Felicity Loughlin: Bookshops and blasphemy in 1840s Edinburgh

Felicity Loughlin: Bookshops and blasphemy in 1840s Edinburgh

Dr Felicity Loughlin

Dr Felicity Loughlin, lecturer in the history of modern Christianity at Edinburgh University, writes about Scotland’s last persecution for blasphemy as a criminal offence, and what this can tell us about changing attitudes towards religion and free speech in the Victorian age.

In 1837, a 23-year-old publisher and bookseller named Henry Robinson set up shop in Glasgow’s Brunswick Place, just off the Trongate. His advertisements drew attention to the shop’s large supply of newspapers and its ‘rare and valuable works on science, literature and religion, not to be had at any other shop in Glasgow’. This rather oblique description alluded to Robinson’s striking collection of radical anti-Christian publications. His copious stock included numerous pamphlets and newspapers that rejected Christianity, lamented its moral and intellectual effects, criticised its ministers and denied the Bible’s authenticity as the word of God. Such views were highly unusual in 19th-century Scotland, which was an overwhelmingly Christian nation. Yet there was a small but significant market for radical bookshops such as Robinson’s.

The 1820s had seen the establishment of ‘freethinking’ societies in Edinburgh and Glasgow, where atheists, deists and sceptics held weekly Sunday meetings to debate theological and philosophical topics. These groups were popular with members of the middling and upper working class, attracting shop-keepers, artisans and apprentices, and at their peak they drew in audiences of 200-300. They were dominated by men, but a small number of women also participated. By the late 1830s, socialist Rational Societies in Scottish towns and cities also attracted unbelievers. Concerned Christians recognised that radical bookshops were important to Scotland’s infidel communities, facilitating the circulation of controversial theological and philosophical ideas.

By 1839, Robinson had relocated to Edinburgh, where he opened a bookshop and publishing house at 11 Greenside Street. Nestled between St James Square and Calton Hill, this bustling row of tenements was home to numerous artisans and shop-owners and for many years his business thrived. Yet his fortunes changed suddenly in June 1843 when he was arrested for selling blasphemous books. The catalyst was his publication of The Bible an Improper Book for Youth, written by an unknown author from Edinburgh under the pseudonym ‘Cosmopolite’. This controversial pamphlet, widely advertised throughout the city, argued that the Bible had failed to ‘humanise humanity’ and was ‘totally unfit’ for children due to its ‘obscene passages and unjust sentiments’. Later that day, Robinson’s father-in-law, a cabinet-maker named Thomas Finlay, was also arrested on blasphemy charges for operating an ‘infidel library’ from his home in nearby Haddington Place. Robinson and Finlay were released on payment of bail and in July 1843 were called to appear before the high court of justiciary, reserved for the most serious criminal offences. Two further arrests swiftly followed.

These dramatic events culminated in the last blasphemy prosecutions in Scottish history. Such trials were uncommon and sparked heated debates over freedom of the press, freedom of speech and the scope of religious toleration that have continued to reverberate down to the present.

Radical booksellers in 19th-century Scotland

Booksellers specialising in freethinking publications were rare in 19th-century Scotland. These individuals were uniquely vulnerable to Scottish blasphemy legislation, which targeted the selling, publishing or circulating of works that denied or ridiculed the Christian religion and the holy scriptures. A handful of individuals are known to have sold infidel newspapers and pamphlets in 1819, including Matthew Shiels, an itinerant bookseller from Edinburgh, and Andrew Marshall and his wife Margaret Wright who lived in Glasgow’s Rotten Row. All three were charged with selling blasphemous books and chose to flee rather than stand trial.The first shop devoted to selling freethinking literature was established in 1823 by James Affleck, a founding member of Edinburgh’s freethinking society, who opened a bookshop and reading room in Adam Square, once adjacent to Old College on South Bridge. His business was short-lived and in May 1824 he was charged with selling blasphemous books and sentenced to three months’ imprisonment in Calton jail and a £100 fine. Although no further prosecutions took place until the arrests of Robinson and Finlay 20 years later, a handful of radical bookshops were active in Glasgow and Edinburgh in the late 1830s. By the time Robinson had relocated to the capital in 1839, David Paton and William Love had opened a freethinking bookshop at 10 Nelson Street in Glasgow’s Southside, and Christian observers such as the advocate William Gillespie claimed that by the 1840s it was possible to find ‘sheets and volumes of infidelity’ in Scottish towns, ‘vended in a manner enough public’.

Booksellers of this kind generally stocked radical newspapers, classic texts by French thinkers of the Enlightenment, especially Voltaire and the Baron d’Holbach, revolutionary writings of the late 18th century, particularly the works of Thomas Paine and Volney, and more recent deist or atheist writings by 19th-century thinkers in Britain and America. Several also held a small number of apologetic works by heterodox Christian thinkers who were critical of orthodox doctrines. Window-shoppers at Robinson’s bookshop in Greenside Street in June 1843 could peruse titles including Cosmopolite’s Bible Improper, the Bible of Reason by the American freethinker Benjamin F. Powell, and The Devil:Twelve Reasons for Disbelieving in his Personal Existence, by the deist author Owen Howell. They could also observe a print of Christ holding annuity tax notices, the compulsory tithes collected from Edinburgh residents to support the ministers of the Church of Scotland, much to the chagrin of those outwith its congregations.

Unfortunately for Robinson, the raid on his shop also unearthed various ‘obscene’ publications, leading him to face charges of both blasphemy and obscenity. These works primarily comprised contraceptive and reproductive manuals, as well as a handful of erotic novels and pornographic prints, which were kept in a desk in the back of the shop. Robinson’s wife, Margaret Finlay, was so anxious to prevent their discovery by the sherriff officers that she unsuccessfully attempted to destroy them in the water closet. Several leading freethinkers were frustrated that Robinson had damaged the reputation of unbelievers by selling such works. Robinson himself viewed the obscenity charges as a ‘diabolical piece of villainy’, which aimed to ‘screen the real question at issue’, which was his publication of Cosmopolite’s pamphlet.

Given that other bookshops, including Robinson’s own, had long evaded the interest of the authorities, why did his publication of Cosmopolite’s pamphlet in 1843 provoke such a severe response? One explanation is the heightened concerns over the socialist Rational Society, which was increasingly viewed by many as an infidel association. It was also no coincidence that the arrests of Robinson and Finlay took place just one month after the Great Disruption of the Church of Scotland, when over a third of its ministers had abandoned their positions and stipends to establish the Free Church. This seismic fracture of the national Church was rooted in the perception that the government was failing to support the Kirk sufficiently. Robinson’s publishing activities thus caught the eye of the civic authorities at a time of heightened anxiety over the future relationship between Church and State.

Freethinkers rally in Edinburgh

News of the arrests of Robinson and Finlay spread quickly across Britain’s communities of unbelievers. English freethinkers described Edinburgh as the new ‘seat of war’ in the fight for freedom of opinion, and several travelled to Scotland in solidarity.This included the 29-year-old Charles Southwell, who had opened a radical bookshop in Bristol and had served a twelve-month sentence for blasphemy in 1842. From mid-July he printed weekly bulletins on Robinson and Finlay’s case in his radical newspaper, The Investigator, and he was soon joined by 28-year-old Thomas Paterson, born in Lanarkshire, who ran a radical bookshop in London and had served one month for blasphemy in January 1843. By mid-July, Robinson and Finlay’s supporters in Scotland had established the Scottish Anti-Persecution Union, modelled on a similar organisation founded by English unbelievers the previous year.

The feverish excitement surrounding Robinson and Finlay’s trials on 24 July 1843 ended in a disappointing anti-climax, when the defence gained a postponement due to technical errors in the trial papers. Interested spectators deemed it likely that the cases would be dropped and that neither Robinson nor Finlay would be called to stand trial at the next session of the high court in November. Yet they had not bargained for the provocative activities of Thomas Paterson, which ensured that infidel booksellers would not be forgotten. Deliberately baiting the authorities, he opened a ‘blasphemy depot’ at 38 West Register Street, just around the corner from Robinson’s shop. Advertisements promised that his publications were ‘calculated to enlighten, without corrupting – to bring into contempt the demoralising trash our priests palm upon the credulous as divine revelation – and to expose the absurdity of, as well as the horrible effects springing from, the debasing god idea!’. He was arrested on blasphemy charges in early August pending trial in November and was released on bail, only to be rearrested a fortnight later for posting blasphemous advertisements through letterboxes and shutters throughout the city.

Events abroad continued to stoke the fires of the freethinkers’ campaign when Robert Reid Kalley, a Glaswegian missionary and physician, was imprisoned for blasphemy in Catholic Madeira for attempting to convert his patients to Protestantism. In September, his fellow Protestants in Edinburgh organised a public meeting to petition the British government to secure his release. The occasion was gate-crashed by several members of the Scottish Anti-Persecution Union, including Thomas Paterson, who appealed for the same liberty to be extended to victims of blasphemy legislation in Calvinist Edinburgh.

The blasphemy trials of November 1843

On 8 November 1843, Robinson and Paterson were called to stand trial at the high court before the Lord Justice-Clerk, John Hope, an ardent supporter of the Church of Scotland and a man with a stern judicial reputation. Finlay was surprised that his own case had been dropped. It is probable that this decision stemmed from a growing sense that public opinion over the propriety of blasphemy prosecutions was divided. Paterson’s antics, the establishment of the Scottish Anti-Persecution Union and the Kalley affair had sparked debates on freedom of conscience, which for many Scots was a sacred principle of Protestantism. Finlay, an upstanding citizen, an older man and a gifted speaker, was far more liable to attract public sympathy than either Robinson, who was tainted by the obscenity charge, or Paterson, whose bullish tactics had aggravated many. It is notable, for instance, that the Lord Advocate, Duncan McNeill, opened proceedings by reminding the jury that they were not appointed to debate Scotland’s blasphemy laws, but to judge whether Paterson and Robinson were guilty of selling books that denied or ridiculed Christianity or the Bible.

An undaunted Paterson was the first to stand trial. He delivered a four-hour speech in his defence, objecting to the injustice of Scotland’s blasphemy laws, which contravened the Protestant emphasis on freedom of conscience. He noted that Thomas Chalmers himself, the leading Scottish evangelical of the age, had argued that Protestantism ought to rest on ‘reason, scripture and prayer’ rather than coercion when he had defended the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829. Paterson also refuted suggestions that unbelievers were immoral and defended ‘the spirit of infidelity’ as ‘the spirit of dissent that criticises and selects’ on the basis of truth, reason and common sense. Much of Paterson’s speech, however, consisted of a bitter attack on Christianity. As Charles Southwell observed, this was the first open disavowal of Christianity in Scotland’s high court.

Emotions ran high on both sides of the bench. Lord Justice-Clerk Hope was deeply aggravated by Paterson’s brazen attitude. He criticised the young man, more than 20 years his junior, for coming to court ‘buoyed up with the notion of some great cause of which you are the champion’. He gave the jury a strong steer, warning them that they were not engaged in a theological discussion over the validity of blasphemy prosecutions and were obliged to uphold the law. Even Hope, however, felt compelled to add some nuance to the principles underpinning Scotland’s blasphemy legislation. He suggested that had Paterson sold publications which denied Christianity after a ‘fair and serious discussion’, he would not have been brought to trial, as the law ‘did not impose upon individuals any obligation as to their belief’.The blasphemy laws, he argued, related primarily to publications that were intended to ridicule the Christian religion and bring it into contempt.

Sentencing was postponed until Robinson’s case had been heard the following day. Despite assuring Southwell that he would rather ‘part with his best limb’ than plead guilty, Robinson lost heart before the trial and admitted the majority of charges against him in the hope of receiving a mitigated sentence. He was to be bitterly disappointed. After a short break, all but one of the fifteen jurors found both Paterson and Robinson guilty. Lord Justice-Clerk Hope, eager to discourage any proliferation of unbelief at a time when the Church of Scotland’s status as the spiritual guardian of the nation had been weakened, sentenced them to fifteen and twelve months’ imprisonment respectively. Personal animosity is also likely to have played a part in this harsh sentencing. Lord Hope informed Paterson that he would pray for his conversion ‘to that adorable Redeemer, whose mercy you have hitherto so contemptuously rejected’, and he assured him that any appeal for exemption of treatment as a common felon would be rejected. Once again, however, Hope was seemingly aware of popular dislike of blasphemy prosecutions. He reiterated that Paterson and Robinson had not been charged for publishing works ‘containing sentiments which the law did not recognise’, but for selling books filled with misrepresentations and mockeries, which aimed only to ‘bring into contempt the feelings and belief of Christians’.

The aftershocks: Finlay and Roalfe stand trial

Despite Hope’s attempts to justify the principles underpinning Scotland’s blasphemy legislation, the public response to the harsh sentencing of Robinson and Finlay was mixed. Radical newspapers universally denounced the vindictive sentencing on display, which they interpreted as symptomatic of an unjust, illiberal society. Sympathies were heightened when Paterson was moved from Calton jail to Perth penitentiary, which imposed solitary confinement and silence and restricted the receipt of letters. The Aberdeen Herald also sympathised with Robinson and Finlay, objecting to blasphemy prosecutions on the grounds that it was unjustifiable to punish opinions that were distinct from good morals. Two weeks after the trial, a public meeting organised by the Scottish Anti-Persecution Union to rally support for the prisoners attracted a large crowd of believers and unbelievers alike. Several Christian attendees argued that persecutory policies harmed rather than protected the faith and advocated Jesus’ injunction to turn the other cheek. Henry Jeffrey, a socialist lecturer and atheist, rejoiced that Christians and infidels were united in defending freedom of opinion and the meeting voted unanimously to petition the government for the prisoners’ release and the abolition of blasphemy legislation. By contrast, some Christian Scots approved of the high court’s actions. For instance, the Free Church newspaper The Witness declared that there was ‘both wisdom and humanity’ in the blasphemy legislation, which was intended to protect the spiritual welfare of the Scottish nation.

The aftershocks of the trials continued to reverberate in December 1843, when Finlay was called to stand trial for the charges brought against him six months earlier. Significantly, he was summoned only to the sheriff court, which dealt with less serious criminal offences and could impose a maximum prison sentence of just 60 days and a maximum fine of £10. A semblance of consistency could thus be maintained while avoiding the publicity of another high court trial. Finlay delivered an eloquent speech in his defence. He cited Christian thinkers since antiquity who had opposed the coercion of belief and gave a moving description of the uncivil treatment he had received by the authorities, whose raid on his home had left his ‘literary gems and curiosities thrown in heaps’ and ‘the very locks of hair of my departed father and mother strewed about’. He also described the injustice of being subjected to the aggressive tactics of the Church of Scotland’s Home Missionary Society, while being unable to ‘open my mouth, or my books in my own defence’. He concluded that since the blasphemy laws rested on ‘such a narrow basis with regard to popular sanction’, they ought to be administered leniently. Sheriff George Tait commended Finlay’s ‘excellent and judicious defence’ but noted that the recent precedent of the high court obliged him to give Finlay the option of either a £10 fine or 60 days’ imprisonment. Finlay defiantly chose the latter.

The arrests of Paterson and Robinson had also galvanised 30-year-old Matilda Roalfe, an English atheist who had travelled from London to Edinburgh in September and had set up her own bookshop at 105 Nicolson Street in November. In the aftermath of the high court trials, she published a lengthy manifesto, in which she promised to supply ‘works of a controversial and philosophical character, whether such works do or do not bring into contempt the holy scriptures or the Christian religion’. She also published her own pamphlet, Law Breaking Justified, in which she boldly declared: ‘I will publish irreligious opinions, be the consequences to myself what they may’. In mid-December she was arrested pending trial for blasphemy and was released on payment of bail. As news of her release spread, a raucous crowd of anti-infidel protestors gathered outside her home. The Scottish Anti-Persecution Union rallied to her protection, one of whom was struck on the head by a medical student who had joined the mob, until the police dispersed the crowd. Roalfe suspected that her neighbour, a local Methodist minister, had played a chief role in orchestrating the events.

She was called to a crowded sheriff court on 14 January 1844 and chose to speak in her own defence. To disprove the charge that her books corrupted religious beliefs and morals, she forced one unfortunate sheriff officer, who had foolishly admitted to reading one of her publications, that neither his religious views nor morals had been altered. She also took the opportunity to declare that the real question at issue was ‘not whether Christianity was true or false, but whether Atheists had an equal right with Christians to publish their opinions’. Sheriff George Tait was again compelled to follow the precedent of the high court and sentenced her to 60 days’ imprisonment. According to the freethinking press, the crowd expressed their admiration for Roalfe and applauded her as she was led away to Calton jail. Her speech was widely publicised in freethinking communities and many were impressed that a woman could display such ‘manful’ spirit. Following her arrest, the Scottish Anti-Persecution Union published a transcript of the trials of Paterson, Finlay and Roalfe as The Scotch Trials (1844), to showcase their bold defiance of Scotland’s blasphemy legislation.

The legacy: blasphemy past and present

The radical bookshops of 1840s Edinburgh left a lasting mark on the Scottish cultural landscape. By framing the toleration of unbelief as a question pertaining to liberty of conscience and freedom of opinion, they succeeded in gaining support from many contemporary Christians. Despite the harsh sentencing of Paterson and Robinson, there are clear signs that public opinion towards Scotland’s blasphemy laws was changing. At a time when relations between Church and State were under scrutiny, there was a growing sense among some Christians that the faith was damaged rather than protected by the punitive measures of the civic authorities. Even Lord Justice-Clerk Hope felt compelled to add nuance to the principles underpinning the legislation when he stressed that the tone rather than the substance of infidel publications was key.

The experience of the radical booksellers of the 1840s also contrasted with that of James Affleck 20 years earlier, who had been forced to close his bookshop after his blasphemy trial. When Robinson was released in November 1844, his reputation remained respectable enough that that he was able to resume his business, which was still in operation into the 1900s. He also succeeded in gaining the return of his entire stock from the authorities in October 1845, with the exception of the dozen or so items for which he had been prosecuted. Finlay and Roalfe were also undaunted by their imprisonment. Finlay wrote from his cell shortly before his release in January 1844 to describe his cheerful spirit and to declare that he was still ‘Thomas Finlay, the Infidel’ and thanked the Scottish Anti-Persecution Union for supporting his wife. Matilda Roalfe was released in March 1844, where she was presented with £10 collected by the Glasgow Rational Society at a soirée held in her honour in Edinburgh’s Calton Convening Room. In June, she too secured the return of all the books excepting those for which she had been prosecuted. By October, she informed the freethinking press that ‘we have won the battle of mental freedom in this city’, noting that she regularly advertised controversial books in the city ‘without the slightest notice taken, except that I am looked upon as a sort of she devil, by the saints’. She continued to run her bookshop until 1845, when she relocated to Galashiels and married Walter Sanderson, a member of the local ‘Infidel Association’. When Paterson was released from his fifteen-month stay in Perth prison in February 1845, he took the opportunity to denounce his persecutors and returned to England where he continued to play an active role in its infidel circles for several years.

Strikingly, we can still hear echoes of the debates sparked by Scotland’s last blasphemy trials. In April 2021, the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act abolished the blasphemy legislation under which Edinburgh’s 1840s booksellers were prosecuted. At the same time, it introduced a new offence of stirring up hatred on religious grounds, which carries a maximum penalty of seven years’ imprisonment. Just as 19th-century freethinkers and certain Christian groups were united in opposing Scottish blasphemy legislation, the National Secular Society, the Scottish Catholic Church and the Free Church of Scotland joined together to urge amendments to the Hate Crime Bill, defending the free and open exchange of ideas and denying that behaviour is threatening or abusive simply because it involves expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule or insult. Paterson, Robinson, Roalfe, Finlay and their supporters would have delighted in finding such widespread support from Scotland’s religious and secular communities for the principle of freedom of speech, 175 years after their convictions.

Dr Felicity Loughlin is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh. She is currently researching varieties of unbelief in Scotland and the responses of Christian mainstream, c.1697–1914.The research for this piece was funded by the Leverhulme ‘After the Enlightenment’ project at the University of St Andrews. This article first appeared in History Scotland.

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