1902 Encyclopedia > Blasphemy


BLASPHEMY means literally defamation or evil speaking, but is more peculiarly restricted to an indignity offered to the Deity by words or writing. The common law of England treats blasphemy as an indictable offence. All blasphemies against God, as denying his being, or providence, all contumelious reproaches of Jesus Christ, all profane scoffing at the Holy Scriptures, or exposing any part thereof to contempt or ridicule, are punishable by the temporal courts with fine, imprisonment, and also infamous corporal punishment. The Act 1 Edw. VI. c. 1 (repealed 1 Mary, c. 2, and revived 1 Eliz. c. 1), enacts that persons re- viling the sacrament of the Lord's supper, by contemptuous words or otherwise, shall suffer imprisonment. Persons denying the Trinity were deprived of the benefit of the Act of Toleration by 1 Will. III. c. 18. The 9 and 10 Will. III. o. 32, enacts that if any person, educated in or having made profession of the Christian religion, should by writing, preaching, teaching, or advised speaking, deny any one of the persons of the Holy Trinity to be God, or should assert or maintain that there are more gods than one, or should deny the Christian religion to be true, or the Holy Scriptures to be of divine authority, he should, upon the first offence, be rendered incapable of holding any office or place of trust, and for the second incapable of bringing any action, of being guardian or executor, or of taking a legacy or deed of gift, and should suffer three years' imprisonment without baiL It has been held that a person offending under the statute is also indictable at common law CRex v. Carlisle, where Mr Justice Best remarks, 'In the age of toleration, when that statute passed, neither churchmen nor sectarians wished to protect in their infidelity those who disbelieved the Holy Scriptures.") The 53 Geo. III. c. 160, excepts from these enactments " persons denying as therein mentioned respecting the Holy Trinity," but otherwise the common and statute law on the suoject remains as stated. In the ease of Rex v. Woolston (2 Geo. II.) the court declared that they would not suffer it to be debated whether to write against Christianity in general was not an offence punishable in the temporal courts at common law, but they did not intend to include disputes between learned men on particular controverted points. The law against blasphemy has not recently been in active operation. In 1841, Moxon was found guilty of the publication of a blasphemous libel (Shelley's Queen Mab}, the prosecution having been instituted by Hetherington, who had previously been condemned to four months' imprisonment for a similar offence, and wished to test the law under which he was punished. In the case of Oowan v. Milbourn, in 1867, the defendant had broken his contract to let a lecture- room to the plaintiff, on discovering that the intended lectures were to maintain that "the character of Christ is defective, and his teaching misleading, and that the Bible is no more inspired than any other book," and the Court of Exchequer held that the publication of such doctrine was blasphemy, and the contract therefore illegal. On that occasion the court reaffirmed the dictum of C. J. Hale, that Christianity is part of the laws of England. The Commissioners on Criminal Law (sixth report) remark, that "although the law forbids all denial of the being and providence of God or the Christian religion, it is only when irreligion assumes the form of an insult to God and man that the interference of the criminal law has taken place." Profane cursing and swearing is made punishable by 19 Geo. II. c. 21, which directs the offender to be brought before a justice of the peace, and fined 5 shillings, 2 shillings, or 1 shilling, according as he ia a gentleman, below the rank of gentleman, or a common labourer, soldier, <fec. By the law of Scotland, as it originally stood, the punishment of blasphemy was death. By an Act passed in the first parliament of Charles II., whoever, " not being distracted in his wits," should curse God or any person of the blessed Trinity was punishable with death; and by a statute of King William's reign (1695, c. 11), any person reasoning against the being of God, or any person of the Trinity, or the authority of the Holy Scriptures, or the providence of God in the government of the world, was to be imprisoned for the first offence until he should give public satisfaction in sackcloth to the congregation, to be punished more severely for the second offence, and for the third doomed to death; but by 6 Geo. IV. c. 47, amended by 7 Will. IV. and 1 Vict. c. 5, blasphemy way made punishable by fine or imprisonment or both. (v. a.)

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