Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Simon Greenleaf

In attempts to confirm apologetic claims, I can get caught up in lengthy rabbit trails. Since this is one sure to resurface in the future, I figured I may as well blog the journey.

Simon Greenleaf was a luminary in legal jurisprudence during the early 19th Century. He became a lawyer in 1806, and advanced to become the reporter for the Maine Supreme Court. In 1833 he became a professor at Harvard Law School, retaining the position through the late 40’s. He is famous for writing two (2) works:

1) His Treatise on Evidence, written in 1844-46; and
2) Testimony of the Evangelists in 1847

The second work makes Christian apologists salivate. No less than Drs. Geisler & Turek’s book I don’t have enough Faith to be an Atheist makes the claim:
Simon Greenleaf, the Harvard Law professor who wrote the standard study on what constitutes legal evidence, credited his own conversion to Christianity as having come from his careful examination of the Gospel witnesses.

This is repeated and regurgitated on numerous internet sites:
Dr. Greenleaf is considered by many to have been one of the greatest legal minds we have had in the U.S. He was formerly an outspoken skeptic of Christianity and who set out to disprove the deity of Christ. In the end he concluded that the Resurrection was true “beyond any reasonable doubt.” Greenleaf became a Christian after studying the evidence for himself.
see here

Of course the story grows to his being instigated by a student’s challenge. See Snopes for the common theme of student challenging professor.

Do a google search on Greenleaf being an atheist and you will hit literally 1000’s of sites (including the infamous Wikipedia.) And, this morning in my perusal of blogs, I saw this platitude repeated once more when Wintery Knight indicated, “[S]imon Greenleaf…assessed the evidence as [an] atheist and became [a] Christian.”

Having seen this so many times, I decided to verify.

Was Simon Greenleaf an atheist? Did he attempt to disprove the resurrection and become convinced by the evidence?

Ahh…in short…no. Some apologist seems to have leaped to this conclusion, and the next copied him/her, and the next copied him/her and so on, until each is copying the other, never attempting to verify it in any way. If 40,000 Google hits say its true—it must be, right?

First we should note Mr. Greenleaf’s own words about the subject. There are none. Nowhere that he claims to be an atheist (quite the opposite as we shall see in a minute), nowhere where he claims this started off as an attempt to disprove the Resurrection. Nothing. The testimonials and foreword in the 1874 version, edited by Tischendorf make no mention of Greenleaf’s desire to disprove the Resurrection, nor his theistic belief being changed by the study.

Nothing contemporary indicates he ever was an atheist, or even a theist who disbelieved the resurrection. All the evidence we have demonstrates Simon Greenleaf was a lifelong Episcopalian! He is reached the position of being on the Standing Committee for the Episcopalian diocese of Maine as of 1927. He was at the Maine Episcopalian Convention of 1831 And at the Maine Episcopalian Convention of 1832

Remember, this was all before he became a professor, let alone write his treatise on evidence.

But the nail in the coffin is this Christian who has reviewed Mr. Greenleaf’s writings and agrees this is nothing but a myth.

Simon Greenleaf was an early 19th Century lawyer who wrote a good book on Evidence. We don’t use it anymore. He used information which is now outdated to substantiate his own belief. He wasn’t an atheist; he wasn’t convinced by the evidence. He already believed and looked for support.

Time to let Simon Greenleaf rest in peace.


  1. But there is a tradition that he was an atheist and since we cannot definitively prove that he wasn't an atheist, we must give the benefit of the doubt to the tradition.

  2. But there is a tradition that once a year a fat man comes down my chimney and leaves presents for all the good little boys and girls. Since we cannot definitely prove that he wasn't there, we must give benefit if the doubt.......

    Preposterous.... The guy was at the Episcopalian convention 20 years before his supposed conversion he was supposed to have undergone only after he began his "inquest" into the veracity of the reserection.

  3. "He used information which is now outdated to substantiate his own belief. ... he wasn’t convinced by the evidence. He already believed and looked for support."

    Now you are leaping to conclusions. Given the lack of testimony and evidence on the prior and post state of Greenleaf's personal thoughts it is also possible he was affirmed by the evidence. In other words, he may have been prevented from becoming an atheist. Let's look at what we do know, the evidence ...

    Greenleaf was a highly noted and trained jurist. He examined the evidence (as he had it) of the Resurrection. He appeared to continue in his Christian faith. This alone is noteworthy.

    1. I'm a career police officer with substantial knowledge of the law myself..and I looked at it too. I have read everything I could find on it, from Josh McDowell to The Case for Christ...to many academic papers and books on the subject by credible historians. There is no proof for the resurrection...only hearsay and fables written quite awhile after his death (if he even lived)...and physics dictates its not possible...evidence shows that nothing has ever happened that is outside the parameters of what is physically possible in this world. I have spent years on it...and I personally don't believe mr Greenleaf is any more intelligent than I, simply because he wrote a book on jurisprudence. My conclusion is the opposite...I belief its a myth started to perpetuate an agenda that eventually became a wholesale religion. When you look at the history of religious beginnings, there is always some core motivator...Muhammad was rejected among his contemporary's for example. Some of the ideas in the bible were radical and threatening to the government of Rome at the time..seditious in their view..and this grass roots movement was carried forward by some zealots.

  4. ordinaryclay,

    It appears we agree Simon Greenleaf was a Christian who used an inappropriate method and (later determined) incorrect evidence to affirm his previously held belief. Where we differ is what constitutes “noteworthy.”

  5. DagoodS,

    You said, "Simon Greenleaf was an early 19th Century lawyer who wrote a good book on Evidence. We don’t use it anymore."

    I don't know who "we" refers to, but Greenleaf's Rule of Evidence is still cited as an authority in jurisprudence. Here is a reply brief for a Writ of Certeriori to the Washington Supreme Court submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Davis v. Washington in 2005.

    In the "Table of Authorities" under "Other Authority, you will see the 1842 edition of Greenleaf's "A Treatise on the Law of Evidence" which is also cited in the body of the argument. So while I agree that there is no evidence that Greenleaf was an atheist who converted after examining the evidence, neither is it the case that he can be dismissed as a 19th century lawyer who wrote a book that isn't used anymore. It is.

  6. John Fraser,

    When I said “We don’t use it anymore” I meant in regular practice in the courtroom. We use Federal Rules of Evidence or—in Michigan—Michigan Rules of Evidence. If one cited Simon Greenleaf to object, they would be firmly informed to use the correct authority—the Rules of Evidence. The brief you listed is providing a history regarding the res gestae doctrine (what we now call “excited utterances” exception to hearsay) and in listing that history, go back to English Court decisions, 19th Century decisions and…within the historical context…Simon Greenleaf.

    So if it pleases you to nit-pick this extremely minor point…fine. We would “use” Simon Greenleaf in a historical lesson regarding the development of evidence. Just like someone might “use” some ancient science book to show how science developed, while never “using” it in the modern laboratory.

    1. DagoodS,

      You said, "So if it pleases you to nit-pick this extremely minor point…fine. We would “use” Simon Greenleaf in a historical lesson regarding the development of evidence. Just like someone might “use” some ancient science book to show how science developed, while never “using” it in the modern laboratory."

      That was an argument before the Supreme Court, not a history lesson. Yes, part of the argument involved the historical development of the doctrine, but Greenleaf was still appealed to as an authority. And I was just giving a single example. I have found dozens of other citations of Greenleaf in case law, including as recently as 2011. Lawyers don't simply use one book as their sole source for the Rules of Evidence, they also argue on the basis of things like interpretation of relevant statutes and precedence. So the analogy of an ancient science book is a bad analogy. Greenleaf is not cited simply as "this is how we used to do things but we don't do them that way anymore," he's cited as an authority whose opinion still carries weight 150+ years later.

  7. Yeah Dagoods! Don't you know what lawyers do?

  8. John Fraser,

    I have never seen Simon Greenleaf cited as an authority on evidence in a trial or appellate brief. Primarily because we are required to use the Rules of Evidence (both in Michigan and Federal Courts) and therefore Greenleaf would only be cited as demonstration of historical development—not as a current authority.

    Would it make you sleep easier if I changed that sentence to “We practicing lawyers in the Federal system and in systems adopting current rules of evidence do not use Simon Greenleaf as a current authority on evidence.”?

    1. It looks like you're just trying to put whatever narrow restrictions you can on your sentence so that you can dismiss Greenleaf without having to think about it. If that's your goal, I'm sure you can come up with something that will work to your satisfaction.

      I'm just telling you that a search of LexisNexis yields 11 federal or state cases that cite Greenleaf in the last 10 years. One of those is El-Masri v. United States, U.S. fourth circuit court of appeals. In it is this:

      "The Court sustained the Air Force's refusal to disclose the documents sought by the plaintiffs, concluding that the officials involved had properly invoked the "privilege against revealing military secrets." 345 U.S. at 6-7. This state secrets privilege, the Court observed, was "well established in the law of evidence." Id. The Court relied in part on Greenleaf's classic evidence treatise, which traced the recognition of a privilege for state secrets to the 1807 treason trial of Aaron Burr. See I Simon Greenleaf & John Henry Wigmore, A Treatise on the Law of Evidence § 251 n. 5 (16th ed. 1899);"

      So it looks to me like the court relied in part on a precedent that had been established using Greenleaf as an authority. Maybe you have some reason that you think that doesn't count for anything. And maybe none of the other 10 cases that I found do, either. Or maybe Greenleaf still gets more love these days than you think he does. Is that not a possibility?

  9. John Fraser,

    I don’t know your legal expertise, so I presume you do not understand how to read appellate briefs and opinions, etc. El-Masri v United States was referring to Reynolds v United States (no citations given—google will find ‘em if you want) where the U.S. Supreme Court confirmed State Secrets as a privilege against evidence. Footnote 11 in Reynolds (what El-Masri was quoting from Reynolds) gives a list of references, including Supreme Court decisions, upholding State Privilege.

    And yes…included in that was Greenleaf on Evidence. Reynolds was a 1953 case. Since 1975 we have used Federal Rules of Evidence…not Greenleaf. If you keep reading El-Masri it starts with Greenleaf, but goes on listing numerous other cases (just like Reynolds did) demonstrating the long history that continued regarding State Secret Privilege.

    Like I said…Greenleaf may be used as demonstration of a long historical precedent for rules of evidence—but not used currently. Neither Reynolds nor El-Masri relied on Greenleaf as much as using him as historical foundation for then-current rules of evidence.

    1. Dagoods,

      Yes, I see that Reynolds is being cited, but that section starts with this:

      "Under the state secrets doctrine, the United States may prevent the disclosure of information in a judicial proceeding if "there is a reasonable danger" that such disclosure "will expose military matters which, in the interest of national security, should not be divulged." United States v. Reynolds, 345 U.S. 1, 10, 73 S. Ct. 528, 97 L. Ed. 727 (1953). Reynolds, the Supreme Court's leading decision on the state secrets privilege, established the doctrine in its modern form."

      So the Reynolds case established the doctrine in its modern form, and it was based in part on Greenleaf's "classic evidence treatise." The doctrine was still being upheld in the El-Masri case, was it not?

  10. I have no idea why I bothered to even go this far—this point is so ridiculously ludicrous. I don’t mind explaining the situation; I have no intention of arguing it. El-Masri and Reynolds rely upon Totten v United States--a Supreme Court decision. Lawyers like to be verbose, and love to over-cite a particular point, so it is little surprise they may, on occasion, go through the entire legal history of a point, even though it is not necessary. And in doing so, refer to Greenleaf.

    Look, if any lurkers have a question, I recommend two actions to determine how much Greenleaf is relied upon today. 1) Sit in on court for one day, one week or one year. You will see (depending how long) 100’s or 1,000’s of arguments on evidence. You will never, ever, ever hear Greenleaf referred to, let alone relied upon, as support for or against those arguments.

    Or, 2) contact a local trial attorney (who deals with evidence) and ask how many times they have relied upon Greenleaf in their arguments for/against admissibility of evidence. They will say, “Who?” and once explained, will immediately reply, “Er…never. We use the Rules of Evidence.”

    John Fraser, I will give you the last word here; I see nothing more to say.

  11. I am Christian and I have been looking for proof that this early 19th Century professor was an atheist or an agnostic. I have not found any. Like you, I have found Christian organizations that he was a member.

  12. So, what I got from this "verbose" discussion is that your as full of crap as those you accuse of being full of crap. Makes perfect sense to me. This also explains your subtitle:"Giving Chaos a bad name." I hope I haven't been too "wordy" or "verbose".

  13. your as full of crap


    I hope I haven't been too "wordy" or "verbose".

    Nope. Nor have you been too "literate" or "intelligent".

  14. I confess, I am always curious why someone would bother to reply to 1 ½ year old blog entry. I picture Anonymous 11:02 googling Greenleaf and his conversion, perusing numerous cites (such as those listed in this entry) and then stumbling on to mine. Where Anonymous 11:02 is hit hotly in the face with facts s/he doesn’t like.

    O.K….fine. Happens all the time. But what motivates such a person to utilize the effort to frame a reply and toss out some insults? Are they so emotively confronted they MUST write something or they would burst? Do they enjoy some sense of vindication or revenge by having made such a comment?

    And (what truly baffles me) why write such a comment when one is clearly as weaponless as Anonymous 11:02 is? Was there a new fact presented? No. A new argument to be reviewed? Nope. At least John Fraser was trying.

    I’m sure Anonymous 11:02 did not expect anyone to be persuaded or converted by this comment—it was totally about Anonymous 11:02 and their need to spew.

    Yet even by making such a reply, they are showing their own lack of foundation…further spiraling the need for such responses.

    1. People who are incapable of experiencing joy or pleasure in a particular activity sometimes try to overcome their feelings of inadequacy by making that activity unpleasant for others. It's pretty sad.

    2. Well, at least I'm not even one year late yet. That's better being over 18 months late!

      In any case, you appear to be knowledgeable about legal stuff, so I thought that even at this late date, you might be interested to know that Fraser was making idiotic arguments about Simon Greenleaf (and many other things) long before he stumbled into this string.

      A fairly brief dissection of just a few of the major problems with Fraser's Greenleaf argument can be found here:


      In that string, Fraser was trying to establish Greenleaf's continuing preeminence as regards eyewitness testimony. Some of the massive problems Fraser had with that argument were pointed out in the last few posts in the string and include the following:

      1) Some of the citations Fraser relied on in trying to establish Greenleaf's alleged expertise in eyewitness testimony didn't actually deal with eyewitness testimony. In one particularly hilarious argument, Fraser bellowed that the cited case MUST have been about eyewitness testimony, because the court's opinion said it was NOT about eyewitness testimony! (Apparently it never even occurred to Fraser that he ought to learn the proper meaning of terms like "eyewitness" and "testimony" before making such a fool of himself. Fraser's bellowing is never so loud as when he's making a complete fool of himself.)

      2) It's also not clear that all of Fraser's alleged Greenleaf citations were actually from Greenleaf in the first place. Greenleaf actually died a few decades before the textbook cited in the Washington case was even written. So this may actually be a "Deadleaf" citation, not a Greenleaf citation. (As an evangelical Christian, Fraser presumably believes in the resurrection of Christ. I suppose it's possible that he also believes in the resurrection of Simon Greenleaf. Perhaps that explains Fraser's apparent lack of concern about Greenleaf having died a few decades before "his" textbook was actually written.)

      3. It's also important to note that the side citing Greenleaf in the Washington case lost at the U.S. Supreme Court by a fairly convincing 9-0 vote. Is Fraser really so ignorant that he thinks that losing a UNANIMOUS decision at the Supreme Court shows Deadleaf's continuing viability?

      4. The Greenleaf/Deadleaf references I've seen have almost all been about the historical development of various legal theories. As has already been pointed out, citing G/D on historical matters does not necessarily indicate current viability.

      (And citing G/D in cases unrelated to the eyewitness testimony issue seems utterly irrelevant to the issue of Greenleaf's continuing usefulness on the crucial issue of eyewitness testimony. Fraser appears to be completely ignorant about the concept of "relevance.")

      The cited string shows Fraser's complete ignorance on a number of other issues that he was also bellowing about. Fraser seems to be one of those evangelicals who thinks that bellowing loudly is an adequate substitute for intelligence and information. It's a trait he seems to share with a lot of evangelicals. It seems that the less he knows, the louder he knows it.

  15. Anonymous 11:59,

    Thanks for the link. It would seem John Fraser reacts strongly to claims regarding the “use” of Simon Greenleaf in today’s legal culture.

  16. Hey DagoodS,

    Came across this post of yours when Gary quoted it in a debate thread.

    I noticed the final link in your post is dead. Here is an archived version:


    It's not really apparent to me what makes you say the author of that post is a Christian, though.

  17. https://web.archive.org/web/20130115013245/http://www.drbilllong.com/About.html

  18. I don't suppose anyone kept screen grabs of the relevant pages from www.drbillong.com? They no longer exist on www.archive.org ("Page cannot be crawled or displayed due to robots.txt.") :-(