‘The warr … against heaven by blasphemors and infidels’
Prosecuting heresy in Enlightenment England
in Freedom of speech, 1500–1850
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This chapter uses the anti-blasphemy legislation of the late 1690s and early 1720s to consider how early Georgian England differed from late Williamite England regarding freedom of speech in general and freedom of religious speech more particularly. So, what had changed between the passage of the Blasphemy Act of 1698 and the failure of the Blasphemy Bill in 1721? Parliament’s resolute determination to maintain the civil peace had not. What had changed, instead, was what most in Parliament thought constituted civil peace; what most in Parliament thought threatened civil peace; and what most in Parliament thought should be done to deal with perceived threats to civil peace. Moreover, what had changed in the two decades after the Blasphemy Act’s passage in 1698 was that the established church itself was riven even more deeply not simply about how to deal with public expressions of untruth but about what even constituted truth and untruth. Indeed, one of the striking things about the 1721 Blasphemy Bill was that some of its chief opponents were clerics; were clerics who believed that heresy and blasphemy were real; were clerics who believed that early eighteenth-century England abounded with heretics and blasphemers; and were clerics who would later prove willing to act on that belief. And yet they voted down a piece of legislation that promised to punish heretics and blasphemers. Put another way, they voted against the Blasphemy Bill not because they thought heretics and blasphemers did not need to be restrained but because they thought they should be restrained only under certain conditions. Principled support of free speech did not drive clerical opposition to the bill; reasons of state did.

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