Worldview of “Supreme Court Justice” by David Brewer


Supreme Court Justice David Brewer was born to Christian missionaries on 20th January 1837 in Turkey. His parents returned to the USA and David Brewer studied law and started a law practice in Kansas. After some years, he joined the Leavenworth courts as a judge and after some years, he was nominated to the Supreme Court where he served for about 20 years and died in 1910. The USA in the late 1800s and early 1900s was still developing as a democracy and while slavery had been abolished a few decades back, the whole society was in a transition with deep-rooted beliefs and traditions. Justice Brewer was wholeheartedly a Christian and his judgments can best be described as fair and without bigotry. There were many Christian groups in the country, this paper examines these groups briefly, and what they stood for. Further, the paper would attempt to place Justice Brewer in one of these categories and discuss how his religious beliefs influenced his rulings and judgments.

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According to Sekulow (2005, p. 23), Justice Brewer was an Evangelical Protestant – Modernists. According to David Green (2004, p. 56) “Modernists were those who claimed to be liberal or progressive in the context of movement identification and those without a movement identification who agreed in adopting modern religious beliefs and practices”.

As per the report of David Green (2004), Modern Evangelical Protestants believed that “Abortion was legal and up to the woman to decide (p, 40); ‘Best Foreign Policy is Human Rights (p, 38); Did not believe in religious persecution (p, 38); government should help the disadvantaged and the minorities (p, 28); did not believe in Free Trade (p, 22); supported economic issues (p, 17).

The hypothesis framed is that ‘Justice Brewer was an Evangelical Protestant – Modernist and this group believed modern concepts, supported minority rights and abortion issues, discouraged free trade and in general, supported the weaker groups. Justice Brewer did allow his personal beliefs to come in the way of judgments but also judged the case only on its merits.

Christian Groups in the USA

David Green (2004) has presented various categories of religious groups as of 2004 and while the percentage of these groups among the population would be different from the time when Justice Brewer lived, it can be assumed that the same percentage of these groups existed in those days. The following figure gives details of the religious groups and their various percentages in the demographics.

Religious Landscape and Self-Identified Partisanship
Figure 1.1. Religious Landscape and Self-Identified Partisanship (David Green, 2004, p. 3)

A brief discussion about these groups is given as below:

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  • Evangelical Protestants: This group was made of white people and was the largest group in the USA. The groups had large internal diversity and were made of subgroups such as traditionalists, centrists, and modernists. Traditionalists were highly orthodox and believed in the supremacy of the bible, believed in regular Church attendance, and wanted to preserve their beliefs in a changing world. Modernists had a lesser amount of religious attendance, were ready to accept the changing world and modern beliefs, and had a high amount of heterodox belief. Centrists were midway between these two groups and were ready to accept the changing world and its practices (David Green, 2004, p. 4).

Discussion of Some Cases, Articles, and Speeches by Justice Brewer

This section discusses some of the famous cases on which Justice Brewer was on the Bench and presided over the cases.

Speeches and Articles by Justice Brewer

Sekulow Jay, (2005) comments that Justice Brewer was an advocate of peace and strongly condemned war and other activities that threatened peace, supported Christianity as the faith for America, and also felt strongly about American citizenship, and was a very vocal supporter for protection of women’s rights. Justice Brewer wrote three articles The Pew for the Pulpit in 1897; American Citizenship in 1902 and The Mission of the United States in the Cause of Peace in 1909 that highlight the religious element. As a Supreme court judge, he did not give many speeches since in those days, Judges had to lead a sequestered life and not mix and interact with the public freely as it was felt that such interactions may create bias in the judgments.

One of his rare articles that appeared in a magazine (Brewer, 1905) speaks of what the Bible taught him. The honorable Justice writes that “the holy Book taught me to respect life and its diversities and though all men are not born equal, in the eyes of God, they are all equal and so they shall be judged“. Justice Brewer was a strong believer in social justice for women and the weaker sections of society and strongly advocated support and reform for women. He writes “in this age of reform, I see that the plight of women and Negroes has not changed and officially, the rights enjoyed or deprived for both are the same, a women cannot hold an office of importance, not allowed to vote and she is regarded as a mere toiler for the household and fit for only procreation“. This strong belief resulted in one of the landmark cases ‘In re Debs, 158 U.S. 564 (1895)’ where he ruled that women should not be made to work for more than 10 hours.

William E. Unrau, (1966) reports about a case in 1870 when he was serving as the judge of the first judicial district of Kansas and the case reflects Justice Brewer’s beliefs in property rights for the disadvantaged. The commander of the Department of Missouri, one Major Gen Pope John had ordered that livestock and horses of some Indians be seized since the commander felt that these were illegally obtained. Judge Brewer objected to this action and the commander wrote a rather inappropriate letter questioning the authority of the courts. A livid Judge Brewer wrote a stern letter to the commander and the senior commanding officer General Sherman reminding them that courts existed to give justice to the weaker sections of the society, who were ‘cowered down by the unruly might of the army’. Having severely censured the military machinery for “gross abrogation of the civil rights of disadvantaged US citizens in unlawfully seizing their rightful property” the honorable Justice Brewer ordered the reinstatement of the property and livestock in the condition that it was seized and to “make amends with suitable replacement for any damages to the property incurred during the seizure”. The thoroughly subdued commander complied and this is a very fine example of how Justice Brewer gave judgments in favor of the weaker sections of the society and this can be interpreted as a direct influence of the Christian philosophy that all men are equal in the eyes of God and the equal right to lawful property that an individual(s) own.

Being a Supreme court Justice, Mr. Brewer abstained from frequent public appearances but he gave one exemplary speech at the Washburn College, (June 1883). In this speech, against the allure that war causes among those who have not been left orphans or been wounded. This again is a direct influence of his Christian beliefs that did not advocate killing. He was vociferous in his denouncement of General Sherman and the false pride and the vainglorious portrayal of war and victory. Justice Brewer spoke:

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The soldier is not the ruler of a free people. He is by nature a despot. He speaks of force, not thought; of arms, not ideas. His ideal of society is the army where each individual is but one part of a vast machine moved with mechanical certainty and metallic rigidity by the central and absolute power. We forget the terrible ravages of that march, the burning towns’. the ruined farms, the desolated fields; we forget the thousand homes scattered all over the land’. where weeping eyes still cherish the sacred tear for the loved one whose footsteps shall echo on the threshold no more forever; we forget that, even as the great commander himself said, war is hell; we remember that Sherman broke the shell of the Confederacy’. and ended the Rebellion, and today he is General of the army, while huzzas of brave men and kisses of fair women follow him from ocean to ocean, and many an ambitious youth looks lovingly on his gilded epaulets”. (Washburn College, (1883)

Justice Brewer was a strong advocate of peace and believed in arbitration rather than war and this is a direct influence of his modernist Christian beliefs. Those days were just after the Civil War and while the war had officially ended, peace had not yet settled in. In another of his addresses to the Detroit American Bar Association, he commented on arbitration:

“[T] he growing number of successful arbitrations and the progress being made towards the establishment of a world tribunal to adjudicate international conflict is very encouraging. Notions of a “parliament of man” and a world federation were, impractical dreams; a far more realistic proposal for insuring peace was adjudication by international courts. The lawyer and the judge, would lead the way…” (Detroit, 1896),)

America in the 1890s was a war-mongering nation and everyone who mattered, including Judges and Congress representatives, advocated the language of war and all these people were Christians. Justice Brewer, it can be said was the only true Christian who was outspoken against war and this is reflected in the address he gave to West Point Cadets in 1897 when he pointed out to soldiers and cadets that their highest duty was to serve as defenders of law and the guardians of peace. Soundly criticizing and ridiculing the approach taken by war veterans society Justice Brewer commented that “[S]uch organizations must have their local branches, and each with a roster of officials startling in number and amusing with the magnificence of their titles; presidents and president generals and honorary presidents…. It seems sometimes as though the dictionary had been ransacked not merely to find titles but adjectives to adorn those titles“. (West Point, 1897).

The above discussion has demonstrated the deep impact that the Bible had on Justice Brewer and these are reflected in his articles on the influence that the bible had, property rights cases, women’s rights cases, and the speeches he made for peace.

Church of the Holy Trinity v. the United States, 143 U.S. 457 (1892)

Holy Trinity Church v. the United States, 143 U.S. 457 (1892), was presided by the honorable Justice Mr. David Brewer and it was about employment contracts that the New York-based The Church of the Holy Trinity had entered into with a Preacher from England.

Facts and Issues of the Case

Facts of the case are that the US Congress had enacted an act that was meant to ban the migration and import of aliens and foreign workers into US Territories under any type of contract or work agreement. The Church of the Holy Trinity, herein called Holy Trinity had entered into a work contract with a Pastor from England and he was required to carry out services for the church. The issue was if the Church had violated the provisions of the act that did not allow any company, individual, corporation, or a partnership to aid and abet the migration of any kind of alien to perform service or labor in the USA under any type of contract or agreement (Cushman, Clare, 2001).

The decision of the Honorable Court

The honorable court under the Chair of Justice Brewer ruled that this case found that the Holy Trinity had not violated any act as the Pastor was a toiler of the brain and he could not be classified as a manual laborer. The act was meant to prohibit the import and migration of manual labor and unskilled labor and further, the act was meant to clamp down on the habits of capitalists and industry owners who imported cheap labor and made American citizens jobless. However, the subject Reverend could not be classified as a laborer and so he should be allowed to work in the USA.

What makes the case so important is that Justice Brewer observed that right from the time when the continent was discovered when Clumbers claimed the land in the name of the Lord, to the declarations by the colonists who declared that the colonies were dedicated to the will of God, various preamble and statements in the constitution where the will of God has been mentioned in several instances that Christianity was the religion on which USA was founded [143 U.S. 457, 469]. So the inference that Justice Brewer drew was to state the US was founded on Christian principles and that while Christianity was the accepted faith of the founders and found its way into all areas of legislation, the USA was essentially a Christian nation. The judgment further showed that preachers from other religions should also be allowed to work in the country (Paul Finkelman, 2006).

The judgment does not attempt to portray the USA as a nation of only Christians or that other faith should be excluded and this distortion by later authors is wrong as the case did not deal with Christianity but attempted to frame the difference between foreign workers who toiled with the brain and foreign workers who did manual labor and effected the job prospects of Americans. The judgment shows how the Evangelical Protestant – Modernist beliefs of the honorable judge may have influenced this landmark decision.

In re Debs, 158 U.S. 564 (1895)

In the ‘In re Debs, 158 U.S. 564 (1895) Justice Brewer delivered the opinion of the court and the bench made of nine other Justice’s.

Facts and Issues of the Case

Facts of the case are that Eugene V. Debs who was the president of the American Railroad Union and the union he led had gone on strike against the Pullman car company to demand better wages and fewer working hours. The Pullman Strike as it was called had almost paralyzed the whole Railway industry and caused immense distress to people. A federal injunction had declared the strike illegal and had given orders for the union members to resume their duties. Eugene V. Debs had refused to resume work and end the strike and the case was then sent to the Supreme court where he appealed the lower court’s decision.

The issue here was if the federal government had any right to issue order injunctions on a matter that dealt with rail cars and rolling stock for intrastate and interstate shipping and commerce. The honorable court ruled that since this was a matter of large public convenience and dealt with public distress and not a particular business organization, the federal government was authorized to pass these injunctions. The court ordered the union to end the strike (Michal R. Belknap, 1994).

The decision of the honorable court

After hearing the deliberations of the plaintiffs and the defendants, the court observed that the amount of business conducted through the railroads in the city of Chicago was very huge and affected the livelihood of millions of citizens of not only Chicago but other states as well. The stockyard had very strategic importance and as per the terms of the agreement, the Pullman Company was obliged to carry out the work of transporting freight, passengers, livestock, and assist in the movement of the military. The issue here was of public importance and not of a private company. By hindering the movement of the freight, by asking other workers to stop their work and abandon the running of the rolling stock, the accused had caused great public agony and distress. The court ruled that such wanton acts could not be allowed in the greater public interests and ordered the striking people to immediately begin work (Michal R. Belknap, 1994).

The USA in those times supported the labor unions and the courts favored the working class whenever cases of labor disputes came up for hearing. The judgment shows how the Evangelical Protestant – Modernist beliefs of the honorable judge may have influenced this landmark decision of setting aside the soft corner for the working class and gave greater importance to the larger public welfare and this banned the strike.

Muller v. Oregon, 208 U.S. 412 (1908)

Muller v. Oregon, 208 U.S. 412 (1908) was a case in which Justice Brewer served on the bench as an associate member and passed a landmark judgment that placed restrictions on the maximum number of hours that women could work.

Facts and Issues of the Case

The facts of the case are that the defendant Curt Muller who owned a laundry had forced a women employee to work for more than 10 hours on the same day. This violated the Oregon state labor laws for protecting the health of women and he was fined 10 USD. Muller later appealed to the Supreme Court saying the penalty was unjust and prayed for the sentence to be revoked (Hall, Kermit, et al., 1992).

Issues of the case are that it should be noted that this case was decided in 1908 when women were regarded as second-class citizens, they did not have any rights and even were not allowed to vote. Muller who was White prayed to the court that the law was unjust as the subject was a woman and said “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.’ [208 U.S. 412, 418]. Because the statute does not apply equally to all persons similarly situated, and is class legislation” (OUP, 2005).

The decision of the honorable court

Justice Brewer turned down the appeal of the defendant and justified the court’s decision by saying that women have a weaker physical structure and have to perform childbearing and rearing and other maternal functions that motherhood forces on them. The ill-effects of working for more than 10 hours and doing manual duty would tend to have a detrimental effect on the woman and her offspring’s so the woman becomes a subject of public interest and it is essential for the court to preserve her health. The honorable Judge, before passing the judgment had perused social science welfare reports on the conditions of the working women and the harm that excessive labor caused to them (Becker, Mary E., 1986).

The judgment received mixed reactions and while it was welcomed by working women, certain women’s rights groups expressed dissatisfaction since it would weaken their demand for equal pay and limited their work opportunities since employers could now legally bypass women for any free working contracts (Becker, Mary E., 1986).

The judgment shows how the Evangelical Protestant – Modernist beliefs of the honorable judge may have influenced this landmark decision in providing women who were minorities and formed the weaker sections of the society. This case was based on Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45 (1905), in which the Baker Lochner was had been penalized for making bakers work for more than 10 hours. The learned bench, including Justice Brewer, decided in Lochner’s favor and vacated the sentence saying that the right of an individual to free contract cannot be policed by the state and since the Bakery trade was not regarded as unhealthy like a miner’s professions are, the honorable court ruled in Lochners favor (Tushnet, Mark, 2008).

Fong Yue Ting v. the United States, 149 U.S. 698 (1893)

Fong Yue Ting v. the United States, 149 U.S. 698 (1893), dealt with the series of cases for exclusion of Chinese emigrant labor from working in the USA.

Facts and Issues of the Case

As per 149 U.S. 698, the government has the right to expel or allow any alien immigrant from entering and working in the USA. The said Chinese emigrant Fong Yue Ting had been caught without a work permit and he had been brought before the judge and it was further deposed that the laborer was staying in the USA without a work permit. The authorities took him into custody and asked the authorities to deport him. The case came up before the honorable court, presided by Justice Brewer who ruled that the emigrant was staying illegally for some years and did not have a residence permit, so he should be deported.

The issue here was a right of an individual to work in the country taking up an honest profession of a laborer and if the state had the power to take away this right. The defendant pointed out that he had indeed approached the appellate authority for registration but the said authority refused to register the emigrant and further refused to accept the testimony of people who had come as witnesses because they were Chinese. During those times, there was a great uproar and widespread anger among the public against the emigrant Chinese labor who were ready to work for very low wages and who forced the local Americans out of work (Samuel B. Crandall, 2005).

The decision of the honorable court

The court ruled that emigrants who fail to comply with the required regulations regarding registration and other regulatory issues had to face the consequences of the law and face deportation. If this framework was not observed, then the USA would become a target for massive emigration of people from all over the world. The subject was consequently deported.

It can be argued that Justice Brewer fell to the general clamor and uproar that Americans were expressing against emigrant labor. Emigrant laborers were often employed by the large railroad and other organizations and they were ready to work for very cheap rates. This behavior was not only illegal but was forcing Americans into joblessness. The judgment of Justice Brewer is contradictory to what the Evangelical Protestant – Modernist beliefs may have given to the learned judge, namely caring for the minority and poorer sections. However, the learned judge preferred to be pragmatic and may have realized that the problem of illegal emigrants had to be resolved and settled once for all and hence this adverse judgment (Samuel B. Crandall, 2005).


The paper has examined the religious groups of the USA, particularly the Christian religious groups and has understood the Justice Brewer belonged to the Evangelical Protestant – Modernist group of Christians. This group supports minority groups, is more tolerant about other religions, cares for women, and also tends to favor the weaker sections of the society. A hypothesis was framed that “Justice Brewer did not allow his personal beliefs to come in the way of judgments and judged the case only on its merits”.

Four cases that were judged by Justice Brewer were presented and these have shown that while Justice Brewer was influenced by his religious beliefs, the details of the judgment showed he judged the cases only on their merits and for social causes based on what was ethical and what was just.


Becker, Mary E. (1986). From Muller v. Oregon to Fetal Vulnerability Policies. University of Chicago Law Review, Volume 53, Issue 4, pp: 1219–1273.

Brewer, (1905), What I Have Gained from Bible Teaching, article from unidentified magazine, Brewer Papers, Box 3.

Cushman, Clare (2001). Supreme Court Decisions and Women’s Rights: Milestone to Equality. Washington, DC. Congressional Quarterly. pp: 17–18.

David Green, On The American Religious Landscape and Political Attitudes: A Baseline for 2004. Web.

Detroit, (1896), Brewer: A Better Education the Great Need of the Profession, Address to the Bar Association of America, Detroit , The American Lawyer, 4 (13).

Fong Yue Ting v. United States, 149 U.S. 698 (1893). Web.

Hall, Kermit, et al. (1992). The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press. pp: 78-89.

Holy Trinity Church v. United States, 143 U.S. 457 (1892). Web.

In re Debs, 158 U.S. 564 (1895). Web.

Linda Przybyszewski, The Religion of a Jurist: Justice David J. Brewer and the Christian Nation (2002), Journal of Supreme Court History, Volume 25, Issue 3, Pages 228 – 242.

Michal R. Belknap (1994), American Political Trials: Revised, Expanded Edition (Contributions in American History), Praeger Paperback.

Muller v. Oregon, 208 U.S. 412 (1908). Web.

OUP, (2005), The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States. Oxford University Press. pp: 247-279.

Paul Finkelman (2006), The Encyclopedia of American Civil Liberties, Volume I, Routledge Publication.

Samuel B. Crandall (2005), Treaties, Their Making And Enforcement, Lawbook Exchange.

Sekulow Jay, (2005), Witnessing Their Faith: Religious Influence on Supreme Court Justices and Their Opinions, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, USA.

Tushnet, Mark, (2008). I dissent: Great Opposing Opinions in Landmark Supreme Court Cases. Boston: Beacon Press, p: 81–92. ISBN 9780807000366.

Washburn College, (1883), Brewer: The Scholar in Politics, Commencement Exercises, Washburn College, (Manhattan, KS, n. p.: 1883), 23-24.

West Point, (1897), Brewer, The Twentieth Century from Another Viewpoint, Fleming H. Revell Company, New York, p: 23.

William E. Unrau, (1966), Joseph G. McCoy and Federal Regulation of the Cattle Trade, The Colorado Magazine, 43 36-38; unidentified clipping, scrapbook, David B. Karrick Papers, Yale University.

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