Blasphemy: a very modern crime

By Eloise Davies, second year PhD student at Peterhouse, Cambridge. She was a bursary holder at the 2018 EHS summer conference, presenting on seventeenth-century blasphemy.


Last October, the Republic of Ireland voted to remove the offence of blasphemy from its constitution.[1] Ireland became the latest in a series of European countries to abolish the crime of blasphemy, a trend often celebrated as one of the major achievements of secularisation. Such celebrations always make the historian of religion suspicious.

(Davies) The House of Commons in Session

While British and Irish blasphemy laws have come to seem meaningless, accusations of blasphemy continue to thrive worldwide. A dramatic illustration of this was the murder of twelve Charlie Hebdo journalists in January 2015 for publishing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed deemed blasphemous. While the use of terror was condemned from all sides, support for the cartoons was less universal. Last August, Imran Khan, the President of Pakistan, announced plans to renew calls for a worldwide law to protect the religious from blasphemy at the UN General Assembly.[2] The statement was made in response to Dutch politician Geert Wilders’s planned ‘blasphemous caricature competition’, an event Wilders later cancelled in the wake of death threats.[3] This year, blasphemy hit the headlines again, when the Pakistani Supreme Court upheld its acquittal Christian woman Aasia Bibi, who spent eight years on death row for insulting the Prophet. [4] The decision sparked riots across Pakistan, though Khan took a more moderate line than last summer’s rhetoric might have suggested, defending the Court’s decision.[5]

So why does concept of blasphemy continue to wield such power? One way to approach the question is historical. Why was blasphemy law once deemed so important in England too? It certainly was not because our early modern forebears were stupid and irrational.

The UK common law offence of blasphemy was abolished in 2008, bringing to an end blasphemy’s long history as a crime in the UK. Common law jurisdiction over the crime appears to have been first asserted in the Atwood case of 1614, and put beyond doubt by Chief Justice Hale’s pronouncement that ‘Christianity is a parcel of the Laws of England’ in the Taylor case of 1676.[6] The last successful prosecution was Mary Whitehouse’s victory against Gay News in 1977 for publishing a poem on the crucifixion, written from the perspective of a homosexual Roman soldier. For much of our history, blasphemy could also be punished in the ecclesiastical courts, or by a statute of 1698, which made denial of God, the divine inspiration of the scriptures and the trinity punishable by loss of offices and a prison sentence. No cases were ever brought under the Act of 1698, though it remained on the statute books until its abolition by the Law Commission in 1967.

The multifarious means of legal recourse give an indication of just how seriously blasphemy was taken. In modern parlance the word blasphemy is often used to signify the taking of God’s name in vain. To an early modern Christian, that was mere profanity, which might be a symptom of blasphemy but was itself a lesser sin. Blasphemy had far darker and more threatening connotations. It was generally used as a shorthand for the one sin described in the Bible as unforgivable: blasphemy against the holy ghost. As Matthew puts it,

All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men…neither in this world, neither in the world to come.[7]

In seventeenth-century England, such passages were a serious source of consternation. As late as 1684, a former associate of John Bunyan, John Child, hanged himself in despair, believing himself guilty of such blasphemy. His suicide was one incident in a wider phenomenon of intense fear of committing the worst of sins, evidence of which can be found throughout the seventeenth century.[8]

Jean Calvin’s interpretation of blasphemy was particularly influential in England. It emphasised malicious intent. The blasphemer was one who understood the message of Christianity and the salvation offered through the Holy Spirit, but nonetheless deliberately and maliciously acted against God’s commands.[9] To forgive someone this malice would be a logical contradiction, and thus humans could be certain that for this sin there would be no forgiveness. Accounts of individual blasphemers being punished by divine providence was a popular genre in the seventeenth century, and if society tolerated such blasphemers, there was a further risk that God would punish the whole nation.[10]

(Davies) A Warning from God to All Apostates

In my research, I explore the idea that the various uses to which such definitions of blasphemy were put in political debate give us striking insight into early modern beliefs about the limits of political society. The presumptuous, malicious blasphemer was the only category of person who could never be forgiven by God, and thus – for the Christian citizen – the only category of person with whom it was truly impossible to work politically. Blasphemy was used to define threatening individuals out of society, for the supposed good of all its other members. There was, therefore, much more at stake in seventeenth-century debates about blasphemy than there is in the discussions going on in Ireland today: for seventeenth-century Englishmen (and women), the concept of blasphemy was one of the central planks in their efforts to define the minimum moral standard required for civic participation.

These days, to abolish an English or Irish blasphemy law is to pick off a soft target. They have not been doing what they were originally intended to do for a century or more. Their abolition fits easily into a glamorous narrative of daring secularisation, fighting against religious narrow-mindedness, while not requiring answers to genuinely difficult questions: at what point does the behaviour of a malicious individual endanger society? how far can we separate beliefs, words and action? how do we reconcile the fact of religious diversity with the demands of a united civil society?

These were the questions which seventeenth-century blasphemy law tried to address. We have since rejected blasphemy legislation as a good answer to such questions; we rejected it de facto long ago. But that does not mean we have solved the problems. The controversies continue in new forms. Like the seventeenth-century supporters of English blasphemy law, the various Muslims, evangelical Christians and others who cry blasphemy today draw on rich and deeply-held theological frameworks which need to be engaged with, rather than dismissed as simply backwards. Solutions are more likely to be found by talking to moderates within the religion, than by writing religion off entirely. Furthermore, the history of blasphemy is a reminder of our own continued debate over the question of who is deemed too evil to participate in society. Where once we had blasphemy laws, now hate-crime legislation or international human rights agreements provide the new nexus of controversy. We must be wary of complacent triumphalism and remember that these new focal points remain open to, and deserving of, careful critical attention.






[6] G. D. Nokes, A History of the Crime of Blasphemy (London, 1928), p. 22 and pp. 46-64.

[7] Matt. 12:31, KJV.

[8] B. Tipson, ‘A Dark Side of Seventeenth-Century English Protestantism: The Sin against the Holy Spirit’,

Harvard Theological Review 77 (October 1984), p. 329.

[9] For an example of a pamphlet that employs this definition, see Robert Russel, Sermon on the Unpardonable Sin against the Holy Ghost: Or, the Sin unto Death (London, 1692).

[10] See, for instance, R[obert] Boreman, An Antidote Against SwearingAlso a Short Catalogue of some

Remarkable Judgements from God upon Blasphemers, &c (London, 1662).

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