Freethought Archives > G W Foote > Prisoner for Blasphemy



IN the merry month of May, 1881, I started a paper called the Freethinker, with the avowed object of waging "relentless war against Superstition in general and the Christian Superstition in particular." I stated in the first paragraph of the first number that this new journal would have a new policy; that it would "do its best to employ the resources of Science, Scholarship, Philosophy and Ethics against the claims of the Bible as a Divine Revelation," and that it would "not scruple to employ for the same purpose any weapons of ridicule or sarcasm that might be borrowed from the armoury of Common Sense."

As the Freethinker was published at the people's price of a penny, and was always edited in a lively style, with a few short articles and plenty of racy paragraphs, it succeeded from the first; and becoming well known, not through profuse advertisement, but through the recommendation of its readers, its circulation increased every week. Within a year of its birth it had outdistanced all its predecessors. No Freethought journal ever progressed with such amazing rapidity. True, this was largely due to the fact that the Freethought party had immensely increased in numbers; but much of it was also due to the policy of the paper, which supplied, as the advertising gentry say, "a long-felt want." Although the first clause of its original programme was never wholly forgotten, we gradually paid the greatest attention to the second, indulging more and more in Ridicule and Sarcasm, and more and more cultivating Common Sense. A dangerous policy, as I was sometimes warned; but for that very reason all the more necessary. The more Bigotry writhed and raged, the more I felt that our policy was telling. Borrowing a metaphor from Carlyle's "Frederick," I likened Superstition to the boa, which defies all ponderous assaults, and will not yield to the pounding of sledge-hammers, but sinks dead when some expert thrusts in a needle's point and punctures the spinal column.

I had a further incentive. Mr. Bradlaugh's infamous treatment by the bigots had revolutionised my ideas of Freethought policy. Although never timid, I was until then practically ignorant of the horrible spirit of persecution; and with the generous enthusiasm of youth I fondly imagined that the period of combat was ended, that the liberty of platform and press was finally won, that Supernaturalism was hopelessly scotched although obviously not slain, and that Freethinkers should now devote themselves to cultivating the fields they had won instead of raiding into the enemy's territory. Alas for the illusions of hope! They were rudely dispelled by a few "scenes" in the House of Commons, and barred from all chance of re-gathering by the wild display of intolerance outside. I saw, in quite another sense than Garth Wilkinson's, the profound truth of his saying that --

"The Duke of Wellington's advice, Do not make a little war, is applicable to internal conflicts against evil in society. For little wars have no background of resources, they do not know the strength of the enemy, and the peace that follows them for the most part leaves the evil in dispute nearly its whole territory; perhaps is purchased by guaranteeing the evil by treaty; and leaves the case of offence more difficult of attack by reason of concession to wrong premises." ("Human Science and Divine Revelation," Preface, p. vi.)

Yes, the war with Superstition must be fought à outrance. We must decline either treaty or truce. I hold that the one great work of our time is the destruction of theology, the immemorial enemy of mankind, which has wasted in the chase of chimeras very much of the world's best intellect, fatally perverted our moral sentiments, fomented discord and division, supported all the tyranny of privilege and sanctioned all debasement of the people. Far be it from me to argue this point with any dissident. I prefer to leave him to the logic of events, which has convinced me, and may some day convince him.

But to recur. Before the Freethinker had reached its third number I began to reflect on the advisability of illustrating it, and bringing in the artist's pencil to aid the writer's pen. I soon resolved to do this, and the third and fourth numbers contained a woodcut on the front page. In the fifth number there appeared an exquisite little burlesque sketch of the Calling of Samuel, by a skilful artist whose name I cannot disclose. Although not ostensibly, it was actually, the first of those Comic Bible Sketches for which the Freethinker afterwards became famous; and from that date, with the exception of occasional intervals due to difficulties there is no need to explain, my little paper was regularly illustrated. During the whole twelve months of my imprisonment the illustrations were discontinued by my express order. I was not averse to their appearing, but I knew the terrible obstacles and dangers my temporary successor would have to meet, and I left him a written prohibition of them, which he was free to publish, in order to shield him against the possible charge of cowardice. Since my release from prison they have been resumed, and they will be continued until I go to prison again, unless I see some better reason than Christian menace for their cessation.

The same fifth number of the Freethinker contained an account of the first part of "La Bible Amusante," issued by the Anti-Clerical publishing house in the Rue des Ecoles. That notice was from my own pen, and I venture to reprint the opening paragraphs.

"Voltaire's method of attacking Christianity has always approved itself to French Freethinkers. They regard the statement that he treated religious questions in a spirit of levity as the weak defence of those who know that irony and sarcasm are the deadliest enemies of their faith. Superstition dislikes argument, but it hates laughter. Nimble and far-flashing wit is more potent against error than the slow dull logic of the schools; and the great humorists and wits of the world have done far more to clear its head and sweeten its heart than all its sober philosophers from Aristotle to Kant.

"We in England have Comic Histories, Comic Geographies, and Comic Grammars, but a Comic Bible would horrify us. At sight of such blasphemy Bumble would stand aghast, and Mrs. Grundy would scream with terror. But Bumble and Mrs. Grundy are less important personages in France, and so the country of Rabelais and Voltaire produces what we are unable to tolerate in thought."

I concluded by saying -- "We shall introduce the subsequent numbers to the attention of our readers, and, if possible, we shall reproduce in the Freethinker some of the raciest plates. We shall be greeted with shrieks of pious wrath if we do so, but we are not easily frightened."

There was really more than editorial fashion in this "we," for at that time Mr. Ramsey was half proprietor of the Freethinker, and his consent had of course to be obtained before I could undertake such a dangerous enterprise. I gladly avow that he showed no hesitation; on the contrary, he heartily fell in with the project. He frankly left the editorial conduct of our paper in my hands, despised the accusation of Blasphemy, and defied its law. His half-proprietorship of the Freethinker has terminated, but we still work together in our several ways for the cause of Freethought. Mr. Ramsey went with me into the furnace of persecution, and he bore his sufferings with manly fortitude.

The Freethinker steadily progressed in circulation, and in January, 1882, I was able to secure the services of my old friend, Joseph Mazzini Wheeler, as sub-editor. He had for long years contributed gratuitously to my literary ventures, and those who ever turn over a file of the Secularist or the Liberal will see with what activity he wielded his trenchant pen. When he became my paid sub-editor, our relations remained unchanged. We worked as loyal colleagues for a cause we both loved, and treated as a mere accident the fact of my being his principal. The same feeling animates us still, nor do I think it can ever suffer alteration.

The new year's number, dated January 1, 1882, referred to Mr. Wheeler's accession, and to that of Dr. Edward Aveling, who then became a member of the regular staff. It also referred to the policy of the Freethinker, and to another subject of the gravest interest -- namely, the threats of prosecution which had appeared in several Christian journals. As "pieces of justification," to use a French phrase, I quote these two passages:

"Our ill-wishers (what journal has none?) have been of two kinds. In the first place, the Christians, disgusted with our "blasphemy," predicted a speedy failure. The wish was father to the thought. These latter-day prophets were just as false as their predecessors. Now that they witness our indisputable success, they shake their heads, look at us askance, mutter something like curses, and pray the Lord to turn us from our evil ways. One or two bigots, more than ordinarily foolish, have threatened to suppress us with the strong arm of the law. We defy them to do their worst. We have no wish to play the martyr, but we should not object to take a part in dragging the monster of persecution into the light of day, even at the cost of some bites and scratches. As the Freethinker was intended to be a fighting organ, the savage hostility of the enemy is its best praise. We mean to incur their hatred more and more. The war with superstition should be ruthless. We ask no quarter and we shall give none.

"Secondly, we have had to encounter the dislike of mealy-mouthed Freethinkers, who want omelettes without breaking of eggs and revolutions without shedding of blood. They object to ridiculing people who say that twice two are five. They even resent a dogmatic statement that twice two are four. Perhaps they think four and a half a very fair compromise. Now this is recreancy to truth, and therefore to progress. No great cause was ever won by the half-hearted. Let us be faithful to our convictions, and shun paltering in a double sense. Truth, as Renan says, can dispense with politeness; and while we shall never stoop to personal slander or innuendo, we shall assail error without tenderness or mercy. And if, as we believe, ridicule is the most potent weapon against superstition, we shall not scruple to use it."

These extracts from my old manifestoes may possess little other value, but they at least show this, that the peculiar policy of the Freethinker was not adopted in a moment of levity, but was from the first deliberately pursued; and that while I held on the even tenor of my way, I was fully conscious of its dangers.

Early in January there fell into my hands a copy of a circular to Members of Parliament by Henry Varley, the Notting Hill revivalist. This person was a notorious trader in scandal, and he still pursues that avocation. Many of his discourses are "delivered to men only," an advertisement which is sure to attract a large audience; and one of them, which he has published, is just on a level with the quack publications that are thrust into young men's hands in the street. Henry Varley had already issued one private circular about Mr. Bradlaugh, full of the most brazen falsehoods and the grossest defamation; and containing, as it did, garbled extracts from Mr. Bradlaugh's writings, and artfully-manipulated quotations from books he had never written or published, it undoubtedly did him a serious injury. The new circular was worthy of the author of the first. It was addressed "To the Members of the House of Commons," and was "for private circulation only." The indignant butcher, for that is his trade, wished "to submit to their notice the horrible blasphemies that are appended, and quoted from a new weekly publication issued from the office where Mr. Bradlaugh's weekly journal, the National Reformer, is published. The paper is entitled the Freethinker, and is edited by G. W. Foote, one of Mr. Bradlaugh's prominent supporters, and one of his right hand men at the Hall of Science." The Commons of England were also requested to notice that "Dr. Aveling, who for some years has been one of Mr. Bradlaugh's chief helpers, is another contributor to this disgraceful product of Atheism." In conclusion, they were called upon to "devise means to stay this hideous prostitution of the liberty of the Press, by making these shameless blasphemers amenable to the existing law."

It is a curious thing that such a fervid champion of religion should always attack unbelievers with private circulars. Yet this is the policy that Henry Varley has always pursued. He is a religious bravo, who lurks in the dark, and strikes at Freethinkers with a poisoned dagger. More than once he has flooded Northampton with the foulest libels on Mr. Bradlaugh, invariably issued without the printer's name, in open violation of the law. He is liable for a fine of five pounds for every copy circulated, but the action must be initiated by the Attorney-General, and our Christian Government refuses to punish when the offence is committed by one of their own creed, and the sufferer is only an Atheist.

Varley's circular served its evil purpose, for soon after Parliament assembled in February, Mr. C. K. Freshfield, member for Dover, asked the Home Secretary whether the Government intended to prosecute the Freethinker.

Sir William Harcourt gave the following reply:

"I am sorry to say my attention has been called to a paper bearing the title of the Freethinker, published in Northampton, and I agree that nothing can be more pernicious to the minds of right-thinking people than publications of that description -- (cheers) -- but I think it has been the view for a great many years of all persons responsible in these matters, that more harm than advantage is produced to public morals by Government prosecutions in cases of this kind. (Hear, hear). I believe they are better left to the reprobation which they will meet in this country from all decent members of society. (Cheers)."

This highly disingenuous answer was characteristic of the member for Derby. His reference to the Freethinker as published at Northampton, clearly proves that he had never seen it; and his unctuous allusions to "public morals" and "decent members of society" are further evidence in the same direction. The Freethinker was accused of blasphemy, but until Sir William Harcourt gave the cue not even its worst enemies charged it with indecency. In a later stage of my narrative I shall have to show that the "Liberal" Home Secretary has acted the part of an unscrupulous bigot, utterly regardless of truth, justice and honor.

I thought it my duty to write an open letter to Sir William Harcourt on the subject of his answer to Mr. Freshfield, in which I said -- "I tell you that you could not suppress the Freethinker if you tried. The martyr spirit of Freethought is not dead, and the men who suffered imprisonment for liberty of speech a generation ago have not left degenerate successors. Should the necessity arise, there are Freethinkers who will not shrink from the same sacrifice for the same cause." The sequel has shown that this was no idle boast.

A few days later the Freethinker was again the subject of a question in the House. Mr. Redmond, member for New Ross, asked the Home Secretary "whether the Government had power to seize and summarily suppress newspapers which they considered pernicious to public morals; and, if so, why that power was not exercised in the case of the Freethinker and other papers now published and circulated in England." Sir William Harcourt repeated the answer he gave to Mr. Freshfield, and added that it would not be discreet to say whether the Government had power to seize obnoxious publications.

Mr. Redmond's question was a fine piece of impudence. Assuming that he represented all the voters in New Ross, his constituents numbered two hundred and sixty-one; and they could all be conveyed to Westminster in a tithe of the vehicles that brought people to Holloway Gaol to welcome me on the morning of my release. The total population of New Ross, including men, women and children, is less than seven thousand; a number that fell far short of the readers of the Freethinker even then. Representing a mere handful of people, Mr. Redmond had the audacity to ask for the summary suppression of a journal which is read in every part of the English-speaking world.

Nothing further of an exciting nature in connexion with my case occurred until early in May, when a prosecution for Blasphemy was instituted at Tunbridge Wells against Mr. Henry Seymour, Honorary Secretary of the local branch of the National Secular Society. This Branch had been the object of continued outrage and persecution, chiefly instigated, I have reason to believe, by Canon Hoare. The printed announcements outside their meeting-place were frequently painted over in presence of the police, who refused to interfere. Finally the police called on all the local bill-posters and warned them against exhibiting the Society's placards. Stung by these disgraceful tactics, Mr. Seymour issued a jocular programme of an evening's entertainment at the Society's hall, one profane sentence of which, while it in no way disturbed the peace or serenity of the town, aroused intense indignation in the breasts of the professional guardians of religion and morality. They therefore cited Mr. Seymour before the Justices of the Peace, and charged him with publishing a blasphemous libel. He was committed for trial at the next assizes, and in the meantime liberated on a hundred pounds bail. Acting under advice, Mr. Seymour pleaded guilty, and was discharged on finding sureties for his appearance when called up for judgment. This grievous error was a distinct encouragement to the bigots. Their appetite was whetted by this morsel, and they immediately sought a full repast.

My own attitude was one of defiance. In the Freethinker of May 14 I denounced the bigots as cowards for pouncing on a comparatively obscure member of the Freethought party, and I challenged them to attack its leaders before they assailed the rank and file. This challenge was cited against me on my own trial, but I do not regret it; and indeed I doubt if any man ever regretted that his sense of duty triumphed over his sense of danger.

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