You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your
God, for the Lord will not hold anyone
Guiltless who misuses his name.
You say I took the name in vain
I don’t even know the name
But if I did, well really, what’s it to you?
~Leonard Cohen, Hallelujah
When a fight broke out between two Israelites and one blasphemed the Name with a curse, Moses took him outside the camp and stoned him. Apparently, it was something to Moses and Israel (Lev. 24:10-23).
Our world is filled with profanity. As offensive as some words are to thoughtful, respectable folk, none are as bad as misusing the name of God or Jesus. They are reflexively employed by millions as a byword, an exclamation, and a curse. They instantly mark the user as vulgar, ignorant and ill-bred.
Mark Twain tells the story of a seventeen-year-old ruffian named Wales McCormick who fit exactly this description. Twain described him as “a reckless, hilarious, admirable creature; he had no principles, and was delightful company.” Twain and McCormick worked together in Joseph Ament’s print shop when the two teenagers had an encounter with Alexander Campbell.
Campbell was visiting Hannibal, Missouri, for a preaching appointment. A multitude came out to hear, and demand was so great for the sermon that Ament printed 500 copies for sixteen dollars. The version most often told by the celebrated humorist is recounted in Ron Powers’ Mark Twain:
Twain insisted that when Campbell stopped by Ament’s shop with the sermon, he overheard McCormick exclaim, “Great God!” The preacher took the boy aside and admonished him that “Great God!” was blasphemy, and that “Great Scott!” would be one example of an acceptable substitute. McCormick apparently took this to heart: while correcting the proof sheet of the sermon, he dutifully changed Campbell’s own pious use of “Great God” to “Great Scott.” Taken with the spirit, he amended “Father, Son & Holy Ghost to “Father, Son & Caesar’s Ghost,” and then improved even that bit of euphemism…to “Father, Son & Co.”
Wales’s moment of divine reckoning approached when he removed the full name of “Jesus Christ” from a line in the sermon to create more space, and substituted “J.C.” For some reason, this infuriated Campbell as he read the proof sheet; he strode back to the print shop and commanded McCormick: “So long as you live, don’t you ever diminish the Savior’s name again. Put it all in.” McCormick took this advice to heart: the revised line came out, “Jesus H. Christ.”
This story captures all the elements present in the blasphemy so prevalent in our world. Combine ignorance, irreverence, insolence and insouciance in equal parts and you have an explanation for such idiocy.
But you don’t have an excuse for it.
The divine names are not to be taken lightly. They are not to be misused or abused. To do so marks us as fools, and puts us in great danger: “But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matt. 12:36-37).
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