Benefit of Clergy and Literacy Test Save First-Time Colonial American Offenders
|Read this and be set free.|
At first to accomplish this, the accused had to show up in court wearing ecclesiastical dress. This evolved into a literacy test by reading a passage from the Bible. Over time, the term changed to mean that for some crimes first-time offenders of any profession could see their sentences reduced. More often than not, the verse was Psalm 51. Consequently, it became known as the “neck verse,” because knowing it could save one's neck.
In theory, defendants had to be literate, but, since the test of literacy was most often Psalm 51, defendants could memorize the verse and hope that was the one they were asked to read. The literacy test was abolished in 1706, but the provision remained in force until 1827.
In the United States, section 31 of the Crimes Act of 1790 eliminated the benefit from federal courts. But it survived into the mid-19th century in some state courts. South Carolina, where I live, granted a defendant benefit of clergy in 1855. Many states have abolished the clergy benefit by statute or judicial decision; in others, it has fallen into disuse without formal abolition.
In my novel, Laurel, when my main character Lilyan Xanthakos is imprisoned in the Exchange Building Dungeon in Charleston, SC, she helps a female prisoner with the literacy test. Here's a short excerpt:
“Mr. McCord said, since each of us is charged for the first time, we can claim benefit of clergy. Depending on the judge, it could lessen our sentence or do away with it lock, stock, and barrel.”
“Benefit of clergy?” asked Lilyan.
“Some kind of way—I don’t understand why—we have to prove we can read,” Mildred answered. “Most often it happens by reading Psalm 51.”
“Them two can read, but …” Sally’s chin quivered. “Since I can’t, Mr. McCord says I gotta memorize it and hope and pray that’s the one they pick to test me.”
Susan F. Craft is the author of a historical romantic suspense trilogy that follows Lilyan and Nicholas Xanthakos from 1781 until 1799. The first in the trilogy is The Chamomile, published in 2011; the second, Laurel, was released on January 16 of this year; and the third, Cassia, will be released this coming September 2015.