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21 Jul

Ireland’s first recorded blasphemy trial

NPG D8717; Thomas Emlyn by Gerard Vandergucht, after Joseph Highmore

Thomas Emlyn;
(c) National Portrait Gallery (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

Thomas Emlyn spent fourteen of his seventy-eight years in Dublin (1691-1705), but they were easily the most eventful of his life. He wrote his An Humble Inquiry into the Scripture Account of Jesus Christ as a result of events there. That Inquiry led to his appearance as the plaintiff in what “appears to have been the first reported blasphemy prosecution in Irish law” (UK Select Committee on Religious Offences in England and Wales First Report).

Thomas Emlyn was born in Stamford, Lincolnshire, on 27 May 1663. His family were non-conformist (protestants who were not Anglicans). He first came to Ireland as the domestic chaplain of the Countess of Donegall, a Presbyterian. During these four years he was first invited to minister to the Presbyterian congregation of Wood Street, Dublin. Instead he returned to London and became chaplain to Sir Robert Rich. In September 1690 the offer of the Wood Street congregation was made again and accepted. Emlyn became colleague to Joseph Boyse, the same minister who later arranged for Francis Hutcheson to become head of a dissenting academy in Dublin, in which Boyse taught divinity.

Before he arrived in Ireland, Emlyn had read William Sherlock’s ‘Vindication’ of the Trinity (1690). The aim of Sherlock’s books was to defend the doctrine of the Trinity, but it left Emlyn “unsettled in [his] notions” since the book suggested to him that the Trinity was akin to acknowledging many gods. (His friend, Manning, who discussed the book with him, became a Socinian as a result.)

Emlyn in his True Narrative of the Proceedings against Mr Thomas Emlyn recounts his attempts to reconcile the Trinity with the Unity of God. But he “never could keep both in light at once”. After much scripture reading he settled on the position that there was one God, with Jesus as a lesser power (the position known as Arianism). He seems to have arrived at this position in around 1697. He was then settled in Dublin, married (in 1794, to Ester Bury nee Solom), and had children. He decided to avoid questions of the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus in his preaching, concentrating on practical matters that would help his congregation. His omissions were noticed by a Doctor of Divinity in his congregation. This man, Duncan Cumyng, approached Emlyn about this. Still concerned, Cumyng brought to the attention of Joseph Boyse. Boyse thought the matter must be laid before the Dublin presbytery, a body formed out of a coalition of Presbyterians and independents. They told Emlyn to go immediately to London and not to preach. Emlyn refused to be silenced but went to London (against his will since his wife had died and he had to leave his two children in Dublin).

After ten weeks Emlyn returned to settle his affairs and sell his books. But he also published his An Humble Inquiry into the Scripture Account of Jesus Christ to vindicate his position. In this book he argues that the term “god” is sometimes used in a “lower sense”. For example Moses is called a “god” to Aaron and to Pharoah; and the devil is called “God of this world; i.e. the Prince and Mighty ruler of it”. God the Father, on the other hand, is described by Philo as “not only the God of men but the God of Gods also”. So, Emlyn argues, Jesus is the highest of all Kings over the earth and Lord of all, and God the Father is God over him, the God of Gods. Emlyn quotes Jesus speaking of another separate God, a God that is over him and that is more perfect than him. He disputes arguments which try to explain these texts, asking why, if they are confusing, the evangelists did not make clarifications as they did at other points.

He ends by criticising certain protestants, accusing them of ignoring their roots and denying the right of people to examine their beliefs. Instead they use an argument against papists (Catholics) and then deny their own argument when arguing against unorthodox protestants:

Against the Papists they will boast, that they don’t hoodwink the People in Ignorance, but let them enquire and examine […] but now having to do with the Unitarians, they tack about and bid beware of reading and disputing; they are for an implicit faith without examining into deep Mysteries

The authorities decided to try the author of the Humble Enquiry for blasphemy. Emlyn was arrested with some copies of the tract. He was put on trial, with the two Primates of Ireland, Marsh (of the Library) and King (of The Origin of Evil) among other bishops on the judges’ bench. Emlyn had great difficulty in finding counsel, and the counsel was brow-beaten in court. Emlyn was accused of blasphemy, which was defined in the statute as (quoted by Emlyn in his True Account ):

blasphemy is a scornful and spiteful reproach uttered in designed contempt of God; but Heresy is, when false opinions unwittingly and by mistake are received

Heresy had been removed from the statute books as a crime. Blasphemy had not. Emlyn planned if necessary to argue that he not committed blasphemy but heresy, but he was not permitted to speak. The jury was pressured and despite his book not reaching the standard for blasphemy and his authorship remaining unproven (the printer swore that he didn’t know the writing), Emlyn was found guilty. Both the foreman of the jury, and Wetenhall, bishop of Kilmore visited Emlyn to express sympathy.

Alexander Gordon suggests that a recently published Socinian tract, ‘The Scandal and Folly of the Cross removed’ (1699), had raised passions against heretical ideas. David Berman suggests that the earlier escape of John Toland (1697) from being tried was another factor in the severity towards Emlyn. The Presbyterians in Ireland were in a precarious position, with various legal disabilities imposed on them by the Test Act. Emlyn’s colleagues could not, therefore, protect him in any way.

On 14th June, 1703, Thomas Emlyn was sentenced.

Emlyn served more than a year, since he could not pay the fine. Boyse made numerous attempts to get the fine reduced. Eventually another friend, Thomas Medlicote, got the ear of Ormonde, the lord-lieutenant, and the fine was reduced to £70. After some quibbling with Archbishop Marsh, Emlyn was freed on Saturday, 21 July 1705. He moved to London, where he wrote in defence of his Humble Enquiry and toleration in religion, dying there in 1741.

Emlyn remains an important figure in Unitarianism. In 1705 the Presbyterian church in Ireland adopted the Westminster Confessions which outlined certain basic beliefs all must hold. This became a bone of contention in the 1720s, with Boyse among those arguing that people must be allowed to “enquire and examine” their faith.

References

Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 17 Emlyn, Thomas by Alexander Gordon
Dictionary of Irish Philosophers – Emlyn, Thomas by Bertil Belfrage.
A Collection of tracts relating to the Deity, worship and satisfaction of the Lord Jesus Christ – these are the collected works of Thomas Emlyn. This volume includes

  • ‘An Humble Inquiry into the Scripture Account of Jesus Christ,’ &c., Dublin, 1702
  • ‘‘A True Narrative of the Proceedings … against Mr. Thomas Emlyn; and of his Prosecution,’ &c., 1719

Note:

Emlyn records being told in prison of another blasphemy case, where the accused was burnt at the stake. Possibly this refers to Adam Duff O’Toole, reported by chronicles as being burnt for blasphemy and heresy in 1327. No legal records exist.

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