And he shall rule them with a rod
of iron; as the vessels of a potter shall they be broken
to shivers; even as I received of my Father.
Up to the fifth century AD, Christians seem to have had an
inkling that there was something morally questionable about
torture and killing. Christian torturers and executioners generally
delayed their own baptism until just before death. The Church
assured them that any sins of which they might have been guilty
were thus washed away, and no lasting harm was done to their
immortal souls. For the next 1,000 years and more, when Christianity
was at the height of its power, the Church regarded brutality
and killing as perfectly acceptable, and no such precautions
were thought necessary. Mutilation, branding and flogging were
commonplace. The Church found it acceptable for people to be
flogged for the most trivial offences, even for things that
today are not considered offences at all. Amongst them were
vagrancy, drunkenness, drinking on a Sunday, having an illegitimate
baby, even contracting smallpox.
Torture had been used as punishment and as a method of eliciting
information in ancient times, but thinkers like Seneca and Cicero
had recognised both its injustice and its futility as a means
of discovering the truth. Such ideas did not impress Christians,
and as we shall see (page 410) the Church was responsible for
introducing torture into almost all European penal systems,
without any of the original roman safeguards.
In England the provisions of Magna
Carta (which had been denounced by the Church) had been
interpreted as representing torture to be abhorrent to the principle
of English freedom, and the common law did not permit its use*.
When two inquisitors were sent to England in 1310 to extract
confessions from Knights Templar, they insisted on using torture*.
The king allowed some torture to be applied "according
to ecclesiastical law", but apparently not enough to satisfy
the inquisitors. The Pope (Clement
V) wrote to King Edward II:
We hear that you forbid torture as contrary to the laws of
your land; but no state can override Canon law, Our Law; therefore
I command you at once to submit these men to torture ...Withdraw
your prohibition and we grant you remission of sins*
In the seventeenth century James Felton defied Archbishop Laud's threats of torture on the rack, and the matter was referred
to the courts. As a result the common law was confirmed, and
torture was definitively declared to be unlawful in England.
In 1689 the Bill of Rights explicitly prohibited its use, so
now it was banned by statute as well.
Elsewhere, torture was a favourite method of extracting confessions
for offences both real and fabricated. In 1252, Pope Innocent
IV explicitly sanctioned its use in his bull ad extirpanda.
Inquisitors and their assistants were permitted to absolve one
another for applying torture. It was applied liberally to obtain
whatever confessions were required, and sometimes just to punish
people that the Church authorities did not like.
Voices raised against the use of torture were all secular.
Early critics like Juan Luis Vives, Johann Graefe and Montaigne
were regarded by the Church as its enemies. In 1740 Frederick
the Great abolished torture in Prussia, and around the same
time Voltaire lent his voice to opposing the use of torture
in France. Despite the opposition of the Churches, secular powers
succeeded in abolishing torture: in Italy in 1786, in France
in 1789, in Spain in 1812, and so on. Pope Pius VII nominally
banned the use of torture by inquisitors in 1816, but a blind
papal eye was turned to its continued use for another 20 years
Paschal I (pope 817-824) blinded his opponents before beheading
them. He was made a saint. Hadrian III (pope 884-885) was also
keen on blinding his political opponents and once had a woman
whipped naked through the streets of Rome. He too is now a saint.
Over the centuries the Roman Church tortured, flogged, branded
and killed countless thousands of people, many of them for crimes
that no longer exist. Mutilation was a common punishment throughout
Christendom. For example a crusader who struck another and drew
blood was liable to have a hand chopped off. Other offenders
suffered the removal of limbs, or of the nose, ears, lips, tongue
or genitals. Branding was used to disfigure bodies, arms, hands,
cheeks and foreheads.
Bishops" courts in England passed sentences of whipping
and branding even on their own clerics. The great English saint
Thomas Becket was one of many who had recourse to the branding
iron*. Mental incapacity
was no defence. James Naylor imagined himself to be Christ and
entered Bristol on a donkey in imitation of Jesus" entry
into Jerusalem. Although obviously insane, he was brought before
the House of Commons in 1656 and narrowly escaped being sentenced
to death. Instead he was sentenced to a selection of lesser
punishments. He was pilloried outside the Houses of Parliament,
then whipped through the streets of Westminster to the City
of London, receiving 310 lashes from a whip of seven knotted
cords. He was then pilloried again at the Old Exchange. Later,
his tongue was bored through with a hot iron, and he was branded
on the forehead with the letter B (for blasphemer). He was then
sent to Bristol where he was publicly whipped again, then returned
to London for an indefinite sentence of hard labour in solitary
confinement. He died soon after his release a few years later,
a more merciful Parliament having taken pity on him.
many centuries Christian missionaries secured conversions by
offering a choice between adopting the Christian religion and
instant death. By the late Middle Ages this was seen to be a
little harsh. Christian missionaries now routinely used torture
to secure converts and to punish those who did not live up to
requirements. Such practices had been assumed to have been abandoned
during the Enlightenment, at least by Protestants, but a flurry
of cases was exposed in Victorian times. In 1880 it was disclosed
that a Free Church of Scotland mission to Nyasaland maintained
a pit prison in which a man had died after receiving 200 lashes.
A few years later a Nigerian woman died having had red pepper
rubbed into her wounds after a beating. Such cases caused a
scandal among European sceptics. Churches became more cautious
about their methods, but such techniques may well have been
used into the twentieth century.
the Church held sway, it supported all manner of absurdity and
horror. It was the custom for Christian teachers to punish a
servant lad when a royal pupil had misbehaved. (This is the
origin of the term whipping boy.) As long as someone
suffered, justice was somehow thought to have been done. Such
an inequitable concept was comfortably accommodated within the
Church. Corporal punishment has always featured strongly in
church schools until recent times, but it was not confined to
When society shared common Christian mores, corporal punishment
was widespread: it was practised extensively in Christian seminaries,
monasteries, convents, orphanages, mental hospitals, armies,
navies, prisons and homes. Birching was practised in British
prisons until 1968.
A Spanking Stick, still available on
This one is advertised on www.kingidentity.com and is
printed with biblical texts.
more than 1,000 years Christianity set the standards. During
that time many suffered physical abuse. Prisoners were tortured
in bishops" torture chambers. Noses were split, ears cropped,
tongues bored, backs whipped, foreheads and cheeks branded,
limbs crushed or cut off. It was not only prisoners who suffered.
Slaves were thrashed to death. Uncooperative potential converts
were physically coerced. Christian husbands beat their wives.
Canon law specifically permitted wife beating, so it took place
at every level of society.
this has changed through the gradual adoption of secular ideas,
and the Churches have now ceased to oppose such changes. Now
we learn from the mainstream Churches that Jesus has always
been against all kinds of beastly behaviour. William Empson's
observation that Christianity is a “religion based on
torture” was palpably true in his own day but is now only
obvious to historians.
Today, the recieved Christian view on physical abuse is identical
to the one developed by secular liberal social workers - though
there is still a steady stream of child deaths attributable
to severe beatings administered by Christian parents, whose
defense is that they are merely following traditional practices
and biblical injunctions.