Robbins: Freedom of worship and the strange case of Warder Cresson |

Robbins: Freedom of worship and the strange case of Warder Cresson

This is the 12th part of an ongoing series on seminal cases in American law.

Warder Cresson was … well … strange. He was also the first American consul to Jerusalem. Seized with the evangelical fervor of the age, Cresson was convinced that the Second Coming was nigh, to come in 1847 to be precise. And Warder Cresson meant to claim a front-row seat.

Cresson’s main qualification for the job of counsul-general was his messianic zeal and his connection to then-Secretary of State John Clahoun, who prevailed upon President John Tyler to appoint him.

Cresson and his contingent arrived in the Holy Land with drooling passion along with great pompt and fanfare. Almost at once, he announced to the ruling pasha that he had come to witness the apocalypse. Dipolmats shortly informed the president that his delegate to Jerusalem was “a religious maniac and madman.”

Testing the First Amendment

By design, the United States Constitution takes a hands-off approach to religion.  The operative part of the First Amendment provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”  In time, in his own sort of thrashing way, Warder Cresson would test that most fundamental precept of the Constitution.

Born to a well-to-do Quaker family, before arriving in Jerusalem, Cresson had spent two decades trying on the coats of half-a-dozen different apocalyptic cults, along the way abandoning his wife and six children. At different times, he had been a Shaker, a Millerite, a Mormon and a Campbellite before, at last, he became convinced that return of the Jews to Jerusalem would assure the second coming.  Cresson adopted this — literally — as an article of faith. His faith, though flighty, was deep, abiding and maniacally sincere.

Ultimately the president tired of Cresson’s schtick and relieved him of his duties. But that did little, if anything, to deter Cresson. For several years, he continued to issue visas for the protection of Jews, converted to Judaism and changed his name to Michael Boaz Israel (or, more formally, Michoel Boaz Yisroel ben Avraham).

This was too much for his beleaguered wife.

Elizabeth Townsend Warder sued to have her wayward husband declared insane.

The peripatetic Warder Cresson-cum-Michael Boaz Israel jumped on a boat and sailed back from the Holy Land to Philadelphia to answer to the inquisition of lunacy which soon took on the buzz of the O.J. Simpson trial of its time.

What was at stake in an admittedly roundabout way was the precept of religious freedom. What the long-suffering Mrs. Cresson was testing was the constitutional right of an American citizen to believe whatever he or she desired. Hers was a frontal assault on the First Amendment. Could Warder-cum-Michael slake his religious fervor with what Mrs. Cresson believed was any cockamamie thought that flitted through what was surely his deluded brain? Wouldn’t her success in doing so stomp on the very essence of Jeffersonian liberty?

At the trial, Warder Cresson was found to be insane.

But that was not the end of it.

He appealed and a retrial was ordered.

In the second legal bout, which went on for six days and entailed nearly 100 witnesses, the woebegone Mrs. Cresson lost. Warder/Michael, the court ruled, whoever the heck he wanted to be, could be, think, or believe any religious thing he wanted. There was no restraint on thought or the pursuit of religious satisfaction.

Cresson returned, triumphant, to Jerusalem. He established a model Jewish farm, studied the Torah, divorced his wife and remarried a woman who was more aligned with the religious paroxysms that dominated his actions and his thoughts, and fathered three more children.

What the strange case of Warder Cresson affirmed was that the First Amendment meant what it said; that there could be no state-aided constraint on the exercise of one’s religious convictions, however odd, or like the rebounding of a Pachinko ball it may appear to others. Every citizen was entitled to accord with his/her beliefs and conscience.  The state would not and could not aid or abet one set of beliefs or systems to be superior to any other.

Law, like God, at times works in mysterious ways. What often seems at first blush like a plain vanilla dispute between two parties — take the domestic woes between Mrs. Cresson and her errant husband (or Rosa Parks refusing to give up her bus seat, or Earl Gideon establishing the Sixth Amendment’s right to counsel, or Ernesto Miranda affirming an accused Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination) — can  ripple out and have repercussions far beyond the nut of the initial dispute. In fact, at law at least, that is more the norm than the exception. It is the rare case where a party expressly sets out to make or challenge the law. 

More often, what starts out as a private dispute swells with importance. Such then was the strange case of Warder Cresson who became a respected member of his adopted community and is buried on the Mount of Olives within easy view of the Old City of his beloved Jerusalem.

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