Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Christianity and Capital Punishment


Christians have burnt each other, quite persuaded
That the apostles would have done as they did

George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824), Don Juan

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 were 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 . Support for capital punishment provided a rare example of ecumenical concord. As one cleric, Harry Potter, who made a study of the topic, put it:

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 .

St 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 the 37th of the 39 Articles. The full flourishing of the Western capital code 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.

The Roman Church 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 look how badly that had turned out. Evangelicals like Anthony Ashley-Cooper (later Earl of Shaftesbury) advocated the traditional view that God not only permitted capital punishment but 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. The prison chaplain was regarded as 'an adjunct of the executioner' and 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 the execution.

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 (25p) 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 . It was obviously best to execute people in public, but if that was not viable it was better to execute people in private than not to execute them at all. So it was that in 1868 public executions ceased in England and private ones began. As the bishop had hoped, pressure for abolition subsided.

Well into the twentieth century most bishops were in favour of capital punishment, and used their votes in the 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. Once again 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 .

Early opposition to the death penalty came principally from those who rejected the prevailing Christian consensus. Bentham, reputedly an atheist, and Shelly, an avowed atheist, both opposed Capital punishment, supported by Quakers . They were opposed by all right-thinking organised Churches . Those rare members of the Church of England who were influential in the movement for abolition, like Sir Samuel Romilly, were not strong believers or regular churchgoers. 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, Annie Besant and George Holyoake. Holyoake wondered why the Archbishop of York could find time to condemn sensationalist novels but not to utter a single word against public execution .

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.

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, which likened public execution to "a human sacrifice in religion" . In the years to come the battle was largely between on the one hand freethinkers including Unitarians and Universalists, 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, and opposed by the Churches. As in Britain and America all abolitionists were condemned as infidels.

The only Christian sect consistently to have opposed the death penalty were 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 1960's, and in 1999 they were joined for the first time by a Catholic 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 principal that in truth has been adopted only after western society had been thoroughly secularised. The traditional Christian position has been abandoned by mainstream Churches, but is still maintained by a fundamentalist minority. 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 secular opposition.