The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Blasphemy

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BLASPHEMY, is somewhat variously defined. According to the most general definition, it means the speaking irreverently of the mysteries of religion; and formerly, in Roman Catholic countries, it also included the speaking contemptuously or disrespectfully of the Holy Virgin or the saints. Public blasphemy has been considered by the Catholic Church as an unpardonable sin, and it was formerly punished with death by the municipal laws. The 77th novel of Justinian assigned this punishment to it; and the capitularies inflicted the same punishment upon such as, knowing of an act of blasphemy, did not denounce the offender. The former laws of France punished this crime with fine, corporal punishment, the gallows and death, according to the degree and aggravation of the offense. The records of the parliaments supply numerous instances of condemnation for this crime and many of punishment by death; others of branding and mutilation. A man was for this offense condemned to be hanged, and afterward to have his tongue cut out and the sentence was executed at Orleans as late as 1748. But it is remarked by a writer in the French ‘Encyclopédie Moderne,’ that we should form an erroneous opinion, from the present state of society, of the effect of this offense and the disorders it might introduce in former times; for religion was once so intimately blended with the government and laws, that to treat the received articles of faith or religious ceremonies with disrespect was in effect to attack civil institutions.

By the common law of England, as stated by Blackstone, blasphemy consists in denying the being and providence of God, contumelious reproaches of Jesus Christ, profane scoffing at Holy Scripture, etc., and is punishable by fine and imprisonment, or corporal punishment; the offense is also statutory, the Statute 9 and 10 William III cap. xxxii, declaring that if any one shall deny any of the persons of the Trinity to be God, or assert that there are more gods than one, or deny the truth of Christianity or of the Scriptures, he shall be incapable of holding any office; and for a second offense be disabled from suing any action, or being an executor, and suffer three years' imprisonment.

By the law of Scotland, as it stood under acts of 1661 and 1695, the punishment of blasphemy was death. Blasphemy consisted of railing at or cursing God, or of obstinately persisting in denying the existence of the Supreme Being, or any of the persons of the Trinity.

The early legislation of the American colonies followed that of the mother country, and in some of them the crime of blasphemy was punished with death; but the penalty was mitigated before the establishment of independence and imprisonment, whipping, setting on the pillory, having the tongue bored with a red-hot iron, etc., were substituted. Several penalties against blasphemy are to be found in the laws of some of the New England States, according to which it is provided that, if any person shall blaspheme, 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 contumeliously reproaching the Word of God, consisting of the commonly received books of the Old and New Testament, he is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years. But in many States, the offense of blasphemy, not being a subject of special statutory provision, is only punishable either as an offense at common law, or a violation of the statute laws against profane swearing.

Such penal statutes against blasphemy as are not subversive of the freedom of speech or liberty of the press have, in the United States, been declared constitutional. Consult ‘American and English Encyclopedia of Law,’ Vol. IV, p. 582.