The Blasphemy Laws of American History

Jonathan Zimmerman, a history professor from NYU, has a brief rundown of blasphemy laws in America’s past, including at the time of the founding in many of the colonies. He highlights Massachusetts and Maryland, as I have in my past writings as well.

It starts, like so much else, with the Puritans. Although we still tell our kids that the Puritans came to the New World to find “freedom,” their laws tell another story. In 1636, for instance, the Massachusetts Bay Colony made blasphemy – defined as “a cursing of God by atheism, or the like” – punishable by death.

So did the colony of Maryland, in its famous 1649 “Act of Toleration.” We remember that law as granting rights to Catholics, forgetting that it omitted Jews; indeed, the measure made it a capital crime to deny Jesus Christ as the son of God. It also specified death at the stake as the penalty for blasphemy, defined as “acursing or wicked speaking of God.”

With the founding of the United States, the federal government and most states guaranteed religious liberty. But many states extended or even sharpened their anti-blasphemy laws on the curious grounds that America remained “Christian.”

In 1811, for example, New York’s highest court upheld the conviction of a man who had publicly declared that “Jesus Christ was a bastard, and his mother must be a whore.” The court found that if the accused had insulted Islam or Buddhism, which the chief judge dismissed as “superstitions,” his speech would have been protected. But “we are a Christian people,” the judge continued, “and the morality of the country is deeply engrafted upon Christianity, and not upon the doctrines or worship of those imposters.”

Even Pennsylvania got in on the act. Founded by the Quaker dissident William Penn, who had himself served eight months in the Tower of London on a blasphemy charge, the colony began as a beacon of religious tolerance. But after independence, the state’s supreme court upheld an 1824 blasphemy conviction of a man who called the Bible “a mere fable.”

In another context, the court allowed, the accused’s words might have been legal. But “when spoken in a Christian land, and to a Christian audience,” they were “an insult … directly tending to disturb the peace.”

Which sounds very much like how they are defended in Muslim countries today. This reveals the danger of the entire “Christian nation” argument, which can be used to justify all manner of repressive laws.

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  • StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    Sorry Zimmerman you say? Another one? Any relation?

  • Alverant

    Were any people executed under these blasphemy rules?

  • Sastra

    The Christian Nation arguments all sound like they’re supporting the idea that a country is like a house. The majority are the homeowners: the minorities are guests. You should never insult your host.

  • Chiroptera

    Alverant, #2:

    I’m not sure if you were asking about any particular law that Ed mentioned, but Anne Hutchinson was executed in Massachusetts in the 17th century for either blasphemy or heresy.

  • This reveals the danger of the entire ‘Christian nation’ argument, which can be used to justify all manner of repressive laws.”

    They aren’t oppressive laws. They’re free…tive laws. They free the majority from having to hear criticism of its beliefs.

  • sbh

    The 1811 New York case referred to (People v. Ruggles) is a strange one; Ruggles wasn’t convicted of blasphemy under any specific law of that state, but rather on the basis of the English common law inherited by it. Ruggles’ lawyer argued that “the offense charged in the indictment was not punishable by the law of this State, though he admitted it was punishable by the common law of England, where Christianity makes part of the law of the land, on account of its connection with the Established Church. … But from the preamble, and the provision of the constitution of this State, and the silence of the Legislature, it was to be inferred that Christianity did not make a part of the common law of this State.” The state on the other hand contended that “the common law of England, as it stood in 1776, was adopted by the constitution, and made part of the law of the State. That blasphemy, or the contumelious reproaches of our Saviour, were punishable by the common law of England, was not on account of there being an established church, but it was a principle coeval with the English law, and had stood unshaken amidst all the revolutions and changes in Church and State.”

    The judge in this case, James Kent, “entertained the fashionable doubts concerning orthodox religion” according to his biographer, and had observed, according to an aquaintance that “men of information were now nearly as free from vulgar superstition or the Christian religion as they were in ye time of Cicero from pagan superstition”, seemingly putting superstition and Christianity on the same level. In his decision, however, he wrote

    There is nothing in our manners or institutions which has prevented the application or the necessity of this part of the common law. We stand equally in need, now as formerly, of all the moral discipline, and of those principles of virtue, which help to bind society together. The people of this State, in common with the people of this country, profess the general doctrines of Christianity, as the rule of their faith and practice; and to scandalize the author of these doctrines is not only, in a religious point of view, extremely impious, but, even in respect to the obligations due to society, is a gross violation of decency and good order.

    A bit later he observes:

    The free, equal, and undisturbed enjoyment of religious opinion, whatever it may be, and free and decent discussions on any religious subject, is granted and secured; but to revile, with malicious and blasphemous contempt, the religion professed by almost the whole community, is an abuse of that right. Nor are we bound, by any expressions in the constitution, as some have strangely supposed, either not to punish at all, or to punish indiscriminately the like attacks upon the religion of Mahomet or of the Grand Lama; and for this plain reason, that the case assumes that we are a Christian people, and the morality of the country is deeply ingrafted upon Christianity, and not upon the doctrines or worship of those imposters. Besides, the offense is crimen malitiæ, and the imputation of malice could not be inferred from any invectives upon superstitions equally false and unknown. We are not to be restrained from animadversion upon offenses against public decency … merely because there may be savage tribes, and perhaps semi-barbarous nations, whose sense of shame would not be effected by what we should consider the most audacious outrages upon decorum. It is sufficient that the common law checks upon words and actions, dangerous to the public welfare, apply to our case, and are suited to the condition of this and every other people whose manners are refined, and whose morals have been elevated and inspired with a more enlarged benevolence, by means of the Christian religion.

    Maybe the men of information of his time were not as free from vulgar superstition as he supposed? Or maybe James Kent didn’t include himself among them.

    Some ten years or so later another guy was charged with blasphemy for saying during a political argument that “God Almighty was a damn’d fool”. People v. Ruggles was cited as a precedent. He was acquitted, however.

  • raven

    In 1636, for instance, the Massachusetts Bay Colony made blasphemy – defined as “a cursing of God by atheism, or the like” – punishable by death.

    Didn’t know that. Atheism during the American Theocracy was a death penalty offense.

    Not surprised. So was being a witch, a Quaker, or a Unitarian. And there were dead bodies to prove it.

    Even today, 7 or 8 states have laws prohibiting atheists from holding public office. They aren’t enforcable due to a recent court ruling. But the states wouldn’t dare remove them. The xians would scream “oppression” and persecution.