Freethought Archives > G W Foote > Prisoner for Blasphemy


THIS little volume tells a strange and painful story; strange, because the experiences of a prisoner for blasphemy are only known to three living Englishmen; and painful, because their unmerited sufferings are a sad reflection on the boasted freedom of our age.

My own share in this misfortune is all I could pretend to describe with fidelity. Without (I hope) any meretricious display of fine writing, I have related the facts of my case, giving a precise account of my prosecutions, and as vivid a narrative as memory allows of my imprisonment in Holloway Gaol. I have striven throughout to be truthful and accurate, nothing extenuating, nor setting down aught in malice; and I have tried to hit the happy mean between negligence and prolixity. Whether or not I have succeeded in the second respect the reader must be the judge; and if he cannot be so in the former respect, he will at least be able to decide whether the writer means to be candid and bears the appearance of honesty.

One reason why I have striven to be exact is that my record may be of service to the future historian of our time. It is always rash to appeal to the future, as a posturing English novelist did in one of his Prefaces; and it is well to remember the witticism of Voltaire, who, on hearing an ambitious poeticule read his Ode to Posterity, doubted whether it would reach its address. But it is the facts, and not my personality, that are important in this case. My trial will be a conspicuous event in the history of the struggle for religious freedom, and in consequence of Lord Coleridge's and Sir James Stephen's utterances, it may be of considerable moment in the history of the Criminal Law. It is more than possible that I shall be the last prisoner for blasphemy in England. That alone is a circumstance of distinction, which gives my story a special character, quite apart from my individuality. As a muddle-headed acquaintance said, intending to be complimentary, Some men are born to greatness, others achieve it, and I had it thrust upon me.

Prosecutions for Blasphemy have not been frequent. Sir James Stephen was able to record nearly all of them in his "History of the Criminal Law." The last before mine occurred in 1857, when Thomas Pooley, a poor Cornish well-sinker, was sentenced by the late Mr. Justice Coleridge to twenty months' imprisonment for chalking some "blasphemous" words on a gate-post. Fortunately this monstrous punishment excited public indignation. Mill, Buckle, and other eminent men, interested themselves in the case, and Pooley was released after undergoing a quarter of his sentence. From that time until my prosecution, that is for nearly a whole generation, the odious law was allowed to slumber, although tons of "blasphemy" were published every year. This long desuetude induced Sir James Stephen, in his "Digest of the Criminal Law" to regard it as "practically obsolete." But the event has proved that no law is obsolete until it is repealed. It has also proved Lord Coleridge's observation that there is, in the case of some laws, a "discriminating laxity," as well as Professor Hunter's remark that the Blasphemy Laws survive as a dangerous weapon in the hands of any fool or fanatic who likes to set them in motion.

In the pamphlet entitled Blasphemy No Crime, which I published during my prosecution, and which is still in print if anyone is curious to see it, I contended that Blasphemy is only our old friend Heresy in disguise, and that, we know, is a priestly manufacture. My view has since been borne out by two high authorities. Lord Coleridge says that "this law of blasphemous libel first appears in our books -- at least the cases relating to it are first reported -- shortly after the curtailment or abolition of the jurisdiction of the Ecclesiastical Courts in matters temporal. Speaking broadly, before the time of Charles II. these things would have been dealt with as heresy; and the libellers so-called of more recent days would have suffered as heretics in earlier times." (The Law of Blasphemous Libel. The Summing-up in the case of Regina v. Foote and others. Revised with a Preface by the Lord Chief Justice of England. London, Stevens and Sons.) Sir James Stephen also, after referring to the writ De Heretico Comburendo, under which heresy and blasphemy were punishable by burning alive, and which was abolished in 1677, without abridging the jurisdiction of Ecclesiastical Courts "in cases of atheism, blasphemy, heresie, or schism, and other damnable doctrines and opinions," adds that "In this state of things, the Court of Queen's Bench took upon itself some of the functions of the old Courts of Star Chamber and High Commission, and treated as misdemeanours at common law many things which those courts had formerly punished... This was the origin of the modern law as to blasphemy and blasphemous libel." (Blasphemy and Blasphemous Libel. By Sir James Stephen. Fortnightly Review, March, 1884.)

Less than ten years after the "glorious revolution" of 1688 there was passed a statute, known as the 9 and 10 William III., c. 32, and called "An Act for the more effectual suppressing of Blasphemy and Profaneness." This enacts that "any person or persons having been educated in, or at any time having made profession of, the Christian religion within this realm who shall, by writing, printing, teaching, or advised speaking, deny any one of the persons in the Holy Trinity to be God, or shall assert or maintain there are more gods than one, or shall deny the Christian doctrine to be true, or the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be of divine authority," shall upon conviction be disabled from holding any ecclesiastical, civil, or military employment, and on a second conviction be imprisoned for three years and deprived for ever of all civil rights.

Lord Coleridge and Sir James Stephen call this statute "ferocious," but as it is still unrepealed there is no legal reason why it should not be enforced. Curiously, however, the reservation which was inserted to protect the Jews has frustrated the whole purpose of the Act; at any rate, there never has been a single prosecution under it. So much of the statute as affected the Unitarians was ostensibly repealed by the 53 George III., c. 160. But Lord Eldon in 1817 doubted whether it was ever repealed at all; and so late as 1867 Chief Baron Kelly and Lord Bramwell, in the Court of Exchequer, held that a lecture on "The Character and Teachings of Christ: the former defective, the latter misleading" was an offence against the statute. It is not so clear, therefore, that Unitarians are out of danger; especially as the judges have held that this Act was special, without in any way affecting the common law of Blasphemy, under which all prosecutions have been conducted.

Dr. Blake Odgers, however, thinks the Unitarians are perfectly safe, and he has informed them so in a memorandum on the Blasphemy Laws drawn up at their request. This gentleman has a right to his opinion, but no Unitarian of any courage will be proud of his advice. He deliberately recommends the body to which he belongs to pay no attention to the Blasphemy Laws, and to lend no assistance to the agitation for repealing them, on the ground that when you are safe yourself it is Quixotic to trouble about another man's danger; which is, perhaps, the most cowardly and contemptible suggestion that could be made. Several Unitarians were burnt in Elizabeth's reign, two were burnt in the reign of James I., and one narrowly escaped hanging under the Commonwealth. The whole body was excluded from the Toleration Act of 1688, and included in the Blasphemy Act of William III. But Unitarians have since yielded the place of danger to more advanced bodies, and they may congratulate themselves on their safety; but to make their own safety a reason for conniving at the persecution of others is a depth of baseness which Dr. Blake Odgers has fathomed, though happily without persuading the majority of his fellows to descend to the same ignominy.

It will be observed that the Act specifies certain heterodox opinions as blasphemous, and says nothing as to the language in which they may be couched. Evidently the crime lay not in the manner, but in the matter. The Common Law has always held the same view, and my Indictment, like that of all my predecessors, charged me with bringing the Holy Scriptures and the Christian religion "into disbelief and contempt." With all respect to Lord Coleridge's authority, I cannot but think that Sir James Stephen is right in maintaining that the crime of blasphemy consists in the expression of certain opinions, and that it is only an aggravation of the crime to express them in "offensive" language.

Judge North, on my first trial, plainly told the jury that any denial of the existence of Deity or of Providence was blasphemy; although on my second trial, in order to procure a conviction, he narrowed his definition to "any contumelious or profane scoffing at the Holy Scriptures or the Christian religion." It is evident, therefore, what his lordship believes the law to be. With a certain order of minds it is best to deal sharply; their first statements are more likely to be true than their second. For the rest, Judge North is unworthy of consideration. It is remarkable that, although he charged the jury twice in my case, Sir James Stephen does not regard his views as worth a mention.

Lord Coleridge says the law of blasphemy "is undoubtedly a disagreeable law," and in my opinion he lets humanity get the better of his legal judgment. He lays it down that "if the decencies of controversy are observed, even the fundamentals of religion may be attacked without a person being guilty of blasphemous libel."

Now such a decision can only be a stepping-stone to the abolition of the law. Who can define "the decencies of controversy?" Everyone has his own criterion in such matters, which is usually unconscious and fluctuating. What shocks one man pleases another. Does not the proverb say that one man's meat is another man's poison? Lord Coleridge reduces Blasphemy to a matter of taste, and de gustibus non est disputandum. According to this view, the prosecution has simply to put any heretical work into the hands of a jury, and say, "Gentlemen, do you like that? If you do, the prisoner is innocent; if you do not, you must find him guilty." Such a law puts a rope round the neck of every writer who soars above commonplace, or has any gift of wit or humor. It hands over the discussion of all important topics to pedants and blockheads, and bans the argumentum ad absurdum which has been employed by all the great satirists from Aristophanes to Voltaire.

When Bishop South was reproached by an Episcopal brother for being witty in the pulpit, he replied, "My dear brother in the Lord, do you mean to say that if God had given you any wit you wouldn't have used it?" Let Bishop South stand for the "blasphemer," and his dull brother for the orthodox jury, and you have the moral at once.

"Such a law," says Sir James Stephen, "would never work." You cannot really distinguish between substance and style; you must either forbid or permit all attacks on Christianity. Great religious and political changes are never made by calm and moderate language. Was any form of Christianity ever substituted either for Paganism or any other form of Christianity without heat, exaggeration, and fierce invective? Saint Augustine ridiculed one of the Roman gods in grossly indecent language. Men cannot discuss doctrines like eternal punishment as they do questions in philology. And "to say that you may discuss the truth of religion, but that you may not hold up its doctrines to contempt, ridicule, or indignation, is either to take away with one hand what you concede with the other, or to confine the discussion to a small and in many ways uninfluential class of persons." Besides, Sir James Stephen says,

"There is one reflection which seems to me to prove with conclusive force that the law upon this subject can be explained and justified only on what I regard as its true principle -- the principle of persecution. It is that if the law were really impartial, and punished blasphemy only because it offends the feelings of believers, it ought also to punish such preaching as offends the feelings of unbelievers. All the more earnest and enthusiastic forms of religion are extremely offensive to those who do not believe them. Why should not people who are not Christians be protected against the rough, coarse, ignorant ferocity with which they are often told that they and theirs are on the way to hell-fire for ever and ever? Such a doctrine, though necessary to be known if true, is, if false, revolting and mischievous to the last degree. If the law in no degree recognised these doctrines as true, if it were as neutral as the Indian Penal Code is between Hindoos and Mohametans, it would have to apply to the Salvation Army the same rule as it applies to the Freethinker and its contributors."

Excellently put. I argued in the same way, though perhaps less tersely, in my defence. I pointed out that there is no law to protect the "decencies of controversy" in any but religious discussions, and this exception can only be defended on the ground that Christianity is true and must not be attacked. But Lord Coleridge holds that it may be attacked. How then can he ask that it shall only be attacked in polite language? And if Freethinkers must only strike with kid gloves, why are Christians allowed to use not only the naked fist, but knuckle-dusters, bludgeons, and daggers? In the war of ideas, any party which imposes restraints on others to which it does not subject itself, is guilty of persecution; and the finest phrases, and the most dexterous special pleading, cannot alter the fact.

Sir James Stephen holds that the Blasphemy Laws are concerned with the matter of publications, that "a large part of the most serious and most important literature of the day is illegal," and that every book-seller who sells, and everyone who lends to his friend, a copy of Comte's Positive Philosophy, or of Renan's Vie de Jesus, commits a crime punishable with fine and imprisonment. Sir James Stephen dislikes the law profoundly, but he prefers "stating it in its natural naked deformity to explaining it away in such a manner as to prolong its existence and give it an air of plausibility and humanity." To terminate this mischievous law he has drafted a Bill, which many Liberal members of Parliament have promised to support, and which will soon be introduced. Its text is as follows:

"Whereas certain laws now in force and intended for the promotion of religion are no longer suitable for that purpose and it is expedient to repeal them,

"Be it enacted as follows:

"1. After the passing of this Act no criminal proceedings shall be instituted in any Court whatever, against any person whatever, for Atheism, blasphemy at common law, blasphemous libel, heresy, or schism, except only criminal proceedings instituted in Ecclesiastical Courts against clergymen of the Church of England.

"2. An Act passed in the first year of his late Majesty King Edward VI., c. 1, intituled 'An Act against such as shall unreverently speak against the sacrament of the body and blood of Christ, commonly called the sacrament of the altar, and for the receiving thereof in both kinds,' and an Act passed in the 9th and 10th year of his late Majesty King William III., c. 35, intituled an Act for the more effectual suppressing of blasphemy and profaneness are hereby repealed.

"3. Provided that nothing herein contained shall be deemed to affect the provisions of an Act passed in the nineteenth year of his late Majesty King George II., c. 21, intituled 'An Act more effectually to prevent profane cursing and swearing,' or any other provision of any other Act of Parliament not hereby expressly repealed."

Until this Bill is carried no heterodox writer is safe. Sir James Stephen's view of the law may be shared by other judges, and if a bigot sat on the bench he might pass a heavy sentence on a distinguished "blasphemer." Let it not be said that their manner is so different from mine that no jury would convict; for when I read extracts from Clifford, Swinburne, Maudsley, Matthew Arnold, James Thomson, Lord Amberley, Huxley, and other heretics whose works are circulated by Mudie, Lord Coleridge remarked "I confess, as I heard them, I had, and have a difficulty in distinguishing them from the alleged libels. They do appear to me to be open to the same charge, on the same grounds, as Mr. Foote's writings."

Personally I understand the Blasphemy Laws well enough. They are the last relics of religious persecution. What Lord Coleridge read from Starkie as the law of blasphemous libel, I regard with Sir James Stephen as "flabby verbiage." Lord Coleridge is himself a master of style, and I suppose his admiration of Starkie's personal character has blinded his judgment. Starkie simply raises a cloud of words to hide the real nature of the Blasphemy Laws. He shows how Freethinkers may be punished without avowing the principle of persecution. Instead of frankly saying that Christianity must not be attacked, he imputes to aggressive heretics "a malicious and mischievous intention," and "apathy and indifference to the interests of society;" and he justifies their being punished, not for their actions, but for their motives: a principle which, if it were introduced into our jurisprudence, would produce a chaos.

Could there be a more ridiculous assumption than that a man who braves obloquy, social ostracism, and imprisonment for his principles, is indifferent to the interest of society? Let Christianity strike Freethinkers if it will, but why add insult to injury? Why brand us as cowards when you martyr us? Why charge us with hypocrisy when we dare your hate?

Persecution, like superstition, dies hard, but it dies. What though I have suffered the heaviest punishment inflicted on a Freethinker for a hundred and twenty years? Is not the night always darkest and coldest before the dawn? Is not the tiger's dying spring most fierce and terrible?

My sufferings, therefore, are not without the balm of consolation. I see that the future is already brightening with a new hope. Without rising to the supreme height of Danton, who cried "Let my name be blighted that France be free," I feel a humbler pleasure in reflecting that I may have been instrumental in breaking the last fetter on the freedom of the press.


February 1st, 1886.

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