If this law is good enough for Great Britain
the United States of America, it ought to
be good enough for a handful of
calling themselves Liberals!
Laws against "blasphemy," though seldom prosecuted, were first introduced
in the American colonies in the early seventeenth century. The Massachusetts and Virginia colonies passed blasphemy
laws and provided the death penalty as punishment. In Massachusetts, numerous Quakers – men and women –
were stripped and brutally flogged for their "Anti-Christian" religion and "monstrous blasphemies."
The Massachusetts authorities ruled that
the Quaker religion was not only "blasphemous," but also "blasphemously heretical." In 1659-60, four Quakers defied
banishment in the Massachusetts Bay colony and were hanged for their religion. The Puritanical authorities informed
King Charles II that the executed Quakers had in essence committed suicide. Although they were all "capitall blasphemers,
open seducers from the glorious Trinity… the Quakers died, not because of their other crimes, how capitoll soever,"
but due to the fact they returned to Massachusetts knowing they would be hanged.
At various times in the American colonies
the meaning of blasphemy became vague and nearly indistinguishable from sedition, treason, profanity, sacrilege, idolatry,
heresy, nonconformity, and obscenity. Most "blasphemy" prosecutions had more to do with religious and political dissent
than with heresy. As early as 1711 the colony of Massachusetts – infamous for its blasphemy laws –
passed a statute that regulated both religious and secular material. The law prohibited the writing, printing or publishing
of any "filthy, obscene or profane song, pamphlet, libel or mock-sermon, in imitation of preaching…" The law stated
that such "evil communication," and "wicked, profane, impure, filthy and obscene songs, composures, [and] writings…
do corrupt the mind and are incentive to all manner of impurities and debaucheries."
After the United States Constitution was
ratified in 1788, the First Amendment and most state constitutions prohibited the establishment of an official religion. Nevertheless,
some states, Massachusetts in particular, continued to pass laws and prosecute persons for blasphemy against Christianity.
Although no one was ever executed in the United States for the crime of blasphemy (speaking "evil" of sacred matters), the
offender could be punished by a severe whipping, heavy fine, or both. The only man ever imprisoned in Massachusetts
for blasphemy during the nineteenth century was Abner Kneeland, the founder of The Boston Investigator. Kneeland,
a former Universalist minister, was indicted in 1834 for "unlawfully and wickedly" publishing a "scandalous, impious, blasphemous
and profane libel" of and pertaining to God. The indictment was brought against the freethinking editor using a blasphemy
statute passed in 1782. The Commonwealth v. Kneeland case lasted four years and remains one of the most important
blasphemy prosecutions in America.
Abner Kneeland, whom his Christian enemies
called the "Apostle of Satan," was indicted on three counts of blasphemy. The first two counts were for articles written
by others and published in The Investigator regarding the "miraculous conception" of Jesus Christ and an irreverent
piece that ridiculed prayer. The third count addressed a letter to a Universalist editor wherein Kneeland expressed
his views on Universalism, the religion in which he had preached the word of God for three decades. Kneeland was a scriptural
scholar renowned for his iconoclasm and series of lectures entitled "A Review of the Evidences of Christianity." He
still believed in God, but not the Universalists’ version. "The whole story concerning him [Christ] was as much
a fable and fiction as that of the god Prometheus," Kneeland wrote. "I am not an Atheist but a Pantheist," he confessed
in the letter to the Universalist editor. "I believe that it is in God we live, move, and have our being; and that the
whole duty of man consists… in promoting as much happiness as he can while he lives." Leonard W. Levy, the Pulitzer
Prize winning author and historian, has asserted that "Kneeland’s creed was as spiritual as that of the Transcendentalists."
According to the historian Kenneth Burchell, Kneeland had far more consonance with Thomas Paine who wrote: "Practical religion
consists in doing good: and the only way of serving God is that of endeavoring to make His creation happy. All preaching
that has not this for its object is nonsense and hypocrisy."
Abner Kneeland’s political views
had more to do with his prosecution and conviction than his trenchant remarks on religion. In the pages of The Boston
Investigator, Kneeland not only characterized the Holy Bible as a pack of lies and the clergy as hypocrites, he scoffed
at the sacredness of marriage, promoted sex education, railed against the rich, and identified with farmers, workingmen, and
organized labor. He was a Democrat and a popular speaker; his lectures attracted thousands of listeners in Boston and
New York. Kneeland’s political enemies accused him of hosting "infidel orgies" and being a leader of the "Democratic
radicals." One of his lawyers was a former state attorney general and important member of the Massachusetts Democratic
Party. During one of his trials, a prosecuting attorney warned jurors that The Boston Investigator was inexpensive
and popular among the poor. "A lava stream of blasphemy and obscenity which blast the vision and gangrenes the very
soul of the uncorrupted reader" is how a political enemy described The Boston Investigator. It was plain to Kneeland
why his liberal periodical engendered so much animosity: "Birds do not generally flutter much till they are hit."
After four trials and a conviction, Kneeland’s
case was heard in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Kneeland represented himself in front of Chief Justice Lemuel
Shaw, "the greatest magistrate" in American history according to Oliver Wendell Holmes. The erudite editor was well
informed on legal matters and an experienced public speaker. Kneeland proved himself a worthy opponent of Shaw.
Nevertheless, Shaw upheld the editor’s conviction and delivered the opinion. Blasphemy, wrote Shaw, the son of a minister,
is "speaking evil of the Deity with an impious purpose to derogate from the divine majesty, and to alienate the minds of others
from the love and reverence of God… [and] purposely using words concerning God, calculated and designed to impair and
destroy the reverence, respect, and confidence due to him…. It is a willful and malicious attempt to lessen men’s
reverence of God." The statute, declared Shaw, prohibited a "willful denial of God."
Shaw’s judgment was called into question
by many of New England’s intellectuals and reformers. Richard Henry Dana, a notable author, attorney, and member
of the Massachusetts legislature, described Shaw as a "man of intense and doting biases." Marcus Morton, the only judge
who dissented from Shaw’s opinion, found his fellow jurist’s decision disturbing. According to Morton, the "operations
of the human mind especially in the adoption of its religious faith [are] entirely above all civil authority." Religious
truths, Morton believed, did not require the "dangerous aid" of legislation. Every person "has a constitutional right to discuss
the subject of God, to affirm or deny his existence," Morton declared. "I cannot agree that a man may be punished for willfully
doing what he has a legal right to do." Kneeland’s conviction, Morton concluded, "rests very heavily upon my mind."
The controversy that surrounded Abner Kneeland’s
freedom of the press advocacy increased The Boston Investigator’s circulation. His written account
of his blasphemy trial, conviction, and imprisonment was popular with his readers. Kneeland earned the respect of Boston’s
intellectuals and reformers including William Lloyd Garrison. The foremost abolitionist admired the editor who offered the
use of his building after every Christian church in Boston denied him and his followers a place to meet. Abner Kneeland
believed himself to be, as did others, a harbinger of free thought. After serving two months in jail, Kneeland entrusted The
Boston Investigator to J. P. Mendum and Horace Seaver, and moved to Iowa with fellow members of his First Society of Free
Enquirers. In Iowa, Kneeland involved himself in Democratic politics and founded Salubria, a utopian community.
Kneeland’s fight for freedom of the press had an important effect on civil liberties, and the Commonwealth v. Kneeland
case continues to be the most frequently cited authority on blasphemy laws in America. In 1842, two years before Abner Kneeland’s
death, the United States Congress passed the first federal law prohibiting the importation of "obscene or immoral" pictures
and prints. Two decades later during the Civil War, Montgomery Blair, the Postmaster General, set the precedent for
using the postal laws to regulate free speech. Blair personally confiscated mailed material that he determined was disloyal
to the Union and/or might aid the confederacy. Near the end of the war, Congress again addressed the "obscenity" issue
and on February 8, 1865, the Senate and House passed a bill that stated: That no obscene book, pamphlet, picture, print, or
other publication of a vulgar and indecent character, shall be admitted into the mails of the United States; any person or
persons who shall deposit or cause to be deposited, in any post-office or branch post-office of the United States, for mailing
or for delivery, an obscene book, pamphlet, picture-print, or other publication, knowing the same to be of vulgar and indecent
character, shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and, being duly convicted thereof, shall for every such offense be fined
not more than five hundred dollars, or imprisoned not more than one year, or both, according to the circumstances and aggravations
of the offense.
Since Congress never defined what constituted
"vulgar," "indecent," and "obscene," the determination was left up to judges, who, like most nineteenth-century Americans,
believed obscenity could be easily recognized. Victorian Americans thought that obscenity was linked to drinking, gambling,
masturbation, and all other social ills. And despite the fact that citizens had constitutionally protected First Amendment
rights, prudish Victorians were in favor of moral censorship and suppressing "whatever outrages decency and is injurious to
After the civil War, Christian moralists
began an aggressive campaign to censor literature as a way to control American society. In 1873 The New York Society
for the Suppression of Vice was incorporated by the New York Legislature. The Society was America’s version of
an organization that originated in London and prosecuted Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant, the English freethinkers who
published a birth-control pamphlet. Anthony Comstock, a twenty-nine-year-old traveling salesman and member of The Young Men’s
Christian Association (YMCA), was responsible for the formation of the Society. Samuel Colgate, the wealthy soap manufacturer,
was president; Comstock served as secretary and chief vice hunter. In this capacity, and subsequently as the United
States Post Office Department’s "special agent," Comstock, a devout Christian, waged war on publishers of "obscene"
literature, who he believed poisoned the minds of America’s children. The "three great crime-breeders in America," Comstock
declared, were "intemperance, gambling, and evil reading, and the greatest of these is evil reading."
With blessings from New York’s Christian
leaders and financial support from Colgate and the YMCA, Comstock made frequent trips to Washington where he lobbied members
of Congress to induce them into believing that America’s youth were at great moral risk. His dogged determination and
satchel full of lewd pictures and devices, which he spread out for the congressmen to examine, convinced his fellow Republicans
that the children of America were receiving such material in their mailboxes. Subsequently, on March 3, 1873, in the
closing hours of the forth-second Congress, the Republican Majority recklessly passed a series of acts while the House was
in a state of confusion and some members were under the influence of alcohol. Two hundred and sixty acts were passed
without inquiry or consideration of merit, and summarily signed into law by President Grant, whose administration was mired
in corruption scandals. Using the same tactics, Comstock had a similar set of laws passed by the New York Legislature.
"There were four publishers on the 2nd
of last March; to-day three of these are in their graves, and it is charged by their friends that I worried them to death.
Be that as it may, I am sure that the world is better off without them," Anthony Comstock crowed in January 1873. "This
is clearly the spirit that lighted the fires of the inquisition," Ezra Heywood, a free-love advocate arrested by Comstock,
wrote in his book Cupid’s Yokes. Anthony Comstock the self-described "weeder in God’s garden," was by all
accounts, massive, intimidating, and humorless. Comstock called his crusade a "fight for the young," and was overly fond of
the old Christian saw "Man proposes but God disposes." Anthony Comstock, America’s self-appointed censor, would
eventually boast of driving fifteen persons to suicide, some of them freethinkers.
D. M. Bennett not only published anti-religious
views, he openly attacked Christian institutions and their powerful
leaders. Doctor Bennett, as he was affectionately known, founded The Truth Seeker in 1873, the same year The
New York Society for the Suppression of Vice incorporated. "Comstock is virtually a Ku Klux," Bennett fearlessly declared,
"and his Christian clique is a Ku Klux Klan." Bennett routinely reported and ridiculed the activities of Anthony Comstock,
who was becoming a serious threat to free speech. The editor was not alone in printing accounts of the vice-hunter’s
activities, but his attacks were by far the most forceful and relentless. And while personal attacks caused Comstock
to be revengeful, it was a "letter" that Bennett wrote that enraged the Christian crusader. Comstock’s private
diaries are rife with praises and supplications addressed to his personal savior Jesus Christ. Bennett’s An
Open Letter to Jesus Christ was thus a personal affront to Comstock, and in his eyes, the most blasphemous, egregious,
and unforgivable act that Bennett ever performed. According to Comstock, Bennett, as the editor of The Truth Seeker,
was "everything vile in blasphemy and infidelity."
D. M. Bennett’s An Open Letter
to Jesus Christ was first published in the November 1875 issue of The Truth Seeker, and subsequently printed in
a booklet. It is doubtful the editor had any fear of being arrested for blasphemy in New York in 1875. There were, however,
blasphemy laws still on the books in some states, New Jersey among them, and the "crime" remained punishable in several states
well into the twentieth century. In New York the last prosecution for blasphemy was in 1811. Nevertheless, Bennett knew
that his Letter would be considered one of, if not the most heretical documents ever published in America.
An Open Letter to Jesus Christ was a facetiously written theological tract with a series of over 200
questions that he posed: To His Excellency, Immanuel J. Christ, other-wise called ‘Prince of Peace,’ ‘Sun
of Righteous-ness,’ ‘Lion of the Tribe of Judah,’ ‘Wonderful,’‘Counsellor,’ ‘The
Messiah,’ ‘The Redeemer,’‘The Saviour,’ ‘The Bridegroom,’ ‘The Lamb of God,’
‘Captain of Our Salvation,’ ‘Son of God,’ ‘Son of Man,’ etc. etc.
Bennett began the Letter with a
confession that he used to pray four or five times a day, but since his appeals were never answered he discontinued the practice
over 25 years earlier. He did not wish to be "impertinent," but since Moody and Sankey, two of America’s most
popular evangelists were currently appearing at the Skating Rink in Brooklyn and scheduled at the Hippodrome, Gilmore’s
Concert Garden, and a local beer saloon, he felt it was an appropriate time.
The Letter begins chronologically;
Bennett asks questions regarding Christ’s infancy and childhood: "How is it that the ‘Evangelists,’ who
are said to have been divinely delegated to write your life and teachings, should have been so silent in reference to this
interesting portion of your existence? Were these items purposely suppressed, or was it simply accidental?" As
to how Jesus was "begotten," Bennett asked: "Was your mother psychologized or mesmerized, or otherwise rendered insensible,
or did she retain her consciousness?" Did love have anything to do in the "transaction" and "was it an example of free-love?"
Christ’s school days were of special interest and the editor was curious to know if Jesus Christ liked studying or if
he ever skipped school. He asked Christ about the "carpenter business" and if he used his supernatural powers to stretch boards,
etc., for his "stepfather when he made them too short?" He wondered if it was a good trade and why he quit.
"Did you like preaching and performing miracles better? Have you ever doubted whether your first miracle changing water
into wine was well advised," since the wedding guests "were already drunk?" The editor inquires about Christ’s
and his father’s [God] relationship with the devil, asking: Did it please your loving Father better that you should
die, than his old enemy and creature, the Devil? What was the Devil ever made for? Was it not thegreatest mistake, the greatest
folly that was ever committed? Why is it you stillsuffer him to live? Could your sixty thousand clergymen in this country
get along without a devil? Is there not really a tacit, secret, understanding – a partnership infact –
between the Devil, your Father and yourself? Were those Devils that yousent into the swine the same kind as the seven
Devils which you extracted from Mary Magdalene? What was the size of those seven Devils? Where did theyenter,
and where did they make their exit? Is not all this business devilish strangeanyway? Really, after all, considering
how much the Devil has done towardscarrying out the divine plan concocted by your father and yourself; how much hehas done
for the human race by introducing education, science, inventions,innovations, and Freethought, while your clergymen and your
church have been doing all they could to keep them out, is he not after all, a pretty good fellow?
As the Letter progresses,
Bennett’s questions become more pointed. He refers to Christianity as the "youngest mythology" and asks if Christ
considers it "wholly a plagiarism?" Regarding all mythologies, manmade gods, senseless creeds, and superstitions: "Are
not Truth, Science, Reason, Fraternal Love and Human Brotherhood vastly superior to all these?" He wonders if Christ
participated in the Crusades or approved of the "Holy Inquisition" and asks: "Has not the religion called after your name
caused more bloodshed, more persecution, and more suffering than all the other religions of the world?" He asked Christ:
Have you been mindful of the villainous popes… [and] clergymen who have been guilty of dark and damning crimes and debaucheries?
How did you like John XXIII in the fifteenth century, who was proved to have been guilty of seventy different kinds of crimes,
among which were sodomy, simony, rape, incest and murder, and having illicit intercourse with over three hundred nuns?
Do you not remember Alexander the Sixth… guilty of incest…who seduced his own daughter…who was the father
of many illegitimate children, and reeked in the most abominable crimes, and among the rest murder? Was John XII, in
the tenth century a favorite of yours, who was an unscrupulous libertine, gambler, debauchee and murderer, and who turned
the Vatican into a brothel?
Bennett concludes his interrogatories
with the summation: Finally, as you now view the field, the past, the present and the future, would it not, in your opinion,
be better to wipe out from the face of the earth all the priestcraft, superstition, sectarianism, falsehood, all the absurdities
and monstrosities which have so preyed upon mankind, and to inaugurate an era of truth, reason, common sense, science, education,
simplicity, fraternity and humanity; discarding false gods,base devils, useless saviors and degrading creeds, and to devote
our time and attention to the improvement of this world and to the happiness of the human race?
A little after the noon
hour on Monday, November 12, 1877, while Bennett prepared matter for The Truth Seeker, Anthony Comstock, accompanied
by a Deputy U.S. Marshal, arrived with a warrant for the arrest of the fifty-eight year-old publisher. The two "obscene"
tracts that caused Bennett’s arrest were his An Open Letter to Jesus Christ and Arthur B. Bradford’s
How do Marsupials Propagate Their Kind, a scientific article originally intended for Popular Science Monthly.
Apparently Comstock was offended by open discussion of the sexual habits of both man and marsupials. Bradford, a former
Presbyterian minister, was a direct descendant of Governor Bradford of the Plymouth colony and one of the first clergymen
to leave the church over slavery. His farm in Enon Valley, Pennsylvania, served as an underground railroad haven or "station"
for runaway slaves. Bradford’s "innocent little possum tract," as he called it, was published in The Truth Seeker
on January 15, 1876.
"Why not indict the Bible Society? If [you’re]
so anxious to prohibit the circulation of obscene literature," Bennett asked Comstock on the way to the Post Office for his
arraignment. The editor told him the Bible contained more "obscenity than any other publication" he knew of. He
went on to give the purity crusader a half dozen or more "obscene" scenarios from the good book, i.e., Abraham and his concubine,
David and Bathsheba and his other wives, the adultery of Absalom and his father’s concubine, Solomon with his seven
hundred wives, etc., etc. Comstock evaded the inquiries and said "some ladies near us might hear our remarks, thus virtually
confessing that the persons and subjects named were indecent," Bennett later wrote.
Letters of sympathy came pouring into The
Truth Seeker office and a defense fund was initiated. Bennett began a spirited campaign against postal legislation
with a petition for the repeal of the Comstock Laws. With the impressive first signature of Colonel Robert G Ingersoll,
the "Great Agnostic," the petition soon had 50,000 signatures. The charges against Bennett were dropped after Ingersoll,
the famous lecturer and eminent attorney, interceded on his behalf. "I have very little respect for those men who endeavor
to put down vice by lying;" Ingersoll said about Comstock, "and very little respect for a society that would keep in its employ
such a leprous agent."
Immediately after the dismissal of his
case, Bennett turned up the heat on the Comstock Laws and the vice-fighter. The entire January 19, 1878 issue of
The Truth Seeker was devoted to anti-censorship, Comstock's arrests, and explaining the Comstock Laws. In March
Anthony Comstock went to Washington accompanied by Samuel Colgate, his benefactor and President of the New York Society for
the Suppression of Vice. A hearing before the House Committee on the Revision of the Comstock Laws was being held.
Although Comstock was considered a dangerous nuisance, many Christian leaders and laymen were in strong support of their religious
special agent. The solitary vice-hunter’s melodramatic account appears in his book, Frauds Exposed:
Everything looked black. I was alone. As I strolled through
the vestibule and rotunda of the Capitol, the Senate Chamber, and Representatives Hall, I found on each Congressman’s
desk a copy of the vile paper [The Truth Seeker], of which eight pages were devoted to a pretended account of the ‘Life
and Crimes of Anthony Comstock.’ These papers were scattered everywhere. The Committee room was filled
with them. As I entered the Committee room, I found it crowded with long-haired men and short-haired women, there to
send obscene publications, abortion implements, and other incentives to crime by repealing the laws. I heard their hiss,
their looks of derision and contempt.
Anthony Comstock’s pious plea on behalf
of the country’s children, who he claimed were ruined by "the most demoralizing articles," was effective. That,
together with his assertion that some of the names were forged on the petitions, sealed the deal and persuaded the Committee
to unanimously reject any repeal or change in the Laws. According to Bennett, the special agent used intimidation, forcing
some of the petition signers to retract their authorization. Comstock expressed his disdain for D. M. Bennett and his
fellow liberal publishers, writing: And these monsters – these devil-men, or men-devils – caught in
this cursed traffic, and prosecuted legally, and legally placed where they cannot longer strike their deadly fangs into the
vitals of the youth, are made martyrs of, and the so-called ‘liberals’ of this land rally to their defence! and,
at the beck and call of this band of ex-convicts and co-conspiritors, a combined effort is made to repeal these law!
The petition for the repeal of the Comstock
Laws came in front of the House Committee in May and June. Unfortunately, the bill to repeal the Comstock Laws on the grounds
of its being unconstitutional, and in Bennett’s opinion, often executed in a "tyrannical and unjust manner," was reversed –
the laws stood in place; unmodified. Some who opposed censorship questioned Comstock and his fellow moralists’
assertion that "obscenity" corrupted those who view it. If it did, they argued, it meant that a person like Comstock,
who saw the contents of countless examples of obscenity with his own eyes, had to be totally depraved. Or was the Special
Agent so "special" in the entire world that all the unspeakable material that he alone viewed had no effect? In other words
someone quipped: "He could have his cake and suppress it, too?"
"If the possession of this kind of demoralizing
nastiness is sufficient to send a person to prison," Bennett argued in The Truth Seeker, "it would seem most fitting
that those two men [Comstock and his assistant] should spend the balance of their lives in a dungeon. There are probably
no two individuals who can be better spared than this pair of ‘foul birds’ who revel in the vilest filth to be
found in the country." The editor was not alone in questioning the validity of the Christian moralists’ theory
that "obscenity" corrupts those who view it. But if they were right, it meant that Comstock and Britton both –
lost their souls. Bennett was arrested on "obscenity" charges two more times for selling and mailing Cupid’s Yokes,
a sociological pamphlet. During the trial, Joseph Cook, one of the nation’s most famous preachers, sat in the
courtroom reading Bennett’s An Open Letter to Jesus Christ if full view of the jury. In 1879 Bennett was
convicted and sentenced to 13 months at hard labor in the Albany Penitentiary where he nearly died from harsh prison conditions
and the stigma attached to selling "obscenity." (Like Abner Kneeland, Bennett published an account of his trial, conviction,
Although D. M. Bennett went to jail for "obscenity,"
he and his supporters believed that he was persecuted for publishing his "blasphemous" periodical The Truth Seeker and
for his relentless challenges to the Comstock Laws. "The charge is ostensibly 'obscenity,'" he wrote in The Truth Seeker.
"But the real offense is that I presume to utter sentiments and opinions in opposition to the views entertained by the Christian
Church..." Anthony Comstock’s "fight for the young" battle cry has often been re-tooled in America by Christian
moralists to fit their agenda. And there have been numerous purity crusades since Abner Kneeland and D. M. Bennett were prosecuted
in the nineteenth century. "No Liberals! The morals of children first," was one of Comstock’s favorite edicts that sounds
familiar over a century later and also calls to mind one of Bennett’s timeless quotes: "Worse than all other mean acts
are those performed by hypocrites under the cloak of purity and virtue."
|The Albany Penitentiary or "Castle on the HIll" as it was known to locals