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The arrest of George Jacob Holyoake on charges of blasphemy in 1842 was a defining moment in his own life, and in that of a movement. It was to be one of the catalytic events for Holyoake’s wholehearted embrace of atheism, which in turn led to his coining of ‘secularism’ as a positive philosophy synonymous with humanism today. The words of the warrant, held today at the Bishopsgate Institute, evidence the acute horror with which statements deemed blasphemous were met by authorities, and the outrage that reports of these statements were designed to evince. This particular warrant also serves as a reminder of the many others like it issued by authorities against humanists throughout history – decried as heretics or charged as blasphemers for daring to question the truth of religion or the tenets of the Church.

Holyoake was arrested following statements he made in Cheltenham, where – en route to visit Charles Southwell, then imprisoned in Bristol on blasphemy charges of his own – he had delivered a lecture on Owenite socialism. Holyoake responded to a question from the audience about the place of religion in society with statements about the high cost of the Church, and the suggestion that the deity should be put on half-pay. He was also reported as saying: ‘Morality I regard, but I do not believe there is such a thing as God’. At his trial in August he was sentenced to six months in Gloucester gaol.

The flurry of prosecutions in the 1840s which caught Southwell, Holyoake, and others like Matilda Roalfe, recalled those of two decades earlier, when efforts to suppress ‘blasphemous’ or ‘seditious’ publications and statements had seen the imprisonment of Richard Carlile, Susannah Wright, Robert Wedderburn, and many others. As then, attempts to legislate opinion and belief were met with fury and opposition, and humanists then – as now – fought resolutely for freedom of the press, and of religion or belief. A resolution passed in the year of Holyoake’s imprisonment, at the Hall of Science in Birmingham, summed up the shared belief:

that… it is the natural and inalienable right of every human being to express his honest and conscientious convictions on the subject of religion, any law or practice tending to prevent the same being in opposition to the best interests of society, and calculated only to produce immorality and crime.

The Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser, Saturday 25 June 1842

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George Jacob Holyoake archive | Bishopsgate Institute

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