On August 30, I published a post about the history of public displays of the Ten Commandments, and traced their beginnings to illuminated prints issued by the Fraternal Order of Eagles Youth Guidance Commission, led by Judge E.J. Ruegemer of St. Cloud, Minnesota. Well, eBay was watching as I searched for photos for the piece, and instantly offered me an ad for a sale of one of the Eagles’ prints from the 1950’s at a not-to-be-passed-up-price. (Damn you, eBay!) The piece arrived in the mail, and will soon be framed in my home as a treasured piece of religious/pop culture ephemera.
The front is a beautifully printed colorful rendering of a 1950’s reading of the Commandments. Included are some of the same nationalistic symbols present on the stone monuments that the Eagles and DeMille placed around the country.
On the back is a description of the piece from Judge Ruegemer, followed by endorsements from clergy, political figures, educators, and DeMille himself. This text is in tiny print, was difficult to scan, and contains numerous typos. One wonders if an overworked clerk or secretary for Judge Ruegemer had to compile and type up the paragraphs and quotes. I have transcribed the text for our readers’ viewing, with some of the idiosyncratic typographic style intact; the typographic errors, however, are corrected.
The date of the piece seems uncertain, as it mentions its beginning as a national project in 1953, after 7,000 copies were distributed as a test run. There is some mention of public display of granite monoliths, so that seems to have at least been in the works. DeMille is credited, however, not as the director of The Ten Commandments movie but as an employee of Paramount Pictures, which suggests the piece may not have been released before 1956.
The piece confirms a couple of points about the political situation of the mid-fifties as I spelled it out in my first post. The connection between the Ten Commandments and the behavior of American youth, particularly “juvenile delinquents,” is clear in Judge Ruegemer’s comments, as well as several of the other men’s quotes, particularly in Ruegemer’s citation of Proverbs 3:1-2: “My son, forget not the law, but let thine heart keep thy commandments, for length of days and long life shall they add to thee.” Secondly, despite the fact that the 1950’s and early 1960’s represented a high tide in religious identification and church attendance by Americans, many commentators of the era insisted, like educator Angelo Patri, that “Its message is sadly needed in the instruction of our children and young people so many of whom have but slight acquaintance, if any, with [the commandments].” In other words, despite the Ten Commandments being evoked repeatedly in the culture as an important nationalistic and moral symbol, not the least through DeMille’s massive film and the placement of granite monoliths in parks and in front of courthouses, supposedly American children were ignorant of their existence.
The connection to national security and resistance to communism is clear, particularly in Ruegemer’s insistence that placement and viewing of the Commandments would, “inspire in all who see it renewed respect for the Law of God, which is our great strength against the forces that threaten our way of life.”
Finally, here we can see the groundwork being laid for the later culture war battles over placement of the Commandments, particularly in Rev’s Ray and Harry Dodgson’s insistence that putting the Commandments in public places does not violate the separation of church and state. The implication being here that some citizens would believe them to be a violation of separation of church and state, and in a less conformist time, would challenge the placement of the Commandments in public places.
Throughout the quotes, there seems to be a confident assertion that the Ten Commandments were crucial to the formation of American democracy and to the founders’ conception of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Although by the time of Judge Roy Moore, the concerns had changed from communism and juvenile delinquency to issues like abortion, homosexuality, divorce, and the role of women, those who evoked the Commandments, rightly or wrongly, as a charter for American democracy would continue using many of the same arguments about the piety of the American founders and their reverence for “God’s Law.”
A note on the contributors: I suspected with J. Edgar Hoover’s endorsement of this project, as well as the comments of DeMille, who was by this time a rabid anti-communist crusader, that the rest of the quotes would come from other right-wing “better dead than Red” ideologues. Cursory research suggests they were not. Angelo Patri was a respected progressive educator influenced by the great American reformer John Dewey. Garry Myers was a child psychologist who founded Highlights for Children as a means of gently reinforcing positive values and socialization of children through stories and pictures. Luther W. Youngdahl was a respected moderate Republican former governor of Minnesota who was appointed to the Federal bench by Harry Truman, and who, at times, stood up for free speech during the McCarthy era. And as I stated in the previous post, Ruegemer himself initiated this program of using the Ten Commandments as a youth instruction program in order to avoid sending a sixteen year-old boy to jail for stealing a car — hardly a “tough on crime” response. Except for J. Edgar Hoover and the entertainment industry insiders like DeMille and Fulton Oursler, these men seem to represent a model of decency and humility in public service that is in short supply these days. Whatever we think of posting the Commandments publicly, perhaps these men’s example of thoughtful community concern is the most important legacy this artifact can leave to us today.
The Ten Commandments
Presented to Moses on Mount Sinai by the hand of God as two stone tablets, the Ten Commandments stand today after more than 3500 years as God’s law to the human race. The first three are our obligations to God—the last seven our obligations to our fellow men. They are a pattern for our human relations. All the laws of the Country dealing with human relations are based upon the Ten Commandments.
Since the establishment of the Youth Guidance Commission by the Grand Aerie of the Fraternal Order of Eagles, numerous successful projects have been undertaken throughout the country. There has been the challenge that a single project, designed to be acceptable to all Eagle Aeries in the jurisdiction and one which would promote a practical program of youth Guidance be conceived and sponsored on the national level. After several years of careful study the Minnesota Youth Guidance Committee concluded that there can be no substitute, no more defined, nor better program of youth development than the original program presented by God, The Ten Commandments, since echoing down the ages we hear the words: “My son, forget not the law, but let thine heart keep thy Commandments, for length of days and long life shall they add to thee.”
After consultation over a period of years with the clergy of many denominations, noted artists were employed to produce this illuminated print, incorporating a universally acceptable translation of the Ten Commandments from the Old Testament, ornated in multi-color and including many significant symbols. Included in the art scheme is the American Emblem , the emblem of the Fraternal Order of Eagles; the two tablets of the Ten Commandments; the All Seeing Eye of God, superimposed on the triangle; the Stars of David; the Greek Letters Chi Rho, being the first two letters of Christ. This latter symbol also having the appearance of the intersecting letters PX has been interpreted as an abbreviation of Pax, meaning peace.
This program was first initiated on the state level by the Minnesota State Aerie for the purpose of testing its universal acceptance, and after the presentation of more than 7000 copies, principally by aeries within the state, but also with some active participation by aeries outside of Minnesota, the project was in December 1953 adopted as a national youth guidance project.
Presentations of the Ten Commandments are being made by local aeries or individual members thereof to Juvenile, District, Municipal and other courts, to churches, schools, civil and fraternal organizations and other agencies serving youth. It is the further aim of this great fraternity that ultimately every Eagle home may be identified by the display therein of the Ten Commandments.
The Constitution of the United States and the Declaration of Independence show concrete evidence that the authors, the founders of this great nation, were inspired by a belief in God and his Commandments.
It is a pleasure therefore to present to you this beautiful illuminated version of the Ten Commandments. May it inspire in all who see it renewed respect for the Law of God, which is our great strength against the forces that threaten our way of life. It furnishes a means of reaffirming our faith in the fundamental precepts of democracy and freedom.
If we work upon marble, it will perish;
If we work upon brass, time will efface it,
If we rear temples they will tumble into dust,
But if we work upon immortal souls,
If we imbue them with principles,
With the just fear of the Creator and love of our fellow men,
We engrave on those tables something
Which will brighten all eternity.
YOUTH GUIDANCE COMMISSION FRATERNAL ORDER OF EAGLES
Chairman, Judge District Court, St. Cloud, Minnesota
The Ministerial Association of St. Cloud heartily endorses the project of the Fraternal Order of Eagles in their publicizing of the Ten Commandments. We feel that the nationwide response to this project is indicative of its validity, and we are of the definite opinion that the distribution of copies of the Ten Commandments as well as erection of granite monoliths, even on public property, does not in any way nullify the “separation of church and state.” Since our country was founded upon religious principles and the law of God, we consider this method of publicizing the Ten Commandments to be worthy of the support of all good citizens.
Rev. Ray B. and Rev. Harry S. Dodgson, Past Presidents, Special Committee
on “Ten Commandments,” Ministerial Association, St. Cloud, Minnesota
One can only write words of commendation to the Fraternal Order of Eagles for their worthy projects of keeping before the minds of the American people, the Ten Commandments of God. The Divine Law as expressed in the commandments is the basis of all law. Respect and obedience to this Divine Law gives birth to respect for human law, which in turn develops good citizenship in our nation. As a Catholic bishop, I give my blessing to this project and trust that much spiritual and moral good shall come to our people in this nation for this worthy effort.
+ P.W. Bartholome, D.D.
Bishop of St. Cloud
There is great wisdom in the conclusion of the Minnesota Youth Guidance Commission, i.e., that there can be no substitute and certainly no more defined nor better program of youth guidance than the original program presented by God, the Ten Commandments. In my opinion this is indeed a wonderful project and I shall deem it an honor to add my endorsement. My every good wish is extended to you in this noble undertaking.
Author of the Greatest Story Ever Told,
Author of The Greatest Book Ever Written
The Fraternal Order of Eagles is rendering a significant service to our country in its project of encouraging obedience to the will and law of God as declared in the Ten Commandments. We adults can place before our youth no finer example than by indicating our belief that our lives should be guided by the Divine Law.
Luther W. Youngdahl
Judge of the United States District Court, Washington D.C.
I think you could not have had a greater idea for Youth Guidance than to re-state and re-affirm God’s ageless pattern for human conduct. Every constitution conceived by man has found the need for amendment, but the Ten Commandments have stood unaltered, not only as a guide for youth, but as a path to be followed by all men of good will—a path which could lead us to Peace on Earth.
Cecil B. DeMille,
Paramount Pictures Corporation
I would like to see the Ten Commandment scroll posted in every school and library in the country. Its message is sadly needed in the instruction of our children and young people so many of whom have but slight acquaintance, if any, with them, (the commandments). All thoughtful people will thank you and the Order for this contribution to the Youth of America.
Educator and Author
The program of the Fraternal Order of Eagles to distribute illuminated prints of the Ten Commandments to our country’s youth in order to foster observance of God’s Laws is a most worthy one and merits sympathetic and zealous support.
John Edgar Hoover,
Director Federal Bureau of Investigation
By placing the Ten Commandments so attractively within the easy reading view of all children of America, the Fraternal Order of Eagles puts the imperishable first and helps arm our beloved country against the Godlessness of communism.
Garry Cleveland Myers,
Editor of Highlights for Children,
Author of The Modern Parents and numerous other books,
Writer of Daily Syndicated Newspaper column