“to qualify young men for the gallows, and young women for the brothel”

A reader, Sam, sent some fascinating excerpts from a court decision in 1824, Updegraph v. Commonwealth. It was a small case that prompted the judge to write a seventeen page furious rant, and reading it will make you realize what Glenn Beck’s America would like to return to — no, thanks, I wouldn’t like it.

This was a blasphemy trial. The guilty party (and yes, he was found guilty), had said this one terrible, awful, horrifying sentence:

“That the Holy Scriptures were a mere fable: That they were a contradiction, and that, although they contained a number of good things, yet they contained a great many lies.

Mild stuff, I know; much ruder things are said about the Bible here every day. Yet here in the judge’s summary is the context: this was a point made in a debating society, where I’d think such a discussion would be fair game, but here the judge rants that not only were such words far beyond the pale of civilized discussion, but that the purpose of such a group was “to qualify young men for the gallows, and young women for the brothel”.

This verdict excludes every thing like innocence of intention; it finds a malicious intention in the speaker to vilify the Christian Religion, and the Scriptures, and this court cannot look beyond the record… that the words were uttered by the defendant, a member of a debating association, which convened weekly for discussion and mutual information, and that the expressions were used in the course of argument on a religious question. That there is an association in which so serious a subject is treated with so much levity, indecency, and scurrility, existing in this city, I am sorry to hear, for it would prove a nursery of vice, a school of preparation to qualify young men for the gallows, and young women for the brothel, and there is not a skeptic of decent manners and good morals, who would not consider such debating clubs as a common nuisance and disgrace to the city. From the tenor of the words, it is impossible that they could be spoken seriously and conscientiously, in the discussion of a religious or theological topic; there is nothing of argument in the language; it was the out-pouring of an invective so vulgarly shocking and insulting, that the lowest grade of civil authority ought not to be subject to it, but when spoken in a Christian land, and to a Christian audience, the highest offence [harmful to the moral welfare of society]…

I feel sad that the judge is not alive today to witness the internet. I’m also curious about the circumstances of the arrest — did some Christian prig attend the debating society meeting and rush out in horror to call the police?

The judge had to act to prevent the erosion of moral restraints.

It is sometimes asked with a sneer, Why not leave it to Almighty God to revenge his own cause? Temporal courts do so leave it. ‘Bold and presumptuous would be the man who would attempt to arrest the thunder of heaven from the hand of God, and direct the bolts of vengeance where to fall.’ It is not on this principle courts act, but on the dangerous temporal consequences likely to proceed from the removal of religious and moral restraints…

And here’s a part that hasn’t changed a bit in 186 years:

…it is the purest system of morality, the firmest auxiliary, and only stable support of all human laws. It is impossible to administer the laws without taking the religion which the [defendant] has scoffed at, that Scripture which he has reviled, as their basis.

The only parts of the law that seem to be derived from Scripture are some of the more prudish laws restricting behavior on the Sabbath and, well, blasphemy laws. I think we can dispense with them all.

By the way, the accused was fined 5 shillings and court costs.