The Blasphemy Trial of C. B. Reynolds - Part I
In 1886, C. B. Reynolds was tried in Morristown, New Jersey, for blasphemy; Robert G. Ingersoll, the "Great Agnostic," spoke on his behalf at his trial. Ingersoll's address to that jury has long been considered by Atheists to be a most poignant plea for freedom of speech and liberty of thought. Rightly so, for who having read them can forget Ingersoll's last words to the jury:
I sincerely hope that it will never be necessary again, under the flag of the United States - that flag for which has been shed the bravest and best blood of the world - under that flag maintained by Washington, by Jefferson, by Franklin and by Lincoln - under that flag in defence of which New Jersey poured out her best and bravest blood - I hope it will never be necessary again for a man to stand before a jury and plead for the Liberty of Speech.
"The Trial of C. B. Reynolds: Robert G. Ingersoll's Address to the Jury" was quickly printed after the trial and just as quickly became a classic of freethought literature. One hundred years later, it is still widely read by Atheists and is rightly considered a hallmark plea for freedom of speech.
Yet very few of the Atheists who have read that address know anything about Reynolds, the nitty-gritty of the trial, or the reasons why the address was necessary. The only relic of Reynolds's struggle which has survived the years is "Ingersoll's Address to the Jury." Who was Reynolds? His parents immigrated from England shortly before his birth in 1832. His mother died in his birth, and his father left him an orphan by his fifth birthday. Reynolds was in his early years a member of the First-Day Adventists. After preaching for that group for one year, he joined the Seventh-Day Adventists in 1869. Apparently, however, he got to know the other side of the coin too well from reading the Boston Investigator and the New York Truth Seeker. By 1883, he was a speaker at the New York Freethinkers' Convention; by 1884, he was chairman of the executive committee of the American Secular Union. During the 1880s, The American Secular Union sponsored several traveling freethought speakers and raised funds to purchase tents for them in which to speak, since most halls would not rent to "blasphemers." The tents were not easily acquired; their purchase required months of patient fund-raising. C. B. Reynolds was one of the speakers who used them, touring the country for what was later to be known as Atheism. It was on one of these tours that C. B. Reynolds pitched his "Liberal Tent" in Boonton, New Jersey, on July 26, 1886, intending to lecture there for several nights. He was arrested on July 28 for the crime of blasphemy.
The Truth Seeker acted at that time as the weekly organ of the American Secular Union. Accordingly, it followed the Reynolds trial with a particular interest and sympathy. What were the reactions of Reynolds's contemporaries?
The American Atheist is reproducing the news of the trial as it appeared in The Truth Seeker in a special three-part series. Just as Atheists one hundred years ago anxiously followed the persecution of C. B. Reynolds, Atheists today can savor the meaning of censorship.
August 7, 1886
Reynolds Arrested For Blasphemy.
When C. B. Reynolds pulled up the stakes of his tent and left Cayuga county, N.Y., to fulfill an engagement in New Jersey, he wrote "I go to Boonton, N.J., cheered and encouraged by the good success at Montezuma." He will hardly say the same when he takes the remains of his canvas tabernacle out of Boonton. The tent has been wrecked by Catholic and Methodist roughs, the lecturer mobbed and arrested on a charge of blasphemy.
Owing to a week's delay on the part of the railroad, the tent was not pitched in Boonton until Monday, July 26th. When the lecturer stepped upon the platform that evening he faced a fair-sized audience. The Booth family, five ladies and two gentlemen, sang an introductory song, and Mr. Reynolds delivered his lecture. He also distributed some seventy-five copies of The Truth Seeker, giving the latter only to those who asked for them. There was little more that evening than premonitions of coming trouble, in the form of stones thrown upon the roof of the tent, and one rope broken.
Tuesday night the tent was full, and outside was a howling mob of some two hundred and fifty roughs, led and urged on by a pillar of the church holding the position of section boss on the railroad at Boonton. Another ringleader was one William Brown, a coal merchant. Mr. Reynolds, accompanying the ladies of the Booth family, made his way, with some difficulty, through the crowd, and mounted the platform. The mob howled, and threw stones at the tent. It speaks well for the courage of the young ladies of the choir that, in the face of this demonstration, they arose and calmly sang the songs which had been selected for the occasion. The lecturer then attempted to address the audience, but could scarcely make himself heard.
As the crowd grew more rabid and noisy, the lecture was shortened, and the exercises closed with a song. The continuance of the meetings was announced from the platform. Then the tent was cleared of the rabble. Upon examination, it was found that two of the smaller guy ropes holding the center pole in position had been cut. Had the main guy been severed the pole would have fallen, and loss of life must have resulted. The lecturer did picket duty until midnight, dodging an occasional stone that came through the air from the hand of some friend of Christianity.
Wednesday morning the air was full of threats against the Secular lecturer. Mr. Reynolds, knowing the names of the leaders of the mob of the previous evening, went before a justice and entered complaint against them. The justice was apparently somewhat bewildered by this move. He so far forgot his plain duty that, instead of issuing warrants for the arrest of the parties, he handed the complaint to a marshal, with instructions to show it to the persons therein named. Mr. Reynolds, however, knew more law than that, and after depositing $5 with the justice succeeded in compassing the arrests of James Neafie, a railroad laborer and semi-Methodist; Josephus Dixon, merchant and Reformed churchman; William Brown, dealer in coal and Reformed church piety; H. G. Randall, a bridge-tender and follower of Wesley, and George Hyler, a coachman and Methodist.
Mr. Reynolds next notified the mayor that he had reason to believe an attack on the tent was contemplated, and asked for protection. The mayor being ill, the petitioner had to be contented with seeing a daughter-in-law, who said the mayor had ordered the city marshal's presence at the tent. In the evening he proceeded again to the tent, and while lighting the lamps was arrested by the marshal on a charge of blasphemy. He was taken up-town to the lock-up, followed by a threatening, hooting mob. The arrest had evidently been timed so as to prevent a lecture being given that evening. Mr. Reynolds waived examination, and asked for an adjournment. To show that it understood what an adjournment meant, the court granted the request, but demanded bail in the sum of $300. This was found in the person of Mr. Maxfield, a good Liberal of the town, and Mr. Reynolds, escorted by the same rabble that had followed him to court, returned to the tent. The mob was tumultuous, but the choir sang two songs as though nothing unusual was expected. The lecturer opened his discourse, and continued for about ten minutes an ineffectual attempt to make himself heard. At the end of that time the marshal brought word from the mayor and common council that they could no longer guarantee protection or be responsible for the consequences if the lecture was not brought to a close at once. This was virtually giving the place over into the hands of the mob. The marshal expressed the opinion that there would be bloodshed if the speaker continued. Being of the same opinion himself, Mr. Reynolds, in the interests of peace, acquiesced, and dismissed the audience. But it was one thing to dismiss an audience, and another thing to get the audience to go. Mr. Reynolds, therefore, had to content himself with making his own escape, leaving the tent in possession of the mob. Threats of lynching, tar and feathers, stoning, and drowning were freely made, and but for the individual and collective bravery of the Booth family Mr. Reynolds would without doubt have been maltreated personally and thrown into the Morris & Essex canal which ran close by. This family deserves to be remembered. Charles Booth, the head, is a quiet and determined English Secularist who came to this country nearly forty years ago. His wife, Mrs. A. M. Booth, is one of those splendid women fit to be chief executive of a nation. The heroines who composed the choir are Miss Kate Booth, Miss Ada Booth, Miss Jessie Booth, and Miss Fannie Booth. The sons are Hubert, Charles, and Thomas, manly young men, who would not be the first to seek a fight nor the first to leave one, when forced into it. With John Krahmer, a young Freethinker of New York, who was helping Mr. Reynolds in the work connected with the tent, they formed a guard that brought Mr. Reynolds out of the affair with whole bones and dry clothes. Before the advance of the Booth family, led by the intrepid mother, the crowd of roughs parted like sheep.
When Mr. Reynolds visited the tent ground on Thursday morning, his beloved tabernacle lay flat upon the ground, an almost total wreck. The main and auxiliary guys had been cut by the Christians, and the tent had fallen upon the benches and chairs, the heavy center-pole breaking several of the latter in its descent. When the fragments were gathered together, Mr. Reynolds estimated that Boonton would have a bill of several hundred dollars to pay.
On Friday Mr. Reynolds was served with the following order:
Boonton, N.J., July 30, 1886.
Mr. C. B. Reynolds, Sir:
At a special meeting of the Common Council of the town of Boonton, held on Thursday evening, July 28, 1886, the following resolution was adopted:
"Resolved, That the town clerk be authorized to notify Mr. C. B. Reynolds that he is strictly forbidden to hold any more of his so-called Liberal but unlawful meetings within the corporate limits of the town of Boonton." In accordance with the above resolution you are hereby notified to discontinue all such meetings within the corporate limits. By order of the Common Council of the town of Boonton.
[L.S.] John Dunn, Town Clerk.
The tent having been demolished, this, of course, was adding insult to injury. Mr. Reynolds sent back word to the council that they had exhibited the most monumental asinine stupidity on record. He then quietly awaited developments.
The examination on the charge of blasphemy took place Saturday, the 31st ult-[imo]. Following is the complaint. It is a product of the combined literary abilities of the deponent and the justice of the peace. The indictment reads:
State of New Jersey, SS.
Wm. Brown, of said county, on his oath saith that on the evening of July 27, 1886, he was at a public meeting held in a large tent for that purpose situate on the westerly side of Washington street, Boonton, N.J., and was addressed by one C. B. Reynolds; and said Reynolds publicly blasphemed the holy name of God by denying and contumaciously reproaching the being and existence of God and of the scriptures as contained in the books of the Old and New Testament by speaking of man in [sic] "being made of the dust" and saying that used the dust up so he put man to sleep and took a rib out of him and made woman and remarked in a ridiculous manner (who believes such nonsense) and spoke of the Bible saying of birds and fish were made out of water and said the Bible spoke in another chapter of the same animals being made of clay and remarked (who believes such nonsense) trying to prove the scripture false and making fun of and ridiculing the Bible and diverse other remarks, therefore the deponent prays that said Reynolds may be arrested and dealt with according to law.
Sworn and subscribed 28th day of
July, 1886, before me, John A.
Van Orden, Justice of the Peace.
To enable the reader to reach the gist of this remarkable document without the labor of analyzing it, the charges against Mr. Reynolds may be enumerated as follows:
1. He addressed Brown in a large tent for that purpose.
2. Blasphemed the holy name of God.
3. Denied and "contumaciously reproached" the being and existence of God and the Bible.
4. Spoke of man as being made of dust.
5. Said "that used the dust all up."
6. Put man to sleep.
7. Took a rib out of him and made woman.
8. Remarked in a ridiculous manner.
9. Ridiculed the Bible and diverse other remarks.
The examination was held in the ballroom of the United States Hotel, and the room was crowded. At the head of the justice's table sat Mr. Van Orden, locally known as "Old Tootyache," once noted for possessing all qualities but virtue, but now a stanch Methodist; next to him sat Mr. Garrison, the editor of the Boonton weekly Bulletin, a deacon in the Methodist church, upon whose cheek is a perennial color akin to the bloom of peaches. Opposite the justice was the prosecuting attorney, N. S. Kitchel, who is looked down upon by even the indecent portion of the community, so much lower than they has he sunk by his spying and repetition of village gossip. On the other side sat Mr. Reynolds, with a Truth Seeker in his hand, the pictures showing, much to the amusement of some and the anger of others of the audience. By the table, also, sat the editor of The Truth Seeker, whom the World of this city described as "a mysterious stranger, who sat beside Mr. Reynolds, and gave him pointers when needed." But no points that Mr. Reynolds could raise, or the editor suggest, were of any avail, nor did any one expect they would be. The justice, terrorized by the prosecuting attorney, had made up his mind to hold the prisoner for the Grand Jury to indict, and the proceedings were a perfect farce. All Mr. Reynolds could do, therefore, was to draw into view the long ears of the justice, and show the ignorance and bitter spirit of the prosecution. The following is the official record of the proceedings, written out by the judge with vast waste of the gray matter of the brain, and profuse expenditure of ink. When he was visited Monday morning for this copy, his good right hand was covered with writing-fluid and his brow with perspiration. He complained of being "overhet." The document is as unique in its way as is the justice the author dispenses in his court. It cost Mr. Reynolds one dollar:
State of New Jersey vs.
Chas. B. Reynolds.
On Complaint of Wm. Browne [sic] for Blasphemy.
Evidence of Wm. Brown. Question by N. S. Kitchel, Esq.;
Did you attend a meeting held in a tent on the northerly side of Washington street in Boonton?
Ans. by Wm. Brown:
Ques. by Mr. Kitchel:
Did you see this man Reynolds there?
Ans.: I did.
Ques.: Tell us what he said.
Ans. by Brown:
Well he said that in a certain part of the Bible it said God made Everything the Birds the Beasts the Fishes & everything out of water and in another place it says that God made Adam out of dust and he wanted to make a mate for Adam but the Old Man had used up all the Dust in making Adam so he did not know just what to do so he put Adam to sleep I don't know whether it was with Ether or Chloroform and took a rib out of Adam to make a Woman, now you all know if you took every Bone in a Man's Body it would not make the Jaw of a Woman. Who believes any such nonsense. In that way he tried to ridicule the Bible & God and said he took a piece of a verse here & there.
Mr. Reynolds asked him if he knew of any verse that he took a part of?
Ques. by Mr. Reynolds:
Do you know that it was the Bible I was reading from?
Ans.: I do not.
Ques.: Are you familiar with the Bible I guess not?
Brown did not answer.
Evidence of George Hessey.
Question by Mr. Kitchel:
Have you ever seen this man Reynolds or talked. Have you heard or had a conversation with him.
Question objected. Objection overruled.
Ans. by Hessey: I have.
Mr. Kitchel: Tell the Court what you know about him - Reynolds.
Ans. by Hessey: I met Mr. Reynolds and Mr. Cramer [sic]. Mr. Reynolds asked me about what I thought of his Lectures. I answered him that I had a complete set of Ingersoll's works at home but I am satisfied that there is no truth in them nor in your Lectures.
(Objected to. Objection overruled.)
I believe the Bible is true, and your Lectures are nothing in them but ridicule. Mr. Reynolds's answer was that is our argument to ridicule and make fun.
The complainant then rested.
The defendant C. B. Reynolds then moved to dismiss the Complaint because it did not charge him the Defendant with Blasphemy, & said the words who believes such nonsense sworn to in the Complaint was stated there as the words of Brown the complainant and said if those words were Blasphemous Brown was the blasphemer. I refused to Dismiss the complaint as the words attributed to Brown by the Defendant were the words of the Defendant as I understood the complaint & as clearly appeared by the Testimony of Brown.
The Defendant then offered as evidence John Cramer [sic].
Counsel for complainant objected to his being sworn because he was not competent; he then Examined him on his Voire dire.
Question by Mr. Kitchel: Do you believe there is a God?
Question: Do you believe the Bible is true?
Question: What punishment will be administered to you if you swear Falsely?
Answer: I will be punished by the Laws of the state for perjury.
Question by Mr. Kitchel:
Do you believe any punishment will be inflicted upon you by almighty God if you swear Falsely?
Answer: I dont know.
Mr. Kitchel then read from Nixon's digest as follows unless the Witness believes there is a God who will punish him if he swears falsely he cannot be admitted as a witness.
I then asked the witness several questions concerning his respecting the Character & Attributes of God; he said he was an Agnostic & had no views on the subjects.
I then thought it to be clearly my duty to exclude him as a witness, J. A. Van Orden, J.P.
We have preserved the construction of this document for the benefit of coming generations. It is, however, incomplete. Mr. Van Orden made it out for his side, not for the other, and the Truth Seeker editor was compelled to labor with him for an hour or more to get him to insert anything that Mr. Reynolds said, or objected to the other side saying. His frequent threats to lock Mr. Reynolds up if he did not keep still; his own ignorant blundering, made worse by his furious anger; the silly questioning, by himself and the prosecuting attorney, of Mr. Krahmer; the frequent laughter of the audience at the pitfalls Mr. Reynolds led him into; his arbitrary ruling out of a competent witness, and the admission of the irrelevant rehearsal of an imaginary private conversation by a coal-heaver - all these are left out, that the glory of New Jersey justice may more abound.
The first witness, Wm. Brown, is a "heeler" for the Young Men's Christian Association and the Woman's Christian Temperance Union. He admitted, on cross-examination, that he was not familiar with the Bible, and acknowledged that he could not specify what verses Mr. Reynolds took "pieces" of to ridicule the creation account. Hessey, the second witness, was not at the tent, and his sworn version of a conversation was, as Mr. Reynolds told him in court, manifest perjury. But it was when Mr. Reynolds called Mr. Krahmer to give the true version of the language used that the inquisitorial spirit of the prosecution and the long ears of the judge showed most plainly. The New Jersey statute reads that a person who does not believe in a supreme being is not a competent witness. Nixon's Digest has it that a belief in future rewards and punishments is necessary to a witness's competency. The first question asked Mr. Krahmer was:
Q. Do you believe in a God? A. Yes.
Q. Do you believe in the Bible? A. No.
Mr. Reynolds claimed that, according to the laws of the state, the witness was entitled to take the oath, and, in any event, to affirm. Some of the ridiculous questions put to Mr. Krahmer were:
By the Court: Wouldn't an oath be as binding upon you if taken upon an almanac as upon the Bible?
To this Mr. Krahmer returned no answer.
By the Prosecution: What effect would it have upon God if you told a lie? A. I don't know.
Q. What effect would it have upon you with God if you told a lie? A. I don't know.
The attorney then got sufficient control of his temper and tongue to put his question in this way:
Q. What effect would it have upon you if you tell a lie? A. I should be amenable to the law punishing perjury.
Then the justice broke in:
Q. What would God do to you if you tell a lie? A. To the justice: What would he do to you? Reply by the justice: I don't know. Answer by Mr. Krahmer to the first question: Neither do I.
By the Court: Don't you know what you believe about future rewards and punishments? A. No.
By the Court: Then you are not a competent witness.
By the Prosecution: The laws of New Jersey say you must believe something. New Jersey rules out Infidels, Freethinkers, and Truth Seekers.
Ex-Mayor Worman said that he could bring two good Christians who would refute the prosecution's witnesses, but upon calling their names they were found to have absented themselves. Mr. Reynolds then concluded he had seen enough of Jersey justice, and, after again asking for the dismissal of the case, and getting the usual refusal, let the matter go, remarking that he thought that in Morristown he could find a court and lawyers who knew something.
Mr. Van Orden bowed his head as though in prayer, and pronounced judgment to the effect that Mr. Reynolds must give bail in the sum of $400 to await the action of the grand jury of Morris county, which would assemble at Morristown on the second Tuesday of October. A bail bond was prepared, after much laborious work and many erasures, by the judge, and signed by Mr. Reynolds and Councilman James Maxfield. Mr. Maxtield is one of the oldest and most respected residents of the town. His house, in the antislavery times, was one of the stations of the "underground railway" which transported slaves to Canada, and he left the church because of its pro-slavery attitude. A few years ago, when the large iron mills of the place shut down, and hundreds of the workmen were left destitute and starving, Mr. Maxfield and Mr. Worman distributed food among them, visiting them in the evening, that the laborers might not seem to be objects of public charity. Mr. Maxfield further honors himself by becoming responsible for the appearance at the inquisition of, let us hope, the last man arrested for blasphemy in his state.
After the court was dismissed Mr. Reynolds had nothing to do but wait for the judge to write out his report, get affidavits as to the conduct of the men he had had arrested, and as to the damage to his tent. The top of the tent is ruined, and Mr. Reynolds will be unable to pitch it again for some time. The feeling of the town against the Infidels was shown by the hootings elicited from the rabble whenever Mr. Reynolds, Mr. Krahmer, and the "mysterious stranger" showed themselves, unaccompanied by friends. Wherever they walked with members of the Booth or Worman family they were only stared at as possible curiosities from sheol. The marshal of Boonton is a Catholic named Gilmartin, and the priest of the parish told his father that if the marshal arrested any of the Catholics concerned in the attack upon the tent he, the priest, would turn the marshal out of church. Afterward the priest publicly deprecated the destruction of the tent, but principally, we fear, upon the ground that the town would have to pay the damages.
The case now goes to Morristown, the county seat. The result, of course, is in doubt. Should the bench be occupied by a gentleman and the jury-box filled with civilized citizens, Mr. Reynolds will triumph. Should these conditions be reversed, he will not. Public opinion in Boonton is tremendously excited, and the prosecution will push the case both to be avenged upon the Infidel and to protect the men arrested for rioting. In the mean time, Mr. Reynolds's occupation is gone till the tent can be repaired, and the owner will devote his time to filling such engagements to lecture as he can obtain, and in attending to the preliminary arrangements for the meeting of the New York State Freethinkers' Convention, which will be called at White Sulphur Springs early next month.
August 14, 1886
New Jersey And Her Laws.
The constitution and the statutes of New Jersey seem to conflict, and it is for the New Jersey courts to say which is valid. In Article 1. of the Constitution adopted in 1844, the following is affirmed:
Sec. 4. No person shall be denied the enjoyment of any civil right merely on account of his religious principles.
Sec. 5. Every person may freely speak, write, and publish his sentiments on all subjects, being responsible for the abuse of that right. No law shall be passed to restrain or abridge the liberty of speech or of the press."
But among the crimes enumerated is one called blasphemy, which is borne upon by the following statute:
If any person shall wilfully blaspheme the holy name of God, by denying, cursing, or contumeliously reproaching his being or providence, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching Jesus Christ or the Holy Ghost, or the Christian religion or the holy word of God (that is, the canonical scriptures contained in the books of the Old and New Testaments), or by profane scoffing at or exposing them, or any of them, to contempt and ridicule, then every person so offending shall, on conviction thereof, be punished by a fine, not exceeding two hundred dollars, or imprisonment at hard labor not exceeding twelve months, or both.
Between the broad guarantee of the constitution that every man in New Jersey shall have the right to freely speak his sentiments upon all subjects, and the narrow limitations of this statute there is inevitable conflict, and that conflict just now promises to be waged around the person of our friend Reynolds, with the state prison in the background if he be defeated. "Every person may freely speak, write, and publish his sentiments on all subjects; and no law shall be passed to restrain or abridge the liberty of speech or of the press." So said the framers of New Jersey's constitution, which is the fundamental law of the state. "If any person shall expose the canonical books of the Old and New Testament, or any of them, to contempt and ridicule, then every person so offending shall be fined or imprisoned at hard labor." So said the bucolic Solons who met at Trenton to adulate their deity. "All," in New Jersey, does not mean everyone, the whole. It means some, a few, as many as we have a mind to allow, and the constitution should be changed to read that "every person may freely speak his sentiments upon such subjects as we, the Christians, children of God and inheritors of the earth, are graciously pleased to permit." That is what the statute against blasphemy means, and it is well known that state statutes ought to agree with state constitutions.
But this is not all of New Jersey's inconsistency. The common law of the state in regard to witnesses, as formulated by Nixon's Digest (from 1709 to 1868, 4th ed.) is this:
Persons not of the Christian religion may be sworn according to the ceremonies of their religion, as a Mohammedan on the Koran, etc. But unless the person believes there is a God who will punish him if he swears falsely, he cannot be admitted as a witness.
Nixon gives no law as his authority, neither does he cite the cases upon which this is presumably based. His "law," therefore, we presume, is a survival of old English practice, as incongruous in this century as would appear the dress of the people of England of three hundred years ago. But the statute law upon swearing, affirmation, and declaration of witnesses is very explicit. The Revised Statutes of New Jersey, published in 1877, contain the following:
26. That every person who shall be permitted or required to take an oath in any case where by law an oath is allowed or required, and who shall allege that he or she is conscientiously scrupulous of taking an oath, shall, instead of the form of the oath, be permitted to make his or her solemn affirmation or declaration; and if such person shall choose to affirm, it shall be in words following, to wit:
I, ________, do solemnly, sincerely, and truly declare and affirm. But, if such person shall choose to declare, it shall be in the words following, to wit:
I, ________, do declare, in the presence of almighty God, the witness of the truth of what I say. Either of which forms shall be as good and effectual in law as an oath taken in the usual form, in which affirmation or declaration the words, "So help me God," shall be omitted.
27. That every person who is or shall be empowered or required to tender and administer an oath in the usual form shall be and hereby is empowered and required to tender and administer the affirmation or declaration aforesaid, when requested to that purpose by any such scrupulous person as aforesaid.
That in all cases where, by any act of the legislature of this state now in force, or hereafter to be made, an oath is or shall be allowed or required, the affirmation or declaration, in the form above prescribed, of any such scrupulous person as aforesaid, shall be allowed and taken instead of an oath in the usual form, although no provision for that purpose is or shall be made in such act.
Every person must be sworn unless he alleges that he is conscientiously scrupulous (ibid).
The difference between Nixon's Digest and the statute law is apparent. The one shuts out Freethinkers, the other compels officials to take the affirmation of all who have conscientious scruples against taking the oath. If it is not a conscientious scruple which prevents an Atheist from swearing by a God in whom he does not believe, or a Theist from swearing on a book which he regards as injurious in its teaching, we know not what the feeling may be called. Criminals in New Jersey may freely testify, but upright and conscientious Freethinkers may not. Great is New Jersey, and the kingdom of God shall be hers!
But New Jersey is consistent in one thing. As she takes her law as to the competency of witnesses from the practice of the English courts of a century or two ago, so does she get her blasphemy law, almost verbatim, from the statutes of the New England provinces. One of the earliest of Massachusetts' laws was upon the subject of blasphemy, the third and nineteenth sections of which read as follows
Sec. 3. If any person within this jurisdiction, whether Christian or pagan, shall wittingly and willingly presume to blaspheme the holy name of God, Father, Son, or Holy Ghost, with direct, express, presumptuous, or high-handed blasphemy, either by willful or obstinate denying the true God, or his creation, or government of the world, or shall curse God in like manner, or reproach the holy religion of God, as if it were but a politic device, to keep ignorant men in awe; or shall utter any other kind of blasphemy of the like nature and degree, they shall be put to death, Levit. xxi, 15,16.
Sec. 19. Albeit faith be not wrought by the sword, but by the word; and therefore such pagan Indians as have submitted themselves to our government, though we would not neglect any due helps to bring them on to grace and to the means of it; yet we compel them not to the Christian faith, nor to the profession of it, either by force of arms, or by penal laws; nevertheless, seeing the blaspheming of the true God cannot be excused by any ignorance or infirmity of human nature, the eternal power and Godhead being known by the light of nature, and the creation of the world; and common reason requireth every state and society of men to be more careful of preventing the dishonor and contempt of the most high God (in whom we all consist) than of any mortal princes or magistrates; it is therefore ordered, and decreed by this court for the honor of the eternal God, who only we worship, and serve, that no person within this jurisdiction, whether Christian, or pagan, shall wittingly, and willingly presume to blaspheme his holy name, either by willful, or obstinate denying the true God, or his creation, or government of the world, or shall curse God, or reproach the holy religion of God, as if it were but a public device to keep ignorant men in awe, nor shall utter any other eminent kind of blashemy of the like nature, and degree. If any person, or persons whatsoever within our jurisdiction shall break this law, they shall be put to death.
In 1646 the penalty had shrunk to banishment, according to the law:
Sec. 1. Although no human power be lord over the faith and consciences of men, yet because such as bring in damnable heresies, tending to the subversion of the Christian faith, and destruction of the souls of men, ought duly to be restrained from such notorious impieties:
It is therefore ordered and declared by the court; that if any Christian within this jurisdiction, shall go about to subvert and destroy the Christian faith and religion, by broaching and maintaining any damnable heresies; as denying the immortality of the soul, or resurrection of the body, or any sin to be repented of in the regenerate, or any evil done by the outward man to be accounted sin, or denying that Christ gave himself a ransom for our sins, or shall affirm that we are not justified by his death and righteousness, but by the perfections of our own works, or shall deny the morality of the Fourth Commandment, or shall openly condemn or oppose the baptizing of infants, or shall purposely depart the congregation at the administration of that ordinance, or shall deny the ordinance of magistracy, or their lawful authority, to make war, or to punish the outward breaches of the first table, or shall endeavor to seduce others to any of the errors or heresies above mentioned; every such person continuing obstinate therein, after due means of conviction, shall be sentenced to banishment.
In 1697 the following "act against Atheism and blasphemy" was passed:
Be it declared and enacted by the lieutenant-governor, council and representatives, convened in general court or assembly, and it is enacted by the authority of the same, that if any person shall presume willfully to blaspheme the holy name of God, Father, Son, or Holy Ghost, either by denying, cursing, or reproaching the true God, his creation or government of the world, or by denying, cursing or reproaching the holy word of God, that is, the canonical scriptures contained in the books of the Old and New Testament, namely, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel, Samuel, Kings, Kings, Chronicles, Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes. The Song of Solomon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, Corinthians, Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians, Thessalonians, Timothy, Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, Peter, Peter, John, John, John, Jude, Revelation, everyone so offending shall be punished by imprisonment, not exceeding six months, and until they find sureties for the good behavior, by sitting in the pillory, by whipping, boring through the tongue with a red-hot iron, or sitting upon the gallows with a rope about their neck, at the discretion of the court of assize, and general gaol delivery, before which the trial shall be, according to the circumstances, which may aggravate or alleviate the offense.
Provided, that no more than two of the forementioned punishments shall be inflicted for one and the same fact.
In 1834, when Abner Kneeland was imprisoned for saying, "Universalists believe in a god which I do not; but believe that their god, with his moral attributes (aside from nature itself), is nothing but a chimera of their own imagination," the law read as follows:
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives in General Court assembled, and by the authority of the same. That if any person shall wilfully blaspheme the holy name of God, by denying, cursing, or contumeliously reproaching God, his creation, government or final judging of the world, or by cursing, or reproaching Jesus Christ, or the Holy Ghost, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching the Holy Word of God, that is, the canonical scriptures, contained in the books of the Old and New Testaments, or exposing them, or any part of them, to contempt and ridicule; which books are as follows: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel, Samuel, Kings, Kings, Chronicles, Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Solomon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Mica, Nahhum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, Corinthians, Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians, Thessalonians, Timothy, Timothy, Titus, Philemon, Hebrews, James, Peter, Peter, John, John, John, Jude, Revelations; every person so offending shall be punished by imprisonment not exceeding twelve months, by sitting in the pillory, by whipping, or by sitting on the gallows, with a rope about the neck, or binding to the good behavior, at the discretion of the Supreme Judicial Court before whom the conviction may be, according to the aggravation of the offense.
It will be observed that New Jersey has borrowed the phraseology of this law, omitting only the names of the books of the Bible and changing the punishment. In the enactment of her blasphemy law New Jersey jealously maintains her reputation of being about a century behind the age. In arresting Mr. Reynolds under this statute she vindicates her piety, and in legally defending the myth of the creation she shows the extent of her knowledge upon the scientific questions of the day. "Jersey justice" is today a synonym of legal injustice. If the Christians of Morris county succeed in imprisoning Mr. Reynolds, "Jersey justice" will still further be a term of reproach. It is for the grand jury to say whether they will indict a man for taking advantage of the privilege guaranteed by New Jersey's constitution, or whether by throwing the case out of court they will lift up their state to the plane of civilization. They well may ponder Professor Hunter's remark that blasphemy laws survive as a dangerous weapon in the hands of any fool or fanatic who likes to set them in motion.
cc: Credit to American Atheists for this article
The Enlightenment wounded the beast, but the killing blow has yet to land...