§ Mr. Hume
rose for the purpose of presenting a petition which he considered of great importance. But before he did so, he begged to correct an error which had got abroad respecting what he had said last night. He had been made to say in one publication, that he disapproved of dissenters altogether; when, in fact, he had only expressed his disapprobation of that sect to which an hon. member belonged. His acquaintance lying very much among dissenters, many of whom he knew to be most intelligent and virtuous men, he should have belied his own experience if he had said so. He was of opinion, that general censures were always wrong; and, as his feelings had been excited on the occasion to which he alluded; by the in- 1366 tolerance displayed by that sect of which alone he spoke, he took the opportunity of this cooler moment to explain what he had said. Having done so, he would add, that he regretted that any person should have presumed to arraign his conduct, and to have designated him as the advocate of a person whose opinions he was so far from advocating, that if that person had listened to his advice, he would long ago have abstained from publishing them. He was well convinced that to attack prejudices in the way Mr. Carlile had attacked what he considered prejudices, was the best means of diffusing and strengthening them. He did hope that, in future, no person would take the liberty of endeavouring to represent him as the advocate of such opinions. The petition to which he now called the attention of the House was signed by 2,047 persons, members of Christian congregations, of whom 98 were ministers, among the latter were names which the House would agree were entitled to considerable respect, such as those of Dr. Evans, Dr. Jones, Dr. Rees, Dr. Clarke, Mr. Barclay, Mr. Roscoe, and others. A more sensible petition, and one more consistent with the spirit of Christianity, had, perhaps, never been presented to the House. He could not conceive that any sincere believer in the doctrines of the Christian religion could' doubt, that any thing, which tended to stamp the character of persecution upon that religion, was more calculated to bring it into contempt, than all the scoffs and the arguments of its worst enemies. He proposed to follow up the reading of the petition with a motion which he should submit from a sense of duty; and which, if adopted by the House, as he anxiously hoped it would be, would tend to check the mischief which had been caused by recent proceedings.
The petition was then brought up and read; and was as follows:
"The humble Petition of the undersigned Ministers and Members of Christian Congregations,
"Sheweth; That your petitioners are sincere believers in the Christian Revelation from personal conviction on examination of the evidences on its behalf; and are thankful to Almighty God for the unspeakable blessing of the Gospel, which they regard as the most sacred sanction, the best safeguard, and the most power- 1367 ful motive, of morality, as the firmest support and most effectual relief amidst the afflictions and troubles of this state of humanity, and as the surest foundation of the hope of a life to come, which hope they consider to be in the highest degree conducive to the dignity, purity, and happiness of society.
"That with these views and feelings, your petitioners beg leave to state to your honourable House, that they behold with sorrow and shame the prosecutions against persons who have printed or published books which are, or are presumed to be, hostile to the Christian religion, from the full persuasion that such prosecutions are inconsistent with, and contrary to, both the spirit and the letter of the Gospel, and, moreover, that they are more favourable to the spread of infidelity, which they are intended to check, than to the support of the Christian faith, which they are professedly undertaken to uphold.
"Your petitioners cannot but consider all Christians bound by their religious profession to bow with reverence and submission to the precepts of the Great Founder of our Faith; and nothing appears to them plainer in the Gospel than that it forbids all violent measures for its propagation, and all vindictive measures for its justification and defence. The Author and Finisher of Christianity has declared, that his kingdom is not of this world; and, as in his own example he showed a perfect pattern of compassion towards them that are ignorant and out of the way of truth, of forbearance towards objectors, and of forgiveness of wilful enemies; so in his moral laws he has prohibited the spirit that would attempt to root up speculative error with the arm of flesh, or that would call down fire from heaven to consume the unbelieving, and has commanded the exercise of meekness, tenderness, and brotherly love, towards all mankind, as the best and only means of promoting his cause upon earth, and the most acceptable way of glorifying the Great Father of mercies, who is kind even to the unthankful and the evil.
"By these reasonable, charitable, and peaceful means, the Christian religion was not only established originally, but also supported for the three first centuries of the Christian era, during which it triumphed over the most fierce and potent opposition, unaided by temporal power; and your petitioners humbly submit to your honourable House, that herein con- 1368 sists one of the brightest evidences of the truth of the Christian religion; and that they are utterly at a loss to conceive, how that which is universally accounted to have been the glory of the Gospel in its beginnings, should now cease to be accounted its glory, or how it should at this day be less the maxim of Christianity, and less the rule of the conduct of Christians, than in the days of those that are usually denominated the fathers of the church—that it is no part of religion to compel religion, which must be received, not by force, but of free choice.
"Your petitioners would earnestly represent to your honourable House, that our holy religion has borne uninjured every test that reason and learning have applied to it, and that its divine origin, its purity, its excellence, and its title to universal acceptation, have been made more manifest by every new examination and discussion of its nature, pretensions, and claims. Left to itself, under the divine blessing, the reasonableness and innate excellence of Christianity will infallibly promote its influence over the understandings and hearts of mankind; but when the angry passions are suffered to rise in its professed defence, these provoke the like passions in hostility to it, and the question is no longer one of pure truth, but of power on the one side, and of the capacity of endurance on the other.
"It appears to your petitioners that it is altogether unnecessary and impolitic to recur to penal laws in aid of Christianity. The judgment and feelings of human nature, testified by the history of man in all ages and nations, incline mankind to religion; and it is only when they erringly associate religion with fraud and injustice, that they can be brought in any large number to bear the evils of scepticism and unbelief. Your petitioners acknowledge and lament the wide diffusion, amongst the people of sentiments unfriendly to the Christian faith; but they cannot refrain from stating to your honourable House their conviction that this unexampled state of the public mind is mainly owing to the prosecution of the holders and propagators of infidel opinions. Objections to Christianity have thus become familiar to the readers of the weekly and daily journals—curiosity has been stimulated with regard to the publications prohibited—an adventitious, unnatural, and dangerous importance has been given 1369 to sceptical arguments—a suspicion has been excited in the minds of the multitude that the Christian religion can be upheld only by pains and penalties, and sympathy has been raised on behalf of the sufferers, whom the uninformed and unwise regard with the reverence and confidence that belong to the character of martyrs to the truth.
"Your petitioners would remind your honourable House, that all history testifies the futility of all prosecutions for mere opinions, unless such prosecutions proceed the length of exterminating the holders of the opinions prosecuted—an extreme from which the liberal spirit and the humanity of the present times revolt.
"The very same maxims and principles that are pleaded to justify the punishment of unbelievers would authorize Christians of different denominations to vex and harass each other on the alleged ground of want of faith, and likewise form an apology for heathen persecutions against Christians, whether the persecutions that were anciently carried on against the divinely-taught preachers of our religion, or those that may now be instituted by the ruling party in Pagan countries, where Christian missionaries are so laudably employed, in endeavouring to expose the absurdity, folly, and mischievous influence of idolatry.
"Your petitioners would entreat your honourable House to consider, that belief does not in all cases depend upon the will, and that inquiry into the truth of Christianity will be wholly prevented, if persons are rendered punishable for any given result of inquiry;; Firmly attached as your petitioners are to the religion of the Bible, they cannot but consider the liberty of rejecting, to be implied in that of embracing it. The unbeliever may, indeed, be silenced by his fears, but it is scarcely conceivable that any real friend to Christianity, or any one who is solicitous for the improvement of the human mind, the diffusion of knowledge, and the establishment of truth, should wish to reduce any portion of mankind to the necessity of concealing their honest judgment upon moral and theological questions, and of making an outward profession that shall be inconsistent with their inward persuasion.
Your petitioners are not ignorant that a distinction is commonly made: between those unbelievers that argue the question of the truth of Christianity calmly and dispassionately, and those that treat the 1370 sacred subject with levity and ridicule; but although they feel the strongest disgust at every mode of discussion which approaches to indecency and profaneness, they cannot help thinking that it is neither wise nor safe to constitute the manner and temper of writing an object of legal visitation; inasmuch as it is impossible to define where argument ends and evil speaking begins. The reviler of Christianity appears to your petitioners to be the least formidable of its enemies; because his scoffs can rarely fail of arousing against him public opinion, than which nothing more is wanted to defeat his end. Between freedom of discussion and absolute persecution there is no assignable medium; and nothing seems to your petitioners more impolitic than to single out the intemperate publications of modern unbelievers for legal reprobation, and thus by implication to give a licence to the grave reasonings of those that preceded them in the course of open hostility to the Christian religion, which reasonings are much more likely to make a dangerous impression upon the minds of their readers. But independently of considerations of expediency and policy, your petitioners cannot forbear recording their humble protest against the principle implied in the prosecutions alluded to, that a religion proceeding from Infinite Wisdom and protected by Almighty Power depends upon human patronage for its perpetuity and influence. Wherefore they pray your honourable House to take into consideration the prosecutions carrying on, and the punishments already inflicted upon unbelievers, in order to exonerate Christianity from the opprobrium and scandal so unjustly cast upon it, of being a system that countenances intolerance and persecution.
"And your petitioners will ever pray, &c."
On the motion that the petition be printed,
§ Mr. Butterworth
asked, by how many ministers of the Church of England it was signed, and of what class of dissenters the other petitioners consisted.
§ Mr. W. Smith
could not see the pertinency of the hon. 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.
§ 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. 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, however, a disposition had been manifested to prosecute persons for the publication of did 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 extension 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 discussion, 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 investigate 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, 1372 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 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 control 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 atempted to interfere with their opinions. The quakers, who differed on many essential points from the established church, were also 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 the country; and he wished, most 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 1373 being placed in that situation in which he would be enabled, without any fear of the civil magistrate, to entertain whatever religious opinions he pleased; and to endeavour to obtain, by fair and candid discussion, information on those points which might not appear 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 had been any thing unreasonable in his proposition, he would 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 this mild spirit of forbearance, that the Christian religion had 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, ought they now to renew those scenes of persecution and oppression, which the earlier Christians had suffered with so much fortitude? Ought 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. Will respect to blasphemy, he would ask any one who referred to the act of James 1st, whether 1374 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 had been 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 be 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 had employed in foreign parts, all the preachers they had 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 supersti- 1375 tious doctrines; and were, therefore, doing the same thing which certain individuals were doing 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 at home as an offence of very great magnitude. It was only by such inquiry that they could hope to benefit either their Hindoo or Mahometan 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, because a few persons in England 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 I abilities had attempted to impugn it and had failed, he entertained no apprehension from the attacks of men who possessed neither talent nor education. Christianity had marched on with rapid strides, notwitstanding 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, Lowth, Warburton, Lardner, Campbell, Chillingworth, and many others, had placed their opinions on record with re- 1376 spect to the propriety of allowing the freest investigation of the Christian religion. Before he quoted a passage of Tillotson, which more immediately affected the present question, he begged to observe, that that reverend divine directed his observations, not against mere ribaldry and gross language, which must ever counteract the object for which it was used; but against those calm and dispassionate reasonings, which were by far of a more formidable nature. The language of Tillotson was as follows:—Our religion has this mighty advantage, that it doth not decline trial and examination, which to any man of ingenuity, must needs appear a very good sign of an honest cause; but, if any church be shy of having her religion examined, and her doctrines and practices brought into the open light, this gives just ground of suspicion, that she hath some distrust of them; for truth doth not seek corners nor shun the light. Our Saviour hath told us who they are that love darkness rather than light, viz.: they whose deeds are evil; for every one, saith he, that doth evil, hateth the light; neither cometh he to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved and made manifest. There needs no more to render a religion suspected to a wise man, than to see those who profess it, and make such proud boasts of the truth and goodness of it, so fearful that it should be examined and looked into, and that their people should take the liberty to hear and read what can be said against it." In another place he says—"We persuade men to our religion by human and christian ways, such as our Saviour and his apostles used, by urging men with the authority of God, and with arguments fetcht from another world, the promise of eternal life and happiness, and the threatening of eternal death and misery, which are the proper arguments of religion, and which alone are fitted to work upon the minds and consciences of men." And again, "But these methods of conversion are a certain sign that they either distrust the truth and goodness of their cause, or else that they think truth and the arguments of it are of no force, when dragoons are their ratio ultima, the last reason which their cause relies upon, and the best and most effectual it can afford." Now, he concurred most fully in the admirable doctrines here laid down by the reverend prelate. He would next call the attention of the House to what had been 1377 said by Lowth upon this subject. That learned writer had said, that "Christianity itself was published to the world in the most enlightened age; it invited and challenged the examination of the ablest judges, and stood the test of the severest scrutiny; the more it is brought to light, to the greater advantage would it appear. When, on the other hand, the dark ages of barbarism came on, as every art and science was almost extinguished, so was Christianity in proportion oppressed and; overwhelmed by error and superstition. It hath always flourished or decayed, together with learning and liberty; it will ever stand or fall with them. It is there fore of the utmost importance to the cause of true religion, that it be submitted to an open and impartial examination—that every disquisition concerning it be allowed its free course—that even the malice of its enemies should have its full scope, and try its utmost strength of argument against it. Let no man be alarmed at the attempts of atheists or in fidels; let them produce their cause, let them, bring forth their strong reasons to their own confusion; afford them not the advantage of restraint, the only advantage their cause admits of; let them not boast the false credit of supposed arguments and pretended demonstrations which they are forced to suppress." This was the true ground upon which Christianity should be defended. This was the best mode of meeting and defeating those who doubted or disbelieved its doctrines. 35ishop Warburton, in treating on the same subject says, addressing the Free Thinkers—"Mistake me not; here are no insinuations intended against liberty; for surely, whatever be the cause of this folly (Free Thinking), it would be unjust to ascribe it to the freedom of the press, which wise men will ever hold one of the most precious branches of civil liberty. Nor less friendly is this liberty to the generous advocate of religion; for how could such a one, when in earnest convinced of the strength of evidence in his cause, desire an adversary whom the laws had before disarmed, or value a victory where the magistrate must triumph with him? Even I, the meanest in this controversy, should have been ashamed of projecting the defence of the great Jewish legislator, did not I know that his assailants and defenders skirmished all under one equal law of liberty this liberty then may you long possess!" Here 1378 then his (Mr. Hume's) objections were maintained in their fullest force. He maintained that prosecutions had been instituted to prevent a free discussion, and punishments inflicted in order at once to crush all inquiry. In his view of the case, no man would venture to publish his religious opinions, unless he felt conscientiously convinced of their truth, and was anxious to impress that conviction upon others; and yet, for the exercise of such a freedom—a freedom, be it observed, openly claimed and exercised by ourselves, the severest visitations of the civil law were inflicted upon the persons who had dared to exercise a similar liberty. What said Dr. Lardner upon the prosecution and punishment of Woolston, who was convicted in 1729? That learned divine coincided fully in the doctrines which he (Mr. Hume) now advanced, as appeared from the following opinions delivered by him in his letter to the bishop of Chester upon that subject. "The proper punishment of a low, mean, indecent, scurrilous way of writing seems to be neglect, contempt, scorn, and general indignation. This punishment he (Woolston) has already had in part, and will probably have more and more, if he should go on in his rude and brutal way of writing; and if we leave all further punishment to him to whom vengeance belongs, I have thought it might be much for the honour of ourselves and of our religion. But if he should be punished further, the stream of resentment and indignation will turn; especially if the punishment should be severe; and it is likely that a small punishment will not suffice to engage to silence, nor to an alteration of the manner of writing."
In this way, continued Mr. Hume, the writings of Carlile ought to have been treated. He believed that these writings were low and scurrilous in a very high degree. He had never read one of his publications until he had presented his petition, and he had then perused a few numbers of the "Republican," in order to judge. He there found some calm argumentative writing, and some articles so exceedingly coarse and offensive, that if Carlile had the smallest idea of the feelings of mankind, he would not have published any thing so revolting. He had, however, been most severely dealt with, and the consequence was, that the stream of public feeling: had been changed; resentment-had been kindled against the 1379 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 had seen 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 of advertising and puffing, 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 against the publisher. In the same way the poem of "Wat Tyler," which was written by Mr. Southey, the poet laureat, in early life, and which 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. Of lord Byron's "Cain," 10,000 copies had been sold in this way, There was only one instance more which he would mention, and that was, that in the course of one week after the prosecutions the sale of works in Carlile's shop increased from 2,000 to 15,000 copies.
He would now call the attention of the House to opinions delivered by an eminent divine, bishop Watson, whose writings were so well known to the public. His observations were as follow:—"The freedom of inquiry which has subsisted in this country during the present century, has eventually been of great service to the cause of Christianity. It must be acknowledged that the works of our deis- 1380 tical writers have made some converts to infidelity. But at the same time we must needs allow, that these works have stimulated some distinguished characters amongst the laity, and many amongst the clergy, to exert their talents in removing such difficulties in the Christian system as would otherwise be likely to perplex the unlearned, to shipwreck the faith of the unstable, and to induce a reluctant scepticism into the minds of the most serious and best-intentioned. The Christian religion has nothing to fear from the strictest investigation of the most learned of its adversaries."—Doctor Taylor had expressed the same opinion. Dr. Campbell, in his Dissertation on Miracles, thus delivered his opinion:—"So far am I from being afraid of exposing Christianity by submitting it to the test of reason; so far am I from judging this a trial which it is by no means fitted to endure, that I think, on the contrary, the most violent attacks that have been made on the faith of Jesus have been of service to it. Yes, I do not hesitate to affirm, that our religion hath been indebted to the attempts, though not to the intentions of its bitterest enemies. They have tried its strength, indeed, and by trying they have displayed its strength—and that in so clear a light as we could never have hoped, without such a trial, to have viewed it in. Let them therefore unite—let them argue—and when arguments fail, even let them cavil against religion as much as they please. I should be heartily sorry that ever in this island, the asylum of liberty, where the spirit of Christianity is better understood (however defective its inhabitants are in the observance of its precepts) than in any other part of the Christian world; I should, I say, be sorry that in this island so great a disservice were done to religion as to check its adversaries in any other way than by returning a candid answer to their objections. I must, at the same time, acknowledge, that I am both ashamed and grieved, when I observe any friends of religion betray so great a diffidence in the goodness of their cause (for to this diffidence it can only be imputed), as to Shew an inclination for recurring to more forcible methods." The hon. member proceeded to state, that he 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 had taken upon themselves that duty 1381 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 emoluments in view, and cared very little about the objects which had been contemplated by the persons who subscribed the funds—The hon. gentleman here again referred to the doctrines of archbishop Tillotson, whom he quoted as follows:—"Surely that Church is not to be heard, which will not hear reason; nor that religion to be much admired, which will not allow those that have once embraced it, to hear it ever after debated and examined. This is a suspicious business, and argues that either they have not truth on their side; or that truth is a weak and pitiful and sneaking thing, and not able to make its party good against error. A free and impartial inquiry, into the grounds and reasons of our religion, and a thorough trial and examination of them, is one of the best means to confirm and establish us in the profession of it.'' The archbishop not only maintains the innocuousness of the perusal of infidel publications, but makes the reading of them almost a duty. "If it be said," he argues, "that the allowing of this liberty is the way to make people perpetually doubting and unsettled, I do Utterly deny this, and do, on the contrary, with good reason affirm, that it is apt to have the contrary effect; there being no better way to establish any man in the belief of any thing, than to let him see that there are very good grounds and reasons for what he believes; which no man can ever see, that is not permitted to examine whether there be such reasons or not. So that besides the reasonableness of the thing, it is of great benefit and advantage to us; and that upon these accounts:—to arm us against seducers. He that hath examined his religion, and tried the grounds of it, is most able to maintain them, and make them good against all assaults that may be made upon us to move us from our stedfastness; whereas, he that hath not examined, and consequently does not understand the reasons of his religion, is liable to be tossed to and fro and to be carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and the cunning craftiness of those that lie in wait to deceive. For when he is at- 1382 tempted he will cither defend his religion or not; if he undertake the defence of it before he hath examined the grounds of it, he makes himself an easy prey to every crafty man that will set upon him; he exposeth at once himself to danger, and his religion to disgrace. The holding fast the profession of our faith without wavering, doth not imply that men should obstinately refuse to hear any reason against that religion which they have embraced, and think to be the true religion; As men should examine before they choose; so after they have chosen, they should be ready to be better informed if better reason can be offered. No man ought to think himself so infallible as to be privileged from hearing reason, and from having his doctrines and dictates tried by that test. Our blessed Saviour himself, the most infallible person that ever was in the world, and who declared the truth which he had heard of God, yet he offered himself and his doctrine to this trial—John, viii. 46;"Which of you convinceth me of sin? that is of falsehood and error?" and "If I speak the truth, why do ye not believe me?" He was sure he spoke the truth, and yet for all that, if they could convince him of error and mistake, he was ready to hear any reason they could bring to that purpose."
He would next give to the House the authority of a very high and learned personage, the present Bishop of London; That reverend prelate, in his charge to his Clergy, last year, had thus expressed himself:—"I am, indeed, fully persuaded, that the extravagances of frantic infidelity are means in the order of Providence for the promotion of virtue and truth, by provoking discussions which lead to the dispersion of error, by disposing the careless to reflection, by determining the irresolute to inquiry, by awakening energies which might otherwise have slumbered in inaction, and rousing the horror and indignation which vice and impiety, when they throw off the mask, will never fail to inspire in generous and honest minds.—Such on all former occasions has been the uniform result of the violence; directed by infidels against our holy religion, in this country; and when I consider the general expression of disgust at the blasphemous libels which were lately put in circulation; when I recollect the number and excellence of the popular tracts in defence of the religion so basely traduced, and the reception which they 1383 experienced from the public, I cannot but think that the evidences of the Christian Revelation, and the nature and grounds of the Christian faith, are in consequence more generally understood, and the people on the whole more firmly attached to the creed of their fathers, than if it had never been called in question. When I behold, on the other hand, the continued exertions of piety, in the distribution of the scriptures and scriptural tracts—in the enlarging of churches, in the erection of schools at home and abroad, in founding extensive establishments, with a view to the conversion of the heathen, I am compelled to infer from this active munificence, that the breath of impiety has neither quenched the flame of religion among us, nor sullied its purity, nor abated the intensity of its power."
He had, however, strong legal authority to produce in addition to the mass of ecclesiastical evidence which he had adduced in support of his opinions. Judge Blackstone, in his Commentaries, said—"It seems necessary for the support of the national religion, that the officers of the Church have power to censure heretics, yet not to harass them with temporal penalties, much less to exterminate or destroy them. All persecution for diversity of opinions, however ridiculous and absurd they may be, is contrary to sound policy and civil freedom." This was also his opinion. By endeavouring injudiciously to punish, they made martyrs, and turned the minds of thousands to the consideration of matters which otherwise would never have come under their notice. Mr. Locke, in his first letter on Toleration, had said—"I esteem toleration to be the chief characteristical mark of the true church; everyone is orthodox to himself." If such were the sentiments of the 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 lately made against Carlile, for this simple reason—because he had never seen any man pretending to be atheist who 1384 could maintain those opinions in argument for one half hour; and he even doubted whether any person existed, who really doubted 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 hon. 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 community, and it is unjust and inexpedient to expose any person to legal penalties on account of the expression of opinions on matters of religion."
§ Mr. Wilberforce
proceeded to address the House, hut in a tone so low, as to be for a considerable time inaudible in the gallery. We at length understood the hon. member to defend the Constitutional Society and the Society for the Suppression of Vice in the course they had taken, and to maintain, that both those bodies were not only fully justified, but much to be applauded, for having exerted themselves for the suppression of offences, which, in every sense, was contra bonos mores. The hon. mover had observed; that he believed there was no such a thing as Atheism; but in one of those offensive 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 demonstration 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. The hon. mover had quoted from bishop Warburton, the bishop of London, and several other eminent divines, with whose sentiments he; (Mr. W.) 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. Dr. Paley's opinion was clear and decisive on 1385 this point. He had 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." 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 much to those 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 hon. 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 hon. 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 pf private individuals, they 1386 did not stand forward to punish. Therefore, the formation of societies for they purpose of visiting such crimes with severity, was a praiseworthy act. 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 perpetrate, 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 prudence of others, it could not be doubted that great good was likely to be the result.
§ Mr. Ricardo
said, he had heard with pleasure a great part of the speech of his hon. friend who had just sat down, and the remainder certainly with no inconsiderable concern. The greater part of that speech had been in support, of the opinion which he (Mr. Ricardo) held^ in common with his hon. friend who had introduced the motion; namely, that no man had a right to dictate his opinions, upon abstract opinions to another, upon, peril of punishment for a refusal to adopt them; and his hon. friend had further admitted, that so long as the controversy upon such topics was conducted with decency, it ought not to be prevented by force of law. Now, he lamented that when his hon. 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 und ribaldry.
§ Mr. Ricardo.
—That, certainly, was Dr. Paley's only exception; and lie, 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 approve of the operation of the Jaw 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 1387 Reason?" That was not a work written in a style of levity and ribaldry, but a sevious argument upon publishing the truth of the Christian religion. Look again at the impending prosecution for eighteen weeks of the same man for publishing Mr. Hone's parodies, which was not abandoned; until Hone had himself secured an acquittal on the charge. But, said his hon. friend (Mr. Wilberforce), in 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 had talked of obscene; writings in illustration of his opinion. But, 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? 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. But not so with respect to abstract religious subjects, upon which it was quite impossible to obtain universal assent. No man had a right to say to another, "My opinion upon religion is right, and yours is not only wrong when you differ from me, but I am entitled to punish you for that difference." Such an arrogant assumption of will was intolerable, and was an outrage upon the benignant influence of religion. They might talk of ribaldry and levity, but there was nothing more intolerable than the proposition which be had just stated, and which was nothing less than the power contended for by the advocates of these prosecutions for mere opinions upon points of faith. Then, what an absurd and immoral mode did the law provide for estimating the credit of a man's faith before his testimony was legally admissible? When the question was put to a witness, "Do you believe in a future state?" If he were a conscientious man, entertaining seriously such an opinion, his answer must be in the negative, and the law said he should not be heard; but if he were an immoral man, and disregarded truth, and said, "I do believe in a future state," although in his conscience he disbelieved in it, then his evidence was admissible, and his hypocrisy and falsehood secured him credibility. Now, there would be some sense in the law, if it de- 1388 clined tempting the hypocrisy of the individual, or his fear of the world's hostility or prejudice, and let in other evidence, to establish, from previous knowledge of the individual; whether or not he ought not to be admitted as a witness; but as it stood, it was absurd and ridiculous; and when he (Mr. R.) was charged upon this ground with a desire to do away with the sanctity of an oath, his reply was, "I do not desire to diminish the sacredness of the obligation; but I do desire to get rid of the hypocrisy by which that oath may be evaded." But then, again, was it possible for a man not to believe in a future state, and yet be strictly moral, and impressed with the necessity of upholding credibility in the common obligations of society? For his part, he firmly believed in the possibility of a man's being very honest for all the social purposes and essential obligations of the community in which he lived, and still not assenting to the belief of a future state. He fully admitted that religion was a powerful obligation; but he denied it to be the only obligation. It was, in fact, one which was superadded to the general force of moral impressions—it were a libel upon human nature to say otherwise. Tillotson was of that opinion in the following quotation from his works:—"As for most of those restraints which Christianity lays upon us, they are so much both for our private and public advantage, that, setting aside all considerations of religion, and of the rewards and punishments of another life, they are really good for us; and if God had not laid them upon us, we ought in reason, in order to our temporal benefit and advantage to have laid them upon ourselves. If there were no religion, I know men would not have such strong and forcible obligations to these duties; but yet, I say, though there were no religion, it were good for men, in order to temporal ends, to their health and quiet, and reputation, and safety, and, in a word, to the private and public prosperity of mankind, that men should be temperate, and chaste, and just, and peaceable, and charitable, and kind, and obliging to one another, rather than the contrary. So that religion does not create those restraints arbitrarily, but requires those things of us, which our reason, and a regard to our advantage, which the necessity and conveniency of the things themselves, without any consideration of religion, would in most cases urge us to." He read this passage for the 1389 purpose of showing, and from a great authority in the church, that the obligation of religion was not alone considered as the influential test of moral truth, and that a man might be very sceptical upon doctrinal points, and yet very positive in the control of moral impressions distinct from religious faith. For instance, there was Mr. Owen of Lanark, a great benefactor to society, and yet a man not believing (judging from some opinions of his) in a future state. Would any man, with the demonstrating experience of the contrary before his eyes, say that Mr. Owen was less susceptible of moral feeling, because he was incredulous upon matters of religion? Would any man, pretending to honour or candour, say that Mr. Owen, after a life spent in improving the condition of others, had a mind less pure, a heart less sincere, or a less conviction of the restraint and control of moral rectitude, than if he were more imbued with the precepts of religious obligation? Why, then, was such a man (for so by the law he was) to be excluded from the pale of legal credibility—why was he, if he promulgated his opinions, to be liable to spend his days immured in a prison? Will respect to the exception provided according to his hon. friend (Mr. Wilberforce), for treating such subjects with levity and ribaldry, he must confess, that he thought it a very singular reservation: for what was it, but to say—"You may discuss, if you please, in the most solemn, most serious, and therefore most influential manner, any topic of religion you please; but, the moment you discuss it with levity or ribaldry, that is, in such a manner as to be sure to offend the common sense of mankind, and therefore deprive you of really acquiring any serious proselytes, then the law takes cognizance of your conduct, and makes your imbecility penal. Was not this a glaring inconsistency? The law allowed the greater evil, the serious and substantial principle of discussion; and it denounced the lesser, which after admitting the first, it ought to have tolerated; and yet his hon. friend had, by his argument, justified and supported so singular a course. There was one passage of this petition which was very forcible, and to which he called the attention of his hon. friend. It was this:—"The reviler of Christianity appears to your petitioners to be the least formidable of its enemies; because his scoffs can rarely fail of arousing against him public 1390 opinion, than which nothing more is wanted to defeat his end. Between freedom of discussion and absolute persecution there is no assignable medium." When this subject was last before the House, unless his memory deceived him, he had heard singular opinions propounded by gentlemen who took a different view of this subject from himself. He thought he had heard it avowed, that the religion which ought to be established in a state, was not that which the majority said they believed, but that the doctrines of which were true. He had heard an observation like that fall from a very respectable quarter. It was difficult to argue with any body entertaining such an opinion; for where was the test by which such an argument could be tried? There was not in polemics, as in astronomy, one unerring criterion to which the common credence of mankind bowed: it was not like the rising sun, or any of the other phenomena of nature, which were bound by indissoluble and indisputable laws; but, on the contrary, a subject open to conflicting opinions. Who, then, was to decide upon the truth—who was authorized to say, "My opinion is right, yours is wrong?" If this was impossible, how was the test to be decided? How, for instance, in such a country as Ireland try the question of the truth of what ought to be the religion of the state, against the the opinions of the majority of the people? How would, upon that test, the stability of the Protestant religion in, Ireland be secured? Or, if it was secured there, merely because the minority thought it the true religion, the same reason and the came duty, would authorize the extension of the principle to India; and why not supplant Muhometanism to establish the doctrines of the Reformation." Into this wide field did the gentleman enter who embarked in such fanciful notions. He begged to be understood as having argued this question, from beginning to end, as the friend of free discussion. He knew the delicacy of the subject, and was anxious to guard himself against being supposed to entertain opinions obnoxious to the bulk of mankind. He repeated, that he only contended for the general right of self-opinion, and for the unfettered liberty of discussion, and hoped that while he was doing so, he should not have, as his hon. friend (Mr. Hume) had had last night, certain opinions fixed upon him which he did not entertain, 1391 and which it was quite unnecessary for him to countenance, in supporting the line of argument which the subject suggested to him, and which his reason approved.
§ Mr. Horace Twiss
said, it had been intimated by the hon. member for Montrose, that the greatest enemies to religion were those, who sought to uphold her by the measures, which it was the object of this motion to abolish. If that be the case, Sir, continued the hon. and learned gentleman, I, and those who think as I do, have indeed most miserably deceived ourselves. But the hon. gentleman's argument, though I think it erroneous in regard to religion, is applicable enough to that liberty of the press, whereof he is the strenuous advocate. For if any artful man, who should be as much an enemy to the liberty of the press as the hon. member for Montrose is, I doubt not, its friend, were contriving to obtain the reimposition of that licenser's veto, by which, with the intermission only of two or three years in the reign of Charles 2nd, the press continued to be fettered until some time after the accession of king William,—I can imagine no mode by which he would be so likely to forward that alarming design, and stifle the objections to an antecedent censorship, as by exempting irreligion and blasphemy, when once published, from the animadversion of an English jury, and securing to their authors the impunity which is now proposed [Hear, hear]. For what has been always the argument against the imposition of any previous censorship? Why, that though there are certain opinions, whose public circulation would endanger the peace and well-being of the people, yet that evil is likely but seldom to occur from the unfettered discretion of individuals, so long as they continue responsible to the law, for the excess, or abuse, of that discretion. In other words, we agree, in this particular case, considering the greatness of the good that arises from a free press, to do what, in general, would be somewhat indiscreet, to exchange a preventive for a merely penal control. But what is the doctrine now? It is not, as it once was, that the state, instead of taking the responsibility of licensing the press upon itself, should leave all publishers under a responsibility of their own; but that all responsibility shall be remitted altogether. I apprehend, Sir, that if harsh restraints are apt to lead to popular excesses, popular excesses are apt in their 1392 turn to lead back to harsh restraints [Cheers].
Sir, I am not about to follow the hon. member for Montrose, through the great variety of authorities, more or less relevant, which he has poured, in such profusion, upon the House. But, there is one counter-sanction which I will venture, in vindication of my own opinions, to cite, not only because it is of a practical kind, but because it comes from a quarter, which gentlemen opposite do sometimes, when it suits their purpose, recognize as carrying some authority:—from William the 3rd, and his parliament. In 1694, the act expired which had subjected the press to the control of the government; and, in three years from that time, the publication of blasphemous libels had come to so great a head, that the House of Commons, in 1697, voted an address to king William, praying, among other things, "That judges and magistrates might be commanded by proclamation, to put in force the laws against profaneness and immorality, and particularly that orders might be given for the suppressing all pernicious books and pamphlets, which contain in them impious doctrines against the Holy Trinity, and other fundamental articles of our faith, tending to the subversion of the Christian Religion: and that the authors and publishers thereof may be discountenanced and punished."—(5 Parl. Hist. 1172–3.)—To this address king William was advised by his ministers, lord Somers being then the keeper of his majesty's conscience, to make this answer:—"I will give immediate directions in the several particulars you desire; but I could wish some more effectual provision were made for the suppressing those pernicious books and pamphlets which your address takes notice of."—[Com. Journ. 18th Feb. 1697.]—The consequence of these communications was a statute [9 & 10 W. 3, ch. 32], by which, among other things, it was enacted, that the denial of the truth of the Christian religion, or of the divine authority of; the Holy Scriptures, should be punished with certain disqualifications, on the first offence; and, on the second, with a total civil incapacity, and a three years' imprisonment. Nor was this any innovation upon the principle of the common law, but only an enforcement of it, by a severer penalty than the courts would have otherwise had the power to inflict. Before the Revolution, lord Hale had laid it 1393 down, that such offences were not against religion only, but against the laws; as tending to dissolve all those obligations, by which civil societies are preserved.—[Taylor's Case, 3 Keb. 607–1 Vent. 293].
The hon. gentleman, I think, has hardly been aware of the principle thus laid down by lord Hale. Opinions tending to such a disturbance, the state, upon the simple principle of self-defence, is bound to suppress. It is idle to say, that with the mere publication of opinion, a government has no right to concern itself, when you know it is upon opinion alone that any government can depend for its existence. [Hear, hear]. If any published writing have a tendency to inflame particular classes of people against the constitution, and to excite them to subvert it, that publication is properly the subject of prosecution, since, if not treason itself, it is the seed of treason. It is even so of those published opinions which shake the respect of thoughtless readers for the great principles and sanctions of morality, and of that religion upon which all morality, at least all public, general morality, must ever depend. [Hear, hear]. It is not, therefore, by mere construction, but actually and practically, that irreligious opinions, in the language of the indictments upon which they are tried, are "against the peace of the king."
But besides the preservation of public peace, there is something due, likewise, to the private happiness and comfort of individuals; and that comfort, and that happiness, are more seriously endangered by any attempt to undermine the sanctions of religion, than even by the efforts of political incendiaries. For, in religion, the belief is the substance. It is not, as in politics, a mere speculative preference; but it is one of the actual solid comforts of private life. No man, by being persuaded to disapprove the government he lives under, loses the benefits which that government holds out, alike to its contented and its discontented subjects; but he who is persuaded to doubt his religion, is at once a loser of all which, in this world, that religion can bestow. And this, not perhaps by any deliberate choice—not by any voluntary preference—if that were so, you might object to any interference with his free-will:—but, as I find it truly observed in the petition which the hon. mover has quoted, "Be- 1394 lief does not, in all cases, depend upon the will." On the contrary, he whose belief has been thus undermined, is perhaps one whose doubts are unmingled pain to him—who would sacrifice much to be freed from them—who wishes for nothing with half such anxiety as to be undeceived. But it is not altogether an affair of understanding: the impression is too deep for the reach of argument—like a groundless jealousy, the sufferer feels the evil adhering and rankling, and no refutation you can use, no balm you can prescribe,Can ever med'cine him to that sweet sleepHe owed but yesternight.Against these anxieties and fears it was, that the law, with the care of a parent, extended a protection to its weaker subjects; and these anxieties and fears are the "rational boon," which the motion of the hon. gentleman proposes to make legally current among the people?
You say, let the people take care of themselves. I answer, no; it is the duty of their government to take care for them—to keep up a sort of moral police, as well as a civil one. That principle of protection runs through your constitution: if the commonest tradesman deal out foul stores or unwholesome provisions to the public, you protect your people by stopping and punishing the offence: and yet now, because you exert the very same power in suppressing the sale of those moral poisons, as an hon. member has this evening accurately called them, poisons which the venders would circulate as cordials among the poor, you are to be told that the law, by which this power belongs to you, is at variance with the spirit of your constitution!
Every one admits the mischief, and allows that it requires a remedy; but then, says the hon. member for Portarlington (Mr. Ricardo), the proper remedies are controversy of refutation, not the punishments of the law. That argument would have more force than it has, if all who read the allegation were presented also with the proof that refutes it—if one side of the leaf contained the charge, and the other the answer: but, of those who imbibe the original poison we have been speaking of, how many are ever supplied with the antidote? Besides, there are certain publications, such as those of that Carlile, whose petition, I believe, originally suggested this motion, which, from the very lowness of their na- 1395 ture, are likely to remain unanswered. They do not, like the writings of higher sceptics, excite competent champions to a vindication: the enemy is thought too inglorious to be worth the trouble of an overthrow; so that the weaker these tracts may be in argument and information, the stronger are they in their chance with the uneducated classes they address; and thus their very meanness aggravates their mischief. What boots it then for the hon. member for Portarlington to talk of public opinion as an extinguisher for the flame which the religious incendiary tries to kindle? Public opinion, undoubtedly, is entitled to high respect, when it means the opinion formed upon any subject by those classes of the public by whom that subject happens to be understood. But if it means, as in the language of many who quote it, it does now but too commonly mean, the opinion of people who can know nothing about the matter; then, instead of being called public opinion, the proud designation which it has taken in modern times, its old-fashioned appellation of vulgar error is the much more appropriate title [Hear]. What public opinion can be formed by the readers of Carlile, upon the multifarious questions, historical, biblical, philosophical, and critical, which are necessarily involved in all discussions on the truth and evidence of the Christian faith? We should be treating the people not with respect, but with mockery, to refer such appeals to their tribunal.
It is almost amusing to hear the tone which the liberals take on this subject. One would suppose, from the spirit in which the hon. member for Montrose has been advocating their cause, that the liberals in religion—which term, in plain English, denotes, I believe, all sorts of infidels, from the common sceptic to that atheist whose existence the hon. member disbelieves—were really a persecuted cast: for he has used and dwelt upon the word persecution: as if they were a set of men thrown overboard by society with their opinions fastened to them like a stone about their necks, and sent down to the bottom. Is that the case? Why, Sir, no man ever even interferes with them. We say to them, You may keep your unbelief if you like; it, only keep it to yourselves [Hear, hear]. We do not want to disturb you; but we expect in return that you shall not disturb us. You may do what you please within your own doors; 1396 but if nothing will serve you but to set up your noisome trade in our streets, and taint the public air, you must not be surprised if we abate you as a nuisance [Hear, hear]. Persecution, Sir! why they do not suffer even exclusion. They have political privileges and franchisee which are denied to millions of their Christian fellow-subjects. Would it bs believed that this proposal for bestowing immunity upon religious libellers, is the motion of the same hon. member, who, when a bill came before this House a few weeks ago for relieving the Catholics from disqualification on account of religious opinions, was among the foremost of those gentlemen who withdrew in a body from their places, and purposely abandoned the freedom of religious opinion to a defeat from which their adherence might have saved it! [Hear, hear].
The hon. member is afraid that in this, as in ancient instances, the persecution he talks of may make martyrs whose martyrdom will recommend their doctrine. No warning can be less applicable. Persecution, no doubt, has been a great maker of martyrs in time past; but then in those days, unhappily, she had a red-hot crucible to work up her manufacture. In our days the furnace has gone out, and her occupation is extinguished with it. Their allusion, therefore, is merely ad invidiam. The blasphemous libellers of the present day know very well that they are safe enough from the faggot and the stake; and it is precisely because they feel the safety that they venture to raise a prejudice by talking about the danger. [Much cheering].
I can understand, though I differ from the man who says, let political discussion be free, even though it work a change in our very constitution; because I can conceive that a perfectly honest Englishman may think, however erroneously, that the constitution of his country might be changed advantageously for some other. But can any honest Englishman deceive himself into the belief, that his country's religion might be advantageously supplanted, not by a religion of some other kind, but by a total irreligion? Because, that is the real question [Hear, hear]. Why is it that you would let impious discussion proceed? Either it is to produce an effect, or it is to produce none. If no effect is to be produced, no advantages are stiffed in its suppression. If there is to be any effect produced, do you think 1397 it wise to sanction an effect which you yourselves admit must be a mischievous one?
If you mean to say that, there are many works liable, under the present law in strictness, to public prosecution, which in ordinary circumstances it is most advisable to leave unprosecuted, in that opinion I concur; because I believe there are some irreligious attacks, which do but stimulate the ability of learned vindicators to the clearer assertion and more complete establishment of religious truth. The same thing may be said still more cogently, as to the discussions of contested creeds and points of faith. So far, I agree with the hon. members for Montrose and Portarlington. But the proposal we are now to vote upon is, not that a sparing discretion shall be exercised in prosecuting irreligious libels, but that they shall all be exempt from the very possibility of prosecution. I suspect that the hon. member for Portarlington has here been seduced a little beyond the limit of his usual discrimination, by his fondness for the principles of free trade [a laugh]. The effect of freedom in trade, and that indeed which recommends it, is, that it encourages production; but, as production in this case is the very thing we want to prevent, we can hardly vote for a free trade here, unless the hon. member will unteach us every thing that he has been so long inculcating, and prove that freedom of trade will best stifle supply [Hear, and a laugh]. But if this trade is dangerous in any mode of dealing, it is most dangerous of all in the retail—when infidelity is made up into cheap tracts, and sold among the poor by the hapo'rth.
Sir, if any of the considerations I have mentioned can be supposed to have had any force with our fathers when they made those laws, which, notwithstanding all I have heard to-night, I still think it our happiness to live under, much greater is the force which those considerations have acquired from the circumstances of the present times. Of old there were but few, to whom the disquisitions of infidelity could be addressed; and those who could read, were, for the most part, educated in other respects. But now, you have extended the gift of reading to the mass of your people. It is a good work, and has advantages in it that may overbalance many objections. But I must say,—and having said that, I will trouble the House no further—that if, while we 1398 qualify our people to read all the doctrines that are published, we remove the whole restraint on the publication of doctrines which ought never to be read; there is but too much ground to fear that we shall be furnishing the enemies of instruction with an argument—a more solid one than any they have yet been able to adduce—by enabling them to insinuate, with a colour of truth, that the education of the people has been the corruption of the state, and the boon which we warranted as a blessing, perverted into a calamity and a curse [Cheers].
§ Mr. W. Smith
said, that this was a very grave subject, and except when, as on the present occasion, it was mixed up with certain questions of law, he deprecated its discussion in that House; and, even under such circumstances, it ought not to be frequently agitated. He could not help thinking that these subjects were always better conveyed through the medium of the press than by a debate in that House, where the discussion was necessarily limited, and angry and violent feelings were likely to obtrude. He could assure the House, that no man felt more disgust than he did at the publications for which Carlile had been prosecuted; but, at the same time, he thought that liberty of conscience without the liberty of divulging one's opinions, was a poor and imperfect privilege. The only question raised that night was simply this—whether all manner of treating religious subjects should be allowed in controversy. He had long thought upon this subject; and the result of his reflections was, the conviction that it would be better to leave such matters to the general opinion of society. He then urged the impossibility of establishing a safe test of opinion for the penal guidance of society. What in England they thought moral and just, might not be equally so considered in India. The Brahmin who, from motives of religion, sanctioned the burning of Hindoo widows, might, if left to his decision, consign to the same flames the Englishman who complained against so cruel and irreligious a practice.
§ Mr. T. Wilson
trusted, that the House would show, by its vote of that night, that its opinion was not in unison with those which had been expressed by the hon. member who spoke last. He thought that the minds of the people had been poisoned by the blasphemous publications which had been spread abroad. The 1399 lower orders would eagerly imbibe the poison, but would not seed the antidote.
§ Mr. Money
opposed the motion. Since parliament and different societies had done all in their power to disseminate the blessings of education, care ought to be taken that those blessings should not be abused. His principal object in rising was to do justice to an individual who had said alluded to during the debate—he meant; Mr. Owen. An hon. member had said that Mr. Owen disbelieved in a future state. He had communicated with Mr. Owen, arid he had great reason to believe that the hon. member had mistaken the opinions of Mr. Owen. He begged the hon. member to state in what part of Mr. Owen's works he found that opinion promulgated.
§ Mr. Ricardo
said, that the last act he would commit would be to misrepresent the opinions of any individuals. He had gathered Mr. Owen's opinions from the Works which he had published. After reading the speeches which Mr. Owen had delivered in Ireland and other places, he had come to the conclusion, that Mr. Owen did not believe in a future state of rewards and punishments. It was one of the doctrines of Mr. Owen that a man could not form his own character, but that it was formed by the circumstances which surrounded him—that when a man committed an act which the world called vice, it ought to be considered his misfortune merely, and that therefore no man could he a proper object for punishment. This doctrine was interwoven in his system; and he who held it could not impute to the Omnipotent Being a desire to punish those who, in this view, could not be considered responsible for their actions.
Mr. Secretary Peel
complained, that an hon. member had assumed, that the House was prepared to go a very considerable way in accordance with the views of the hon. member for Aberdeen. He, for one, was not prepared to advance one step along With the hon. member. He objected to his motion altogether. He disliked the form in which the hon. member had brought the question before the House. The practice of proposing resolutions declaratory of the opinion of the House had, he was sorry See, become very prevalent of last. If the hon. member considered the law which subjected individuals to punishment improper or unnecessary why did he not move for its repeal? In the resolution which the member 1400 had proposed, he first declared that free discussion had been attended with more benefit than injury, and then said that it, was inexpedient to subject individuals to legal punishment on account of the expression of their opinions on religious matters. If the first part of the resolution was true, the second was quite unnecessary. If there had been, as the hon. member assumed in his resolution, free discussion, what more did he desire? To be consistent with himself, the hon. member should have framed the resolution in a prospective sense, and said, that more benefit would arise, &c. With respect to the petition, he must say that he had never read any thing more absurd or sophisticated. It commenced by stating, that the petitioners had a strong sense of the benefits which resulted from a belief in the Christian religion, and afterwards expressed a wish that the laws might be repealed which prevented individuals from attacking and endeavouring to destroy that religion. He was satisfied with the law as it stood, and would not consent to change it. He could conceive that cases might occur, in which it would be impolitic to put the law in force. That was a matter of discretion. But if it could be shown that, in a dozen cases, the discretion had been abused, it would not determine him to put aside the law altogether. He would not consent to allow men, who, from sordid motives, endeavoured to undermine the religion of the country to go unpunished.
§ The motion was then negatived.