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 So much of the statute as affected the Unitarians was ostensibly repealed by the 53 George III., c. 160. But Lord Eldon in 1817 doubted whether it was ever repealed at all; and so late as 1867 Chief Baron Kelly and Lord Bramwell, in the Court of Exchequer, held that a lecture on "The Character and Teachings of Christ: the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