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Blasphemy in United Kingdom

Definition of Blasphemy

In accordance with the work A Dictionary of Law, this is a description of Blasphemy :

Statements or writings that deny – in an offensive or insulting manner – the truth of the Christian religion, the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, or the existence of God. Blasphemy is a crime at common law, and if it is published there is no need to show an intention to shock or insult or an awareness that the publication is blasphemous. Prosecutions for blasphemy are now rare and it has been suggested that the crime be abolished.

Blasphemy in the UK History

Blasphemy, historically, is somewhat variously defined. According to the most general definition, it means the speaking irreverently of the mysteries of religion; and formerly, in Roman Catholic countries, it also included the speaking contemptuously or disrespectfully of the Holy Virgin or the saints. Public blasphemy has been considered by the Catholic Church as an unpardonable sin, and it was formerly punished with death by the municipal laws. The 77th novel of Justinian assigned this punishment to it; and the capitularies inflicted the same punishment upon such as, knowing of an act of blasphemy, did not denounce the offender.

The former laws of France punished this crime with fine, corporal punishment, the gallows and death, according to the degree and aggravation of the offense. The records of the parliaments supply numerous instances of condemnation for this crime and many of punishment by death; others of branding and mutilation. A man was for this offense condemned to be hanged, and afterward to have his tongue cut out and the sentence was executed at Orleans as late as 1748. But it is remarked by a writer in the French ‘Encyclopédie Moderne,’ that we should form an erroneous opinion, from the present state of society, of the effect of this offense and the disorders it might introduce in former times; for religion was once so intimately blended with the government and laws, that to treat the received articles of faith or religious ceremonies with disrespect was in effect to attack civil institutions.

Blasphemy in the History of England

By the common law of England, as stated by Blackstone, blasphemy consists in denying the being and providence of God, contumelious reproaches of Jesus Christ, profane scoffing at Holy Scripture, etc., and is punishable by fine and imprisonment, or corporal punishment; the offense is also statutory, the Statute 9 and 10 William III cap. xxxii, declaring that if any one shall deny any of the persons of the Trinity to be God, or assert that there are more gods than one, or deny the truth of Christianity or of the Scriptures, he shall be incapable of holding any office; and for a second offense be disabled from suing any action, or being an executor, and suffer three years’ imprisonment. …

The common law of England treats blasphemy as an indictable offence. All blasphemies against God, as denying His being, or providence, all contumelious reproaches of Jesus Christ, all profane scoffing at the Holy Scriptures, or exposing any part thereof to contempt or ridicule, are punishable by the temporal courts with fine, imprisonment and also infamous corporal punishment. An act of Edward VI. (1547; repealed 44 1553 and revived 1558) enacts that persons reviling the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, by contemptuous words or otherwise, shall suffer imprisonment. Persons denying the Trinity were deprived of the benefit of the Act of Toleration by an act of 1688. An act of 1697-1698, commonly called the Blasphemy Act, enacts that if any person, educated in or having made profession of the Christian religion, should by writing, preaching, teaching or advised speaking, deny any one of the Persons of the Holy Trinity to be God, or should assert or maintain that there are more gods than one, or should deny the Christian religion to be true, or the Holy Scriptures to be of divine authority, he should, upon the first offence, be rendered incapable of holding any office or place of trust, and for the second incapable of bringing any action, of being guardian or executor, or of taking a legacy or deed of gift, and should suffer three years’ imprisonment without bail.

It has been held that a person offending under the statute is also indictable at common law (Rex v. Carlisle, 1819, where Mr Justice Best remarks, “In the age of toleration, when that statute passed, neither churchmen nor sectarians wished to protect in their infidelity those who disbelieved the Holy Scriptures”). An act of 1812-1813 excepts from these enactments “persons denying as therein mentioned respecting the Holy Trinity,” but otherwise the common and the statute law on the subject remain as stated. In the case of Rex v. Woolston (1728) the court declared that they would not suffer it to be debated whether to write against Christianity in general was not an offence punishable in the temporal courts at common law, but they did not intend to include disputes between learned men on particular controverted points.

The law against blasphemy has practically ceased to be put in active operation. In 1841 Edward Moxon was found guilty of the publication of a blasphemous libel (Shelley’s Queen Mab), the prosecution having been instituted by Henry Hetherington, who had previously been condemned to four months’ imprisonment for a similar offence, and wished to test the law under which he was punished. In the case of Cowan v. Milbourn (1867) the defendant had broken his contract to let a lecture-room to the plaintiff, on discovering that the intended lectures were to maintain that “the character of Christ is defective, and his teaching misleading, and that the Bible is no more inspired than any other book,” and the court of exchequer held that the publication of such doctrine was blasphemy, and the contract therefore illegal. On that occasion the court reaffirmed the dictum of Chief Justice Hale, that Christianity is part of the laws of England.

The commissioners on criminal law (sixth report) remark that “although the law forbids all denial of the being and providence of God or the Christian religion, it is only when irreligion assumes the form of an insult to God and man that the interference of the criminal law has taken place.” In England the last prominent prosecution for blasphemy was the case of R. v. Ramsey & Foote, 1883, 48 L.T. 739, when the editor, publisher and printer of the Freethinker were sentenced to imprisonment; but police court proceedings were taken as late as 1908 against an obscure Hyde Park orator who had become a public nuisance.

Profane cursing and swearing is made punishable by the Profane Oaths Act 1745, which directs the offender to be brought before a justice of the peace, and fined five shillings, two shillings or one shilling, according as he is a gentleman, below the rank of gentleman, or a common labourer, soldier, etc.


By the law of Scotland, as it stood under acts of 1661 and 1695, the punishment of blasphemy was death. Blasphemy consisted of railing at or cursing God, or of obstinately persisting in denying the existence of the Supreme Being, or any of the persons of the Trinity.

(Although) by the law of Scotland, as it originally stood, the punishment of blasphemy was death, … by an act of 1825, amended in 1837, blasphemy was made punishable by fine or imprisonment or both.

Blasphemy at Present

The United Nations General Assembly passed several actions and resolutions (between 1999 and 2008 specially) which called upon the world to take action against the “defamation of religions.” Since 2001 there has been a clear split, with the Islamic bloc and much of the developing world supporting the resolutions, and mostly Western democracies opposing. Support has been waning in recent years, due to increased opposition from the West, along with lobbying by religious, free-speech, and human rights advocacy groups. Some countries in Africa, the Pacific, and Latin America have begun switching from supporting to abstaining, or from abstaining to opposing. For example, In July, 2011, the UN Human Rights Committee released a 52-paragraph statement, General Comment 34, concerning freedoms of opinion and expression. According to paragraph 48, “Prohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the Covenant, except in the specific circumstances envisaged in article 20, paragraph 2, of the Covenant. Such prohibitions must also comply with the strict requirements of article 19, paragraph 3, as well as such articles as 2, 5, 17, 18 and 26. Thus, for instance, it would be impermissible for any such laws to discriminate in favor of or against one or certain religions or belief systems, or their adherents over another, or religious believers over non-believers. Nor would it be permissible for such prohibitions to be used to prevent or punish criticism of religious leaders or commentary on religious doctrine and tenets of faith.

Further reading

  • Maledicta: The International Journal of Verbal Aggression.
  • Levy, L. Blasphemy. Chapel Hill, 1993.
  • Comprehensive academic study comparing global legal approaches to blasphemy in light of the Jyllands-Posten controversy
  • Dartevelle, P., S Borg, Denis, Ph., Robyn, J. (eds.). Blasphèmes et libertés. Paris: CERF, 1993
  • Plate, S. Brent Blasphemy: Art that Offends (London: Black Dog Publishing, 2006)

See Also

Blasphemy in the World
Blasphemy in the United States

Law is our Passion

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  • Article Name: Blasphemy
  • Author: International
  • Description: Definition of Blasphemy In accordance with the work A Dictionary of Law, this is a description of Blasphemy : Statements [...]

This entry was last updated: November 23, 2016


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