Freethought Archives > G.W. Foote > Flowers of Freethought Vol. II (1894)


(January, 1894.)

An Open Letter to the Bishop of Winchester.

Bishop,—You are a high and well-paid dignitary of the Church of England. You are therefore a State official, as much as a soldier or a policeman; and, as such, you are amenable to public criticism. It is possible that you never heard of me before, but I am a member of the English public, and as a citizen I help (very unwillingly) to support the Church, and therefore to support you. My right to address you is thus indisputable. I make no apology or excuse for doing so; and, as for my reason, it will appear in the course of this letter.

I notice in the daily and weekly newspapers a paragraph which concerns you—and me. The paragraph is exactly the same in all the papers I have seen; it must therefore have emanated from, and been circulated by, one hand; and that hand I suspect is yours, particularly as it insinuates the necessity of supporting Christian Missions in England—that is, of subscribing to Church agencies over and above the nine or ten millions a year which your Establishment spends (or devours) in ministering to what you call "the spiritual needs" of the English people.

The paragraph I refer to states that you have converted and confirmed an Atheist, and that this Atheist has been hung for the crime of murder; and it plainly hints that his crime was the natural result of his irreligious opinions.

As you make so much of this case, I presume that this murderer—who was not good enough to live on earth, and whom you have sent to live for ever in heaven—is the only Atheist you have ever converted; so that in every way the case is one of exceptional interest.

And now, before I go any farther, let me tell you why the case concerns me as well as you. I am an Atheist, and a teacher of Atheism. I am the President of the National Secular Society, which is the only open organisation of Freethinkers in England. My immediate predecessor in this office was Charles Bradlaugh, of whom you must have heard. Not to know him would argue yourself unknown. My personality is not so famous as his, but my office is the same, and you will now understand why I address you on the subject of your converted murderer.

The newspaper paragraph to which I have referred is brief and inadequate, but fuller particulars are given in your Diocesan Chronicle, for a copy of which I am indebted to the kindness of a gentleman who is technically a member of your flock. He is a Freethinker, but I do not believe you will convert him, and still less that you will ever "assist" at his execution.

The murderer for whom you made the gallows the gateway to heaven was called George Mason. He was nineteen years of age. Serving in the militia, he was liable to severe discipline. His sergeant had him imprisoned for three days, and in revenge he shot the officer dead while at rifle practice. It is an obvious moral, which I wonder your lordship does not perceive, that it is dangerous to put deadly weapons in the hands of passionate boys. Your lordship's interest in the case seems to be entirely professional.

While this lad was simply a militiaman your lordship would not have regarded him as an object of solicitude. As a convicted murderer, he became profoundly interesting. No less than three clergymen took him in hand: the Rev. J. L. Ladbrooke, the Rev. James Baker, and yourself. Three to one are long odds, and it is no marvel that you conquered the boy. Still, it is unfortunate that we have only your account of the conflict, for your profession is not famous for what I will politely call accuracy. Herder remarked that "Christian veracity" deserved to rank with "Punic faith." How many falsehoods has your Church circulated about great Freethinkers! Why should it hesitate, then, to tell untruths about little ones? A Wesleyan minister, the Rev. Hugh Price Hughes, has published a long circumstantial story of a converted Atheist shoemaker, which is proved to be false in all its main features. It is far from certain, therefore, that your lordship's account of the conversion of George Mason is true. You and your two clerical colleagues can say what you please; your evidence cannot be tested; and such evidence, especially when given by persons who are confederates in a common cause, is always open to suspicion.

Nevertheless I need not doubt that George Mason made an edifying end. It is the way of murderers. What I venture to doubt is your statement as to his life. You write as follows:—

"His early life was lived in the east of London, his trade being that of a costermonger, and he was brought up by his father, a professed atheist, who was in the habit of reading the Bible with this boy and a company of other freethinkers, verse by verse, and deliberately turning it into ridicule, by way of commentary. It is hard to imagine a more deliberate training for the gallows than what his father gave him."

Later on, you say the boy was "insignificant, almost stunted to look at," and you add that "his only opportunity was to learn how to be a child of the Devil."

Now I wish to observe, in the first place, that you have not said enough. You do not say whether George Mason's father is still living. I have not been able to hear of him myself. If he be still living, have you taken the trouble to obtain his version of the matter? And if not, do you think it kind or just to speak of him in this manner? Nor do you say what religion George Mason professed in the Militia, whether he attended "divine service," and what was its influence upon him. You were in too great a hurry to capture your Atheist, and insult all who do not believe the dogmas of your Church.

You regard it as "deliberate training for the gallows" to let a boy laugh at the Bible. Has it ever occurred to you to inquire how it is that the Bible is so easy to ridicule? Have you ever reflected that what is laughed at is generally ridiculous? Are you not aware that the most risible imp could hardly laugh at all the contents of the Bible? Who laughs at the saying, "Blessed are the peacemakers"? Who laughs at the horrid massacres of the Old Testament? But who does not laugh at cock-and-bull stories like that of Jonah and the whale? Your lordship does not discriminate. Very little thought would show you that some parts of the Bible cannot be laughed at, that where it can be laughed at it is probably absurd, and that to laugh at an absurdity is certainly no "training for the gallows."

Your lordship evidently wishes to convey the idea that Atheists are very likely to become murderers, or more likely than their Christian fellow citizens. This I deny, and I ask for your evidence. All you adduce is the case of this "insignificant" and "stunted" boy. Let us suppose for a moment that your statement about him is entirely accurate. What does it prove? Simply this, that it is not impossible for an Atheist to commit a murder. But who ever said it was? Who asserts that Atheists are absolutely free from the passions and frailties of human nature? Has your lordship never heard of a Christian murderer? Is it not a fact that Jesus Christ himself could not select his apostles without including a villain? "Twelve of you have I chosen," he said, "and one of you is a murderer." Is not one in twelve a large percentage? Why, then, is the world to be alarmed, and invited to subscribe to Christian Missions, because one Atheist out of all the thousands in England commits a murder —and that one an "insignificant" and "stunted" boy, apparently bred in poverty and hardship?

Mind you, I am not admitting that George Mason was an Atheist, or the son of an Atheist. I say that has to be proved. I am taking your lordship's account of the matter as true merely for the sake of argument.

Let me draw your attention to some facts. So many of the clergy in your own Church "went wrong" that you were compelled to obtain a special Act of Parliament to enable you to get rid of them. Is it not true, also, that the greatest swindlers of this age have been extremely pious? What do you make of Messrs Hobbs and Wright? What do you think of Jabez Balfour? Are not such scoundrels a thousand times worse than a passionate boy like George Mason? Were not the "Liberator" victims fleeced and ruined by professed Christians? What have you to say about Mr. Hastings, Captain Verney, and Mr. De Cobain, who were all convicted of bad crimes and expelled from Parliament? Have you ever heard of the text, "Physician heal thyself"?

Here is another fact. A few months ago an Irish clergyman, the Rev. George Griffiths, deliberately shot his own mother for the sake of what cash he could find in her desk. He was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to be hung. Would you think me justified in saying that the Rev. George Griffiths committed a murder because he was a Christian? Why, then, do you pretend that George Mason committed a murder because he or his father was an Atheist?

Lay your hand upon your heart, and answer this question honestly. Do you really believe that an Atheist has a special proclivity to murder? What is there in Atheism to make men hate each other? When a man holds the hand of the woman he loves, or feels about his neck the little arms of his child, do you suppose he is likely to injure either of them because he is unable to accept your dogma about the mystery of this illimitable universe? Shall I hate my own boy because I disbelieve that Jesus Christ was born without a father? Shall I keep him without food and clothes because I see no proof of a special providence? Will Shakespeare's Hamlet poison my mind because I think it finer than the gospels? If I treat the Creation Story and the Deluge as legend and mythology, and smile at the feats of Samson, shall I therefore commit a burglary? If I think that my neighbor's life in this world is his all, that death ends his possibilities, do you really think I shall be the more likely to rob him of what I can never restore?

I am at a loss to understand your lordship, and I invite you to explain yourself. At present I can only see in your account of George Mason, a very common exhibition of Christian logic, and Christian temper. Your lordship's is not the charity that "thinketh no evil." You ascribe wickedness to those who differ from you in opinion. I conceive it possible for men to differ from you in religion, and yet to equal you in morality. I conceive it even possible that some of them might surpass you without a miracle.

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