1. Reinforcing Two Faces of Social Morality: REPRESSION AND COMPASSION
Well before the 1820s, beside their important constitutional and institutional roles,1 Christianity and Christian ethics had assumed a manifest core significance in the nation’s evolving social and political values and objectives. Consequently, providing any sort of account of the role of religion in Victorian law necessarily requires some initial acquaintance with the religio-legal scene to be found at the end of the eighteenth century and the early decades of the nineteenth. However, while significant religious belief or dogma would endure and influence opinion and attitudes throughout the Victorian era, it was an influence that markedly fell away or changed in its nature well before the century’s end.
In terms of its political position or function, the Established Anglican clergy largely inhabited mainstream Toryism and, less typically, Whig circles, as in the case of the celebrated wit and commentator, the Reverend Sydney Smith.2 At a local level, the clergy might play a key secular role as councillor in the business of their parish vestry, or even as a Justice of the Peace.3 Religious pastoral care and instruction tended to be characterized by understatement, if not outright neglect.4 While in a more diffused sense contributing to the ambient moral climate, it was implicitly accepted that Christian religion and its precepts were, by (p.133) and large, not to be strenuously inserted into the everyday affairs of parishioners. Until Wesley’s appearance in the mid-eighteenth century and the eventual severance of Methodists from the Established church, Christian ethics were rarely the banner under which social and political ambitions were advanced. Even then, no serious social and political programme was presented; spiritual regeneration through revelation was at that time the primary Wesleyan ambition. Broader objectives and political activism, however, arrived with the late eighteenth century Anglican Evangelical revival. For Evangelicals, the means and goal were blindingly clear: direct and fervent engagement with people’s lives rather than traditional church rituals saved souls; spiritual re-birth and eventual salvation through atonement were to be gained by combining personal rectitude with performing God’s good works in all areas of social existence.5
Wesleyans and other Dissenters who broke away from the Established church shared much of Evangelicalism’s dissatisfaction with mainstream Anglicanism’s tepid, milk and water Christian faith. For these religious groups, divine revelation through the primacy of Biblical scripture and commitment to Christ guided all conduct; bringing this understanding of their faith directly to the population at large was the supreme mission. However, despite being a considerably larger body than the Anglican Evangelicals, the early nineteenth-century potential influence of Methodists was less significant than that of Evangelicals because of the former’s relative weakness and latter’s strength of support amongst the professional and governing classes.6 Absorption of revivified Christian gospel by this social and political strata crucially translated into the establishment of a wide range of campaigning societies intent on influencing and improving many features of the population’s manners, morals, and institutions. Naturally, as part of their mission, the content and enforcement of the nation’s laws were of considerable interest to the Evangelicals. Over the course of the subsequent century, Christian moralizing, initially in its Evangelical form and later of a more diffuse character, played a frequently visible role in influencing the law’s scope, content, and process of enforcement. And while not exclusively at work within the orbit of the criminal law,7 it was within that particular context where Christian moralism most conspicuously operated as a motivating force.
Especially over the first half of the nineteenth century, in many respects Utilitarianism and Evangelicalism were the two competing and complementary (p.134) social, political, and economic working ideologies;8 in one sense, they constituted a blend of manners, morals, and outlook that became the essence of Victorianism. Carlyle’s inimitable late 1820s lament, ‘Sign of the Times’, captured the impact of this powerful ideological coalition on the period’s social and religious climate: a ‘“superior morality” of which we hear so much…produced [by] that far subtler and stronger Police, called Public Opinion’.9
At first blush, Utilitarianism’s and Evangelicalism’s respective core beliefs and social philosophies suggested inherent antipathy: divine revelation set against secular rationalism; self-denial versus the pursuit of self-interest. Yet by curious alchemy, they frequently combined to produce the middle and governing class response to large-scale problems of the times, including education, health, factory regulation, and penal laws. Consequently, it became a truism that weekday professionals and businessmen were Sunday Evangelicals. Personal responsibility, self-improvement, together with social progress and national prosperity were common objectives of Evangelicals and Utilitarians; these were the shared goals which spawned collective allegiance to dominant notions of political economy and practical offshoots, including the Society for the Suppression of Mendicity.10 For both persuasions, moral failure through indulging in immediate gratifications and neglecting essential future aims was the certain route to individual and national impoverishment. Spiritual needs were met by taking deep draughts from the book of Exodus and the Gospels; intellectual or practical nourishment might be offered by self-improving Utilitarian bodies such as Brougham’s Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge—waggishly dubbed the ‘Steam Intellect Society’.11 For secular Utilitarianism, temporal achievements were initial and final aims; for Evangelicals a pure soul and salvation were ultimate goals. Yet, commonality of earthly objectives greatly exceeded philosophical differences, famously making possible support and collaboration between the avowed atheist Bentham and the saintly Wilberforce in respect of the proposed building of the former’s (p.135) Panopticon penitentiary,12 later broadly realized in Millbank’s construction. And it was much the same joint belief in equating the deemed immorality of unproductive behaviour and homelessness with vagrancy and criminality, which led to successful joint efforts to give sharper summary teeth to the vagrancy laws in the 1820s.13
But there was considerable complexity in this relationship. As well as many shared aims, between these ideologies ran an infinite range of cross-currents in beliefs and objectives. For instance, while undiluted Benthamic Utilitarianism had no truck with religion, many adhering to a progressive rationalist approach to politics and law were by no means divorced from Christian faith. Yet, at the same time, the religious underpinnings of the ancien regime’s penal philosophy was Paley’s gospel of utility and expediency, one directly inspired by his own construction of God’s will. Moreover, amongst Paley’s fiercest critics were not only the broad coalition of humanitarian/rationalist figures (such notables as Romilly, Mackintosh, Lushington, and Brougham) but also the leading group of Evangelical penal reformers. For them, morality was a matter of direct divine revelation; what might promote greatest human happiness was not a question of calculation and expediency.14 Buxton was a prime example of one driven by a powerful brew of Evangelical inspiration while also hugely adept in marshalling Utilitarian/rationalist arguments favouring penal law revisions. Only in the crudest sense might the clichéd contrast be drawn between Evangelical emotionalism and dispassionate Utilitarian calculation. Overall, though each started from a distinct point of reference, they broadly shared the objectives of a more humane and effective system, with Evangelicals never losing sight of the ultimate determinant of success: redemption.
2. Crime and Earthly Punishment
Evangelical activism had engaged itself on a broad and fundamental social and political front from the 1780s. The directly politically active membership of the Evangelicals, the Clapham Sect, or ‘the Saints’, as their parliamentary brigade was styled, enjoyed a high profile, including amongst their members the Macaulays, Stephens, and Venns, together with William Wilberforce and Henry Thornton, rector of Holy Trinity, Clapham. Tenacious parliamentary and national campaigning led principally by William Wilberforce and later Thomas Fowell Buxton constituted the most fervent and determined representation of a (p.136) much broader coalition of religious or plain humanitarian inspired supporters.15 The involvement of the leading lights of late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Evangelicalism, along with others of differing moral complexions in the abolition of the slave trade and eventually the use of slaves in the British Empire, is well documented.16 Of similar breadth of persuasion were campaigners seeking the decapitalizing of all or most criminal offences with the substitution of imprisonment or transportation.
Religious inspiration figured prominently in developments associated with capital punishment well into the 1830s. Along with Quakers, Wilberforce and Buxton,17 as Evangelicals, were typical in opposing the Paleyite regime of widespread capital threats, with the discretionary carrying out of executions. Romilly’s largely unsuccessful attempts to reduce the span of capital statutes consistently gained the active support of parliamentary Evangelicals and Quakers who had set up the ‘Society for Diffusion of Knowledge upon the Punishment of Death and the Improvement of Prison Discipline’ in 1808, known as the ‘Capital Punishment Society’.18 Together with campaigners motivated by utilitarian calculation rather than divine inspiration, Evangelicals also argued the rationalist case against capital punishment. Buxton in particular more than once in the Commons demonstrated a formidable command of the full spread of anti-capital punishment arguments.19 Indeed, both Buxton and Wilberforce in Parliament, supported by organized Evangelicals and Quakers outside, played a pivotal role in ensuring the establishment of the 1819 Select (p.137) Committee on Criminal Laws. Moreover, a substantial proportion of the pro-reform petitions which rained on Parliament in the period running up to 1819 was the handiwork of Quakers and Evangelical groups. This was emphatically true of the petition delivered by the Corporation of the City of London, which marshalled a forceful combination of practical and Christian moralist reform arguments.20
As a consequence of adroit political manoeuvring led by Mackintosh and Buxton, against Government wishes,21 two separate Select Committees were appointed in 1819: one to examine the state and function of prisons; the other to consider the criminal law. Both Committees included several leading Evangelicals such as Buxton, Wilberforce, and Holford. As shown elsewhere,22 this Evangelical faction along with other staunch penal reformers like Mackintosh and Lushington, persisted in their mission for rather greater reform innovation in the criminal justice system than Peel, as Home Secretary, was prepared to concede.23 Arguably, more than any other reformist factions, it was Evangelicals and Quakers who provided the enduring core of determined, informed, and organized campaigning both in and outside Parliament, that ensured the capital question never retreated long from public or parliamentary prominence. While the true nature of Peel’s personal inclinations towards capital punishment reform are disputable, religiously inspired activism was at least a principal force in ensuring that by the 1820s neglect of the subject was not a political option.
Aside from capital punishment, the particular involvement of Evangelical individuals and societies, in alliance with Utilitarians, was especially extensive in respect of prison reform. Prison and transportation were inevitably linked to the capital question: a strategy for replacing the capital threat was a pre-condition of scaling down the vast range of capital offences.24 For John Howard and George Holford, both Evangelicals, religious instruction and salvation were (p.138) explicit central components of their national prison schemes.25 Along with Quakers26 and fellow travellers, Evangelicals were the backbone of the Society for the Improvement of Prison Discipline and Reformation of Juveniles, established in 1818.27 Success in achieving improvements in the physical conditions of prisoners was at the cost of the eventual dominance of the ‘separate system’ of cellular isolation. Widespread employment of this technique was inspired by the virulent strain of Evangelicalism which possessed Millbank’s Chaplain, Whitworth Russell.28 The results of this practice were pitiful:
It was an extreme technique of the 1820s and 1830s that contrasted with earlier Evangelicals, such as Howard and Holford, whose regime of gospel instruction to convert criminals also allowed for a modest level of daytime socializing amongst prisoners.30 And as Buxton maintained, the alternative to capital punishment was religious education, ‘hard labour and occasional solitary confinement’.31
This unwise project for spiritually drilling the felons into repentance was…a failure; the incidental circumstance that the discipline was over-tinctured with the views of one particular school did not increase the chance of success. The terrors of the law were abundantly preached in the chapel, tracts were diligently circulated in the wards, and the turnkeys transformed into Scripture readers, and sent on pastoral visits from cell to cell. Of course, all the readiest rogues played the inevitable game, donned a sanctimonious demeanour, and curried favour by hypocrisy; while a few of the weaker sort went mad under the combined influences of solitude, malaria and Calvinism.29
As indicated, Evangelicalism’s engagement in the general cause of punishment reform was a shared venture with individuals and groups less directly motivated by powerful Christian belief.32 Those such as Romilly, Mackintosh, (p.139) and Lushington, though occasionally invoking Christian morality, were as much charged with a more secular form of humanitarian mission. Added to this in varying strengths was the force of non-divine utilitarian calculation seeking a more effective and efficient criminal justice system.33 At the same time, penal reformers of all persuasions subscribed to the notion that the characteristics of the criminal justice system should be in broad harmony with public opinion.34 Furthermore, there was also a large measure of agreement on the alleged corrupting effects of severe penal laws on the manners and sensibilities of the population.35 But while Evangelicals in this way shared common ground or objectives and reinforced a broad reformist coalition, they were a considerable distance apart from such allies in other areas of the law: this was most distinctly true in respect of so-called ‘offences against morality’.
3. Enforcing the Law of Christian Morality
Societies bent on the reforming of social manners and morals, of saving individuals and the nation from decadence, depravity and decline, were no rarity in Victorian England. Often Wesleyan in origin, such societies sought to save souls by biblical education and personal persuasion. Getting underway in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, Evangelicalism adopted a rather firmer line in dealing with sin. If people lacked the moral fibre to practise self-denial, the pleasures of immorality would be denied them by invoking terrestrial law to ensure they followed God’s law. And where English law was found wanting, Evangelicals felt duty bound to seek enactment of supplementary measures. Evangelicals did, indeed, believe in the ‘possibility of indicting men into piety or calling in the Quarter Sessions to the aid of religion …’.36
Located at the core of God’s self-appointed law enforcement agency in Victorian England were the Evangelicals. Their key moment in history had been Wilberforce’s crusade to reform the nation’s manners and morals, boosted by the inestimable benefit of royal patronage and the Privy Council’s 1787 ‘Proclamation for the Encouragement of Piety and Virtue; and for preventing and punishing of Vice, Profaneness, and Immorality’. More than merely enjoining the nation to mend its moral ways, the Proclamation was addressed to the civil authorities:
The notion that national as well as personal salvation was at stake inhabited religious, moralistic, and economic discourse throughout the nineteenth century: continued toleration of ‘impiety and licentiousness, and that deluge of profaneness, immorality and every kind of vice…’ corrupted not merely individuals but threatened to ‘provoke God’s wrath and indignation’ against the state.
our judges, mayors, sheriffs, justices of the peace…to be very vigilant and strict in the discovery, and effectual prosecution and punishment of all persons who shall be guilty of (p.140)excessive drinking, blasphemy, profane swearing and cursing, lewdness, profanation of the Lord’s day….37
Set up a few months later by Wilberforce, Evangelical brethren and other Anglican sympathizers, the ‘Society for giving Effect to His Majesty’s Proclamation Against Vice and Immorality’38 was the principal engine of enforcement of moral rectitude, and the prototype for a host of subsequent similar Victorian bodies aimed at galvanizing local officials who lacked the necessary backbone and zeal. Its original and later membership was dominated by the aristocracy and upper echelons of the Established church, with a relative sprinkling of politicians such as Wilberforce. Moreover, in the pursuit of law enforcement, as well as establishing a system of informants, Evangelicals were also encouraged (when of appropriate standing) to seek membership of local magistrates’ benches. Without doubt, there was a more benign, philanthropic dimension to this powerful concern with immorality. This manifested itself in the establishment of an abundance of charitable bodies, such as the wonderfully specific, graphically entitled ‘Friendly Female Society for the Relief of Poor, Infirm, Aged Widows, and Single Women, of Good Character, Who Have Seen Better Days’ (1802). However, especially in the early decades of the nineteenth century, it was Evangelicalism’s censorious interventionism through resort to legal proceedings which established its followers’ reputation as zealous moral crusaders.
Victorian England’s marked Sabbatarianism, and the formidable ‘Lord’s Day Observance Society’, owed much to the Proclamation Society’s 1801 reincarnation: the ‘Society for the Suppression of Vice and the Encouragement of Religion and Virtue’.39 As identified in the Royal Proclamation, the list of target offences was extensive, spanning gambling, obscenity, drunkenness, prostitution, and Sabbath (p.141)breaking. An express overarching philosophy was that the ‘most efficient way to prevent the greater crimes is by punishing the smaller, and by endeavouring to repress that general spirit of licentiousness which is the parent of every species of vice’.40 And although the Society successfully prosecuted the full range of offences, it was profanation of the Sabbath which generally outnumbered all other charges. Regarded by Evangelicals as ‘intended for strengthening our impression of invisible and eternal things’,41 protection of Sundays from the incursion of ungodly activities—including work—was a key feature for improving the population’s morals and manners. Prior to the Proclamation, Sabbatarianism had been notionally reinforced by legislation in 1781.42 Armed with these provisions, in its first year of existence, the Vice Society had shown its determination to maintain the sanctity of the Lord’s day by achieving over 600 convictions for Sabbath breaking in London.43
Such was the importance attached to keeping Sunday holy, that a by-product of the Vice Society, the ‘Society for Promoting the Observance of the Sabbath’, was established in 1809 to focus specifically on this cause. Further bodies, especially the long enduring Lord’s Day Observance Society, maintained an anxious watch over the nation’s Sunday activities for the remainder of Victoria’s reign. Coupled with this vigilance was a continuing determination to enact new legislation to meet fresh challenges to the integrity of the Sabbath. Indicative of the period’s mores and concerns were the views of the 1832 Select Committee, whose membership sported Buxton, Baring, Ashley (Shaftesbury), and Peel. A tightening of the laws enforcing Sabbatarianism was proposed to counter
Conversely, there were ‘abundant grounds, both in the Word of God and in the history of past ages, to expect that His Blessing and Favour would accompany such an endeavour to promote the Honour due to His Holy Name and Commandment’.44
…systematic and widespread violation of the Lord’s Day, which in their judgment, cannot fail to be highly injurious to the best interests of the People and which is calculated to bring down upon the Country the Divine displeasure.
(p.142) During the 1830s the Lord’s Day Observance Society strenuously promoted a clutch of almost successful parliamentary initiatives to prohibit all Sunday games, public transport, and work. However, a measure of success was achieved in the 1840s and 1850s, preventing Sunday collections and delivery of mail, as well as greatly restricting the number of public music performances.45Trollope’s inspired mid-century creation, the chilling Evangelical, the Reverend Obadiah Slope, provided a deadly satirization of this disposition.
These concerns at the apparent strength of Sabbatarianism led those of lesser conviction to set up opposition bodies, such as the ‘Anti-Sabbatarian National Sunday League’ in 1855. Dickens, a celebrated supporter, famously evoked the joylessness of a worker’s London Sunday:
Most active clergymen have their hobby, and Sunday observances are his. Sunday, however, is a word which never pollutes his mouth—it is always ‘the Sabbath’. The ‘desecration of the Sabbath,’ as he delights to call it, is to him meat and drink:—he thrives upon that as policemen do on the general evil habits of the community. It is the loved subject of all his evening discourses, the source of all his eloquence, the secret of all his power over the female heart.46
And while a trickle of Parliamentary Reports on Sabbath observance from the 1850s indicates a decline in sensitivities towards Sabbatarianism, the relative relaxation of laws over the remainder of the century was never less than cautious and always carried out in the face of a substantial body of sustained opposition.48
…nothing to see but streets, streets, streets. Nothing to breathe but streets, streets, streets…Nothing for the spent toiler to do but to compare the monotony of his six days with the monotony of his seventh.47
Beyond Sabbatarianism, active concern of religious bodies, and especially Evangelicals, for the nation’s public and private morality, extended over the widest span of social behaviour, embracing entertainment, sports, gambling, what was published, blasphemy, and fornication. As well as the innate sinfulness, such failings were viewed as signalling a likely progression into even deeper forms of criminality. Evangelicalism’s distaste for entertainments including the theatre was well captured in the puritanical observation that ‘if Vice were to come (p.143) in person to take up her residence in London, she would naturally visit the play-house’.49 In all of these areas religiously inspired organizations both sought to enforce and often to strengthen existing laws. At the opening of the nineteenth century, the Vice Society’s recorded tally of prosecutions over one year in London reveals convictions for the sale of obscene books and prints, brothel keeping, running disorderly public houses, and gaming.50 The formation and evolution of public and political attitudes along with legislative activity in each of these fields almost invariably involved the activities of religious bodies, a practice which continued throughout the whole of the Victorian age.
Licentiousness was a target of Christian and particularly Evangelical attention in two particular forms: sexual relations outside marriage; and unseemly or immodest representation of, or allusion to, sexuality in a fashion which might be labelled ‘obscene’. In some respects, the most extreme examples of attempts to curb what Evangelicals regarded as licentiousness were their efforts in 1800 to make adultery a criminal offence, punishable by fine or imprisonment.51 Less contentious moves to deal with prostitution were focused principally on seeking to curb the offence caused by the outward manifestations of the trade. Later in the century, Non-conformist and Evangelical led groups (especially the National Vigilance Association) were particularly active in attacking sexual exploitation and championing the more general cause of moral purification through legal proscription.52 The hyper-sensitivity towards sexual impropriety and obscenity of Evangelicals and Non-conformists infiltrated all stratas of Victorian society, notably colouring notions of indecency and heavily boosting prurient tendencies.
On a more practical front, it propelled the Vice Society into the vigorous pursuit of sellers of obscene books and materials. As indicated in the Proclamation, ‘dispersing poison to the minds of the young and unwary’ was a particular concern.53 Not only did the Vice Society bring or promote prosecutions, it also developed the practice of making representations on matters of concern directly to the Home Office.54 Dissatisfied with existing measures, in the 1820s, 1830s, and (p.144) 1850s Evangelicals successfully sought a strengthening of the law regulating the public display of obscene works, importation of obscene articles, together with the seizure and destruction of obscene publications.55Even public reading habits were strongly mediated if not censored by the Evangelical or Non-conformist conscience, powerfully influencing the business practices of book sellers and private lending libraries.56 While Evangelicals and Non-conformists were notable for their public activism, the broader, inter-denominational character of religious influence and involvement is apparent from the composition of many campaigning bodies. For example, in later Victorian times, the National Vigilance Association’s first chairman was the Bishop of Southwell, with its council members including many other bishops and also Cardinal Manning. Established in 1880, the rather less aggressive Church of England Purity Society, with the Archbishop of Canterbury as President (reinvented as the White Cross Society in 1890) adopted more of a missionary role amongst the fallen to save both bodies and souls from sexual exploitation.
Gambling and excessive consumption of alcohol had figured in the Proclamation and remained in the calculations of government and employers throughout the nineteenth century. For the religiously inspired, gambling and intoxication seriously threatened to distract individuals from responsible and moral lives; for those more concerned with terrestrial consequences, these vices subverted both the national and individual economic progress, while adding to the social burden of supporting the self-impoverished. Of course, members of the governing and employing classes were often also doubly concerned at the contagion of immorality by virtue of its impact on their own religious sensibilities. As well as prosecuting unlawful gaming, state-sponsored gambling in the form of lotteries was toppled by the Evangelicals in the 1820s.57 Legislative action later in the century, aiming to regulate gambling was almost inevitably promoted, or at the very least strenuously endorsed by both Anglican and Non-conformist campaigning groups, including the formidable National Anti-Gambling League, established in 1890.58
Compared with gambling, alcohol consumption generated a more equivocal and evolving nineteenth-century religious response across practically every (p.145) denomination. Until the 1850s, Anglicans, including Evangelicals, took no principled stand against the consumption of alcohol. Indeed, brewing figured amongst the commercial backgrounds of a number of leading Evangelicals and Quakers, including Buxton and Hanbury. Moreover, the Beer Act 1830 was engineered to free up the ‘benign’ drinking of beer in the hope of lowering working-class consumption of pernicious and disabling quantities of cheap spirits. Formed in 1831, the National British and Foreign Temperance Society claimed its leading members from both Evangelicals and Non-conformists, especially Methodists and Baptists. In line with the informing philosophy of the Beer Act, the Society’s principal target was excessive spirit drinking. Yet by the end of the decade, as the relaxation of regulation on beer sales became discredited, the Society took on a total abstinence stance.
More broadly, a gradual adjustment of focus of Anglican, Non-conformist, and Catholic churches to include not only individual salvation but also broader social welfare increased internal pressure to confront alcohol abuse and its dire consequences more forcefully. Campaigning groups including the Church of England Temperance Society, established in the early 1860s, now sought the population’s social and moral elevation as a route to religious enlightenment—practically reversing the original Evangelical objective of purified morality through religion.59 Out-and-out prohibition was the cause of a few societies including the Non-conformist United Kingdom Alliance set up in 1853. For the rest of the century this and other less extreme groups were notable in their sustained agitation to either increase the restrictions on the sale or consumption of alcohol, or, at the very least, to ensure the rigorous enforcement of existing legislation.60
4. Christianity and the Political and Economic Status Quo
While the people’s (principally the working class’s) morals, sensibilities, and salvation were being protected by these forms of religiously inspired activism, an additional uncompromisingly political dimension intruded into the enforcement of blasphemy laws. Irreligion was seen as socially and politically corrupting the suggestible young: the ‘blasting influence of an unchristian education on the(p.146) minds of youth’.61 For Wilberforce, radical assaults on the ‘inequality of property’ were dangerous enough. However, even more threatening was ‘sapping the foundations of the social edifice…by attacking Christianity’, for the ‘high and noble may be restrained by honour; but religion only is the law of the multitude’.62 The sometimes overlapping nature of blasphemy, obscenity, and sedition charges often exposed the broader political and class credentials of Anglicans and especially Evangelicals. Together with parliamentary performances, their enthusiasm for blasphemy and sedition prosecutions confirmed a powerful attachment to existing institutional structures and consequent distribution of political power: essentially, while often socially progressive, most Evangelicals, like the Established church generally, were politically conservative.
An early indicative illustration of the severe Evangelical stance on blasphemy was provided byWilliams, a prosecution successfully brought by the Proclamation Society in 1797 for the defendant’s publishing of Paine’s Age of Reason. Paine’s uninhibited attack on the Christian religion provoked several prosecutions as being ‘a libel on the religion of the state’. As Ashhurst J. reminded Williams, ‘all offences of this kind are not only offences against God, but crimes against the law of the land, and punishable as such, inasmuch as they tend to destroy those obligations whereby civil society is bound together; and it is upon this ground that the Christian religion constitutes part of the law of England’.63Wilberforce and his fellow society members demonstrated considerably less than Christian charity by declining to follow the advice of Erskine, as prosecution counsel, insisting that the hapless and impoverished Williams be brought before the King’s Bench for final judgment: one year’s hard labour coupled with a recognisance of £1000.64 Such behaviour doubtless contributed to their unpopularity even amongst those such as the rarely less than illiberal Eldon who confessed that the ‘more I see of the “modern Saint[s]” character the less I like it’.65
This reputation for inflexible over-zealousness was compounded by several other successful prosecutions including one of blasphemous libel against the radical Richard Carlile for republishing Paine’s Age of Reason. In the following year (p.147) the Vice Society was reinforced by the newly established, more openly politically motivated, Constitutional Association in bringing a series of actions against blasphemers and avowed republicans,66 including Richard Carlile’s sister Mary Ann, and William Benbow. Both convictions generated hostile parliamentary attention. In presenting a petition for Carlile’s release, Joseph Hume characterized the Vice Society and Constitutional Association as ‘little better than conspiracies against the liberty of the subject’. Defending the prosecutions, Wilberforce argued that all that was ‘most valuable depended upon the preservation of the sacred institutions of the country’.67