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- Prisoner for Blasphemy - 3/34 -


Persecution, like superstition, dies hard, but it dies. What though I have suffered the heaviest punishment inflicted on a Freethinker for a hundred and twenty years? Is not the night always darkest and coldest before the dawn? Is not the tiger's dying spring most fierce and terrible?

My sufferings, therefore, are not without the balm of consolation. I see that the future is already brightening with a new hope. Without rising to the supreme height of Danton, who cried "Let my name be blighted that France be free," I feel a humbler pleasure in reflecting that I may have been instrumental in breaking the last fetter on the freedom of the press.

G. W. FOOTE.

_February 1st_, 1886.

CHAPTER I.

THE STORM BREWING.

In the merry month of May, 1881, I started a paper called the _Freethinker_, with the avowed object of waging "relentless war against Superstition in general and the Christian Superstition in particular." I stated in the first paragraph of the first number that this new journal would have a new policy; that it would "do its best to employ the resources of Science, Scholarship, Philosophy and Ethics against the claims of the Bible as a Divine Revelation," and that it would "not scruple to employ for the same purpose any weapons of ridicule or sarcasm that might be borrowed from the armoury of Common Sense."

As the _Freethinker_ was published at the people's price of a penny, and was always edited in a lively style, with a few short articles and plenty of racy paragraphs, it succeeded from the first; and becoming well known, not through profuse advertisement, but through the recommendation of its readers, its circulation increased every week. Within a year of its birth it had outdistanced all its predecessors. No Freethought journal ever progressed with such amazing rapidity. True, this was largely due to the fact that the Freethought party had immensely increased in numbers; but much of it was also due to the policy of the paper, which supplied, as the advertising gentry say, "a long-felt want." Although the first clause of its original programme was never wholly forgotten, we gradually paid the greatest attention to the second, indulging more and more in Ridicule and Sarcasm, and more and more cultivating Common Sense. A dangerous policy, as I was sometimes warned; but for that very reason all the more necessary. The more Bigotry writhed and raged, the more I felt that our policy was telling. Borrowing a metaphor from Carlyle's "Frederick," I likened Superstition to the boa, which defies all ponderous assaults, and will not yield to the pounding of sledge-hammers, but sinks dead when some expert thrusts in a needle's point and punctures the spinal column.

I had a further incentive. Mr. Bradlaugh's infamous treatment by the bigots had revolutionised my ideas of Freethought policy. Although never timid, I was until then practically ignorant of the horrible spirit of persecution; and with the generous enthusiasm of youth I fondly imagined that the period of combat was ended, that the liberty of platform and press was finally won, that Supernaturalism was hopelessly scotched although obviously not slain, and that Freethinkers should now devote themselves to cultivating the fields they had won instead of raiding into the enemy's territory. Alas for the illusions of hope! They were rudely dispelled by a few "scenes" in the House of Commons, and barred from all chance of re-gathering by the wild display of intolerance outside. I saw, in quite another sense than Garth Wilkinson's, the profound truth of his saying that--

"The Duke of Wellington's advice, Do not make a little war, is applicable to internal conflicts against evil in society. For little wars have no background of resources, they do not know the strength of the enemy, and the peace that follows them for the most part leaves the evil in dispute nearly its whole territory; perhaps is purchased by guaranteeing the evil by treaty; and leaves the case of offence more difficult of attack by reason of concession to wrong premises." ("Human Science and Divine Revelation," Preface, p. vi.)

Yes, the war with Superstition must be fought _a outrance_. We must decline either treaty or truce. I hold that the one great work of our time is the destruction of theology, the immemorial enemy of mankind, which has wasted in the chase of chimeras very much of the world's best intellect, fatally perverted our moral sentiments, fomented discord and division, supported all the tyranny of privilege and sanctioned all debasement of the people. Far be it from me to argue this point with any dissident. I prefer to leave him to the logic of events, which has convinced me, and may some day convince him.

But to recur. Before the _Freethinker_ had reached its third number I began to reflect on the advisability of illustrating it, and bringing in the artist's pencil to aid the writer's pen. I soon resolved to do this, and the third and fourth numbers contained a woodcut on the front page. In the fifth number there appeared an exquisite little burlesque sketch of the Calling of Samuel, by a skilful artist whose name I cannot disclose. Although not ostensibly, it was actually, the first of those Comic Bible Sketches for which the _Freethinker_ afterwards became famous; and from that date, with the exception of occasional intervals due to difficulties there is no need to explain, my little paper was regularly illustrated. During the whole twelve months of my imprisonment the illustrations were discontinued by my express order. I was not averse to their appearing, but I knew the terrible obstacles and dangers my temporary successor would have to meet, and I left him a written prohibition of them, which he was free to publish, in order to shield him against the possible charge of cowardice. Since my release from prison they have been resumed, and they will be continued until I go to prison again, unless I see some better reason than Christian menace for their cessation.

The same fifth number of the _Freethinker_ contained an account of the first part of "La Bible Amusante," issued by the Anti-Clerical publishing house in the Rue des Ecoles. That notice was from my own pen, and I venture to reprint the opening paragraphs.

"Voltaire's method of attacking Christianity has always approved itself to French Freethinkers. They regard the statement that he treated religious questions in a spirit of levity as the weak defence of those who know that irony and sarcasm are the deadliest enemies of their faith. Superstition dislikes argument, but it hates laughter. Nimble and far-flashing wit is more potent against error than the slow dull logic of the schools; and the great humorists and wits of the world have done far more to clear its head and sweeten its heart than all its sober philosophers from Aristotle to Kant.

"We in England have Comic Histories, Comic Geographies, and Comic Grammars, but a Comic Bible would horrify us. At sight of such blasphemy Bumble would stand aghast, and Mrs. Grundy would scream with terror. But Bumble and Mrs. Grundy are less important personages in France, and so the country of Rabelais and Voltaire produces what we are unable to tolerate in thought."

I concluded by saying--"We shall introduce the subsequent numbers to the attention of our readers, and, if possible, we shall reproduce in the _Freethinker_ some of the raciest plates. We shall be greeted with shrieks of pious wrath if we do so, but we are not easily frightened."

There was really more than editorial fashion in this "we," for at that time Mr. Ramsey was half proprietor of the _Freethinker_, and his consent had of course to be obtained before I could undertake such a dangerous enterprise. I gladly avow that he showed no hesitation; on the contrary, he heartily fell in with the project. He frankly left the editorial conduct of our paper in my hands, despised the accusation of Blasphemy, and defied its law. His half-proprietorship of the _Freethinker_ has terminated, but we still work together in our several ways for the cause of Freethought. Mr. Ramsey went with me into the furnace of persecution, and he bore his sufferings with manly fortitude.

The _Freethinker_ steadily progressed in circulation, and in January, 1882, I was able to secure the services of my old friend, Joseph Mazzini Wheeler, as sub-editor. He had for long years contributed gratuitously to my literary ventures, and those who ever turn over a file of the _Secularist_ or the _Liberal_ will see with what activity he wielded his trenchant pen. When he became my paid sub-editor, our relations remained unchanged. We worked as loyal colleagues for a cause we both loved, and treated as a mere accident the fact of my being his principal. The same feeling animates us still, nor do I think it can ever suffer alteration.

The new year's number, dated January 1, 1882, referred to Mr. Wheeler's accession, and to that of Dr. Edward Aveling, who then became a member of the regular staff. It also referred to the policy of the _Freethinker_, and to another subject of the gravest interest--namely, the threats of prosecution which had appeared in several Christian journals. As "pieces of justification," to use a French phrase, I quote these two passages:

"Our ill-wishers (what journal has none?) have been of two kinds. In the first place, the Christians, disgusted with our "blasphemy," predicted a speedy failure. The wish was father to the thought. These latter-day prophets were just as false as their predecessors. Now that they witness our indisputable success, they shake their heads, look at us askance, mutter something like curses, and pray the Lord to turn us from our evil ways. One or two bigots, more than ordinarily foolish, have threatened to suppress us with the strong arm of the law. We defy them to do their worst. We have no wish to play the martyr, but we should not object to take a part in dragging the monster of persecution into the light of day, even at the cost of some bites and scratches. As the _Freethinker_ was intended to be a fighting organ, the savage hostility of the enemy is its best praise. We mean to incur their hatred more and more. The war with superstition should be ruthless. We ask no quarter and we shall give none.

"Secondly, we have had to encounter the dislike of mealy-mouthed Freethinkers, who want omelettes without breaking of eggs and revolutions without shedding of blood. They object to ridiculing people who say that twice two are five. They even resent a dogmatic statement that twice two are four. Perhaps they think four and a half a very fair compromise. Now this is recreancy to truth, and therefore to progress. No great cause was ever won by the half-hearted. Let us be faithful to our convictions, and shun paltering in a double sense.


Prisoner for Blasphemy - 3/34

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