Anti-Persecution Union

The Anti-Persecution Union was an organisation established by the freethinkers George Jacob Holyoake and Emma Martin in 1842, to aid in defending individuals accused of blasphemy and blasphemous libel.[1] Its object was 'to assert and maintain the right of free discussion, and to protect and defend the victims of intolerance and bigotry'. [2]

Formation and purposeEdit

Described as a 'militant freethought league,' the Union came on the heels of a number of prosecutions for blasphemy. As such, its efforts were 'defensive as well as propagandistic'.[3] Following the prosecution of Charles Southwell, and building on the 'Committee for the Protection of Mr. Southwell' established for him,[4] The Oracle of Reason encouraged its readers to assist in the formation of a Union

whose great and glorious objects shall be to abolish all law or legal practice which shackles expression of opinion, and to protect and indemnify all, or whatever persuasion, whether Jew, Christian, Infidel, Atheist, or other denomination in danger of similar tyrannies.[5]

David Nash has noted that, despite the inclusion of all denominations and none, the Union was 'clearly aimed at freethinkers'.[6]

By the Union's first meeting, at the radical John Street Institution on Tottenham Court Road, London, the prosecutions of Southwell, Holyoake, and George and Harriet Adams were discussed. The meeting's first resolution, moved by Emma Martin, expressed 'strong disapprobation of all legal interference with the free expression of opinion' and 'emphatically deprecate[d] the recent prosecutions for the alleged crime of blasphemy, as unjust and impolitic.'[7] Martin's own atheism was infamous, causing division and disapproval among many of her own socialist associates. It was, Barbara Taylor has suggested, in part her anger at this absence of support that she and Holyoake formed the Union. [1]

The Union published its activities in The Oracle of Reason (1841-43) and The Movement and Anti-Persecution Gazette (1843-45).[6] For four months it circulated The Monthly Circular of the Anti-Persecution Union, edited by Holyoake.[8] Reports of the trials of Holyoake, Matilda Roalfe, Thomas Finlay, and Thomas Paterson were also published on the Union's behalf by Henry Hetherington and Paterson.[9][10]

Other groupsEdit

A Scottish Anti-Persecution Union was also established,[11] responding to prosecutions in Scotland.[12] An appeal in The Oracle of Reason stated that the Union was:

made up of individual professors of almost every kind of opinion - political, religious, and irreligious... [and] formed for the sole purpose of setting free the tongue and the press; therefore, all who are persecuted for expressing, or otherwise publishing their opinions, will have a legitimate claim to its support.[13]

In February 1844, a Leicester Committee of the Anti-Persecution Union was formed.[14] Its first secretary, William Henry Holyoak, had received permission the previous year, as reported in The Movement.[15] Multiple members of the Leicester Committee were later part of the Leicester Secular Society, the world's oldest, founded in 1851.[14] [16]


  1. ^ a b "Martin [née Bullock], Emma (1811/12–1851), socialist and freethinker". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001 (inactive 2020-09-26). Retrieved 2020-09-22.CS1 maint: DOI inactive as of September 2020 (link)
  2. ^ "Circular of the Anti-Persecution Union". Supplement to The Oracle of Reason, or, Philosophy Vindicated. 19 July 1842.
  3. ^ Taylor, Barbara (1983). Eve and the New Jerusalem: socialism and feminism in the nineteenth century. New York: Pantheon Books. p. 150.
  4. ^ Rectenwald, Michael (2017). Organized Secularism in the United States: New Directions in Research. De Gruyter. doi:10.1515/9783110458657-004. ISBN 978-3-11-045865-7.
  5. ^ Ryall, M. (11 February 1842). "Report of the Committee for the Protection of Mr. Southwell". The Oracle of Reason.
  6. ^ a b Nash, David (1995). "Unfettered Investigation: The Secularist Press and the Creation of Audience in Victorian England". Victorian Periodicals Review. 28 (2): 123–135. JSTOR 20082840 – via JSTOR.
  7. ^ "The Recent Prosecutions for Blasphemy, and Intended Anti-Persecution Union". The Oracle of Reason. 19 July 1842.
  8. ^ The History of the Fleet Street House: a report of sixteen years. 1856. JSTOR 60202777.
  9. ^ Holyoake, George Jacob (1842). The trial of George Jacob Holyoake on an indictment for blasphemy , before Mr. Justice Erskine, and a common jury, at Gloucester, August the 15th, 1842. JSTOR 60207763.
  10. ^ The Trial of Thomas Paterson, for blasphemy, before the High Court of Justiciary, Edinburgh, with the whole of his bold and effective defence: also, the trials of Thomas Finlay and Miss Matilda Roalfe (for blasphemy), in the Sheriffs' Court. 1844. JSTOR 60202627.
  11. ^ Holyoake, George Jacob. The Movement, anti-persecution gazette, and register of progress, ed. by G.J. Holyoake, assisted by M.Q. Ryall.
  12. ^ "The Scotch God versus Robinson and Finlay". The Oracle of Reason. 1843. pp. 265–6.
  13. ^ "Scottish Anti-Persecution Union's Appeal to the Friends of Mental Liberty". The Oracle of Reason. 1843.
  14. ^ a b "Who's Who of Radical Leicester: William Cooke". Retrieved 2020-09-23.
  15. ^ Holyoake, George Jacob. The Movement, anti-persecution gazette, and register of progress, ed. by G.J. Holyoake, assisted by M.Q. Ryall.
  16. ^ "About Leicester Secular Society". Retrieved 2020-09-23.

Further readingEdit