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Nathaniel Ward

Nathaniel Ward was a Puritan minister, attorney, and writer who compiled a code of statutes for colonial Massachusetts entitled The Body of Liberties, which was adopted by the colony in 1641. This code, which combined English COMMON LAW with Mosaic law (laws derived from the Old Testament of the Bible), was the first comprehensive set of laws enacted in New England.

Ward was born around 1578 in Haverhill, Suffolk, England. He graduated from Cambridge University in 1599 and then studied law at Lincoln's Inn in London. He practiced law for ten years and then decided to enter the ministry. Attracted to Puritan religious doctrine, Ward was dismissed from his ministry in 1633 and forced to leave England to avoid religious persecution. He arrived in Massachusetts in 1634 and became co-pastor of a church in Agawam. In 1636, however, he left the ministry and returned to the field of law.

Ward served on a committee charged with writing a code of laws for the Massachusetts Colony. In 1636 John Cotton, a Puritan minister, prepared a draft of a code, entitled Moses His Judicials. This code was a major departure from English common law, as it relied heavily upon Scripture. Cotton's code was not enacted into law, however, and another committee was formed in 1638 to prepare a second code.

In November 1639 Ward submitted his draft of a code to the General Court of the colony. His code, which became known as The Body of Liberties, was comprised of one hundred sections and used much of Cotton's earlier draft. The General Court enacted Ward's code in 1641. The code underwent several revisions, resulting in the production of the Laws and Liberties Concerning the Inhabitants of Massachusetts (1648), which served as the basis for civil and CRIMINAL LAW in the colony until the eighteenth century.

Ward's code was based on the Bible. Section 65 of the code states that "No custome or prescription

shall ever prevaile amongst us … that can be proved to bee morrallie sinfull by the word of God." At the same time, The Body of Liberties enumerated CIVIL RIGHTS and liberties and incorporated many of the principles of English common law. Other provisions guaranteed equal justice under law to every person within the jurisdiction and assured freedom from ARBITRARY arrest and imprisonment, DOUBLE JEOPARDY, cruel punishments, impressment, and torture. In a major departure from English common law, however, the code limited capital crimes to twelve specific offenses found in the Bible. At the time ENGLISH LAW recognized more than fifty capital crimes.

In 1647 Ward returned to his ministry in England, where he remained until his death. He published several books, including The Simple Cobbler of Aggawam (1647), which defended the status quo and attacked religious tolerance and modes of fashion. Ward died in October 1652 in Shenfield, Essex, England.


Cahn, Mark D. 1989. "Punishment, Discretion, and the Codification of Prescribed Penalties in Colonial Massachusetts." American Journal of Legal History 33 (April).

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