... they [lawyers], in our name,
recant with 'contrition' the
opinions which we go into
court to defend
-- George Holyoake
English Atheist George Jacob Holyoake was arrested and tried for the crime of Atheism in 1842 because of the reply he gave to a local preacher named Maitland who, after attending one of Holyoake's lectures, complained: "Though I [Holyoake] had told them their duty to man, I had not told them of their duty to God." The preacher asked if "whether we should have churches and chapels in community?"
"I do not desire to have religion mixed up with an economical and secular subject, but as Mr. Maitland has introduced questions in reference to religion I will answer him frankly. Our national debt already hangs like a millstone round the poor man's neck, and our national church and general religious institutions cost us, upon accredited computation, about 20 millions annually. Worship being thus expensive, I appeal to your heads and your pockets whether we are not too poor to have a god? If poor men cost the state as much, they would be put like officers upon half-pay, and while our distress lasts I think it would be wise to do the same thing with deity. Thus far I object, as a matter of political economy, to build chapels in communities. If others want them they have themselves to please, but I, not being religious, cannot propose them. Morality I regard, but I do not believe there is such a thing as a god. The pulpit says, "search the Scriptures," and they who are thus trepanned get imprisoned in Bristol jail, like my friend Mr. Southwell. For myself, I flee the Bible as a viper, and revolt at the touch of a Christian."
Holyoake made his reply in a tone of conversational freedom and it caused only quiet amusement to those in attendance at the meeting.
A few days afterward, Holyoake was sent a copy of the Cheltenham Chronicle in which the following account of Holyoake's remarks were prominently displayed:
Atheism & Blasphemy
"On Tuesday evening last a person named Holyoake, from Sheffield, delivered a lecture on Socialism (or, as it has been more appropriately termed, devilism), at the Mechanics' Institution.
"After attacking the Church of England and religion generally for a considerable time, he said he was open to any question that might be put to him. A teetotaller named Maitland then got up, and said the lecturer had been talking a good deal about our duty to man, but he omitted to mention our duty towards god, and he would be glad to know if there were any chapels in the community?
"The Socialist then replied that he professed no religion at all, and thought they were too poor to have any. He did not believe there was such a being as a god, and impiously remarked that if there was, he would have the deity served the same as government treated the subalterns, by placing him upon half-pay.
"With many similar blasphemous and awful remarks, which we cannot sull our columns by repeating, the poor misguided wretch continued to address the audience. To their lasting shame, be it spoken, a considerable portion of the company applauded the miscreant during the time he was giving utterance to these profane opinions.
"[We have three persons in our employ who are ready to verify on oath the correctness of the above statements. We therefore hope those in authority will not suffer the matter to rest here, but that some steps will immediately be taken to prevent any further publicity to such diabolical sentiments.]"
The newspaper barrage continued for a couple of days and Holyoake felt that he must justify himself to the town, and he set off, again, by foot to cover the 30 miles (from Bristol to Cheltenham) and do so. He was apprehended without warrant by a Superintendent Russell at a site in Cheltenham where another lecture was to be held. He was kept overnight in jail until he could be charged the next morning.
When Holyoake complained to the judge that he had been arrested without a warrant, the judge replied that he could not argue with anyone who professed the abominable principle of denying the existence of a supreme being, and then promptly accepted a charge from a local lawyer, Mr. Bubb, who consented to be the person bringing a charge of blasphemy.
The magistrate said that whether Holyoake did or did not believe in a god was not nearly the crime of trying to propagate the infamous sentiment, which was equivalent of "producing disorder and breaching the peace."
Holyoake's account of the goings-on during his pretrial hearing comes from his The History of the Last Trial by Jury for Atheism (1851): "On the morning after my apprehension I was taken before the Rev. Dr. Newell, R. Capper, and J. Overbury, Esquires, magistrates of Cheltenham. The Rev. Dr. Newell ought to have had the pride, if not the decency, to have kept away.
"The Cheltenham Chronicle reported that 'George Jacob Holyoake, who was described as a Socialist lecturer, and as the editor of the Oracle of Reason, was charged with delivering atheistical and blasphemous sentiments at the Mechanics' Institution, on the evening of the 24th of May. The prisoner had been apprehended last night, after delivering another lecture at the same place. The affair appeared to have caused great sensation, and several persons attended at the office anxious to hear the examination. Amongst the number were some individuals who, without the blush of shame mantling their cheeks, acknowledged themselves friends of the accused.'
"Mr. Bubb, a local solicitor, a particularly gross and furious man, then said — 'I attend to prefer the charge of blasphemy, and I shall take my stand on the common unwritten law of the land. There have been a variety of statutes passed for punishing blasphemy, but these statutes in no way interfere with the common unwritten law. (Mr. Capper nodded assent.) Any person who denies the existence or providence of god is guilty of blasphemy, and the law has annexed to that offense imprisonment, corporal punishment, and fine. I shall give evidence of the facts, and I shall ask that he be committed for trial, or required to find bail for his appearance. The offense is much aggravated by his having put forth a placard, announcing a lecture on a subject completely innocent, and having got together a number of persons, has given utterance to those sentiments which are an insult to god and man.'
"The assertion that I had employed duplicity in choosing my subject was quite gratuitous. Addressing the Bench, I asked whether it was legal in these cases to apprehend persons without the authority of a warrant?
"Mr. Capper replied, 'Any person in the meeting would be justified in taking you up without the authority of a warrant,' which showed that the Bench were better read in Bigotry than in Blackstone. I said it was customary in other towns, where bigotry existed to a greater degree even than it did there, for information to be laid and a regular notice served.
"Mr. Capper said, 'We refuse to hold an argument with a man professing the abominable principle of denying the existence of a supreme being.' This was not a very legal way of getting rid of my objections, but it answered in Cheltenham.
"Magistrate Overbury said he considered the case satisfactorily proved. Magistrate Capper said, 'Even the heathens acknowledged the existence of a deity. If you entertain the same pernicious opinion on your death-bed you will be a bold man indeed. But you are only actuated by a love of notoriety.'
"I only answered, 'Why do you address me thus, since you will not allow me to reply?' and I turned away repeating to myself the words of Sir Thomas Browne — 'There is a rabble amongst the gentry as well as the commonalty; a sort of plebian heads, whose fancy moves with the same wheel as these: men in the same level with mechanics, though their fortunes do somewhat gild their infirmities, and their purses compound for their follies."
Since Holyoake could not produce bail in sufficient quantity which was set extraordinarily high (almost 200 pounds), he went back to jail, where the prison surgeon was brought in to remonstrate with him and argue against him as to whether or not Jesus Christ was an historical person. The argument became quite loud and almost violent and the surgeon closed it with the hope that they could have still used the stake to burn Holyoake instead of merely jailing him. He was then transferred nine miles to a jail in Gloucester — by being instructed to walk there and deliver himself up — which he did.
Holyoake was then handcuffed with small irons, and kept a fortnight (14 days) in jail. The official charge against him, finally, reads from the indictment: that he had "on the 24th day of May, last . . . wickedly and profanely uttered, made use of, and proclaimed in the presence of a public assembly of men, women and children, then and there assembled, certain impious and blasphemous words against god . . . against the peace of our lady the Queen, her crown and dignity."
Holyoake the imprisoned Atheist had many visitors while in "gaol" and several of them asked if he might not be a Deist instead of an Atheist as they said he did not "look like" what they in their bias imagined an Atheist should. Holyoake asked if, because he was an Atheist, he was expected to have horns or eyes in his elbows!
Finally, realizing the improbabilities of retaining a Christian attorney to forcefully represent an Atheist in a hostile Christian court, Holyoake decided to undertake his own defense, and when the trial came up at the Court of Assizes on 15 August 1842, he did just that. He had heretofore made it a rule to advise his friends caught in similar circumstances to "defend themselves, and where unaccustomed to public speaking, to write a brief defense in their own language, and after some legal friends had revised it, to read it to the court. We do not want lawyers to defend our opinions, those opinions not being their own, but we want them simply to maintain our right to publish what are to us important convictions. Instead of this they commonly agree with the crown that we are criminal for having a conscience, and they, in our name, recant with 'contrition' the opinions which we go into court to maintain."
The courtroom was filled with clergy, wives of clergy, and some nobility. The presiding judge was Mr. Justice Erskine. The handling of the case had been so crass up to the point of trial that it had made its way into the English House of Commons. Holyoake introduced the minutes of the meetings of the House into the trial to show that he had walked 30 miles to Cheltenham to defend himself, had there been arrested without warrant or charge against him at midnight, seven days after the alleged offense.
He also attempted to show the prejudice rampant against him and quoted to the judge remarks which the judge himself had addressed to the newspapers concerned with Holyoake, and then pointed out that the newspapers were describing him as a "wretch," a "miscreant," and a "monster" who advocated "devilism."
He was described as a "creature with wiry and dishelved hair." He was classed with a young man who had just then taken a shot at the Queen of England and the press had analyzed him to have a morbid imagination, an affectation of superiority, a contempt for existing institutions, and a craving after notoriety. One newspaper labeled him a bigot.
Holyoake's defense consisted almost entirely of his stating that there were those who thought religion was proper and that it alone could lead to general happiness. He did not think so, and he continued, "I have the same means of judging. You say your feelings are insulted, your opinions are outraged; but what of mine? Mine, however honest, are rendered liable to punishment! I ask not equality of privileges in this respect; I seek not the power of punishing those who differ from me — nay, I should disdain the use."
Holyoake the Atheist dramatically proclaimed that "Christianity claims what she does not allow — each to have his own belief,"
In his summation he went over his own religious life, the arguments for religion and their refutation, and an appeal for the right to state that in which he believed.
The jury promptly found him guilty as charged. He later found out that one of the jury was a Deist, a professed friend of free speech and one who had openly said that he never could convict Holyoake. But in the hour of verdict, he "wanted courage" and gave in against the accused Atheist. The sentence was then rendered by Judge Erskine:
"George Jacob Holyoake, you have been convicted of uttering language, and although you have been adducing long arguments to show the impolicy of these prosecutions, you are convicted of having uttered these words with improper levity. The arm of the law is not stretched out to protect the character of the almighty; we do not assume to be the protectors of our god, but to protect the people from such indecent language. If these words had been written for deliberate circulation, I should have passed on you a severer sentence. You uttered them in consequence of a question — I have no evidence that this question was put to draw out these words. Proceeding on the evidence that has been given, trusting that these words have been uttered in the heat of the moment, I shall think it sufficient to sentence you to be imprisoned in the Common Gaol for six calendar months."
The convicted Atheist was immediately handcuffed and taken to a jail cell under the courtroom, in the basement. He had been there only a short period of time when the prayer bell rang, and the other prisoners scurried off for that useless exercise. Holyoake placidly sat there over his bowl of cold gruel. The gaoler finally came in and told him that he must go to prayers, that the chaplain was holding up the prayers waiting for him. Holyoake replied that he would go only if someone carried him there! He was soon personally summoned to see the gaol's chaplain who demanded to know why he had not been to the prayer meeting.
He responded: "You can not expect me to come to prayers; you imprison me here on the ground that I do not believe in a god, and then you would take me to chapel to pray to one. I cannot prevent your imprisoning me, but I can prevent your making me a hypocrite, and must." The flustered chaplain insisted that the rules of the gaol were to the effect that all prisoners must say prayers — and when Holyoake refused, the chaplain insisted on his being locked in the day-room during the prayer meetings. Already confined in one prison, he was put in yet another locked room as punishment!
Diverse magistrates dropped in on him with regularity to argue with him in respect to his religious convictions and to convert him if at all possible. His diet consisted of convict gruel, bread, rice and potatoes. His fellow prisoners were felons. He was not permitted to stay up till 9 p.m., which was the rule for debtors in the gaol, and was not even permitted the newspapers which some of his friends sent regularly.
During his six months in prison, Holyoake, who had worked as a mathematician, undertook to begin classes of instruction in this to his fellow prisoners and finally was given permission to hold classes for them regularly in the day-room, between the continuing visits from opportunistic clergy and magistrates who sought to convert the now infamous Atheist.