Freethought Archives > G W Foote > Prisoner for Blasphemy



OUR Indictment covered twenty-eight large folios, and contained sixteen Counts. Of course we had to pay for a copy of it; for although a criminal is supposed to enjoy the utmost fair play, and according to legal theory is entitled to every advantage in his defence, as a matter of fact, unless he is able to afford the cost of a copy, he has no right to know the contents of his Indictment until he stands in the dock to plead to it.

It was evidently drawn up by someone grossly ignorant of the Bible. The Apocalypse was described as the "Book of Revelations," and the Gadarean swine came out as "Gadderean." Probably Sir Henry Tyler and Sir Hardinge Giffard knew as much of the Scriptures they strove to imprison us for disputing as the person who drew up our Indictment. Mr. Cluer caused some amusement in the Court of Queen's Bench when, in the gravest manner, he drew attention to these errors. Lord Coleridge as gravely replied that he could not take judicial cognisance of them. Whereupon Mr. Cluer quietly observed that he was ready to produce the authorised version of the Bible in court in a few minutes, as he had a copy in his chambers. This remark elicited a smile from Lord Coleridge, a broad grin from the lawyers in Court, and a titter from the crowd. It was perfectly understood that a gentleman of the long robe might prosecute anybody for blasphemy against the Bible and its Deity, but the idea of a barrister having a copy of the "sacred volume" in his chambers was really too absurd for belief.

The preamble charged us, in the stock language of Indictments for Blasphemy, as may be seen on reference to Archibold, with "being wicked and evil-disposed persons, and disregarding the laws and religion of the realm, and wickedly and profanely devising and intending to asperse and vilify Almighty God, and to bring the Holy Scriptures and the Christian Religion into disbelief and contempt."

The first observation I have to make on this wordy jumble is, that it seems highly presumptuous on the part of weak men to defend the character of "Almighty God." Surely they might leave him to protect himself. Omnipotence is able to punish those who offend it, and Omniscience knows when to punish. Man's interference is grossly impertinent. When the emperor Tiberius was asked by an informer to allow proceedings against one who had "blasphemed the gods," he replied: "No, let the gods defend their own honor." Christian rulers have not yet reached that level of justice and common sense.

Next, it was flagrantly unjust to accuse us of aspersing and vilifying Almighty God at all. The Freethinker had simply assailed the reputation of the god of the Bible, a tribal deity of the Jews, subsequently adopted by the Christians, whom James Mill had described as "the most perfect conception of wickedness which the human mind can devise." What difference, I ask, is there between that strong description and the sentence quoted from the Freethinker in our Indictment, which declared the same being as "cruel as a Bashi-Bazouk and bloodthirsty as a Bengal tiger"? The one is an abstract and the other a concrete expression of the same view; the one is philosophical and the other popular; the one is a cold statement and the other a burning metaphor. To allow the one to circulate with impunity, and to punish the other with twelve months' imprisonment, is to turn a literary difference into a criminal offence.

Further, as Sir James Stephen has observed, it is absurd to talk about bringing "the Holy Scriptures and the Christian religion into disbelief and contempt." One of these words is clearly superfluous. Considering the extraordinary pretensions of the Bible and Christianity, it is difficult to see how they could be brought into contempt more effectually than by bringing them into disbelief.

But greater absurdities remain. Our Indictment averred that we had published certain Blasphemous Libels "to the great displeasure of Almighty God, to the scandal of the Christian religion and the Holy Bible or Scriptures, and against the peace of our Lady the Queen, her crown and dignity." Let us analyse this legal jargon.

How did our prosecutors learn that we displeased Almighty God? In what manner did Sir Henry Tyler first become aware of the fact? Was it, in the ancient fashion, revealed to him in a dream, or did it come by direct inspiration? What was the exact language of the aggrieved Deity? Did he give Sir Henry Tyler a power of attorney to defend his character by instituting a prosecution for libel? If so, where is the document, and who will prove the signature? And did the original party to the suit intimate his readiness to be subpoenaed as a witness at the trial? All these are very important questions, but there is no likelihood of their ever being answered.

"The scandal of the Christian Religion" is an impertinent joke. Christianity, as Lord Coleridge remarked, is no longer, as the old judges used to rule, part and parcel of the law of England. I argued the matter at considerable length in addressing the jury, and his lordship supported my contention with all the force of his high authority. After pointing out that at one time Jews, Roman Catholics, and Nonconformists of all sorts -- in fact every sect outside the State Church -- were under heavy disabilities for religion and regarded as hardly having civil rights, and that undoubtedly at that time the doctrines of the Established religion were part and parcel of the law of the land, Lord Coleridge observed, as I had done, that "Parliament, which is supreme and binds us all, has enacted statutes which make that view of the law no longer applicable." I had also pointed out that there might be a Jew on the jury. His lordship went further, and remarked that there might be a Jew on the bench. His words were these:

"Now, so far as I know, a Jew might be Lord Chancellor; most certainly he might be Master of the Rolls. The great and illustrious lawyer [Sir George Jessel] whose loss the whole profession is deploring, and in whom his friends know that they lost a warm friend and a loyal colleague; he, but for the accident of taking his office before the Judicature Act came into operation, might have had to go circuit, might have sat in a criminal court to try such a case as this, might have been called upon, if the law really be that 'Christianity is part of the law of the land' in the sense contended for, to lay it down as law to a jury, amongst whom might have been Jews, -- that it was an offence against the law, as blasphemy, to deny that Jesus Christ was the Messiah, a thing which he himself did deny, which Parliament had allowed him to deny, and which it is just as much part of the law that anyone may deny, as it is your right and mine, if we believe it, to assert."

Clearly then, according to the dictum of the Lord Chief Justice, it is not a crime to publish anything "to the scandal of the Christian Religion," although it was alleged against us as such in our Indictment.

The only real point that can be discussed and tested is in the last clause. I do not refer to the Queen's "crown and dignity," which we were accused of endangering; for our offence could not possibly be construed as a political one, and it is hard to perceive how the Queen's dignity could be imperilled by the act of any person except herself. What I refer to is the statement that we had provoked a disturbance of the peace; a more hypocritical pretence than which was never advanced. I venture to quote here a passage from my address to the jury on my third trial before Lord Coleridge: --

"A word, gentlemen, about breach of the peace. Mr. Justice Stephen said well, that no temporal punishment should be inflicted for blasphemy unless it led to a breach of the peace. I have no objection to that, provided we are indicted for a breach of the peace. Very little breach of the peace might make a good case of blasphemy. A breach of the peace in a case like this must not be constructive; it must be actual. They might have put somebody in the witness-box who would have said that reading the Freethinker had impaired his digestion and disturbed his sleep. They might have even found somebody who said it was thrust upon him, and that, he was induced to read it, not knowing its character. Gentlemen, they have not attempted to prove that any special publicity was given to it outside the circle of the people who approved it. They have not even shown there was an advertisement of it in any Christian or religious paper. They have not even told you that any extravagant display was made of it; and I undertake to say that you might never have known of it if the prosecution had not advertised it. How can all this be construed as a breach of the peace? Our Indictment says we have done all this, to the great displeasure of Almighty God, and to the danger of our Lady the Queen, her crown and dignity. You must bear that in mind. The law-books say again and again that a blasphemous libel is punished, not because it throws obloquy on the deity -- the protection of whom would be absurd -- but because it tends to a breach of the peace. It is preposterous to say such a thing tends to a breach of the peace. If you want that you must go to the Salvation Army. They have a perfect right to their ideas -- I have nothing to say about them; but their policy has led to actual breaches of the peace; and even in India, where, according to the law, no prosecution could be started against a paper like the Freethinker, many are sent to gaol because they will insist upon processions in the street. We have not caused tumult in the streets. We have not sent out men with banners and bands in which each musician plays more or less his own tune. We have not sent out men who make hideous discord, and commit a common nuisance. Nothing of the sort is alleged. A paper like this had to be bought and our utterances had to be sought. We have not done anything against the peace. I give the Indictment an absolute denial. To talk of danger to the peace is only a mask to hide the hideous and repulsive features of intolerance and persecution. They don't want to punish us because we have assailed religion, but because we have endangered the peace. Take them at their word, gentlemen. Punish us if we have endangered the peace, and not if we have assailed religion; and as you know we have not endangered the peace, you will of course bring in a verdict of Not Guilty. Gentlemen, I hope you will by your verdict to-day champion that great law of liberty which is challenged -- the law of liberty which implies the equal right of everyman, while he does not trench upon the equal right of every other man, to print what he pleases for people who choose to buy and read it, so long as he does not libel men's characters or incite people to the commission of crime."

Appealing now to a far larger jury in the high court of public opinion, I ask whether Freethinkers are not one of the most orderly sections of the community. Why should we resort to violence, or invoke it, or even countenance it, when our cardinal principle is the sovereignty of reason, and our hope of progress lies in the free play of mind on every subject? We are perhaps more profoundly impressed than others with the idea that all institutions are the outward expression of inward thoughts and feelings, and that it is impossible to forestall the advance of public sentiment by the most cunningly-devised machinery. We are par excellence the party of order, though not of stagnation. It is a striking and pregnant fact that Freethought meetings are kept peaceful and orderly without any protection by the police. At St. James's Hall, London, the only demonstrations, I believe, for which the services of a certain number of policemen are not charged for in the bill with the rent, are those convened by Mr. Bradlaugh and his friends.

Lord Coleridge, ostensibly but not actually following Michaelis, raised the subtle argument that as people's feelings are very tender on the subject of religion, and the populace is apt to take the law into its own hands when there is no legal method of expressing its anger and indignation, "some sort of blasphemy laws reasonably enforced may be an advantage even to those who differ from the popular religion of a country, and who desire to oppose and to deny it." But this is an inversion of the natural order of things. What reason is there in imprisoning an innocent man because some one meditates an assault upon him? Would it not be wiser and juster to restrain the intending criminal, as is ordinarily done? I object to being punished because others cannot keep their tempers; and I say further, that to punish a man, not because he has injured others, but for his own good, is the worst form of persecution. During the many years of my public advocacy of Freethought in all parts of Great Britain, both before and since my imprisonment, I have never been in a moment's danger of violence and outrage. I never witnessed any irritation which could not be allayed by a persuasive word, or any disturbance that could not be quelled by a witticism. With all deference to Lord Coleridge, whom no one admires and respects more than I do, I would rather the law left me to my own resources, and only interfered to protect me when I need its assistance.

Now for the counts of our Indictment. There is danger in writing about them, as it is held that the publication of matter found blasphemous by a jury, except in a legal report for the profession, is itself blasphemy, and may be punished as such. I am not, however, likely to be deterred from my purpose by this consideration. On the other hand, as the incriminated passages were all carefully selected from many numbers of a journal never remarkable for its tender treatment of orthodoxy, I do not see any particular advantage to be derived from their republication. They are, of course, far more calculated to shock religious susceptibilities (if these are to be considered) when they are picked out and ranked together than when they stand amid their context in their original places. Such a process of selection would be exceedingly hard on any paper or book handling very advanced ideas, and very backward ones, in a spirit of great freedom. Nay, it would prove a severe trial to most works of real value, whose scope extended beyond the respectabilities. Not to mention Byron's caustic remarks on the peculiar expurgation of Martial in Don Juan's edition, it is obvious that the Bible and Shakespeare could both be proved obscene by this process; and setting aside ancient literature altogether, half our own classics, before the age of Wordsworth and Scott, would come under the same condemnation. I know I am intruding among my betters; but I do not claim equality with them; I merely ask the same liberal judgment. A man is no more to be judged by a few casual sentences from his pen, without any reference to all the rest, than he is to be judged by a few casual expressions he may let fall in a year's conversation.

Curiously, in all those twenty-eight folios of blasphemy, only three sentences were from my own pen, and two of them were extracted from long articles. One was a jocose reference to the Jewish tribal god, who, as Keunen allows, was carried about, probably as a stone fetish, in that wooden box known as the "ark of the covenant." Another occurred in a long review of Jules Soury's remarkable book on the subject of Jesus Christ's hallucinations and eccentricities, in which he endeavors to show that the Prophet of Nazareth passed through certain recognised stages of brain disease. Referring to the close of his career, I wrote that, "When Jesus made his triumphant entry into Jerusalem he was plainly crazed." That one sentence was picked out from a long review, running through three numbers of the Freethinker, and filling six columns of print. The third sentence was a satirical comment on the sensational and blasphemous title of Dr. Parker's book on "The Inner Life of Christ." I asked, "How did he contrive to get inside his maker?" There was a fourth sentence I wrote for the Freethinker, but as it was a verbatim report of some Bedlamite observations of a Salvationist at Halifax, published, as I said, "to show what is being done and said in the name of Christianity," I decline to be held responsible for it. Let General Booth be answerable for the blasphemies of his own followers.

All the other passages in the Indictment were from the pens of contributors, over whom, as they signed their articles, I never held a tight rein. They were mostly amplifications of the sentence I have already quoted about the cruel character of the Bible God. I did not, however, dwell on this fact in my address to the jury. I took the full responsibility, and fought my contributors' battle as well my own. I bore their iniquities, the chastisement of their peace was upon me, and by my stripes they were healed.

Four of the Comic Bible Sketches were included in the Indictment. They appeared in the Freethinker on the following dates: -- January 29, April 23, May 28, and June 11 (1882). Readers who care to see what they were like can refer to the file in the British Museum. Those illustrations have not been declared blasphemous, for when the Indictment I have been explaining was tried before Lord Coleridge, the jury, after several hours' deliberation, could not agree to a verdict of Guilty.

The Indictment on which I was found guilty, and sentenced to twelve months' imprisonment, was a later one. It was based on the Christmas Number, 1882, to which I previously referred. Let me now give a brief history of my second prosecution.

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