By Nash, David
History Today , Vol. 45, No. 10
In the aftermath of one of the most famous brushes with the religious laws of England, George William Foote concluded by way of a pyrrhic victory that `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'.
So might the history of blasphemy in Britain be summarised. It is an issue each generation feels confident is dead but it frequently rises to confront British society with questions about its level of tolerance, its attitude to freedom of speech and to minorities. These problems have never been easily solved since the answers emanate not simply from the legal profession but from the beliefs, fears and prejudices of individuals and groups in society. Victorian Britain discovered, just as contemporary society did in the 1970s (with the Gay News trial) and 1980s (with the Salman Rushdie affair), that this forgotten and historically curious offence could, without warning, become a central matter of legal and legislative debate.
In certain respects the first phase of the rejection of Christianity was over by the middle of the nineteenth century. The attacks upon the secular power of the church and its message by early Freethinkers and Deists were partially blunted by the mid-nineteenth century theological movement away from biblical literalism - particularly after Darwin. Far from welcoming the resulting liberalisation of religion many Freethinkers became more resentful. For them this made the impossible more reasonable and the barbarous more humane whilst leaving the legal power and prerogative of the Established Church curiously untouched. This anachronism was systematically unlocked in the 1880s by the work of determined atheist campaigners who sought to demonstrate that Victorian society had far from left behind its religious motivations.
The most public face of this attack were the campaigns of Charles Bradlaugh over birth control and access to Parliament, which sought to demonstrate that England was no longer a Christian country. However, the events surrounding a lesser known incident, namely the prosecution of George William Foote, editor of The Freethinker, provided ample evidence that influential minds did not accept Bradlaugh's assumption. The Freethinker prosecution was to demonstrate that freedom of expression existed only within Christian bounds. As such its long term effect was to subject the government's role of moral guardian to the ridicule of modern standards of civilised behaviour and tolerance.
The blasphemy laws which evolved from the old heresy laws had been used against the Lollards and Anabaptists. Nineteenth-century freethinkers repeatedly noted the enlightened power of progress since these martyrs suffered for ideas, such as the vernacular bible, that had become cornerstones of modern Christianity. Some legal opinion even claimed that the blasphemy laws had fallen into disuse, but the evidence of nineteenth-century prosecutions was unconvincing.
The early century had witnessed attempts to break the commitment and spirit of radical journalists like Richard Carlile who, along with his wife and sister, were imprisoned a number of times in the years around 1820 for publishing blasphemous newspapers and most notably for reprinting Thomas Paine's Age of Reason - which Carlile read to the court in its entirety as a means of ensuring its further publication in the trial reports.
Whilst such actions had been deliberate, it was also possible to entrap the careless or naive advocate of unpopular religious opinion. One such victim was the secularist leader George Jacob Holyoake who was imprisoned for six months after an indiscretion in which he argued that the almighty was performing his duty so badly that he should be placed on half pay. However, many thought the tide had turned with the attempt in 1857 to imprison a patently insane man, Thomas Pooley, for blasphemous scribblings on a wall. …