The Fifth Commandment: Honouring ‘Father’ and ‘Mother’

Jonathan Willis

(For the first, introductory post in the series, click here)

justinian-law-codexThe Fifth Commandment was the first precept in the Second Table of the Reformed Decalogue, heading the list of precepts which ordered man’s relationship with his fellow man.  The Edwardian reformer and Bishop of Gloucester John Hooper, in his Declaration of the Ten Commandments of Almighty God, explained that in the Second Table ‘is prescribed how, and by what means, one man may live with another in peace and unity in this civil life, during the time of this mortal body upon the earth’.  None of the great lawmakers of the classical world – Lycurgus, Plato, Cicero, Constantine, Justinian – individually or together had ‘prescribed so perfect and absolute a form of a politic wealth, as Almighty God hath done unto his people in this second table and six rules’.[1]  The Fifth Commandment provided for obedience to authority, the sixth provided for peace, the seventh for legitimate reproduction, the eighth for private property, and the ninth to facilitate the prosecution of transgressors.  ‘These be the fountain’, Hooper explained, ‘of all politic laws’.

The Fifth Commandment named the persons of father and mother because it was to them, after God, that mankind owed most reverence.  However, all expositions of the commandments then immediately made clear that ‘fathers’ and ‘mothers’ were not only to be read literally, but also as metaphors for all manner of hierarchical relationships within and between superiors, inferiors, and also those of equal talents.  By fathers and mothers, therefore, could be read princes, magistrates, tutors, masters, doctors and teachers of the church, kinsfolk, elders, and many more besides.  And by honour, Hooper explained, was meant not just external reverence, but affection of the heart: the Hebrew original conveyed much better the duty ‘to set much by, to have in estimation, to prefer and extol’.

Mother Father and ChildUsing the labels ‘father and mother’ was much more than convenient metaphor, for it also helped to establish a moral, ethical and emotional framework against which all subjection was conditioned.  The language of parents and children established that subjection to authority was a natural state, one into which all Christians were automatically born, preparing them for a lifetime of different forms of servitude.  It taught inferiors to obey their superiors not only out of fear, but for love and duty.  However, and this is a crucial argument, it also established a duty of care for superiors, who ought to cherish their subjects with paternal (or maternal) affection, and ought not to exploit them but rather help, care for and protect them.  The metaphorical language of fathers and mothers accordingly inflected all forms of hierarchical relationships with the idealised duties and responsibilities of children towards parents, and also of parents towards children.

Natural fathers therefore had a duty to bring up children in the knowledge and discipline of God.  They had to see them educated in a trade, and settled in a loving and suitable marriage (or not at all).  Children, in turn, were obliged to obey their parents when young, and to provide for them in old age, including seeing them soberly and reverently buried after death.  Princes and magistrates had a duty to love the commonwealth and its members as a father his sons.  In a series of thinly veiled references to Henry VIII, Hooper criticised rulers who sought to profit from ecclesiastical wealth, trusted and gloried too much in their own might and power, and who had too many wives ‘lest they should withdraw his heart from God’.  Indeed, the first charge of the magistrate was to see the people instructed in God’s laws, and to this extent a range of authors referred to kings as custos utriusque tabulae, guardians of the tables of the law.

article-2207935-0b562a83000005dc-581_634x409Servants accordingly had a duty to obey their masters – to avoid ‘eye-service’ (i.e. only working when they were being observed) and not to blaze their masters’ infirmities abroad to the ruin of their reputation – but masters also had a duty to keep their servants well housed and fed, not to overburden them with too much work, and to look to their health and especially their spiritual education.  Parishioners had a duty to esteem their minister, listen to him, attend service and to maintain him through prompt and regular payment of the tithe, but ministers also had duties to preach the word, properly minister the sacraments, and to care diligently for their flocks in and out of season.

The positive relationships outlined in expositions of the Fifth Commandment were certainly idealised, although in the criticism of sins to be avoided we can perhaps see some sharp commentary on common social problems, especially in the conduct of masters and servants.  The Fifth Commandment also contained a powerful promise of a blessing that the days of the obedient would be ‘long upon the land’.  This was usually interpreted as meaning that a life would be not only long, but also seasoned with health and comfort.  It could also mean, however, that if God took somebody before their time, it was only to bring them more speedily to heaven, and a life of eternal bliss.

[1] John Hooper, ‘A declaration of the Ten holy Commandments of Almighty God, 1548[9?]’, in Early Writings of John Hooper, ed. Samuel Carr (Cambridge: CUP, 1843), p. 352.

1 thought on “The Fifth Commandment: Honouring ‘Father’ and ‘Mother’

  1. Pingback: Reforming the Decalogue: A Blog Series Preface | the many-headed monster

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