Christians have burnt each other,
That the apostles would have done as they did
George Gordon, Lord Byron, Don
The Papal States
The Anglican Church
Capital punishment was accepted as part of God's great design,
and no attempt was made to ban it by any right-thinking Christian.
In the Middle Ages capital punishment was inflicted for religious
offences. Examples included robbing a church, sacrilege, eating
meat during Lent, cremating the dead, and omitting to be baptised*.
Petty vandalism against Church property also attracted the death
penalty. Churchmen advocated not only the death penalty but
also a range of accompanying horrors. Criminals were hanged
in chains. Sometimes bodies were gibbeted, i.e. they were coated
in tar to preserve them, then hung high up on a post, often
in sight of their family home, where the birds and the weather
would destroy them only after months or years. Some victims
were hanged, drawn, and quartered, after which their heart would
be held up to the crowd, and their severed head would be stuck
on a spike and left in some prominent place for everyone to
see. Here is a typical sentence :
You shall be drawn upon a hurdle through the open streets
to the place of execution, there to be hanged and cut down
while yet alive, and your body shall be opened, and your heart
and bowels plucked out, and your privy members cut off, and
thrown into the fire before your eyes; then your head to be
struck off, and your body divided into four quarters, to be
disposed of at the King's pleasure.... *
On God's behalf, English churchmen confirmed in the early nineteenth
century that it was perfectly acceptable to tear out the heart
and bowels of condemned but still living men. Some clergymen
advocated hanging whether the accused was guilty or not. One
argument was that capital punishment was a deterrent for the
criminally inclined, so the guilt or innocence of the individual
on trial was irrelevant*.
Another was that all sins are equally damnable in the eyes of
God, so the extreme penalty was appropriate for all*.
The heads of the Gunpowder Plotters,
hanged, drawn and quartered in 1606..
After quartering, the heads of those found guilty of treason
were stuck on spikes and dispayed in busy public places,
usually untill they rotted away and fell apart. Denying
criminals a Christian burial was a common element of punishments
for impious crimes under Christian laws.
Support for capital punishment provided a rare example of ecumenical
concord. As one modern cleric who made a study of the topic,
Orthodoxy, Reformed as well as Catholic, identified itself
closely with the secular power, supported the sword of the
secular arm, and benefited from it. God and the gallows together
kept society secure, anarchy at bay, and heresy suppressed*.
Thomas Aquinas had justified the death penalty, and the Roman
Church followed him. The death penalty was not merely permitted
by God: for certain crimes it was required by God.
Other authorities surpassed him in their zeal. Martin Luther
criticised the practice of the executioner asking forgiveness
of his victim, since the executioner, like the magistrate, was
an instrument of God*.
According to this view, the Christian officials responsible
for inflicting the death penalty had no more say in the matter
than the axe or rope or stake. The Church of England enshrined
its acceptance of the state's right to kill in Article 37 of
the 39 Articles of the Anglican Church. The full flourishing
of the code regarding capital punishment in western Europe coincided
with the Protestant ascendancy. The ultimate penalty was imposed
in England for such offences as destroying certain bridges,
impersonating a Chelsea pensioner, associating with gypsies,
stealing letters, and obstructing revenue officers.
In the American colonies, Christians passed capital laws based
on biblical injunctions.
from the The General Laws and Liberties
of the Massachusets Colony, 1641, Revised and Reprinted,
Cambridge, Massachusetts [Samuel Green, 1672, Law Library,
Rare Book Collection, US Library of Congress] - image
IF any man after legal conviction
shall HAVE OR WORSHIP any other God, but the LORD GOD:
he shall be put to death. Exod. 22. 20. Deut. 13. 6. &
10. Deut. 17. 2. 6.
2. If any man or woman be a WITCH,
that is, hath or consulteth with a familiar spirit, they
shall be put to death. Exod. 22. 18. Levit. 20. 27. Deut.
18. 10. 11.
3. If any person within this Jurisdiction
whether Christian or Pagan shall wittingly and willingly
presume to BLASPHEME the holy Name of God, Father, Son
or Holy-Ghost, with direct, expresse, presumptuous, or
high-handed blasphemy, either by wilfull or obstinate
denying the true God, or his Creation, or Government of
the world: or shall curse God in like manner, or reproach
the holy Religion of God as if it were but a politick
device to keep ignorant men in awe; or shal utter any
other kinde of Blasphemy of the like nature & degree
they shall be put to death. Levit. 24, 15. 16.
4. If any person shall commit any
wilfull MURTHER, which is Man slaughter, committed upon
premeditate malice, hatred, or crueltie not in a mans
necessary and just defence, nor by meer casualty against
his will, he shall be put to death. Exod. 21. 12. 13.
Numb. 35. 31.
5. If any person slayeth another
suddenly in his ANGER, or CRUELTY of passion, he shall
be put to death. Levit. 24. 17. Numb. 35. 20. 21.
6. If any person shall slay another
through guile, either by POYSONING, or other such develish
practice, he shall be put to death. Exod. 21. 14.
7. If any man or woman shall LYE
WITH ANY BEAST, or bruit creature, by carnall copulation;
they shall surely be put to death: and the beast shall
be slain, & buried, and not eaten. Lev. 20, 15. 16.
8. If any man LYETH WITH MAN-KINDE
as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed
abomination, they both shal surely be put to death: unles
the one partie were forced (or be under fourteen years
of age in which case he shall be seveerly punished) Levit.
9. If any person commit ADULTERIE
with a married, or espoused wife; the Adulterer &
Adulteresse shal surely be put to death. Lev. 20. 19.
& 18. 20. Deu. 22. 23. 27.
10. If any man STEALETH A MAN,
or Man-kinde, he shall surely be put to death. Exodus
11. If any man rise up by FALSE-WITNES
wittingly, and of purpose to take away any mans life:
he shal be put to death. Deut. 19. 16. 18. 16.
12. If any man shall CONSPIRE,
and attempt any Invasion, Insurrection, or publick Rebellion
against our Common-Wealth: or shall indeavour to surprize
any Town, or Townes, Fort, or Forts therin; or shall treacherously,
& persidiously attempt the Alteration and Subversion
of our frame of Politie, or Government fundamentally he
shall be put to death. Numb. 16. 2 Sam. 3. 2 Sam. 18.
2 Sam. 20.
13. If any child, or children,
above sixteen years old, and of sufficient understanding,
shall CURSE, or SMITE their natural FATHER, or MOTHER;
he or they shall be put to death: unles it can be sufficiently
testified that the Parents have been very unchristianly
negligent in the eduction of such children; or so provoked
them by extream, and cruel correction; that they have
been forced therunto to preserve themselves from death
or maiming. Exod. 21. 17. Lev. 20. 9. Exod. 21. 15.
14. If a man have a stubborn or
REBELLIOUS SON, of sufficient years & uderstanding
(viz) sixteen years of age, which will not obey the voice
of his Father, or the voice of his Mother, and that when
they have chastened him will not harken unto them: then
shal his Father & Mother being his natural parets,
lay hold on him, & bring him to the Magistrates assembled
in Court & testifie unto them that their Son is stubborn
& rebellious & will not obey their voice and chastisement,
but lives in sundry notorious crimes, such a son shal
be put to death. Deut. 21. 20. 21.
15. If any man shal RAVISH any
maid or single woman, comitting carnal copulation with
her by force, against her own will; that is above the
age of ten years he shal be punished either with death,
or with some other greivous punishmet according to circumstances
as the Judges, or General court shal determin.
The details are interesting - for example Articles 13 and 14
both allow the execution of children, but 13 applies to daughters
while 14 does not. The Christians who framed these laws clearly
had no concept of the Old Testament having been abregated by
the New, but they did add mitigating factors (as in 14). Note
that 15 has no biblical reference, presumably because the biblical
penalty was a small fine, and considered wholly inadequate by
17th century Christians.
The Roman Church carried out countless thousands of executions
and continued to sanction its own secret executions well into
the nineteenth century. Other denominations also approved of
capital punishment. Methodist ministers took children to watch
public executions, such scenes being considered "improving".
Wesley himself had been keen on gibbeting and had wanted to
extend the practice to suicides. Calvinists concurred. A leading
nineteenth century minister styled the "Champion of the
Sacred Cause of Hanging", was critical of the exercise
of mercy in capital cases. As he pointed out, God himself had
tried mercy with Cain, and everyone knew how badly that had
"Execution of Breaking on the Rack",
illustration by William Blake in John Gabriel Stedman's
The Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted
Negroes of Surinam (1796). John Gabriel Stedman relates
that: "The third negro, whose name was Neptune, was
no slave, but his own master, and a carpenter by trade;
he was young and handsome, but having killed the overseer
of the estate Altona, in the Para Creek, in consequence
of some dispute, he justly forfeited his life.... he was
sentenced to be broken alive upon the rack, without the
benefit of the coup de grace or mercy-stroke. Informed
of the dreadful sentence, he composedly laid himself down
on his back on a strong cross, on which, with arms and
legs expanded, he was fastened by ropes: the executioner,
also a black man, having now with a hatchet chopped off
his left hand, next took up a heavy iron bar, with which,
by repeated blows, he broke his bones to shivers, till
the marrow, blood, and splinters flew about the field;
but the prisoner never uttered a groan nor a sigh. ...
He then begged that his head might be chopped off; but
to no purpose. At last, seeing no end to his misery, he
declared, that though he had deserved death, he
had not expected to die so many deaths: however,
(said he) you christians have missed your aim at last
..." He lived on for some three hours.
The garrote was the preferred device used for capital punishment
in Catholic Spain for hundreds of years. Originally the convict
would be beaten to death with a club (a garrote in Spanish).
This later developed into a method of strangulation. The victim
was tied to a wooden stake, with a loop of rope placed around
his neck. A stick was placed in the loop and twisted by an executioner,
causing the rope to tighten until it strangled the victim to
death. In time the method was refined so that the victim sat
on a stool attached to a stake, to which the victim was bound,
and the executioner tightened a metal band around the victim's
neck with a crank.
The design of a basic garrote
Detail of Le garrot, by Velasquez,
Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille.
Around 1810 the earliest known metal garrote appeared in Spain.
In 1828, this garrote was declared the sole method for executing
Garrot vil, by Ramón Casas, painted
in 1894, Museu Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid
Garrotting was generally carried out in public, and attended
by Christian ceremony.
Note the number of Catholic officials in black costumes
within the cordon at this garrotting in Barcelona
In May 1897, the last public garroting in Spain was performed
in Barcelona. After that, all executions were performed inside
A mass garrotting.
Christian priests were an integral part of the ceremony
surrounding capital punishment, including garrotting.
Garrotting a woman
At the prompting of the Catholic Church, the right-wing Spanish
legislature enacted laws against Freemasons. Under these laws,
80 Freemasons were garroted to death in Málaga, and many
more in other towns. With the help of Catholic priests like
Father Jean Tusquets and Franco's own chaplain, some 80,000
men were executed as Freemasons, (even though there had probably
been around 5,000 Freemasons in Spain at the time).
Priests were always available to validate
the proceedings in the name of God
Two men were garrotted in Spain in 1974, a year before the
death of Franco. The garrote was abolished in 1978, soon after
the Catholic Church lost its influence over Spanish government.
Le Progres Illustre, 21 February, 1802,
reporting the execution of anarchists at Xeres
Where the USA took over Spanish colonies, they kept the Spanish
of capital punishment, at least for a while. American military
authorities in Puerto Rico used the garrote to execute at least
five convicted murderers in 1900. American authorities also
kept the garrote in the Philippines after the colony was captured
in 1898. The garrote was abolished in 1902 (Act No. 451, passed
September 2, 1902).
A version of the garrote incorporated a metal spike fixed into
the stake and directed at the skull or spinal cord. The spiked
version, called the Catalan garrote, was used as late as 1940.
An execution by garrotting in 1901
This Catalan Garrote is designed
not only garrote the victim, but also drive a spike
into the back of the victim's head as the garrote
The Papal States
Since God not only approved capital punishment, but required
Christian rulers to apply it to their subjects. It followed
that as sovereign of the Papal States, the Pope was required
to execute wrongdoers. A succession of hundreds of popes therefore
evolved methods of capital punishment, none of them noticeably
more humane than those of other Christian monarchs.
In extreme cases, those condemned would be hanged, drawn and
quartered. For others popes developed a particularly gruesome
method of method of public execution. Churchmen were reluctant
to shed blood, which explains why monks were forbidden to carry
out surgery, why bishops used maces when fighting in medieval
wars, why witches and heretics were burned alive, and perhaps
why popes favoured the Mazzatello as a method of execution.
A Mazzatello is a large, long-handled mallet, used to smash
in the victim's skull. The victim would be led to a scaffold
in a public square of Rome, accompanied by a priest. already
installed on the scaffold was a coffin and a masked executioner,
dressed in black. The executioner would swing the mallet to
gain momentum, and bring it down on the head of the victim.
The fist blow was rarely fatal. (A variation of this method
appears in Alexandre Dumas' novel, The Count of Monte Cristo,
as la mazzolata, when a prisoner sentenced to execution is bludgeoned
on the side of his head with a mace.)
The papal Mazzatello does not survive,
but would have looked something like this.
This mazzatello was used by Catholic Ustaka guards
to crush the skulls of non-Catholic prisoners (including
Serbs, Jews and Roma) at Jasenovac in Croatia, accounting
for some of the tens of thousands killed there between
1941 and 1945.
According to one author, the mazzatello constituted "one
of the most brutal methods of execution ever devised, requiring
minimal skill on the part of the executioner"*.
Another cites mazzatello as an example of an execution method
devised by the Papal States that "competed with and in
some instances surpassed those of other regimes for cruelty".*
The mazzatello was used within the Papal States from the late
18th century up until 1870, when the French army seized the
papal states and stopped the practice of hammering people to
death in public.
Throughout most of Christian history bishops exercised temporal
as well as spiritual authority. One corrolory of this was that
they acted as secular as well as spiritual judges. In line with
Church teachings they routinely imposed the death sentence.
As secular judges they routinely imposed sentences of torture
and death. As spiritual judges they were not permitted to spill
blood, so they handed over heretics, blasphemers and other religious
disenters to the secular autyhorities for execution. These secular
authorities (sometimes themselves wering a secular had) were
responsible for executing sentence.
There are countless examples of prince-bishops exercising this
dual power, but the best example is probably the Bishop of Rome,
soveriegn ruler of the Papal States (now reduced to the Vatican
state). The Bishops of Rome perfectly illustrate Catholic teaching
and practice with respect to capital punishment.
Capital punishment was not only permitted, it was required
by Church teaching. It was also popular. It was claimed that
in 1585, under Pope Sixtus V there were more severed heads on
the Castel Sant'Angelo bridge than melons in the markets.
The traditional method of execution before 1816, were beheading
and hanging. In special cases convicts were bludgeoned to death
with a huge mallet, then had their throats cut.. The executioner
would swing his mazzatello through the air and bring
it crashing down on the prisoner's head. This replicated how
cattle were killed: a blow on the head followed by having the
throat cut. Whatever the means of death, the body might then
be quartered for public display.
Beheading was the standeard penalty for less serious crimes
such as larceny, robbery, and assault. though it was on occasion
applied for treason (Prospero Ciolli, 22 September 1832) and
for lèse majesté (Leonida Montanari and Angiolo
Targhini, 23 November 1825), and for stealing church property.
On 21 July, 1840, Luigi Scopigno from Rieti was beheaded at
the Ponte Sant'Angelo, for the sacrilegious theft of a container
containing sacred hosts.
Hanging was also a penalty for theft and robbery, and also
for causing criminal damage and for forgery. Tommaso Rotiliesi,
was hanged at the Ponte Sant'Angelo, on 9 June, 1806 for slightly
wounding a French officer. Hanging and Quartering seems to have
been the standard punishment for murder, though it could also
be applied for robbery.
Bludgeoning seems to have been reserved for particularly brutal
murders, including patricide, murdering churchmen, and multiple
murders. Convicts who were bludgeoned, and had their throats
cut, were frequently quartered as well.
Sometimes it is not clear what means were employed. 22 year
old Giovani Battista Rossi convicted of larceny, was sentenced
to an exemplary death on 3 August 1844. In 1855 at least eight
men were senteced to the "ultimate torment". On 23
March, 1822, Francesco, son of Niccola Ferri, was executed by
shooting. In other cases, additional features might be added
to standard punishments. For the crime of stealing two cibori,
Giovani Batta Genovesi was hanged and quartered on 27 February,
1800, then had his corpse burnt at the Ponte Sant'Angelo. His
head was then taken to the Arch of the Holy Spirit. Similar
punishments were applied to men who killed a priest in the same
These punishments were imposed by the Pope in his role as temporal
sovereign. There was another set of crimes that were religious
in nature. A few notable examples are:
- Arnold of Brescia (c. 1090 June 1155), was an Italian
canon regular from Lombardy. He called on the Church to renounce
property ownership. Arnold was hanged by the papacy, then
was burned posthumously by papal guards and his ashes thrown
into the River Tiber.
- Gerard Segarelli, founder of the Apostolic Brethren (July
18, 1300). In 1300 he was interrogated by the Grand Inquisitor
of Parma. He was found guilty of relapsing into errors formerly
abjured, and burnt at the stake.
- Fra Dolcino, Italian preacher of the Dulcinian movement,
burnt at the stake in 1307 for heresy.
- Matteuccia de Francesco (died 1428) was an Italian nun,
and alleged witch, known as the "Witch of Ripabianca"
after the village where she lived. She was put on trial in
Rome in 1428, accused of being a prostitute, having committed
desecration with other women and of the selling of love potions
since 1426. She confessed to having sold medicine and of having
flown to a tree in the shape of a fly on the back of a demon,
having smeared herself with an ointment made of the blood
of newborn children. She was judged guilty of sorcery and
sentenced to be burned at the stake.
- Matteuccia de Francesco, Italian nun and alleged "Witch
of Ripabianca" (1428)
- Girolamo Savonarola (along with Fra Domenico da Pescia and
Fra Silvestro), Dominican priest and leader of Florence (May
- Cardinal Carlo Carafa and Giovanni Carafa, Duke of Paliano,
nephews of Paul IV, sentenced to strangulation in prison and
beheading, respectively, by Pius IV, as his first public act
(March 5, 1561)
- Pomponio Algerio, civil law student at the University of
- Pietro Carnesecchi, Italian humanist (October 1, 1567)
- Aonio Paleario, Italian Protestant (July 3, 1570)
- Menocchio, Friulian miller, mayor, and philosopher (1599)
- Giordano Bruno, Italian priest, philosopher, cosmologist,
(February 17, 1600)
- Ferrante Pallavicino, Italian satirist (March 5, 1644)
The Church's Role
The Church was prominent throughout and coordinated all aspects
of what was a quasi sacred act, rather like an auto da fe.
As one modern Catholic commentator says "it was a sacred
act, rich with ritual and theological meaning hallowed by centuries
of tradition. It was, in fact, a liturgy." *
The ritual began with the announcement of an execution. Official
notices were posted on church doors. On the morning of the execution,
the pope said a prayer for the condemned. A priest would visit
the Pope's executioner to hear his confession and celebrate
Mass. The execution was solemnized by a religious Order, the
monks of the Arciconfraternita della Misericordia, or
Brotherhood of Mercy. These monks celebrated various rituals
surrounding the execution and burial. The monks stayed with
the condemned in their last 12 hours. Members of the brotherhood
wrote prayer books and catechisms for the condemned, emphasising
the requirements for a mors bon Christiana -- "a
good Christian death." The monks led the condemned in a
sacred procession. Altar boys went first, ringing bells. Monks
followed chanting litanies in a cloud of incense, carrying a
crucifix. The monks would hold the crucifix toward the condemned,
so that it would be the last thing he saw.
This "gallows pietism." can be seen as a form of
expiation, or atonement. The scaffold was an occasion of grace,
almost sacramental. Devotional literature compared the redemptive
value of the blood spilled to Christ's sacrifice on the cross.
Execution took place as papal palaces: the Castel Sant'Angelo
bridge, the Piazza del Popolo, and Via dei Cerchi near the Piazza
della Bocca della Verità. Papal dragoons provides security.
To celebrate executions the Church put on public festivals.
Crowds would lay bets on all aspects of the procedings. As for
Christian public executions everywhere, whole families came
to enjoy the spectacle. As the blade descended, fathers slapped
their children's heads when the blade came down, causing the
same frisson they remembered when their their own fathers had
The End of Capital Punishment by the Pope
In 1764 Cesare Beccaria, anti-death penalty tract "On
Crimes and Punishments" was published, changing secular
attidutes to capital punishment. In 1786 the Grand Duchy of
Tuscany became the first sovereign state to ban the death penalty.
The Catholic Church remained aloof from this development, adhering
to its traditional line.
The pope lost political control of Rome to Napoleon in 1798
and did not get it back until the Congress of Vienna in 1815.
From 1816 on the guillotine was used scores of times by papal
warrant. The guillotine remained busy up to the end of the pope-king's
rule. Its final use came on July 9, 1870, shortly before Italian
revolutionaries captured Rome. Agatino Bellomo, became the last
person executed by the Papal States, two months before Rome
was captured by Italian army and the papal states ceased to
exist. Capital punishment in Vatican City was legal from 1929
to 1969, though no known executions took place.
The Anglican Church
The Anglican Church had supported capital punishment since
its foundation, continuing its historical inheritance from the
Catholic and ultimately the Orthodox Church. No Anglican movement
for abolition was so much as considered for many centuries.
Christian Evangelicals like the nineteenth century politician
Anthony Ashley-Cooper (later seventh Earl of Shaftesbury) advocated
the traditional view that God not only permitted capital punishment
but also demanded it*.
Judges pointed out to those found guilty of certain crimes that
God required them to die.
Churchmen claimed that the deterrent effect of capital punishment
was enhanced by due solemnity, mystery and awe. The Church therefore
buttressed the ceremony of execution, and surrounded it by ritual.
In England a chaplain was on hand in court to intone Amen
to the judge's sentence of death. A prison chaplain might hold
a service before the execution with a coffin displayed in the
presence of the congregation and the condemned prisoner. After
English executions were confined to prisons in 1868, a black
flag was hoisted over the prison on execution days; a bell would
toll; and the chaplain would intone the burial service as he
accompanied the condemned prisoner to the gallows*.
The Church was involved throughout, into the twentieth century,
validating the procedure on behalf of God. It was generally
accepted that the main business of prison clergymen was to break
the spirits of capital convicts so that they would offer no
physical resistance to the hangman*.
Sometimes the chaplain himself gave the signal to carry out
Time and time again bishops and archbishops opposed the abolition
of capital punishment. In 1810 the Archbishop of Canterbury
and six other bishops helped defeat a bill that would have abolished
the death penalty for stealing five shillings from a shop. Capital
punishment was so much part and parcel of the Christian faith
that bishops would go to almost any lengths to keep it. When
secularists advocated the abolition of the death penalty, the
bishops rushed to its support. When it looked like public revulsion
at public executions might force Parliament to abolish capital
punishment in the mid-nineteenth century, zealous Christians
pressed for hanging to be carried out inside prisons. The idea
was that, once removed from the public gaze, executions could
continue without fuss or popular revulsion. This plan was advocated
for example by Samuel Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford*.
So it was that in 1868 public executions ceased in England and
private ones began. As the bishop had hoped, pressure for abolition
Well into the twentieth century most English bishops were in
favour of capital punishment and used their votes in the House
of Lords to oppose abolition. For example the bench of bishops
helped defeat the Criminal Justice Bill of 1948 during its passage
through the House of Lords. In the 1950s it looked again as
though Parliament might abolish the death penalty. The Archbishop
of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher, was alarmed that this attempt
might succeed. He therefore adopted a similar technique to that
adopted by Bishop "Soapy Sam" Wilberforce
in the previous century. This time public sentiment was opposed
to the death penalty, even behind closed prison doors. In order
to retain capital punishment the Archbishop advocated classifying
degrees of murder. In this way he hoped to retain the death
penalty for at least some crimes. The Christian line was that
it was better to hang some offenders rather than none at all.
Fisher was not keen to have his traditionalist views opposed:
"Anyone who says that it is unchristian to hang puts himself
out of court" he wrote*
Other Churches held similar views. When abolition of the death
penalty was again being considered in Britain in the 1960s,
Cardinal Godfrey appeared on television to advocate the traditional
Roman Catholic line. As he said, the state had not merely the
right, but the duty to exact the death penalty
whenever, in its own judgement, the life of the community was
threatened by a particular sort of crime*.
first stirrings of opposition to the death penalty in Britain,
in the early nineteenth century, came principally from those
who rejected the prevailing Christian consensus. The philosopher
Jeremy Bentham, reputedly an atheist, and the poet Shelley,
an avowed atheist, both opposed capital punishment, supported
by Quakers*. They were
opposed by all right-thinking organised Churches*.
As we have seen, in the House of Lords the bishops consistently
supported capital punishment. The loudest parliamentary voices
raised in the Lords against the death penalty in the nineteenth
century belonged to men like the godless Lord Byron, as outside
the Lords they belonged to atheists like Charles Bradlaugh (1833-1891),
Annie Besant (1847-1933) and George Holyoake (1817-1906). Holyoake
wondered why the Archbishop of York could find time to condemn
sensationalist novels but not to utter a word against public
Execution of Doctor Crippen, in Le Petit
Journal illustré, 4th December 1910.
From the French Revolution onwards the French considered
hanging barbaric and made much of the attendent religious
ceremony and the role of the anglican priest in Britain.
The Churches could have demolished the moral case for capital
punishment, but instead they bolstered it:
In a Christian country, such as England was, a death penalty
devoid of religious sanction could not have survived. It was
an issue over which the church could have exercised a moral
hegemony and failed to do so. It shadowed public opinion rather
than led it. It left the moral high ground to Quakers, lapsed
Jews, maverick Christians of all denominations, and men and
women of none*.
In the second half of the twentieth century the bishops finally
adopted the secularist view. Prison chaplains in Britain got
round to considering the morality of the death penalty just
as Parliament abolished it in 1969.
Le Petit Journal illustré (21
janvier 1923) - Une femme expie son crime
"A woman expiates her crime". As usual, right
up to abolition of hanging, Anglican clergymen played
a prominant role in the macabre ceremonial that attended
The same pattern was followed in North America. Quaker laws
proposed for Pennsylvania had been vetoed by London in the seventeenth
century as they were far more lenient than the capital laws
of the mother country*.
The complete abolition of the death penalty was first proposed
in a paper read at the house of Benjamin Franklin. This paper
likened public execution to "a human sacrifice in religion"*.
In the years to come the battle was largely between on the one
hand freethinkers, and on the other Calvinists and other traditional
Churches. In Continental Europe the abolitionist cause was espoused
by independent writers like Goethe and Victor Hugo but opposed
by the Churches. As in Britain and America all abolitionists
were condemned as infidels.
Last public execution in the USA. Rainey
Bethea was be publicly executed
on 14 August, 1936 in Owensboro, Kentucky.
Mistakes in performing the hanging and the attendant media
circus contributed to
public pressure for end of public executions in the United
The only Christian sect consistently to have opposed the death
penalty was the Quakers. Like non-Christians who led the reform
movement, they regarded it as immoral. This is all rather an
embarrassment now in liberal countries. Liberal churchmen would
have preferred it if the Church had opposed the death penalty.
In fact most Anglicans and Protestants have opposed the death
penalty since the 1960s, and in 1999 they were joined for the
first time by the Pope. Attachment to capital punishment is
now unfashionable, so most Churches around the developed world
tend to play down their traditional views. Many clergymen do
their best to make out that their Church has always supported
the biblical injunction Thou shalt not kill, a principle
that in truth was adopted only after Western society had been
thoroughly secularised. Only in places like the Bible belt in
the USA do traditional Christian views still predominate. Capital
punishment continues to be inflicted in such places, despite
More social issues:
from the The General Laws and Liberties
of the Massachusetts Colony, 1641, Revised and Reprinted,
[Samuel Green, 1672, Law Library, Rare Book Collection,
US Library of Congress]