Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Christianity and its Persecution of Heretics


They that approve a private opinion, call it opinion; but they that mislike it, heresy: and yet heresy signifies no more than private opinion.
Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), Leviathan

In the first century there was no heresy for the simple reason that there was no orthodoxy. The 'heresies' referred to in old translations of the New Testament are merely differences of opinion . Small Christian communities believed what they wanted to, and worshipped as they chose. As we have seen, there were no central authorities, no set rituals, no agreed canon of scripture, no Church hierarchy, and no established body of doctrine. In line with the toleration practised throughout the empire each group of Christians was free to believe whatever it wanted. The natural consequence of this state of affairs was that ideas and practices in different communities diverged.

Towards the end of the second century Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons, saw the dangers of numerous opinions developing. He attempted to establish an orthodox body of teaching. He wrote a five volume work against heresies, and it was he who compiled a cannon of the New Testament. He also claimed that there was only one proper Church, outside of which there could be no salvation. Other Christians were heretics and should be expelled, and if possible destroyed. The first Christian Emperor agreed. Gibbon summarises the edict which announced the destruction of various heretics:

After a preamble filled with passion and reproach, Constantine absolutely prohibits the assemblies of the heretics and confiscates their public property to the use either of the revenue or of the catholic church. The sects against whom the Imperial severity was directed appear to have been the adherents of Paul of Samosata; the Montanists of Phrygia, who maintained an enthusiastic succession of prophesy; the Novatians, who sternly rejected the temporal efficacy of repentance; the Marcionites and Valentinians, under whose leading banners the various Gnostics of Asia and Egypt had insensibly rallied; and perhaps the Manichæans who had recently imported from Persia a more artful composition of oriental and Christian theology.

The design of extirpating the name, or at least of restraining the progress, of these odious heretics was prosecuted with vigour and effect. Some of the penal regulations were copied from the edicts of Diocletian; and this method of conversion was applauded by the same bishops who had felt the hand of oppression and had pleaded for the rights of humanity"

Further laws against heresy appeared in 380 AD under the Christian Emperor Theodosius I, who laid down the new rule:

We command that those persons who follow this rule shall embrace the name of Catholic Christians. The rest, however, whom we adjudge demented and insane, shall sustain the infamy of heretical dogmas, their meeting places shall not receive the name of churches, and they shall be smitten first by divine vengeance and secondly by the retribution of our own initiative, which we shall assume in accordance with divine judgement.

St Augustine (AD 354-430) taught that error has no rights. He cited biblical texts, notably Luke 14:16-23, to justify the use of compulsion. Had not Christ himself blinded St Paul in order to make him see the true light. According to Augustine, coercion using "great violence" was justified. He made a distinction between unbelievers who persecuted because of cruelty as against Christians who persecuted because of love. A war to preserve or restore the unity of the Church was a just war, a bellum Deo auctore, a war waged by God himself. He also found a way to avoid churchmen getting blood on their hands: dissension against the Church amounted to dissension against the state, so anyone condemned by the Church should be punished by the state. Centuries in the future such ideas would culminate in the activities of the Inquisition, which also required the secular authority to execute its judgements of blood. Augustine is often recognised explicitly as the father of the Inquisition, since he was responsible for adopting Roman methods of torture for the purposes of the Church in order to ensure uniformity. Already, in AD 385, the first recorded executions for heresy had been carried out under Emperor Maximus at the request of Spanish bishops. Priscillian, Bishop of Ávila, had been charged with witchcraft, though his real crime seems to have been agreeing with Gnostic opinions. Along with his companions he was tried and tortured. They confessed, and were executed. The Church now had precedents for both witch-hunting and for persecuting heretics, with a moral unpinning provided by St Augustine.

The Christian Emperor Justinian issued severe laws against heretics in AD 527 and 528. Henceforth those who dissented from the authorised line were debarred from public office, forbidden to practice certain professions, prohibited from holding meetings, and denied the civil rights of a Roman Citizen. For them, said Justinian "to exist is sufficient" - for the time being. In the middle of the fifth century Pope Leo the Great commended the Emperor for torturing and executing heretics on behalf of the Church.

In theory heresy was the denial of some essential Christian doctrine, publicly and obstinately . In practice any deviation from the currently orthodox line could be judged heretical. By the fifth century there were over a hundred active statutes in the Empire concerning heresy. From St Augustine onward for well over a thousand years virtually all Christian theologians agreed that heretics should be persecuted, and most agreed that they should be killed. Heresy was explicitly identified as as akin to leprosy. It was a disease that threatened to destroy a healthy body of believers if they strayed from the Church's view of religious orthodoxy, just as leprosy was a disease that threatened the healthy bodies of individuals if they strayed from the Church's view of sexual orthodoxy.. Diseases like this had to be eradicated at all costs. St Thomas Aquinas thought it virtuous to burn heretics, and favoured the option of burning them alive. From around the turn of the millennium executing heretics became ever more common, and the grounds for doing so ever more unlikely. A group of Christians at Goslar in Germany who declined to kill chickens were executed for heresy in 1051.

A long series of popes supported the extirpation of those who disagreed with the current papal line. Arnold of Brescia, a pupil of Abelard, shared his master's critical views of the Church, and also embraced the republican ideals of ancient Rome. He held that papal authority was a usurpation, and that the wealth and power of the Church was unchristian. He led a movement to re-establish a Roman republic and return the clergy to apostolic poverty. He was hanged and then burned as a heretic in 1155 by the pope, Adrian IV.

The Waldensians, or Vaudois, followers of Peter Waldo of Lyon provided the next major target. They gave their money to the poor and preached the Christian gospel. Waldo attracted the hatred of the clergy when he commissioned a translation of the bible into occitan, the language of what is now southern France. The heresies of the Waldensians were numerous. Having read the bible for themselves they denied the temporal authority of priests and objected to papal corruption. They rejected numerous accretions, including the Mass, prayers for the dead, indulgences, confessions, penances, church music, the reciting of prayers in Latin, the adoration of saints, the adoration of the sacrament, killing, and the swearing of oaths. They also allowed women to preach. They were excommunicated as heretics in 1184 at the Council of Verona, and persecuted with zeal for centuries. 150 were burned at Grenoble in a single day in 1393. Survivors fled to remote valleys in the Alps. Pope Innocent VIII organised a crusade against them in an unsuccessful attempt to extirpate them. They were still being persecuted centuries later. In Piedmont in the middle of the seventeenth century further attempts were made to extirpate them. Anyone in Villaro who declined to go to a Roman Catholic mass was liable to be crucified upside down, but there was some variation in the manner of killing in other towns. Some were maimed and left to die of starvation, some had strips of flesh cut off their bodies until they bled to death, some were stoned, some impaled alive upon stakes or hooks. Some were dragged along the ground until there flesh was scraped away. One at least was literally minced. Daniel Rambaut had his toes and fingers cut off in sections: one joint being amputated each day in an attempt to make him recant and accept the Roman faith. Some had their mouths stuffed with gun-powder which was then ignited. Paolo Garnier of Roras was castrated, then skinned alive. Children were killed in various ways before the eyes of their parents. Those few who escaped to the mountains were mostly killed by exposure, starvation or disease .

The term heresy covered ever more and more areas of belief. Paschal II, who occupied the papal throne between 1099 and 1118, claimed (quoting a forged document) that anyone who disagreed with the apostolic see was a heretic. In 1199, Pope Innocent III declared heresy to be high treason against God, having already called for the execution of those who persisted in their heresies after being excommunicated. He also said that those who interpret literally Jesus' statements about limiting their statements to a straight Yes or No were heretics worthy of death - confirming that those who refused to swear in court should be executed. In 1229 Pope Gregory IX declared that it is the duty of every Catholic to persecute heretics. He preached a crusade against the Stedingers, a Germanic people living near the River Weser, whose heresy amounted to no more than rejecting the temporal authority of the Archbishop of Bremen. An army of forty thousand was raised under the bishops of Ratzebourg, Lubeck, Osnabrück, Munster and Minden. Of the eleven thousand or so Stedingers able to bear arms, most were slaughtered on the field of battle. The rest were killed later, many of them being drowned in the Weser along with women, children and old men. The whole population was exterminated.

Following the apostolic commands of Pope Innocent IV, the Archbishop of Narbonne consigned two hundred heretics to the flames in 1243. All manner of activities constituted heresy. It was heretical to eat meat on Friday, to read the bible, to know Greek, to criticise a cleric, to refuse to pay Church taxes, or to deny that money lending was sinful. St Augustine's idea that error has no rights, became a favourite of persecutors, and the great saint was often cited as authority for oppression of all sorts. Under Pope John XXII and later fourteenth century popes Franciscan spirituals were burned at the stake for such behaviour as claiming that Christ and the apostles had not owned property, preaching absolute poverty, wearing traditional hoods and habits and refusing to lay up stores of food. The Apostlicals, a sect founded in 1300, tried to live like the apostles. The luckier ones were burned at the stake like the sect's founder, but others suffered worse fates. Dulcino of Novara, the successor to the founder, was publicly torn to pieces with hooks, as was his wife.

The Knights Templar were accused of heresy in the early fourteenth century. The charges are generally acknowledged to have been trumped up by King Philip of France, and inspired by his desire to seize their wealth. A Church Council was summoned to consider the question, but despite extensive torture, there was not enough evidence to proceed against the Templars, let alone to condemn them. When King Philip turned up with an army. The pope, Clement V, a puppet of the French monarchy, forced the unwilling Council to reconsider, and the Order was dissolved . Clement had already permitted individual Templars throughout Western Christendom to be tortured and burned as heretics to appease the king. Under torture they had confirmed that they rendered feudal homage to the Devil. This idea was largely responsible for the belief that there existed organised groups of people who worshipped Satan much as Christians worshipped God. And this idea in turn was largely responsible for making witches into malignant agents of the Devil. Before the Templar trials they had been harmless outsiders skilled in folk-medicine and weather forecasting. Now they were heretics who deliberately parodied Christian practices and made pacts with the Devil. We have already seen the consequences of this - the widespread persecution of supposed witches over several centuries.

Cecco d'Ascoli, an Italian scientist, was burned at the stake in 1327 for having calculated the date of Jesus' birth using the stars. But there were more significant heresies than astrology. Movements to reform the Church, based on the teachings of John Wycliffe (England), Jan Hus (Bohemia) and Gerard Groot (Netherlands) were all condemned as heretical, though their popularity guaranteed their survival, and in time these teachings would trigger the Reformation. Heresy still covered everything from refusing to take oaths to refusal to pay church tithes. Any deviation from Church norms was enough to merit death: vegetarianism, the rejection of infant baptism, even holding the (previously orthodox) view that people should be given both bread and wine at Mass.

In 1482, under Pope Sixtus IV, 2000 heretics were burned in the tiny state of Andalusia alone. Pope Leo X condemned Martin Luther in 1520 for daring to say that burning heretics was against the will of God. Evidently he thought it presumptuous for an ordinary human being to claim to know God's will. Perhaps he was right, because Luther changed his mind in 1531 and started advocating the death penalty for heretics and blasphemers. He thought it should be a capital offence to deny the resurrection of the dead, or the reality of heaven and Hell.

Translating the bible into vernacular languages, or helping with the printing of such a bible was heresy according to the Roman Church. Generally, in Europe, women were buried alive for this offence. Men were burned alive. One printer in Paris was burned on a pyre of his own books. In the sixteenth century William Tyndale translated the bible into English. In danger of arrest and in fear for his life he fled the country. He was arrested in the Netherlands, and in 1536 was executed for heresy for agreeing with the Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith.

Anabaptists, the precursors of modern Baptists, were persecuted by Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists alike. The Anabaptists' main crimes were to call for social reform, to favour adult baptism over infant baptism, and to embrace pacifism - they would not kill, condone capital punishment or serve in armies. They also allegedly advocated ancient Antinomian views. Their leaders died in various ways. Thomas Münzer was burned at the stake in 1525. Feliz Manz drowned in 1526 (drowning was a favourite way of executing Anabaptists because of their views on baptism). Michael Sattler had his tongue cut out, was mutilated by red-hot pincers, and was burned alive in 1527 for a range of beliefs, none of which would now merit a criminal prosecution. When a whole town, Münster, went over to the Anabaptists in the 1530s Catholics and Protestants joined forces to retake the city. The Anabaptist leaders were publicly tortured to death with red-hot pincers and their bodies hung in cages outside a church, where they remained for some years.

The range of offences that were considered heretical was flexible and ever expanding. It was still a crime to read the bible or cite inappropriate passages from it. A Protestant writing master from Toledo was burned at the stake in 1676 for having decorated a room with the full text of the ten commandments. (The Roman Church has traditionally omitted the part of the second commandment - the one that forbids the worship of images).

In England the persecution of heretics was less popular than elsewhere in Europe, but not unknown. A group of refugees, probably Cathars, who denied the necessity for baptism, matrimony and the Mass, fled from the continent to England under Henry II to escape persecution. In 1166, at Oxford, they were tried by an ecclesiastical court with the King himself presiding, and were found guilty of heresy. Since no statute or precedent existed for sentencing, they were seared on the forehead with hot irons, whipped through the streets, stripped to the waist, and sent into the countryside to die of exposure in the winter snow. No-one would offer them food or shelter. To have done so would have been to disobey the word of God (2 John 10) and to abet heresy, and would therefore have been sinful and unchristian.

John Wycliffe, the proto-Protestant rector of Lutterworth in Leicester, was the most eminent scholar at Oxford, giving him a measure of protection during his lifetime, especially since there was then still no official statute in England covering the offence of heresy. On the other side of Europe, Jan Hus, the Rector of Prague University, was heavily influenced by Wycliffe's ideas, and refused to surrender his books when ordered to do by the Pope. Supported by King Wenceslas he denounced the practice of granting indulgences. His preaching spread Wycliffe's ideas far and wide. Then, travelling under a safe conduct from the emperor Sigismund, he was arrested and tried by the Church Council of Constance. The Council disregarded his safe conduct on the grounds that a Church Council did not need to keep faith with a heretic. Hus was burned on 6th July 1415, making him a Czech national hero. Hussite ideas spread rapidly from Bohemia to Austria, Silesia, Saxony, Brandenburg, Bavaria and Hungary. Attempts at reconciliation with the Roman Church failed, and the Reformation loomed a step closer.

Back in England the Church had no way to deal with Wycliffe or his followers, who were called Lollards. The Archbishop of Canterbury, William Courtney, and his bishops filled in the omission by forging an Act of Parliament to deal with heresy. But Parliament spotted the imposture and the House of Commons petitioned the King in 1383 to annul this bogus statute "never assented to nor granted by the Commons" . Genuine mild statutes were passed three years later, but the Church was still not happy. Prelates insisted on the death penalty, and a series of statutes, called de haeretico comburendo, were passed in 1401, under King Henry IV, introducing the death penalty for heresy. They failed to define the offence, so heresy would continue to be whatever the Church said it was. Once convicted, the heretic was handed over to the sheriff, who had no option but to execute the Church's judgement. Unrepentant heretics were to be publicly burned to death, as they were on the continent. The statutes came too late to catch John Wycliffe himself, but they caught many of his followers. Lollards continued to be condemned to the stake up until the 1530s. Others were caught too. Around 1520 the diocese of Lincoln alone was convicting over 100 people a year for the crime of "not thinking catholickly" .

Espousing unorthodox views, however trivial, could result in death. In 1528 Patrick Hamilton was burned at St Andrews for holding heretical opinions, notably a denial of the freedom of the will. In 1546 Anne Askew was burned at Smithfield because of her beliefs about the Eucharist. In 1592 Henry Barrow and John Greenwood, who preached congregationalism, were hanged at Tyburn for "obstinately refusing to come to church". Their real crime seems to have been to advocate the separation of Church and State. Unitarians were executed in 1612 in London and Lichfield, and one in 1651 in Dumfries. William Prynne, a Puritan lawyer, published criticisms of Archbishop Laud. For this had his ears hacked off by the public hangman in 1633. Along with others he was charged again and tried by the Star Chamber in 1637. The others charged had their ears cropped, and as it was discovered that Prynne still had stumps left on the side of his head, these were severed too. He was also branded on the cheeks, and then imprisoned for life along with the others.

After Thomas Hobbes published his book Leviathan in 1651 the English bishops wanted to have him killed. They used their influence in the House of Lords to sponsor a motion to have him burned as a heretic soon after the Restoration . The philosopher feared for his life when, in October 1666, Parliament talked about reviving the old statues De haeretico comburendo of 1401. But these laws had fallen into desuetude. Nothing came of the bishops' fulminations and Hobbes escaped prosecution. Leviathan was merely condemned by Parliament, and Hobbes was ordered to stop writing controversial books.. The old statutes were repealed the following year. From that time on, no-one in England need live in fear of burning for heresy. In Ireland the heresy law was repealed in 1696, and in most of Continental Europe much later. A schoolmaster was hanged in Spain in 1826 for heresy. His heresy had been to substitute the words 'Praise be to God' in place of 'Ave Maria' in school prayers.

Because of secular laws the Churches now have more difficulty in persecuting heretics, but persecution is still part of mainstream Christian thought. The oath taken by Roman Catholic bishops at their consecration includes the following undertaking "with all my power I will persecute and make war upon heretics".