Holy Horrors: Church atrocities receded in Europe because of the Enlightenment

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Excerpt from Holy Horrors: An Illustrated History of Religious Murder and Madness, by James A. Haught (Prometheus Books, 2002). Reprinted with permission from the author.

Chapter 15: Enlightenment

During the 1700s, religion’s throttlehold upon Europe slowly loosened. Religious killing still occurred, but with decreasing frequency. Sporadic examples:

In 1723, the bishop of Gdansk, Poland, demanded the expulsion of Jews. The city council declined, but the bishop’s exhortations roused a mob that invaded the ghetto and beat the residents to death.

Women still were burned occasionally as witches-in Scotland in 1722, in Germany in 1749, in Switzerland in 1782.

From 1702 to 1710, Louis XIV’s efforts to stamp out Protestantism caused Camisards of southern France to burn Catholic churches and kill priests. Catholic troops were sent in, slaughtering whole villages. Camisard leaders were executed.

The Inquisition was still alive, chiefly in Spain, but its horrors were few (perhaps because Spain had hardly any secret Jews, Muslims, or Protestants left to kill).

In 1715, Protestants were violently persecuted in the Rhineland Palatinate, and in 1732, Archbishop Firmian forcibly expelled 20,000 Protestants from Salzburg province.

Christians still accused Jews of stealing holy wafers and stabbing them to crucify Jesus again. An execution for host-nailing happened in Nancy, France, in 1761. Christians still accused Jews of sacrificing Gentile children, but massacres were rare. A late exception was the killing of 128 Jews at Bucharest in 1801 after Orthodox priests raised the blood libel.

Why did church atrocities recede in the West? Because a new social climate was spreading—the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment. Philosopher Hegel called it “the Age of Intelligence.” The growth of scientific thinking and open discourse brought an awakening of human rights: a sense that people should be allowed to hold differing beliefs without risking death.

This freedom didn’t come easily. Maverick thinkers paid for it by placing themselves in jeopardy. In the 1720s, English writer Thomas Woolston voiced doubt of the Resurrection and other Bible miracles, and he was put under house arrest for the remainder of his life. French intellectual Denis Diderot, editor of the first encyclopedia, was jailed briefly for writing irreligious thoughts. Many nonconformist thinkers had their writings seized and burned.

The supreme genius of the Enlightenment was Francois Marie Arouet, known forever as Voltaire. A celebrated playwright and wit, he changed late in life into a fearless crusader against religious cruelty and injustice. Disregarding his personal safety, he wrote vehement attacks on the church’s record of brutality.

“Every sensible man, every honorable man, must hold the Christian sect in horror,” he said. He told Frederick the Great that Christianity “is the most ridiculous, the most absurd, and bloody religion that has ever infected the world.”

Voltaire’s onslaughts put him in danger. His irreverent Philosophical Dictionary was publicly burned in Paris, Geneva, and Holland, and was banned by the Holy Office. Louis XV banished him from Paris. He lived in exile, finally buying an estate on the French-Swiss border, so he might escape into Switzerland if French Catholics came for him, and into France if sought by Swiss Calvinists. From this retreat, he corresponded with thinkers throughout Europe—and sympathizers everywhere began following his struggle for tolerance.

Voltaire protested French Catholic cruelties to Protestants, such as a 1752 edict nullifying all Protestant marriages and baptisms. More directly, Voltaire became a defender of Protestant victims of injustice, hiring lawyers and waging long court battles in their behalf. Some of his cases:

• Huguenot cotton trader Jean Calas was charged with murdering his son, allegedly because the youth was planning to convert to Catholicism. Actually, the son never had contemplated conversion, and had committed suicide in a fit of depression. Catholic judges found the family guilty in 1762 and had the father killed barbarically: all four of his limbs were broken in two places, then he was strangled and burned. The family property was seized and the other members were banished from France. Voltaire, incensed, wrote pamphlets against the outrage and enlisted influential friends to seek redress. Finally a new trial was ordered in 1765. Forty judges unanimously declared Calas innocent. The family property was restored and the king paid compensation to the widow.

• Two teen-age boys of Abbeville, Chevalier de La Barre and Gaillard d’Etallonde, were accused of wearing their hats while a church procession passed, and singing irreverent songs and mutilating a crucifix that stood on a bridge. D’Etallonde escaped before trial, but his companion was condemned to have his tongue cut out, his right hand cut off, and to be burned at the stake. Voltaire sought leniency. The case was appealed to parliament in Paris. The clergy demanded death, and parliament acceded, substituting the more merciful penalty of decapitation. The horrible sentence was carried out on July 1, 1766. Voltaire helped d’Etallonde enter the Prussian army and worked for his eventual rehabilitation in court.

• Jean Pierre Espinas spent twenty-three years as a convict oarsman in a penal galley ship—for the crime of giving lodging to a Protestant minister for one night. Voltaire obtained his release.

• Claude Chaumont likewise was sentenced to a galley bench for attending a Protestant worship service. Voltaire secured his freedom.

Voltaire’s exposure of such cases gave them international notoriety. He also raised outcries against injustices not related to religion. Under his bombardment, France began to abandon torture and mutilation. Voltaire’s efforts taught kindred spirits around the world how to fight for human rights.

Enlightenment ideas found fertile ground in the revolutionary new democracy taking shape in America. Thomas Jefferson, an intense scholar, knew the horrors of Old World abuses and devised safeguards against them. He insisted on “a wall of separation” to prevent the church from using the state, or vice versa. He was proud of his authorship of Virginia’s statute of religious freedom and had it cited on his tombstone. It begins: “No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place or ministry whatever….”

Thomas Paine, the fiery pamphleteer of the Revolution, waged war against church oppression in his later years in England and France. In The Age of Reason, he attacked Christianity as a system of superstition that “produces fanatics” and “serves the purposes of despotism.” When the book reached England, several sellers were convicted of blasphemy and jailed.

Gradually, the Age of Enlightenment wrought profound change. People no longer believed in religion intensely enough to torture, burn, and massacre each other over points of theology. Thus religious killing came to an end in Western Europe.

But in some other parts of the world, it never stopped.

Excerpted from Holy Horrors: An Illustrated History of Religious Murder and Madness by James A. Haught. Copyright © James A. Haught, 2002. All rights reserved.

James A. HaughtJames A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia’s The Charleston Gazette-Mail and a senior editor of the Free Inquiry magazine. He is also the author of numerous books and articles; his most recent book is Religion is Dying: Soaring Secularism in America and the West (Gustav Broukal Press, 2010). Haught has won 21 national newswriting awards and thirty of his columns have been distributed by national syndicates. He is in Who’s Who in America, Who’s Who in the World, Contemporary Authors, and 2000 Outstanding Intellectuals of the 21st Century. His website is haught.net.

Holy Horrors
By James A. Haught
Prometheus Books, (30 May 2002)
ISBN-10: 1573927783
ISBN-13: 978-1573927789



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