Evangelicalism, Penal Theory and the Politics of Criminal Law Reform in England, 1808-30

By Carter, Grayson | Anglican and Episcopal History, December 2003 | Go to article overview

Evangelicalism, Penal Theory and the Politics of Criminal Law Reform in England, 1808-30


Carter, Grayson, Anglican and Episcopal History


RICHARD R. FOLLETT. Evangelicalism, Penal Theory and the Politics of Criminal Law Reform in England, 1808-30. New York, New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2001. Pp. xi + 231. $69.95.

The prayer for absolution in the services of Morning and Evening Prayer (1662) contains this stirring appeal to God's compassion: "Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who desireth not the death of a sinner, but rather that he may turn from his wickedness, and live." During the second decade of the nineteenth century, this prayer was cited by English evangelicals with increasing frequency in support of their claim that Christianity opposed the widespread application of capital punishment. Their appeal often fell on deaf ears, however, for in "Christian" England the famous "bloody code"-a series of legal statues that identified over two hundred capital offenses, including such minor crimes as pick-pocketing and shoplifting-remained popular, regarded by the government and public alike as an effective deterrent to crime. Though in practice relatively few criminals were executed, a considerable number (including many children) were. It was this fact, in addition to the apparently random selection of those who were hanged, that alarmed evangelicals and set in motion their campaign to reform the criminal code. During the succeeding two decades, as the matter was debated in Parliament and in the arena of public opinion, a number of evangelicals, including William Wilbei force, Sir Thomas Eowell Buxton, and Thomas Gisborne, provided experienced and effective leadership to the prolonged-and sometimes acrimonious-campaign to amend the penal statues. And if others eventually received a disproportionate share of the credit for steering the successful bills through Parliament, the evangelicals could take quiet satisfaction that their tireless efforts to help alleviate suffering, overturn injustice, and advance God's kingdom on earth had born substantial fruit-sans the need for political or social revolution.

During this time there were, of course, a variety of forces opposed to the "bloody code," such as Enlightenment-inspired humanitarianism. Benthamite utilitarianism, and the general sense of social and moral optimism accompanying the Industrial Revolution and the expansion of trade and commerce. Among these, utilitarianism is often cited as especially influential. Seeking to promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people, utilitarianism identified various offenses that disrupted or threatened this happiness. Criminals, it argued, should be required to endure pain and suffering according to the severity of their crimes, their punishment tending to modify their future behavior. As Follett points out, however, the difficulty with this approach lay both in determining how to weigh the gravity of a criminal's offense and in devising an appropriate means for meting out punishment.

The views of the famed legal commentator William Blackstone, who took a less rational approach, proved even more influential. …

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Evangelicalism, Penal Theory and the Politics of Criminal Law Reform in England, 1808-30
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