1887 was a banner year for intellectual inquiry in the US. Columbia University opened the first US school for librarianship. The first US bacteriology laboratory was founded. Electricity began to be sold. Celluloid film, the gramophone and the kinetoscope were patented. It is therefore somewhat surprising to learn that in Morristown, New Jersey, 30 miles from bustling, inventive New York City, there was a trial going on. About blasphemy.
The courtroom business was just a two-day affair, and the fine with court costs only amounted to $75, but it was fun while it lasted. A good time was had by all, and Mr Robert G Ingersoll, a famous man in his day, had some interesting things to say.
The atheists never did get their tent fixed, though.
What Is Blasphemy, Anyway?
Blasphemy is an epithet bestowed by superstition upon common sense.
– Robert G Ingersoll
What is blasphemy? Technically, it is the act of speaking profanely about sacred things. But what is sacred to one, is irrelevant – or even ludicrous – to another. One person's Holy Grail is another's chamber pot. For this reason, blasphemy, and blasphemy laws, tend to be controversial.
In the United States, we tend to associate blasphemy issues with times gone by: Socrates drinking hemlock, the persecutions of the Middle Ages, witchcraft trials in 17th-Century Europe and New England. If the question of blasphemy is raised in a modern context, it is associated with other countries, and creeds other than Christianity. After all, it would be hard to insult Christianity much more than has already been done by Monty Python, Gore Vidal, or Jimmy Swaggart (who was supposed to be on the Christians' side). Allegedly, the crime of blasphemy is directing an insult against a deity or supernatural being. This, of course, is a ridiculous idea. Any deity or supernatural being worth its salt could easily avenge its own honour, and anyone who seriously believed that extra-dimensional entities were worried about what people called them would run and hide from divine thunderbolts after uttering anti-religious remarks. People pass blasphemy laws because they are offended, not their gods. They don't like people disagreeing with them in public, so they attribute the hurt feelings to Heaven.
This sort of intolerance has been going on for a long time. We've mentioned Socrates. In England – it wasn't the UK yet – King William passed a law in 1697, called the Blasphemy Act, that levied all manner of severe penalties for publicly disbelieving in such ideas as the Holy Trinity. This law hung around, in one form or another, until 1967, when British people were apparently willing to admit that, frankly, most of them didn't believe in the same things King William did.
Unfortunately for the US, some of the states in the Union began as colonies before King William came along. As a result, they had copycat anti-blasphemy laws. One of these laws, the one in New Jersey, was still around in 1887 – when it caused all manner of uproar. The story really began in 1885, and involved an atheist tent revival.
Atheist Tent Revival?
CB Reynolds started out as a First-Day Adventist. Then he became a Seventh-Day Adventist. After that, he became an agnostic in good standing with the other agnostics of Rochester, New York. In those days, the term of art for such people was 'freethinkers'. This probably annoyed the religious people.
Freethinkers, at least the New York State variety, were much like other middle-class US people of their day. Their meetings were held in much the same way, respectably and quietly. They had Sunday Schools. They sang, and even had their own hymnbooks. The difference was in the content of their teaching: basically, they openly admitted what middle- and upper-class mainstream religion was keeping quiet about, to wit, that late-19th-century Westerners didn't believe in the literal truth of the Bible. The agnostics were just less hypocritical about it. They also did not want their children to be taught frightening Bible stories, or warned off the theory of evolution. They wanted them to grow up to be good scientists, and go to Cornell1.
American atheism was not about religious concepts. Unlike other controversies, North American debate over religion rarely concerned abstracta such as the Trinity or justification by faith. Instead, they argued about facts. At issue was the veracity of the Bible as a literally true compendium of history, science, ethnography, and so on. Therefore, debates about the Bible rarely centred on any issue the original scriptural audiences would have understood. Instead, inquiring minds wanted to know: was a man really swallowed by a whale? Could donkeys talk? And what about that Ark?
Agnostics seemed to believe that they could shame people out of this sort of superstition (and/or hypocrisy) by evangelism. It was a time-honoured American technique. To help Reynolds in his task, the freethinkers' journal, The Truth Seeker, helped him raise the large sum of $300 to buy a 50-foot-diameter tent. Now, Reynolds could hold tent revivals like the other preachers. With it, his Infidels could reach the benighted Christians of small-town New Jersey. A missionary movement got underway.
Enlightening the Simple in New Jersey
The root of the dispute was what happened in 1886. During that summer, Reynolds toured the backwaters of New Jersey with his tent, drawing mostly small crowds. In the town of Boonton (1880 population: 2,277), a three-day freethinker 'revival' resulted in threats of grievous bodily harm and the annihilation of the tent by a 'Christian mob' (according to The Truth Seeker). Reynolds swore out complaints against the vandals. The town, which did not want to pay for an expensive atheist tent, responded by citing Reynolds under the blasphemy statute. Reynolds posted bail and retired to New York, but refused to drop his damage claim.
Things heated up in the fall when Reynolds returned, minus his tent, to pass out literature and speak. In Morristown, he was again cited for blasphemy. A trial was arranged, but had to be postponed several times, because Reynolds' pro bono lawyer had a sore throat. Why was this significant? You shall see.
The Great Agnostic Takes the Stage... Er, Addresses the Jury
New Jersey wanted to avoid paying for the atheists' tent. The freethinkers wanted their day in court. Every bored citizen within miles of Morristown wanted a free show. What better way to meet all these desires than to send for Robert G Ingersoll?
Ingersoll was a superstar. He was the most famous orator in America. People would pay up to a whole dollar, rock-concert-level prices in those days, to hear him discourse for up to three hours. He did this from memory, and he was riveting. Ingersoll talked about Shakespeare, or the importance of family life, or – his favourite subject – the evils of Christianity. Ingersoll's father had been a liberal Congregationalist pastor, who was hounded from one town to another by small-minded church members who acted our their petty aggressions by starting church controversies. The worst one had been when Ingersoll's stepmother subjected Ingersoll's dad to a 'church trial'. Bob was nine at the time. He never forgave religious people for their bad behaviour, and he used his rhetorical power against them whenever possible.
Ingersoll was such a compelling speaker because he used good technique coupled with sound logic and an appealing approach to his subject. Even people who profoundly disagreed with him admired him, and enjoyed listening to him speak. His appearance in Morristown promised to be a major treat. In other words, the show trial was going to be a free show, and nobody wanted to miss it. For that reason, nobody minded postponing the serious blasphemy issue until May 1887, when Ingersoll's throat cleared up, and he could find the time to come over and defend CB Reynolds.
Even the New York papers noted the event, with amusement. The town was teeming with curiosity seekers. Everyone who could get in the courthouse was seated early. The place was packed by the time Ingersoll arrived in the late morning. His client, CB Reynolds, was with him – but nobody paid any attention to him, as he was just a bystander in a top hat.
The Truth Seeker had sent a reporter to cover the event. This paper's coverage is so remarkable that it should be quoted a bit. First, the jury – all-male in those days – was sworn in.
There were but two or three of these men with faces indicating any intelligence whatever, and their verdict proved that each one ought to be marked on the forehead, J.J. – Jersey jackass.
When these animals had been secured in the pen, District Attorney Cutler told them that the crime charged upon Mr Reynolds was circulating a blasphemous and impious pamphlet. He then called as witness John W Babbitt, a constable of the court, who was armed with a copy of the pamphlet, which he swore he had religiously preserved locked up in his bookcase ever since it was given to him by Mr Reynolds in person...
– The Truth Seeker, 28 May, 1887, quoted on The Rational Response Squad website.
The Truth Seeker goes on in this vein to describe the highly entertaining proceedings. Colonel Ingersoll2 called no witnesses, but simply got down to the business he was there for: addressing the jury. He spoke for two hours – and you could have heard a pin drop.
No summary published in any of the daily papers gives the faintest idea of its beauty and grandeur. All the hot summer afternoon he held the audience spellbound – not a man moved from his seat; scores were touched to tears, while often times it seemed impossible to prevent the people from breaking into tumultuous applause to express their approval of his sentiments.
– The Truth Seeker.
They were mesmerised. Ingersoll was that good. You don't believe it? Read the speech. (It will take some time, turn off your mobile.) At about 4:30pm the judge decided they should call it a day, and adjourned the proceedings until the morrow. The next morning everyone settled in happily while Ingersoll continued to speak... for another hour and a half.
Ingersoll's arguments, though eloquent, are not hard to follow. The Colonel maintained that this New Jersey law was unconstitutional, because of its limits on free speech. He also explained to the jury that all religions started out as minorities, believing in free speech, but were less keen on the concept once they got in power. He tried to convince them that, while they were Christians, if they'd been born in Turkey, they would have been Muslims, and just as defensive of the reputation of Mohammed. Finally, he pointed out that Reynolds' complaints about the inaccuracy of the Bible came from reading the Bible closely, and wondered in passing whether most people in New Jersey could say the same.
After this impressive performance, the local District Attorney, a young man named Cutler, was outclassed, and he knew it. He made no attempt to compete with a real professional like Ingersoll. Cutler simply told the jury that they couldn't decide on the constitutionality of the law – that was for a higher court. They only had to decide whether CB Reynolds had violated the statute. He sat down. The judge told the jury what they were supposed to do – which, basically, was to convict Reynolds – and they retired.
An hour later, they came back with a Guilty verdict. After all, the judge told them to. The next problem was sentencing: theoretically, they could send the atheist speaker to the penitentiary for a year. However, there was a snag: nobody could find the District Attorney. As it turned out, he'd gone to lunch. The judge decided that lunch sounded like a good idea, so everybody took a meal break.
At 1pm the court reassembled, solemnly, for the awesome reading of the sentence. We'll let The Truth Seeker tell it, because they are so good at it.
Judge Childs assumed a judicial demeanour, and said sternly, 'Charles B Reynolds, stand up.' Mr Reynolds stood up. You have been convicted, continued Mr Childs, of circulating blasphemous matter. Inasmuch as the law has for so long been unused, you may reasonably be expected to have been ignorant of it. And while ignorance of the law excuses no man from its penalties, the court feels bound to take the fact of your ignorance into consideration in passing sentence. The judgment of the court is that you pay a fine of twenty-five dollars, together with the costs of prosecution...'
– The Truth Seeker, 28 May, 1887.
$25? That's all? To be sure, with court costs, the damage amounted to a whopping 75 bucks. Ingersoll paid the fine out of his pocket – he could afford it, what with his speaking fees. Besides, he'd had a great time, got a book out of it, and had a chance to convince a few more people of what he firmly believed: when it comes to Noah's Ark, snakes in gardens, and prophets inside big fish, it ain't necessarily so.
CB Reynolds went back to preaching atheism, but he moved to greener pastures: Walla Walla, Washington, far from New Jersey. Morristown and Boonton settled down to business as usual. Colonel Ingersoll went on to his next speaking engagement, and refused the freethinkers' offer of payment for his services. He'd get his reward in Heaven, or wherever he went next.
The New York Times had fun with the story, as it offered them a chance to poke fun at neighbouring New Jersey, a popular pastime in the Big Apple:
JERSEY LAW TRIUMPHANT; REYNOLDS FOUND GUILTY OF BLASPHEMY. INGERSOLL'S ELOQUENCE UNABLE TO SAVE HIS FREE-THINKING CLIENT FROM A FINE OF $25.
– New York Times, 21 May, 1887.
Assiduous search has not resulted in a repeal date for the New Jersey blasphemy statute. This law may, or may not, still be on the books. Other US states have them, too. But by and large they dare not enforce them. For one thing, the higher courts will strike the laws down as unconstitutional, because they are. For another, the Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Bah'ai, and other religious US citizens will point out that they don't believe in the Trinity, either. And finally, they will hear Robert G Ingersoll laughing at them from beyond the grave.
Oh, and nobody ever paid for that revival tent.