BLASPHEMY (through the Fr. from Gr., profane language, slander, probably derived from root of , to injure, and , speech), literally, defamation or evil speaking, but more peculiarly restricted to an indignity offered to the Deity by words or writing. By the Mosaic law death by stoning was the punishment for blasphemy (Lev. xxiv. 16). The 77th Novel of Justinian assigned death as the penalty, as did also the Capitularies. 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 (1547; repealed 1553 and revived 1558) enacts that persons reviling the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, by contemptuous words or otherwise, shall suffer imprisonment.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.
In France, blasphemy (which included, also, speaking against the Holy Virgin and the saints, denying one's faith, or speaking with impiety of holy things) was from very early times punished with great severity. The punishment was death in various forms, burning alive, mutilation, torture or corporal punishment. In the United States the common law of England was largely followed, and in most of the states, also, statutes were enacted against the offence, but, as in England, the law is practically never put in force. In Germany, the punishment for blasphemy is imprisonment varying from one day to three years, according to the gravity of the offence. To constitute the offence, the blasphemy must be uttered in public, be offensive in character, and have wounded the religious susceptibilities of some other person. In Austria, whoever commits blasphemy by speech or writing is liable to imprisonment for any term from six months up to ten years, according to the seriousness of the offence.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)