Part 1 out of 4
Prisoner for Blasphemy
by George William Foote (11-Jan-1850 to 17-Oct-1915)
Originally published 1886
Transcribed by the Freethought Archives
PRISONER FOR BLASPHEMY
G. W. Foote
Persecution is not refutation, nor even triumph: the "wretched infidel"
as he is called, is probably happier in his prison than the proudest
of his assailants--BYRON.
Progressive Publishing Company
28 Stonecutter Street, E.C.
I. The Storm Brewing
II. Our First Summons
III. Mr. Bradlaugh Included
IV. Our Indictment
V. Another Prosecution
VI. Preparing for Trial
VII. At the Old Bailey
IX. The Second Trial
X. "Black Maria"
XI. Holloway Gaol
XII. Prison Life
XIII. Parson Plaford
XIV. The Third Trial
XV. Loss and Gain
XVI. A Long Night
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." [Reference: _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."
[Reference: _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
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.
G. W. FOOTE.
_February 1st_, 1886.
THE STORM BREWING.
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 _a 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
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
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
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
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
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.
OUR FIRST SUMMONS.
Some day in the first week of July (I fancy it was Thursday, the 6th,
but I cannot distinguish it with perfect precision, as some of
my memoranda were scattered by my imprisonment) I enjoyed one
of those very rare trips into the country which my engagements
allowed. I was accompanied by two old friends, Mr. J. M. Wheeler
and Mr. John Robertson, the latter being then on a brief first
visit to London. We went up the river by boat, walked for hours
about Kew and Richmond, and sat on the famous Terrace in the
early evening, enjoying the lovely prospect, and discussing a
long letter from Italy, written by one of our best friends, who
was spending a year in that poet's paradise. How we chattered
all through that golden day on all subjects, in the heavens above,
on the earth beneath, and in the waters under the earth! With
what fresh delight, in keeping with the scene, we compared our
favorite authors and capped each other's quotations! Rare
Walt Whitman told Mr. Conway that his _forte_ was "loafing and
writing poems." Well, we loafed too, and if we did not write
poems, we startled the birds, the sheep, the cattle, and stray
pedestrians, by reciting them. I returned home with that pleasant
feeling of fatigue which is a good sign of health--with tired
limbs and a clear brain, languid but not jaded. Throwing myself
into the chair before my desk, I lit my pipe, and sat calmly
puffing, while the incidents of that happy day floated through
my memory as I watched the floating smoke-wreaths. Casually
turning round, I noticed a queer-looking sheet of paper on the
desk. I picked it up and read it. It was a summons from the
Lord Mayor, commanding my attendance at the Mansion House on
the following Tuesday, to answer a charge of Blasphemy. Strange
ending to such a day! What a tragi-comedy life is--how full of
contrasts and surprises, of laughter and tears.
Two others were summoned to appear with me: Mr. W. J. Ramsey,
as publisher and proprietor, and Mr. E. W. Whittle, as printer.
Mr. Bradlaugh, who was not included in the prosecution until a
later stage of the proceedings, rendered us ungrudging assistance.
Mr. Lickfold, of the well-known legal firm of Lewis and Lewis,
was engaged to watch the case on behalf of Mr. Whittle. As for
my own defence, I resolved from the very first to conduct it myself,
a course for which I had excellent reasons, that were perfectly
justified by subsequent events. In the _Freethinker_ of July 30,
1882, I wrote:
"I have to defend a principle as well as myself. The most
skilful counsel might be half-hearted and over-prudent. Every
lawyer looks to himself as well as to his client. When Erskine
made his great speech at the end of last century in a famous
trial for treason, Thomas Paine said it was a splendid speech
for Mr. Erskine, but a very poor defence of the "Rights of Man."
If Freethought is attacked it must be defended, and the charge
of Blasphemy must be retorted on those who try to suppress
liberty in the name of God. For my part, I would rather be
convicted after my own defence than after another man's; and
before I leave the court, for whatever destination, I will make
the ears of bigotry tingle, and shame the hypocrites who profess
For whatever destination! Yes, I avow that from the moment I read
the summons I never had a doubt as to my fate. I knew that
prosecutions for Blasphemy had invariably succeeded. How, indeed,
could they possibly fail? I might by skill or luck get one jury
to disagree, but acquittal was hopeless; and the prosecution
could go on trying me until they found a jury sufficiently orthodox
to ensure a verdict of guilty. It was a foregone conclusion. The
prosecution played, "Heads I win, tails you lose."
And now a word as to our prosecutor. Nominally, of course, we were
prosecuted by the Crown; and Judge North had the ignorance or
impudence to tell the Old Bailey jury that this was not only theory
but fact. Lord Coleridge, when he tried us two months later in
the Court of Queen's Bench, told the jury that although the nominal
prosecutor was the Crown, the actual prosecutor, the real plaintiff
who set the Crown in motion, was Sir Henry Tyler. _He_ provided
all the necessary funds. Without his cash, nobody would have paid
for the summons, and the pious lawyers, from Sir Hardinge Giffard
downwards, who harangued the magistrates, the judge and the jury,
would have held their venal tongues, and left poor Religion to
defend herself as she could. And who is Sir Henry Tyler? or, rather,
who was he? for after emerging into public notoriety by playing the
part of a prosecutor, he fell back into his natural obscurity. He
remained a Member of Parliament, but no one heard of him in that
capacity, except now and then when he asked a foolish question,
like others of his kind, who are mysteriously permitted to sit in
our national legislature. Three years ago, however, he was a more
conspicuous personage. He was then chairman of the Board of Directors
of the Brush Light Company; and according to Henry Labouchere's
statements in _Truth_, he was a "notorious guinea-pig." He was
certainly an adept in the profitable transfer of shares: so much so,
indeed, that at length the shareholders revolted against their
pious chairman, and appointed a committee to investigate his proceedings.
Whereupon this modern Knight of the Holy Ghost levanted, preferring
to resign rather than face the inquiry. This is the man who asked
in the House of Commons whether Mr. Bradlaugh's daughters could not
be deprived of their hard-earned grants for their pupils who successfully
passed the South Kensington examinations! This is the man who posed
as the amateur champion of omnipotence! Surely if deity wanted a
champion, Sir Henry Tyler is about the last person who would receive
an application. Yet it is men of this stamp who have usually set
the Blasphemy Laws in operation. These infamous laws are allowed
to slumber for years, until some contemptible wretch, to gratify
his private malice or a baser passion, rouses them into vicious
activity, and fastens their fangs on men whose characters are far
superior to his own. With this fact before them, it is strange
that Christians should continue to regard these detestable laws as
a bulwark of their faith, or in any way calculated to defend it
against the inroads of "infidelity."
Sir Henry Tyler may after all have been a tool in the hands of others,
for the _St. Stephen's Review_ has admitted that the object of this
prosecution was to cripple Mr. Bradlaugh in his parliamentary struggle,
and we expected a prosecution long before it came, in consequence
of some conversation on the subject overheard in the Tea Room of
the House of Commons. But this, if true, while it heightens his
insignificance, in no wise lessens his infamy; and it certainly does
not impair, but rather increases, the force of my strictures on the
Lord Coleridge, in the Court of Queen's Bench, on the occasion of
Mr. Bradlaugh's trial, sarcastically alluded to Sir Henry Tyler as
"a person entirely unknown to me"--a very polite way of saying,
"What does such an obscure person mean by assuming the _role_ of
Defender of the Faith?" His lordship must also have had that
individual in his mind when, on the occasion of my own trial with
Mr. Ramsey in the same Court on April 25, 1883, he delivered himself
of these sentiments in the course of his famous summing-up:
"A difficult form of virtue is quietly and unostentatiously
to obey what you believe to be God's will in your own lives.
It is not very easy to do that, and if you do it, you don't
make much noise in the world. It is very easy to turn upon
somebody who differs from you, and in the guise of zeal for
God's honor, to attack somebody who differs from you in point
of opinion, but whose life may be very much more pleasing to God,
whom you profess to honor, than your own. When it is done by
persons whose own lives are full of pretending to be better
than their neighbors, and who take that particular form of zeal
for God which consists in putting the criminal law in force
against somebody else--that does not, in many people's minds,
create a sympathy with the prosecutor, but rather with the
defendant. There is no doubt that will be so; and if they
should be men--I don't know anything about these persons--but
if they should be men who enjoy the wit of Voltaire, and who
do not turn away from the sneer of Gibbon, but rather relish
the irony of Hume--one's feelings do not go quite with the
prosecutor, but one's feelings are rather apt to sympathise
with the defendants. It is still worse if the person who takes
this course takes it not from a kind of rough notion that God
wants his assistance, and that he can give it--less on his own
account than by prosecuting other--or if it is mixed up with
anything of a partisan or political nature. Then it is impossible
that anything can be more foreign from one's notions of what is
high-minded, religious and noble. Indeed, I must say it strikes
me that anyone who would do that, not for the honor of God, but for
his own purposes, is entitled to the most disdainful disapprobation
that the human mind can form."
Some of the orthodox Tory journals censured Lord Coleridge for
these scathing remarks, but his lordship is not easily frightened
by anonymous critics, and it is probable that, if he ever has to
try another case like ours, he may denounce the prosecutors in still
stronger language if their motives are so obviously sinister as were
those of Sir Henry Tyler.
There was a great crowd of people outside the Mansion House on
Tuesday morning, May 11, and we were lustily cheered as we entered.
Long before the Lord Mayor, Sir Whittaker Ellis, took his seat on the
Bench, every inch of standing space in the Justice Room was occupied.
Mr. Bradlaugh took a seat near Mr. Lickfold and frequently tendered
us hints and advice. Mr. Ramsey, Mr. Whittle, and I took our places
in the dock as our names were called out by Mr. Gresham, the chief
clerk of the court. Our summons alleged that we unlawfully did publish,
or caused to be published, certain blasphemous libels in a newspaper
called the _Freethinker_, dated the 28th of May, 1882.
Mr. Maloney, who appeared for the prosecution, seemed fully impressed
with the gravity of his position, and when he rose he had the air of
a man who bore the responsibility of defending in his single person
the honor, if not the very existence, of our national religion. His
first proceeding was very characteristic of a gentleman with such a
noble task. He attempted to hand in as evidence against us several
numbers of the _Freethinker_ not mentioned in the summons, and these
would have been at once admitted by the Lord Mayor, who was apparently
used to accepting evidence in an extremely free and easy fashion,
as is generally the case with the "great unpaid"; but Mr. Lickfold
promptly intervened, and his lordship, seeing the necessity of
carefulness, then held that it would be advisable to adhere to the
one case that morning, and to take out fresh summonses for the other
numbers. Mr. Maloney then proceeded to deal with the numbers before
the Court. There were numerous blasphemies which, if we were committed
for trial, would be set forth in the indictment, but he would "spare
the ears of the Court." One passage, however, he did read, and it
is well to put on record, for the sake of those who talk about our
"indecent" attacks on Christianity, what a prosecuting barrister
felt he could rely on to procure our committal. It was as follows:
"As for the Freethinker, he will scorn to degrade himself by going
through the farce of reconciling his soul to a God whom he justly
regards as the embodiment of crime and ferocity." Those words were
not mine; they were from an article by one of my contributors; but
I ask any reasonable man whether it is not ludicrous to prate about
religious freedom in a country where writers run the risk of
imprisonment for a sentence like that? As Mr. Maloney ended the
quotation his voice sank to a supernatural whisper, he dropped the
paper on the desk before him, and regarded his lordship with a look
of pathetic horror, which the worthy magistrate fully reciprocated.
As I contemplated these two voluntary augurs of our national faith,
and at the same time remembered that far stronger expressions might
be found in the writings of Mill, Clifford, Amberley, Arnold, Newman,
Conway, Swinburne, and other works in Mudie's circulating library,
I could scarcely refrain from laughter.
The witnesses for the prosecution were of the ordinary type--
policemen, detectives, and lawyer's clerks--with the exception of
Mr. Charles Albert Watts, who by accident or design found himself
in such questionable company. This young gentleman is the son of
Mr. Charles Watts and printer of the _Secular Review_, and he was
called to prove that I was the editor of the _Freethinker_. With
the most cheerful alacrity he positively affirmed that I was,
although he had absolutely no more _knowledge_ on the subject--
as indeed he admitted on cross-examination--than any other member
of the British public. His appearance in the witness-box is still
half a mystery to me and I can only ask, _Que le diable allait-il
faire dans cette galere?_
Ultimately the case was remanded till the following Monday, Mr. Maloney
intimating that he should apply for fresh summonses for other numbers
of the _Freethinker_, as well as a summons against Mr. Bradlaugh for
complicity in our crime.
Let me here pause to consider how these prosecutions for blasphemy
are initiated. Under the Newspaper Libels Act no prosecution for
libel can be commenced against the editor, publisher or proprietor
of any newspaper, without the written fiat of the Public Prosecutor.
This post is occupied by Sir John Maule, who enjoys a salary of
L2,000 a year, and has the assistance of a well-appointed office
in his strenuous labors. _Punch_ once pictured him fast asleep
before the fire, with a handkerchief over his face, while all sorts
of unprosecuted criminals plied their nefarious trades; and
Mr. Justice Hawkins (I think) has denounced him as a pretentious farce.
He is practically irresponsible, unlike the Attorney-General, who,
being a member of the Government, is amenable to public opinion.
Press laws, except in cases of personal libel, ought not to be neglected
or enforced at the discretion of such an official. Every interference
with freedom of speech, whenever it is deemed necessary, should be
undertaken by the Government, or at least have its express sanction.
Nothing of the sort happened in our case. On the contrary, Sir
John Maule allowed our prosecution after Sir William Harcourt had
condemned it. The Public Prosecutor set himself above the Home Secretary.
Unfortunately the general press saw nothing anomalous or dangerous
in such a state of things; for an official like Sir John Maule,
while ready enough to sanction the prosecution of an unpopular journal,
which presumably has few friends, is naturally reluctant, as events
have shown, to allow proceedings against a powerful journal whose
friends may be numerous and influential. Fortunately, however, a
Select Committee of the House of Commons has taken a more sensible
view of the Public Prosecutor and the duties he has so muddled,
and recommended the abolition of his office. Should this step be
taken, his duties will probably be performed by the Solicitor-General,
and the press will be freed from a danger it had not the sense or
the courage to avert. As for Sir John Maule, he will of course
retire with a big pension, and live in fat ease for the rest of
his sluggish life.
MR. BRADLAUGH INCLUDED.
Mr. Maloney obtained his summons against Mr. Bradlaugh, whose name
was included in a new document which was served on all of us. I have
lost our first Summons, but I am able to give a copy of the second.
It ran thus:
"TO WILLIAM JAMES RAMSEY, of 28 Stonecutter Street, in the City
of London, and 20 Brownlow Street, Dalston, in the county of
Middlesex; GEORGE WILLIAM FOOTE, of 9 South Crescent, Bedford
Square, in the county of Middlesex; EDWARD WILLIAM WHITTLE, of
170 Saint John Street, Clerkenwell, in the county of Middlesex;
and CHARLES BRADLAUGH, of 20 Circus Road, Saint John's Wood, in
the county of Middlesex, and 28 Stonecutter Street, in the City
"Whereas you have this day been charged before the under-signed,
the Lord Mayor of the City of London, being one of Her Majesty's
justices of the peace in and for the said City, and the liberties
thereof, by Sir Henry Tyler, of Dashwood House, 9 New Broad Street,
in the said City, for that you, in the said City, unlawfully did
publish, or cause and procure to be published, certain blasphemous
libels in a newspaper called the _Freethinker_, dated and published
on the days following--that is to say, on the 26th day of March,
1882, on the 9th, 23rd and 30th days of April, 1882, and on the
7th, 14th, 21st and 28th days of May, 1882, and on the 11th and
18th days of June, 1882, against the peace, etc.:
"These are therefore to command you, in Her Majesty's name, to
be and appear before me, on Monday, the 17th day of July, 1882,
at eleven of the clock in the forenoon, at the Mansion House
Justice-Room, in the said City, or before such other justice
or justices of the peace for the same City as may then be there,
to answer to the said charge, and to be further dealt with
according to law. Herein fail not.
"Given under my hand and seal, this 12th day of July, in the
year of our Lord 1882, at the Mansion House Justice-Room,
"WHITTAKER ELLIS, Lord Mayor, London."
On the following Monday, July 17, the junior Member for Northampton
stood beside us in the Mansion House dock. The court was of course
crowded, and a great number of people stood outside waiting for a
chance of admission. The Lord Mayor considerately allowed us seats
on hearing that the case would occupy a long time, a piece of attention
which he might also have displayed on the previous Tuesday. It seems
extremely unjust that men who are defending themselves, who need all
their strength for the task, and who may after all be innocent,
should be obliged to stand for hours in a crowded court in the
dog-days, and waste half their energies in the perfectly gratuitous
exertion of maintaining their physical equilibrium.
I shall not describe the proceedings before the Lord Mayor on this
occasion. Properly speaking, it was Mr. Bradlaugh's day, and some
time or other its incidents will be recorded in his biography.
Suffice it to say that he showed his usual legal dexterity, sat
on poor Mr. Maloney, and sadly puzzled the Lord Mayor. I must,
however, refer to one point, as it illustrates the high Christian
morality of our prosecutors. Mr. Maloney had obtained an illegal
order from the Lord Mayor to inspect Mr. Bradlaugh's bank account,
and armed with this order, which, even if it were legal, would not
have extended beyond the limits of the City, this enterprising
barrister had overhauled the books of the St. John's Wood Branch of
the London and South-Western Bank. Lord Coleridge's astonishment
at this unheard-of proceeding was only equalled by his trenchant
sarcasm on the Lord Mayor as a legal functionary, and his bitter
cold sneer at Mr. Maloney, who, it further appeared, had actually
played the part of an amateur detective, by setting street policemen
to watch Mr. Bradlaugh's entries and exits from his publishing office.
On the following Friday, July 21, the hearing of our case was resumed.
We were all committed for trial at the Old Bailey, with the exception
of Mr. Whittle, the printer, against whom the prosecution was abandoned
on the ground that he had ceased to print the _Freethinker_. This was
an unpleasant fact, and alas! it was only one of a good many I shall
have to relate presently.
Before our committal I essayed to read a brief protest against the
prosecution, which I had carefully prepared. In defiance of the
statute, the Lord Mayor refused to hear it. An altercation then
ensued, and I should have insisted on my right unless stopped by
brute force; but on his lordship promising that a copy should be
attached to the depositions, I yielded in order to let Mr. Bradlaugh
have a full opportunity of stigmatising Sir Henry Tyler, who had
left his questionable business at Dashwood House during a part of
the day, to gloat over the spectacle of his enemy in a criminal dock.
Some portions of my half-suppressed protest ought not to be omitted
in this history. After dealing in a few lines with the origin of
the Blasphemy Laws, censuring the conduct of Sir Henry Tyler, and
alluding to Sir. William Harcourt's reply to Mr. Freshfield, I
expressed myself as follows:
"What, indeed, do the prosecutors hope or expect to gain?
Freethought is no longer a weak, tentative, apologetic thing;
it is strong, bold, and aggressive; and no law could now suppress
it except one of extermination. Every breach made in its ranks
by imprisonment would be instantly filled; and as punishment
is not eternal on this side of death, the imprisoned man would
some day return to his old place, fiercer than ever for the fight,
and inflamed with an unappeasable hatred of the religion whose
guardians prefer punishment to persuasion, and supplement the
weakness of argument by the force of brutality.
"Blasphemy is a very general offence if we take even the lenient
definitions of Sir James Stephen in his 'Digest of the Criminal Law.'
All who publicly advocate the disestablishment of the Church
are guilty under one clause, and half the leading writers of
our age are guilty under another. It is difficult to find a
book by any eminent scientist or thinker which does not contain
open or covert attacks on Christianity and Scripture, and the
Archbishop of Canterbury has pathetically complained that it
is dangerous to introduce high-class magazines to the family
circle, because they are nearly sure to contain a large quantity
of scepticism. Why are these propagators of heresy never molested?
Because it would be perilous to touch them. Prosecutions are
always reserved for those who are unprotected by wealth and
position. Heresy in expensive books for the upper classes is
safe, but heresy in cheap publications for the people incurs
a terrible danger. The one is flattered and conciliated, while
the other is liable at any moment to be put on its defence in
a criminal court, and is always at the mercy of any man who may
choose to indulge his political animosity, his social enmity,
or his private spite.
"Blasphemy is entirely a matter of opinion. What is blasphemy
in one country is piety in another. Progress tends to reduce
it from a crime to an affair of taste. To deal with it in the
bad spirit of the old laws, which are only unrepealed because
they have been treated as obsolete, is to outrage the conscience
of civilisation, and to violate that liberty of the press which
Bentham justly called 'the foundation of all other liberties.'
If opinions are not forced on people's attention, if they are
expressed in publications which are sold, which can be patronised
or neglected, and which must be deliberately sought before they
can be read; then, unless they contain incitements to crime,
they are entitled to immunity from molestation, and to interfere
with them is the height of gratuitous impertinence."
In the ordinary course our Indictment would have been tried at the
Old Bailey. The grand jury found a true bill against us, after being
charged by the Recorder, Sir Thomas Chambers, who addressed them as
fellow Christians, quite forgetful of the fact that Jews and Deists
are eligible as jurymen no less than orthodox believers. According
to the newspapers this bigot described our blasphemous libels as
"shocking," and said that "it was impossible for any Christian man
to read them without feeling that they came within that description,
and they ought to return a true bill." This same Sir Thomas Chambers
is a patron of piety, especially when it takes the form of aggressive
polemics. Some time afterwards he joined a committee, with the late
Lord Shaftesbury, Lord Mayor Fowler, and other religious worthies,
whose object was to raise a testimonial to Samuel Kinns, an obscure
author who has written a stupid volume on "Moses and Geology" for
the purpose of showing that the book of Genesis, to use Huxley's
expression, contains the beginning and the end of sound science.
It thus appears that a Christian magistrate may subscribe (or, which
is quite as pious and far more economical, induce others to subscribe)
for the confutation of heretics, and afterwards send them to gaol for
not being confuted. What a glorious commentary on the great truth
that England is a free country, and that Christianity relies entirely
on the force of persuasion! Fortunately, however, our case was not
tried at the Old Bailey. Mr. Bradlaugh obtained a writ of _certiorari_
removing the indictment to the Court of Queen's Bench, where our
case was put in the Crown List, and did not come on for hearing
until two months after I was imprisoned on another indictment.
Mr. Bradlaugh obtained the writ on July 29, 1882. It was during
the long vacation, and we had to appear before more than one judge
in chambers, Mr. Justice Stephen being the one who granted the writ.
I remember roaming the Law Courts with Mr. Bradlaugh that morning.
We went from office to office in the most perplexing manner.
Everything seemed designed to baffle suitors who conduct their
own cases. Obsolete technicalities, only half intelligible even
to experts, met one at every turn, and when I left the Law Courts
I felt that the thing was indeed done, but that it would almost puzzle
omniscience to do it again in exactly the same way. Over seven pounds
was spent in stamps, documents, and other items; and I was informed
that a solicitor's charges for the morning's work would have exceeded
thirty pounds. Securities for costs were required to the extent of
six hundred pounds, and of course they had to be given. Yet we were
merely seeking justice and a fair trial! As I walked home I pondered
the great truth that England is a free country, and that there is
one law for the rich and the poor; yet I reflected that as only the
rich could afford it, the poor might as well have no law at all.
I have already referred to our printer's defection. Acting under
advice, Mr. Whittle declined to print the Comic Bible Sketch in the
number for July 16, and the following week he refused to print at all.
He announced this decision after all the type was set up and the
"formes" were almost ready for the press. Only forty-eight hours
remained before the _Freethinker_ was due. During that period,
in company with my friend and sub-editor, Mr. J. M. Wheeler, I made
desperate efforts to get a printer to undertake the work. At last
I discovered a Freethinker who placed his inadequate resources at
my disposal. He could only set up four pages of type, and only
print copies with a hand-press. Even that was better than nothing;
anything being preferable to lowering the flag in the heat of battle.
But alas! fate is stronger than gods or men. I was foiled at the
last moment, just as victory seemed within my grasp; _how_ I forbear
to explain, although the incidents of that eventful day would form
an interesting chapter of my Autobiography. Enough copies were
pulled to constitute a legal issue of the paper, and one of these
is safely deposited in the British Museum; but none were printed
for the market, and it was everywhere reported that the _Freethinker_
was dead. Christian Evidence lecturers joyously announced the
fact at their meetings, and Mr. Maloney ironically alluded to it
in Court. I bore all these taunts with grim silence, which was at
last broken, not by words, but by deeds. These people did not know
that the _Freethinker_, like the founder of their faith, had
disappeared one week only to reappear the next. With the aid of
Mr. Ramsey, who again stood by our side, we succeeded in restoring
our paper to the light of day. Type was purchased, compositors
were engaged, and a little shop was taken in Harp Alley. The
_Freethinker_ for July 30 struck astonishment into the souls of
those who had rejoiced over its death when they saw no _Freethinker_
for July 23. From that moment our issue was never once suspended,
although we had some desperate close shaves.
In the number for August 6, as I could not get our machiner to print
any Comic Bible Sketches just then, I published a serious one,
reproduced from an old Dutch Bible of 1669. It represented Moses
obtaining a panoramic view of Jehovah's back parts. Below the text
I inserted the following notice: "As the bigots object to our Comic
Bible Sketches, we shall publish a few Serious Bible Sketches, copied
accurately from old Bibles of the ages of faith, to show what the
Christians have done themselves in the way of familiar interpretation.
We hope the bigots will like the change." By the next week, however,
I had overcome our machiner's scruples, and the Comic Bible Sketches
were resumed and continued up to the day of my imprisonment.
My attitude towards the prosecution is amply expressed by these
facts, but a few words from my pen at that time may not be altogether
superfluous. In an article entitled "Crucify Him!" in the _Freethinker_
of August 6, 1882, I wrote:
"We are charged with blasphemy, and so was Jesus Christ. What
a grim joke it will be if the _Freethinker_ is found guilty and
punished for the same crime as the preacher of the Sermon on
the Mount! Truly adversity makes us acquainted with strange
"Yet, whatever happens, we will not quail. We will not vapor
about legions of angels, but trust in the living legions of
Freethought. We will not yield to the weakness of an agony
and bloody sweat, nor pray that the cup may pass from us, nor
cry out that we are forsaken; for our sources of strength are
all within us, and cannot be taken away. We have a sense of
truth, a conviction of right, and a spirit of courage, caught
from the gallant men who fought before. Let the bigots do
their worst; they will not break our spirit nor extinguish our
cause. Let the Christian mob clamor as loudly as they can,
'Crucify him, crucify him!' They will not daunt us. We look
with prophetic eyes over all the tumult, and see in the distance
the radiant form of Liberty, bearing in her left hand the olive
branch and in her right hand the sword, the holy victress,
destined by treaty or conquest to bring the whole world under
her sway. And across all the din we hear her great rich voice,
banishing despair, inspiring hope, and infusing a joyous ardour
in every nerve."
From the first I was sure that the Freethought party would support
those who were fighting its battle, and I was not deceived. The
_Freethinker_ Defence Fund was liberally subscribed to throughout
the country, several working men putting by a few pence every week
for the purpose; and as I travelled up and down on my lecturing
tours I experienced everywhere the heartiest greetings. I saw that
the party's blood was up, and that however it might ultimately fare
with me, the battle would be fought to the bitter end.
Considerable controversy took place in the daily and weekly press.
Professor W. A. Hunter contributed a timely letter to the _Daily News_,
in which he described the Blasphemy Laws as "a weapon always ready to
the hand of mischievous fools or designing knaves." Mr. G. J. Holyoake
wrote in his usual vein of covert attack on Freethinkers in danger.
Mrs. Besant joined in the fray anonymously, and a letter appeared
also from my own pen. There were articles on the subject in the
provincial newspapers, and amongst the London journals I must
especially commend the _Weekly Dispatch_, which never wavered in
faithfulness to its Liberal traditions, and stood firm in its
censure of our prosecution from first to last, even when other
journals turned from the path of religious liberty, proved traitors
to their principles, and joined the bigots in their cry of "To prison,
to prison!" against the obnoxious heretics.
For some time after this we pursued the even tenor of our way.
Many of the wholesale newsagents, who had been frightened when
our prosecution was initiated, regained confidence and resumed
their orders. Early in October we removed from Harp Alley to
28 Stonecutter Street, which had just been vacated by the Freethought
Publishing Company, and which has ever since been the publishing
office of the _Freethinker_. About the same time I issued a pamphlet
entitled "Blasphemy no Crime," a copy of which was sent to every
newspaper in the United Kingdom. It traversed the whole field
of discussion, and gave a brief history of past prosecutions for
Blasphemy, as well as the principal facts of our own case. In
November I announced the preparation of the second Christmas Number
of the _Freethinker_, the publication for which I paid the penalty
of twelve months' imprisonment. Before, however, I deal fully with
that awful subject I will redeem my promise to inform my readers
of the nature of our indictment, and what were the actual charges
preferred against us by Sir Henry Tyler on behalf of the insulted
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
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
"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.
In the month of November (1882) I announced my intention to bring
out a new monthly magazine entitled _Progress_. Several friends
thought it impolitic to launch my new venture in such troubled waters,
and advised me to wait for the issue of the prosecution. But I
resolved to act exactly as though the prosecution had never been
initiated. It seemed to me the wisest course to go on with my work
until I was stopped, and risk the consequences whatever they might be.
The result has proved that I was right; but I do not wish to boast
of my judgment, for when I was imprisoned all my interests were
fearfully imperilled, and everything depended on the loyal exertions
of a few staunch Freethinkers (of whom more anon) who stepped into
the breach and defended them with great courage and ability until
I was able to resume my post. _Progress_ made its due appearance
in January, 1883, and, notwithstanding the extraordinary vicissitudes
of its career, it has flourished ever since without any solution
While I was advertising _Progress_ I was also preparing the second
Christmas Number of the _Freethinker_. The announcement of its
contents caused a great deal of excitement, and I am prepared to
admit that it was, to use a common phrase, the "warmest" publication
ever issued. It was full from cover to cover of what the orthodox
call blasphemy, and it was speedily described by the Christian press
as more "outrageous" than any of the ordinary numbers for which we
were already prosecuted. The description was perfectly correct.
I had concluded that my wisest policy, as it was certainly the most
courageous, was to disregard the Blasphemy Laws and defy the bigots;
to show that Freethought was not to be cowed or intimidated by threats
of imprisonment. Facing the enemy boldly appeared to me better than
running away; a course in which I could see neither glory, honor,
nor profit. Even if I had consulted my safety above all things,
I should have seen little wisdom in flight; and being shot in the back,
while no less dangerous, is far more ignominious than being shot in
the front. I have paid the full penalty of my policy; I have suffered
twelve months' torture in a Christian gaol; yet I do not repent the
course I took; and ever since my release from prison I have felt it
my duty to continue doing the very thing for which I was punished.
Being tastefully got-up, well printed, profusely illustrated, and
extensively denounced by the organs of Toryism and piety, this
Christmas Number had a very large sale. Yet, strange as it may
sound to some bigoted ears, Mr. Ramsey and I were after all several
pounds out of pocket by it, the expenses being altogether out of
proportion to the price, and our object being less material gain
than the wide dissemination of our views. With the knowledge of
this pecuniary loss in our minds, it may be imagined how grimly
we smiled when the counsel sternly alluded to our "nefarious profits."
I shall have occasion to deal with the contents of this Christmas
Number when I explain our second Indictment; which, I repeat, as
there is general misunderstanding on the subject, was tried before
the first, and resulted in Judge North's atrocious and almost
During the interval between the publication of this "budget of blasphemy"
and the date of our summons to answer a criminal charge founded on
it, I had several interviews with Mr. E. Truelove, a gentleman
well known to all advanced people in London as a veteran champion
of the freedom as the press. At the age of seventy, after a long life
_sans peur et sans reproche_, this fine old reformer was dragged by
the paid Secretary of the Society for the Suppression of Vice (or the
Vice Society as Cobbett always called it) into a criminal court to
answer a charge of obscenity. The objectionable matter was contained
in an extremely mild, not to say mawkish, essay on the population
question by Robert Dale Owen, a man of literary eminence in the
United States, and once an ambassador of the great Republic. Like
ourselves, Mr. Truelove was tried twice before a verdict of guilty
could be obtained. His sentence was four months' imprisonment like
a common felon. Mr. Truelove was indisposed to reveal the secrets
of his prison-house out of a tender regard for my feelings, but
seeing that I preferred to know the worst, he told me all about
the felon's cell, the plank bed, the oakum picking, the wretched
diet, and the horribly monotonous life. My chief feeling on hearing
this sad tale was one of indignation at the thought that a man of
honest convictions and blameless life should be subjected to such
privations and indignities. It did not weaken my resolution; it
only deepened my hatred of the system which sanctioned such iniquities.
From America, however, came a piece of bitter-sweet news.
Mr. D. M. Bennett, editor of the New York _Truthseeker_, had
just died. His end was hastened by the heart-disease he contracted
while undergoing imprisonment for an "offence" similar to that of
Mr. Truelove. Yet almost at the moment of Mr. Bennett's death,
another jury had found another publisher of the very same work
Not Guilty. I learned from the New York papers that the acquittal
was partly due to the impartiality of the judge, partly to the
progress the public mind had made on the population question, and
partly to the fact that the accused publisher conducted his own
defence. Here was a gleam of hope. I also might meet with an
impartial judge, I also might find a jury reflecting an enlightened
public opinion, and I also was resolved to defend myself. Alas!
I did not know that I was to meet with the most bigoted judge on
the bench, and to plead to a jury exactly calculated to effect
his vindictive purpose.
On Thursday, December 7, 1882, we published our second Christmas
Number of the Freethinker. I will deal with its contents presently,
when I have narrated how it led to our second prosecution. Let it
here suffice to say that it was undoubtedly a very "warm" publication,
and well calculated to arouse the slumbering Blasphemy Laws. Some
Freethinkers even were astonished at its audacity. A few belonging
to an old-fashioned school, and a few more who were assiduously
courting "respectability," resented our action; although, as the
vast majority of our party were of an opposite opinion, they refrained
from expressing their reprobation too loudly. In reply to their
murmurs I wrote an article in my paper on "Superstitious Freethinkers."
It appeared in the number for December 31, and thus appropriately
closed a year of combat. A few passages are, perhaps, worth
"It has been said of Robert Burns that, although his head and
heart rejected Calvinism, he never quite got it out of his blood.
There is much truth in this metaphor. Burns was, in religious
matters, one of a very large class. Many men rid their intellects
of a superstition, without being able to resist its power over
their feelings. Even so profound a sceptic as Renan has admitted
that his life is guided by a faith he no longer possesses. And
we are all familiar with instances of the same thing..."
"Reverting to avowed Freethinkers, it is evident that some of
them who have lost belief in God are afraid to speak too loud
lest he should overhear them. 'How old are you, Monsieur
Fontenelle?' asked a pretty young French lady. 'Hush, not so
loud, dear Madame!' replied the witty nonagenarian, pointing
upwards. What Fontenelle did as a piece of graceful wit, some
Freethinkers do without any wit at all. They object to laughing
at the gods, whether Christian, Brahmanic or Mohammedan; and
perhaps they would extend the same friendly consideration to
Mumbo Jumbo. Strange that people should be so tender about
ghosts! Especially when they don't even believe them to be
real ghosts. To the Atheist all gods are fancies, mere
delusions (not _illusions_), like the philosopher's stone,
witchcraft, astrology, holy water and miracles. I am as much
entitled to ridicule the gods of Christianity as any other
Freethinker is entitled to ridicule the miracles at Lourdes;
and when 'taste' is dragged into the question, I simply reply
that there is as much ill taste in the one case as in the other.
All that this 'taste' can mean is that no devout delusion should
be ridiculed, which is itself one of the greatest pieces of
absurdity ever perpetrated. It would shield every form of
'spiritual' lunacy in the world.
"These squeamish Freethinkers don't object to ridicule in
politics, literature or social life. They rather approve _Punch_
and the other comic journals, even when these satirise living
persons who feel the sting. Why, then, do they object to ridicule
in religion? Simply because they still _feel_ that there is
something sacred about it. Now I insist that on the Atheist's
principles there can be no such sacredness, and I decline to
recognise it. I take the full consequences and claim the full
liberty of my belief.
"Christians may, of course, urge that their _feelings_ on such
a subject as religion _are sacred_, and a few superstitious
Freethinkers may concede this monstrous position. I do not.
The feelings of a Christian about Father, Son and Holy Ghost,
are no more sacred than my feelings on any other subject.
I have no quarrel with persons, and I recognise how many are
hurt by satire. But the world is not to be regulated by their
feelings, and much as I respect them, I have a greater respect
for truth. Every mental weapon is valid against mental error.
And as ridicule has been found the most potent weapon of religious
enfranchisement, we are bound to use it against the wretched
superstitions which cumber the path of progress. Intellectually,
it is as absurd to give quarter as it is absurd to expect it.
"My answer to the Freethinkers who would coquet with Christianity,
and gain a fictitious respectability by courting compliments
from Christian teachers, is that they are playing with fire.
Let them ponder the lessons of history, and remember Clifford's
bitter word about the evil superstition which destroyed one
civilisation and nearly succeeded in destroying another.
Fortunately, however, the logic of things is against them.
Broad currents of thought go on their way without being deflected
by backwashes, or eddies or spurts into blind passages.
Freethought will sweep on with its main volume, and dash against
every impediment with all its effective force."
Well, I exercised "the full liberty of my belief," and I had to take
its "full consequences." Yet, looking back over my year's torture
in a Christian gaol, my conscience approves that dangerous policy,
and I do not experience a single regret.
In the same number of the _Freethinker_ I referred at some length
to Tyler's prosecution, which was dragging along its slow course
in a way that must have been very provoking to Mr. Bradlaugh's enemies.
By dexterous manoeuvring and skilful pleading, that litigious man,
as the Tories call him, had managed to get two counts struck out
of our Indictment. The result of this to Mr. Ramsey and myself
was _nil_, but it brought great relief to Mr. Bradlaugh, and made
his acquittal almost a matter of certainty.
Meanwhile our Christmas Number was selling rapidly. In a few weeks
it had reached a far larger circulation than had been enjoyed by
any Freethought publication before. Naturally the bigots were enraged,
both by its character and its success. Many religious journals, and
especially the _Rock_, clamored for legal protection against such
"blasphemy." Irate Christians called at our shop in Stonecutter Street,
purchased copies of the obnoxious paper, and, flourishing them in
the faces of Mr. Ramsey and Mr. Kemp, declared that we should "hear
more of this;" to which pious salutation they usually replied by
offering their minatory visitors "a dozen or perhaps a quire at
trade price." Similar busybodies called at Mr. Cattell's shop
in Fleet Street, and plied him with cajoleries when menaces were
futile. One of them, indeed, attempted bribery. He offered Mr. Cattell
half a sovereign to remove our Christmas Number from his window.
What a wonderful bigot! That detestable fraternity has nearly
always persecuted heresy at other people's expense, but this man
was willing to tax himself for that laudable object. Surely he
is phenomenal enough to deserve a memorial in Westminster Abbey,
or at least an effigy at Madame Tussaud's.
Presently our shop was visited by another class of men--plain-clothes
detectives. They came in couples, and it was easy to understand
their business. We were, therefore, not surprised when, on January 29,
1883, we were severally served with the following summons:--
"To GEORGE WILLIAM FOOTE, of No. 9 South Crescent, Bedford Square,
Middlesex; WILLIAM JAMES RAMSEY, of No. 28 Stonecutter Street,
in the City of London, and No. 20 Brownlow Street, Dalston,
Middlesex; and HENRY ARTHUR KEMP, of No. 28 Stonecutter Street,
aforesaid, and No. 15 Harp Alley, Farringdon Street, London, E.C.
_Whereas_ you have this day been charged before the undersigned,
the Lord Mayor of the City of London, being one of her Majesty's
Justices of the Peace in and for the said City and the Liberties
thereof, by JAMES MACDONALD, of No. 7 Burton Road, Brixton,
in the county of Surrey, for that you did in the said City
of London, on the 16th day December, in the year of Our Lord,
1882, and on divers other days, print and publish, and cause
and procure to be printed and published, a certain blasphemous
and impious libel in the Christmas Number for 1882 of a certain
newspaper called the _Freethinker_, against the peace of our
Lady the Queen, her crown and Dignity. These are therefore
to command you, in her Majesty's name, to be and appear before
me on Friday, the second day of February, 1883, at eleven of
the clock in the forenoon, at the Mansion House Justice Room,
in the said City, or before such other Justice or Justices of
the Peace for the same City as may then be there, to answer
to the said charge, and to be further dealt with according to
law. Herein fail not. Given under my hand and seal, this
29th day of January, in the year of Our Lord, 1883, at the
Mansion House Justice-Room aforesaid.
"HENRY E. KNIGHT,
"Lord Mayor, London."
The James Macdonald of this summons, who played the part of a common
informer, turned out to be a police officer. In the ordinary way
of business he went to the Lord Mayor, complained of our blasphemy
and his own lacerated feelings, and applied for a summons against
us as a first step towards punishing us for our sins. What a
_reductio ad absurdum_ of the Blasphemy Laws! Instead of ordinary
Christians protesting against our outrages, and demanding our
restraint in the interest of the peace, a callous policeman has
to do the work, without a scintilla of feeling about the matter,
just as he might proceed against any ordinary criminal for theft
or assault. The real mover in this business was Sir Thomas Nelson,
the City Solicitor, representing the richest and corruptest
Corporation in the world.
The Corporation of the City of London might be described in the
language which Jesus applied to the Town Council of Jerusalem
eighteen centuries ago--"They devour widows' houses, and for a
pretence make long prayers." What could be more hypocritical than
such a body posing as the champions of religion, and especially
of the religion of Christ! If the Prophet of Nazareth were alive
again to-day, who would expect to find him at a Lord Mayor's banquet?
Would he frequent the Stock Exchange, be at home in the Guild-hall
and the Mansion House, or select his disciples from the worshippers
in the myriad temples of Mammon? Would he not rather hate and
denounce these modern Pharisees as cordially as they would certainly
hate and denounce him?
If the City Fathers meant to protect the honor of God, they were
both absurd and blasphemous. There is something ineffably ludicrous
in the spectacle of a host of fat aldermen rushing out from their
shops and offices to steady the tottering throne of Omnipotence.
And what presumption on the part of these pigmies to undertake a
defence of deity! Surely Omnipotence is as _able_ to punish as
Omniscience knows _when_ to punish. The theologians who, as
Matthew Arnold says, talk familiarly of God, as though he were a
man living in the next street, are modest in comparison with his
Would it not be better for these presumptuous mortals to mind their
own business? It will be time enough for them to supervise their
neighbors when they have reformed themselves. With all their
pretensions to superior piety and virtue, they are notoriously
the greatest ring of public thieves in the world, and they are
at present lavishly expending trust-monies in a desperate endeavor
to justify their turpitude and prolong their plunder.
According to our summons, Mr. Ramsey, Mr. Kemp, and I appeared at
the Mansion House on Friday, February 2, 1883. The Justice Room
was thronged long before the Lord Mayor took his seat on the Bench,
and all the approaches were crowded by anxious sympathisers. All
the evidence was of a purely formal character. It was a foregone
conclusion that we should be committed for trial. We all three
pleaded not guilty and reserved our defence. Before leaving the
Court, however, notwithstanding his lordship's interruption, I
protested against the revival of an old law which had fallen into
desuetude, which had not been enforced in the City of London for
over fifty years, and which was altogether alien to the spirit of
the age. My remarks were greeted with loud applause by the public
in Court. Of course his lordship frowned, and the ushers shouted
"Silence!" But the mischief was done. It was obvious that we had
many friends, that we were not going to be tried in a hole-and-corner
Our case excited much interest in London. Most of the newspapers
contained a good report of the proceedings at the Mansion House;
and even the Tory _Evening News_, which affirmed that we were three
vulgar blasphemers undeserving of notice, had as the leading line
on its placard "Prosecution of the _Freethinker_: Result!"
The _Freethinker_ for February 11 contained an article from my pen
on the "Infidel Hunt," and a very admirable article by Mr. Wheeler
on "The Fight of Forty Years Ago," narrating the trials of Southwell,
Holyoake, Paterson, and other brave heretics. Mr. Ramsey did not
then quite approve my attitude of defiance, although he has changed
his mind since. He thought it more prudent to bend a little before
the storm, instead of daring its utmost violence. He was also
anxious to please those with whom he had worked before his partial
alliance with me, and who were not prepared to sanction his continued
connexion with the _Freethinker_ if he wished to remain with them.
For these reasons he retired from our partnership, and I was at once
registered as the sole proprietor of the paper. This step naturally
added to the danger of my situation, and it was freely used against
me at the trial. But I had no alternative, unless the _Freethinker_
was to go down, and that I had resolved to prevent at any cost.
At the same time I engaged to take over Mr. Ramsey's business at
Stonecutter Street, and to recoup him for his heavy investment;
and I am bound to admit that he behaved generously in all these
arrangements. On February 11 the following editorial notice
appeared in my paper:
"With this number of the _Freethinker_ I assume a new position.
The full responsibility for everything in connexion with the
paper henceforth rests with me. I am editor, proprietor,
printer and publisher. My imprint will be put on every
publication issued from 28 Stonecutter Street, and all the
business done there will be transacted through me or my
representatives. This exposes me to fresh perils, but it
simplifies matters. Those who attack the _Freethinker_
after this week will have to attack me singly. I never meant
to give in, and never will so long as my strength serves for
the fight. Whoever else yields, I will submit to nothing but
physical compulsion. If the _Freethinker_ should ever cease
to appear, the Freethought party will know that the fault
is not mine. Certain parts of the mechanical process of
production are dependent on the firmness of others. One
man cannot do everything. But I pledge myself to keep
this Freethought flag flying at every hazard, and if I am
temporarily disabled I pledge myself to unfurl it again,
and if need be again, and again. _De l'audace, et encore
de l'audace, et toujours de l'audace._"
Mr. Wheeler stood loyally by me in this emergency. His efforts for
our common object were untiring, and never was his pen wielded more
brilliantly. Perhaps, indeed he overstrained his energies, and thus
led to the complete breakdown of his health soon after my imprisonment.