careful about his clothing, and he looked peculiarly weatherbeaten that evening. The people at the hotel took him to be an ordinary traveler. After supper the gentlemen guests gathered in the office, as was the custom, for chat or debate. The question of the Christian religion was introduced. A brilliant young lawyer, an atheist, had seemed to get the best of the others in his argument, and, turning to the stranger, who had remained silent, he said, "My old gentleman, what do you think of these things? " Chief Justice Marshall had scarcely opened his mouth before lightning struck the young man, argumentatively speaking, and killed him before he knew it. Those who were there say they never heard or read such a masterly defence of Christianity, nor such a fearful arraignment of the folly and sin of atheism.

Chief Justice Fuller and the late Chief Justice Waite have both made mention of the fact that John Marshall never retired at night without offering the Lord's Prayer and the little child's prayer, " Now I lay me down to sleep." In these times, when some think it smart to doubt, and that it is an evidence of intellectual ability to reject God and his revealed truth, it is well to remember that John Marshall, one of the greatest minds and lawyers and judges that this or any other country ever produced, was a simple, sincere, childlike believer in God and his Word.

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