“To the Worshippful County Court”

Reader Michael Lee Stills had a “stop and think” moment looking at court records from Greene County, Tennessee, filed in 1877.

He was looking at probate records involving a widow’s claim for the set-off of dower and a homestead for herself and nine children, all but one of whom were still minors.

The very first document — the petition of the widow — began with the phrase: “To the Worshippful County Court of Greene County now sitting at Greeneville Tenn…” And, the document continued, it purported to “showeth unto your Worships” the facts of the case.1

Now, as Michael knows, since his father was born in Greene County, that’s an area that’s solidly within the so-called Bible Belt2 and, he says, he’s “familiar with the religiosity of the area” and shouldn’t be “too surprised by the religious language being used at this time in a court proceeding.” Still, he said, it did make him stop and think and pose a question: “What can you tell us about the origins and use of the terms ‘Worshipful County Court’?”

worship

Put your mind at ease, Michael — this isn’t a religious term at all in this usage, so no issues here about the separation of church and state.

True, the first and usual definition of the word “worship”, even in the law dictionaries, is religious: “The act of offering honor and adoration to the Divine Being. Religious exercises participated in by a number of persons assembled for that purpose, the disturbance of which is a statutory offense in many states.”3 Or “the honor and homage rendered to the Creator. In the United States, this is free, every one being at liberty to worship God according to the dictates of his conscience.”4

But that wasn’t — then or earlier or even today — the only meaning. It was also a “title or addition given to certain persons.”5 Or, “In English law. A title of honor or dignity used in addresses to certain magistrates and other persons of rank or office.”6

In this context, it’s not religious at all but simply drawn from the Old English and Middle English term meaning of worthy of respect.7

So “His Worship or Her Worship is an honorific prefix for mayors, justices of the peace and magistrates in present or former Commonwealth realms. In spoken address, these officials are addressed as Your Worship or referred to as His Worship or Her Worship.”8 That’s the way lower court judges or justices of the peace and mayors or local authorities are referred to even today in Hong Kong, Ireland, Canada and elsewhere, where — as in much of the United States — the English common law was the basis for the legal system.9

It’s no longer used in the United States (“your Honor” is more common now), and is on its way out in other places today. In 2013, for example, the government of Kerala, India, decided that its mayors should be called Respected Mayor instead of Worshipful Mayor.10

But in 19th century Greene County, Tennessee, it was simply the usual language to refer to a local court judge who was, at least in theory, worthy of respect.


Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “About that religious term…,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 7 Jan 2019 (https://www.legalgenealogist.com/blog : accessed (date)).

SOURCES

  1. Charlotte Ricker v. F.K. Ricker, administrator, et al., Greene County, Tennessee, County Court, File No. 21, 1877; “Tennessee, Wills and Probate Records, 1779-2008,” Ancestry.com (https://www.ancestry.com : accessed 7 Jan 2019).
  2. See Wikipedia (https://www.wikipedia.com), “Bible Belt,” rev. 23 Dec 2018.
  3. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 1245, “worship.”
  4. John Bouvier, A Law Dictionary Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States of America, rev. 6th ed. (Philadelphia : Childs & Peterson, 1856), II: 662, “worship.”
  5. Ibid.
  6. Black, A Dictionary of Law, 1245, “worship.”
  7. See Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/worship : accessed 7 Jan 2019), “worship.”
  8. Wikipedia (https://www.wikipedia.com), “Bible Belt,” rev. 23 Dec 2018.
  9. Ibid., “Judge,” rev. 10 Nov 2018. See also ibid., “Style (manner of address),” rev. 28 Dec 2018.
  10. See B. Sreejan, “The Kerala government on Wednesday decided…,” The Times of India, online edition, posted 17 Apr 2013 (http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/ : accessed 7 Jan 2019).
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