« PreviousContinue »
Mr. W. SMITH could not see the pertinency of the Honourable Member's question. The petition was, however, signed, he could assure him, by persons whose religious opinions were as perfectly opposed to each other as possible.
The petition was ordered to be printed. Mr. HUME then rose for the purpose of making the motion of which he had given notice. His object was to obtain the admission of that principle which he had always thought to be part of the law of this country-namely, that every individual was entitled to freedom of discussion on all subjects, whether controversial or religious. At Edinburgh, where he was brought up, it was held that any man might entertain and express his opinions, unless they became a nuisance to society, when, perhaps, they might be brought under the operation of the common law. Since the year 1817 a disposition had been manifested to prosecute persons for the publication of old as well as new works, the object of which was to impugn the authenticity of the Christian faith. He was aware that since the period to which he had referred, the number of such publications had increased; but he thought, also, that the progress which had been made in knowledge, and the extent of education to all classes of persons, had brought with it a remedy for this evil. Looking at the advantages which resulted from the freedom of dis. cussion, and the part which able men were always ready to take in behalf of true religion, he thought it would be doing equal injustice to that religion and to the community to adopt any other means of arriving at the truth than by fair discussion. He had always been led to believe that the greatest blessing which Englishmen enjoyed was the complete freedom with which they were permitted to express their religious opinions, and to follow whatever sect or persuasion their own opinions coincided with. Recollecting, too, that we enjoyed the blessings of a religion which had been established by means of discussion, and by differing from those which had preceded it, he thought the House would act unjustly, and with bad policy, if it should now turn round upon those who differed from us, as we differed from those who had preceded us, and exercise a rigour which in our own case we had been the first to deprecate. Such a course he was convinced was more likely to generate doubts and ignorance than to give any stability to the religion. It was quite evident that persons who wished to inves tigate religious subjects must meet with a great variety of opinions; some of these might confirm their belief, while others might give rise to doubts. Now, he
wished to ask, whether it was not proper that they should be allowed to state those doubts, for the purpose of having them refuted if they were erroneous? In Christian charity such an indulgence ought not to be refused to any individual. When he observed thirty or forty sects in this country differing from the Church of England, and differing equally from each other, he thought it was not at all surprising that amongst those who engaged in what might be termed periodical discussion on the subject of religion, many were found who dissented entirely from the great body of sectarians of every description. There was nothing wonderful in such a circumstance; but it was indeed wonderful that they should be prosecuted and punished for promulgating their opinions in the way of controversy. What right had any set of individuals to set themselves up as following exclusively the true religion? Religion, very different from ours, was preached and adopted in other countries; and those who pursued such religion proclaimed it to be the true one. Where there was such a diversity of opinion, they taking the Scriptures as the rule of their conduct and actions, ought to extend to all persons that merciful toleration which The New Testament so forcibly inculcated in every page. They ought not to proceed, in the manner which was now too common, against individuals who differed conscientiously from them on points of religious belief. The perpetration of acts of a physical nature might be prevented by force; but no power, however harshly applied, could controul opinions, or make a man receive doctrines which he did not believe to be correct. The Government of this country had been tolerant to the Jews. To that race of people who denied altogether the Christian religion, who disbelieved in the divinity of its great Founder, the most complete toleration was extended. No one attempted to interfere with their opinions. The Quakers, who differed on many essential points from the Established Church, were tolerated; and the whole body of Dissenters, various as were their doctrines, were suffered to preach them without molestation. This was highly to the honour of this country; and he wished, very sincerely, that every species of disability, whether in the nature of a test or otherwise, which applied to the Dissenters, should be wholly removed. He should be happy to see every human being placed in that situation in which he would be enabled, without any fear of the civil magistrate, to entertain whatsoever religious opinions he pleased; and to endeavour to obtain, by fair and candid discussion, information on those points which might not ap
pear sufficiently clear and satisfactory to him. That was the only way by which any man could arrive at a fair conviction. Religion must be implanted in the mind; and nothing but plain argument,-nothing but the free discussion of points which an individual conceived to be doubtful, could either alter his mind, with respect to any new doctrine, or confirm him in the truth of that which he had been accustomed to uphold. Physical force could have no effect whatever, either in eradicating new, or establishing old opinions. If there were any thing unreasonable in his proposition, he should not have brought it forward; but, looking over the pages of the Holy Scriptures, he could not find a single sentence that authorized punishment on account of difference of opinion, or that called on the civil magistrate to interfere. The conduct of the Divine Founder of the Christian religion was entirely at variance with this prosecuting spirit. When he was pursued with bitter hate, because he preached new opinions, his prayer was, "Father! forgive them; for they know not what they do." It was in consequence of that mild spirit of forbearance, that the Christian religion spread and flourished. It was not propagated by the great and the powerful; no, the meek, the lowly, and the humble, were its advocates; and its mild tenets made their way where force and violence must have failed. That religion had advanced in spite of the efforts of power, in defiance of every species of persecution; and, with that great example before their eyes, he demanded, ought they now to renew those scenes of persecution and oppression, which the earlier Christians had suffered with so much fortitude? Were they to immure individuals in dungeons for doing that which their own ancestors had done-for adopting new opinions? He might be told, "Those persons may express their opinions, but it must be done in a proper way." Now, for his own part, he knew not where the line of distinction was to be drawn, at which ribaldry began and sound discretion ceased. With respect to blasphemy, he would ask any one who referred to the Act of James I., whether on that subject a great change had not taken place in the public mind? That act sets forth-" That any stage-player, performer at May-games, or at any pageant, who shall use the name of God, of Jesus Christ, or of the Trinity, shall be adjudged guilty of blasphemy, and shall be subjected to all the penalties by this statute made and provided." Would any man say, after reading this, that a great difference of opinion had not taken place on this point? Was it possible that the provisions of that statute could
now be carried into effect, even if it were attempted by the most rigid sectarian ? Again, by the 9th and 10th of William, it was provided, that “ any person denying the doctrine of the Trinity, or contending that there are more gods than one, or impugning the truth of the Christian religion, shall be adjudged guilty of blasphemy." But they had themselves done this provision away by an act of the legislature. When this was the case,when such an alteration was effected in public opinion, he was prevented from seeing clearly what was to be considered blasphemous ribaldry, indecent discussion, or calm and dispassionate reasoning. He knew not what line of discussion was to be tolerated, and what ought to be allowed, unless the legislature would define what blasphemy really was. Where there was no definition of that kind, how could any man who reasoned on a religious subject be satisfied that in his argument he avoided blasphemy? How could he tell, let his intentions be ever so pure, that he did not expose himself to the visitation of the civil magistrate? He, therefore, submitted that the uncertainty which prevailed, with respect to what was and what was not blasphemy, ought to put an end to accusations of that nature, and to the punishment arising from them. Doubtless it would be said, that individuals had no right to express opinions which were different from those held by the great mass of the community: but if this principle had been always acted on, Christianity never could have made the progress which fortunately it had done. All the missionaries they employed in foreign parts, all the preachers they sent out to Hindostan, contradicted the correctness of this position. Those persons were sent abroad to expose the follies and absurdities of religious creeds which were reverenced by millions. They declared their dissent from those superstitious doctrines; and were, therefore, doing the same thing as certain individuals did in this country who could not believe all the tenets of Christianity. He thought in this the legislature were holding out two very different measures of justice. On the one hand, they were sending out persons to various quarters of the globe, for the express purpose of calling on the natives to inquire, to investigate, and to ascertain the truth of the doctrines they professed; while, on the other, a similar inquiry was treated here as an offence of very great magnitude. It was only by such inquiry that they could hope to benefit either the Hindoo or Mahometau subjects in India. If they invited the Hindoos to enter into every kind of discussion the most extensive that could be imagined, why should
they in England, because a few persons differed from the general feeling and opinion, withhold from those individuals the benefit of that principle which was so liberally adopted elsewhere? He thought that Christianity had stood too long and too scrupulous an inquiry to be shaken in the present day. When men of the very first abilities had attempted to impugn it and had failed, he entertained no apprehension of the attacks of men who possessed neither talent nor education. Christianity had marched on with rapid strides, notwithstanding the efforts of men of powerful minds. When this was so, why should they dread the assaults of a few ignorant persons, who, of late years, had excited public attention? It was impossible that they could state any arguments, or adduce any facts, which could endanger the tenets of the Christian religion, when assailants infinitely more powerful had formerly attempted the same thing without effect. The end of discussion was the attainment of truth; and he agreed with those who believed that the more the Christian religion was examined, the more firmly it would be fixed, and the more seriously it would be followed. Those who prosecuted persons for promulgating opinions hostile to that religion, did not check, but aggravated the evil. He would quote the opinions of some of the most learned and pious men that this country ever produced, in support of freedom of discussion. Tillotson, Taylor, Louth, Warburton, Lardner, Campbell, Chillingworth, and many others, had placed their opinions on record with respect to the propriety of allowing the freest investigation of the Christian religion. Tillotson said" that the Christian religion did not decline trial or examination. If a church opposed itself to investigation, that circumstance would be no light ground of suspicion, since it would seem like a distrust of the truth." The Honourable Gentleman then went on to quote the opinions of the several divines whom he had mentioned in sup. port of the principle, that the utmost latitude should be given to discussion. He alluded more particularly to the writings of Dr. Lardner, who, in speaking of the work of Mr. Woolston, said, that the proper punishment for a low, mean and scurrilous way of writing, was neglect, scorn and detestation. That learned divine added, that the stream of resentment would always turn against the prosecutor, where opinions were made the subject of complaint, especially if the punishment happened to be severe. this way, continued Mr. Hume, the writings of Carlile ought to have been treated. He believed that they were scurrilous in a very high degree. He had never read
one of his publications until he had presented his petition, and he had then pe rused a few numbers of the Republican, in order to judge. He there found some calm argumentative writing; and some articles so exceedingly offensive, that if Carlile had the smallest idea of the feelings of mankind, he would not have pub lished any thing so revolting. He had, however, been most severely dealt with, and the consequence was, that the stream of feeling had been changed; resentment had been kindled against the prosecutor, and compassion had been excited in favour of the prisoner; but for those prosecutions few people would have known the thousandth part of his writings. The Attorney and Solicitor General saw the thing in its proper colours. They had not proceeded against Carlile, because they felt that such a course would be to spread abroad the very poison which they wished to eradicate. But the Society for the suppression of Vice and the Bridge Street Association took the matter up, and became parties to the charge of disseminating those publications. They brought forward prosecution after prosecution, until the individuals who were the objects of punishment left the court of justice, after being sentenced to fine and imprisonment, with the characters of martyrs to the cause which they had espoused. So much was this the fact, that if fifty persons more were in dungeons on account of these opinions, twice that number would be ready to come forward for the same purpose. Carlile, with all his efforts, never could have sold Paine's works to the extent he had been enabled to do in consequence of these prosecutions. When Hone was prosecuted for his Parodies, 20,000 copies were sold, which never would have been the case if they had not been brought into notoriety by legal proceedings. In the same way the poem of "Wat Tyler," which was written by Mr. Southey, the Poet Laureat, in early life, and which he (Mr. Southey) wishing to suppress, had applied for an injunction to restrain its publication, became, in consequence of that step, most widely disseminated, no less than 30,000 copies of it having been sold immediately after the application. The Honourable Gentleman then proceeded to quote Bishop Watson, who held that the freedom of inquiry, which had subsisted in this country during the present century, had been of great benefit to the cause of Christianity; and he also referred to Dr. Campbell, who held"that that man could not be a friend to Christianity who would punish another for expressing his doubts. Every man who doubts should be invited to discussion, that the objections might be an
swered: so far from objecting to discussion, I believe that the most violent attacks on the religion of Jesus have been of service to it. Let them argue, aud when argument fails, let them even cavil against the Christian religion as much as they please, I have no apprehension of the result." He (Mr. Hume) could not conceive why the Bridge Street Association should interfere in the unconstitutional manner they had done. They had found a stock-purse to prosecute individuals, and took upon them that duty which really belonged to the magistrate. They had a great deal to answer for in taking such a course. He regretted to see such respectable persons amongst them. He was sorry that they had allowed themselves to be misled by interested individuals, secretaries and others, who had only their own profits in view, and cared very little about the objects which had been contemplated by the persons who subscribed the funds. The Honourable Gentleman then quoted the charge of the Bishop of London to his clergy last year, in which that Right Reverend Prelate stated that he was a friend to discussion, because he thought that it called forth the mental energies of those whose duty it was to meet any arguments urged against the Christian religion. With so recent an opinion before them, why, he asked, should they act in a spirit so entirely different ? The Honourable Member then alluded to the opinion of Mr. Justice Blackstone, who held that it was contrary to sound policy and civil freedom to prosecute on account of religious opinions. If such were the sentiments of the many pious, wise and learned men whom he had quoted, how would gentlemen reconcile them with the prosecutions now going on? Of what use were those prosecutions when individuals gloried in their punishment as an act of martyrdom? Discussion ought to be allowed in the most full and unrestrained degree, and the power of the magistrate ought only to be resorted to when the safety of the state demanded it. He had not touched upon the question of Atheism for this simple reason because he had never seen any such man as an Atheist, and he doubted whether any person existed who denied the being of a great Creator of the universe. He did not mean to defend any attacks on the Christian religion, or any of the publications which had been complained of. They ought to be put down; but put down in the way they deserved-by complete neglect and utter contempt. The Honourable Member concluded by moving "That it is the opinion of this House that free discussion has been attended with more benefit than injury to the com
munity, and it is unjust and inexpedient to expose any person to legal penalties on account of the expression of opinions on matters of religion."
On the question being put,
Mr. WILBERFORCE addressed the House; but in so low a tone, that very little of what he said could be distinctly heard in the gallery. We understood the Honourable Member to observe, that it was the duty of individuals to prosecute publications of the nature of those alluded to, as they were evidently, contra bonos mores. The Honourable Mover had observed that he believed there was no such a thing as Atheism; but in one of those very publications there was a passage, in which it was stated that Atheism was the only ground on which a man could find a sound and secure footing. It was exceedingly unpleasant to quote from any of those works; but in another number it was declared that Christianity could be proved to demoustration to be a gross imposture, and as it was supported for the purpose of upholding a bad system of government, the author wondered why it had not long since been removed; and he went on to ask whether the inquiring mind of man could find any sound footing except in Atheism. (Hear.) The Honourable Member (Mr. Hume) had quoted from Bishop Warburton, the Bishop of London, and several other eminent divines, with whose sentiments he (Mr. Wilberforce) entirely concurred: for no man held more strongly the opinion that it was proper to investigate the established religion of the country fairly. But none of those pious and learned men had argued that gross and vulgar abuse of the religion of the state ought to be tolerated. (Hear.) Dr. Paley's opinion was clear and decisive on this point. He said "that persecution could produce no sincere conviction; and under the head of religious toleration, he included toleration of all serious argument, but he did not think it would be right to suffer ridicule, invective, and mockery to be resorted to with impunity. They applied solely to the passions, weakened the understanding, and misled the judgment. They did not assist the search for truth, and instead of supporting any particular religion, destroyed the influence of all." (Hear, hear.) With respect to Carlile, he had not been harshly treated. No prosecution was instituted against him until he had placed over his door "The Temple of Reason;" and the dissemination of irreligious works became too notorious to be overlooked. He thought the country owed very great thanks to private individuals (seconded by the state) who had endeavoured to
disseminate such works and to support such a moral education as would enable the people to combat those principles. He entirely denied the truth of the argument which the Honourable Member had drawn from the employment of missionaries abroad. Those individuals never proceeded to insult the prejudices of the natives of other countries by any gross and indecent reflections. They adduced nothing but fair and sober argument to effect their purpose. The Honourable Member said that there was no drawing a precise line in arguments on this subject. His answer was, that it was not intended to draw a precise line. Let truth go to its fullest and fairest extent, but let ribaldry and indecency be avoided, Did Christianity ever insult the country where it was attempted to be planted? No it was distinguished by decorum, respect, and obedience to the powers that be. Even the government of the Emperor Nero, one of the most cruel tyrants that ever lived, was not abused by the Christians. With respect to those who had voluntarily taken upon them to prosecute publications of this nature, he must observe that there were many wrongs by which society in general suffered, but which were likewise so offensive to individuals, that they hesitated not to visit them with the penalties of the law. There were also, it should be observed, certain other crimes, more injurious to society than even robbery or murder, but which, as they did not affect the particular interests of private individuals, they did not stand forward to punish. Therefore the formation of societies for the purpose of visiting such crimes with severity, was a praiseworthy
It had been stated over and over again by the judges, that persons who associated together to carry the law into execution, where offences of this kind, which were mischievous to society, were perpetrated, were acting in a perfectly legal manner. The introduction of obscene pictures and improper books into schools had been effectually checked by that means. When individuals combined together for this purpose, and were only actuated by public principles, and where the over-zealous disposition of some was tempered by the moderation and pru dence of others, it could not be doubted that great good was likely to be the result.
Mr. RICARDO said that he had heard with pleasure a great part of the speech of his honourable friend who had just sat down, and the remainder certainly with some concern. The greater part of that speech was in support of the opinion which he (Mr. Ricardo) held in common with his honourable friend who had
introduced the motion-namely, that no man had a right to dictate his own opinions upon abstract opinions to another, upon peril of punishment for a refusal to adopt them (hear, from Mr. Wilberforce); and his honourable friend had further admitted, that so long as the controversy upon such topics were conducted with decency, it ought not to be prevented by force of law. Now, he lamented that when his honourable friend had thought proper to quote the sentiments of Dr. Paley, he had not given them more at length, for he would, in the writings of that eminent individual, find a more large and liberal spirit of toleration, than he was disposed to admit practically in other parts of his speech.
Mr. WILBERFORCE.-" Dr. Paley distinctly excepts to the treatment of such subjects with levity and ribaldry."
Mr. RICARDO resumed-that, certainly, was Dr. Paley's only exception; and he, as well as the other chief ornaments of the church, for instance, Dr. Tillotson and Dr. Porteus, had asserted in the largest sense, the right of unfettered opinion. If the validity of such opinions were admitted, who could advocate the operation of the law of this country in such matters? Who could sustain those impolitic and unjust prosecutions? What was the prosecution of Carlile for republishing the Age of Reason? That was not a work written in a style of levity and ribaldry, but a serious argument upon the truths of the Christian religion. Look again at the impending prosecution for eighteen weeks of the same man for Mr. Hone's Parodies, which was not abandoned until Hone had himself secured an acquittal on the charge. But, said his honourable friend (Mr. Wilberforce), iu justification of these public prosecutions, there were some offences which did not directly affect private interest although_they_injured the community, and which might go unpunished, were it not for general associations which took cognizance of such matters; and he talked of obscene writings in illustration of his opinion. Was there really any comparison between such writings and those upon speculative points of religion, which were the only topics to which this motion applied? (Hear, hear.) They were all agreed that obscene writings ought to be punished; and why ?-because they were obviously pernicious to the moral interests of society, and constituted a general and disgusting species of offence. (Hear, hear.) But not so abstract religious subjects, upon which it was quite impossible to obtain universal assent. No man had a right to say to another, "My