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HON. T. ERSKINE
ON THE PROSECUTION OF THE
PUBLISHER OF THE AGE OF REASON.
GENTLEMEN OF THE JURY,
The charge of blasphemy, which is put upon the record against the publisher of this publication, is not an accusation of the servants of the Crown, but comes before you sanctioned by the oaths of a Grand Jury of the country.--It stood for trial upon a former day ; but it happening, as it frequently does, without any imputation upon the gentlemen named in the pannel, that a sufficient number did not appear to constitute a full Special Jury, I thought it my duty to withdraw the cause from trial, till I could have the opportunity of addressing myself to you, who were originally appointed to try it.
I pursued this course, from no jealousy of the common Juries appointed by the laws for the ordinary service of the Court, since my whole life has been one continued experience of their virtues ; but because I thought it of great importance, that those who were to decide upon a cause so 'very momentous to the public, should have the highest possible qualifications for the decision ; that they should not only be men capable from their educations of forming an enlightened judgment, but that their situations should be such as to bring them within the full view of their country, to which, in character and in estimation, they were in their own turns to be responsible.
Not having the honour, Gentlemen, to be sworn for the King as one of his Counsel, it has fallen much oftener to my lot to defend indictments for libels, than to assist in the prosecution of them ; but I feel no embarrassment from that recollection.
I shall not be found to-day to express a sentiment, or to utter an expression, inconsistent with those invaluable principles for which I have uniformly contended in the defence of others.--Nothing that I have ever said, either professionally or personally, for the liberty of the press, do I mean to-day to contradict or counteract. On the contrary, I desire to preface the very short discourse I have to make to you, with reminding you, that it is your most solemn duty to take care that it suffers no injury in
your hands. A free and unlicensed press, in the just and legal sense of the expression, has led to all the blessings both of religion and government, which Great Britain or any part of the world at this mo
ment enjoys, and it is calculated to advance mankind to still higher degrees of civilization and happiness.
-But this freedom, like every other, must be limited to be enjoyed, and, like every human advan. tage, may be defeated by its abuse.
Gentlemen, the Defendant stands indicted for having published this book, which I have only read from the obligations of professional duty, and which I rose from the reading of with astonishment and disgust. -Standing here with all the privileges belonging to the highest Counsel for the Crown, I shall be entitled to reply to any defence that shall be made for the publication.--I shall wait with patience till I hear it.
Indeed, if I were to anticipate the defence which I hear and read of, it would be defaming by anticipation the learned Counsel who is to make it ;-since if I am to collect it, from a formal notice given to the Prosecutors in the course of the proceedings, I have to expect, that, instead of a defence conducted according to the rules and principles of English law, the foundation of all our laws, and the sanctions of all justice, are to be struck at and insulted. What gives the Court its jurisdiction?-What but the oath which his Lordship, as well as yourselves, have sworn upon the Gospel to fulfil? Yet in the King's Court, where His Majesty is himself also sworn to administer the justice of England-in the King's Court—who receives his high authority under a solemn oath to maintain the Christian religion, as it is the very
promulgated by God in the Holy Scriptures, I am nevertheless called upon as Counsel for the prosecution to“ produce a certain book described in the In“ dictment to be the HOLY BIBLE." No man des, serves to be upon the Rolls, who has dared, as an Attorney, to put his name to such a notice. It is an insult to the authority and dignity of the Court of which he is an officer ; since it calls in question
foundations of its jurisdiction.-If this is to be the spirit and temper of the defence ;-if, as I collect from that array of books which are spread upon the benches behind me, this publication is to be vindicated by an attack of all the truths which the Christian religion promulgates to mankind, let it be remembered that such an argument was neither suggested nor justified by any thing said by me on the part of the prosecution.
In this stage of the proceedings, I shall call for reverence to the sacred Scriptures, not from their merits, unbounded as they are, but from their authority in a Christian country—not from the obligations of conscience, but from the rules of law. For my own part, Gentlemen, I have been ever deeply devoted to the truths of Christianity; and my firm belief in the Holy Gospel is by no ineans owing to the prejudices of education (though I was religiously educated by the best of parents), but has arisen from the fullest and most continued reflections of my riper years and understanding.---It forms at this moment the great consolation of a life, which, as a shadow, passes away; and without it, I should consider my long course of health and prosperity (too long perhaps, and too uninterrupted to be good for any man) only as the dust which the wind scatters, and rather as a snare than as a blessing.
Much, however, as I wish to support the authority of Scripture from a reasoned consideration of it, I shall repress that subject for the present. But if the defence, as I have suspected, shall bring them at all into argument or question, I must then fulfil a duty which I owe not only to the Court, as Counsel for the prosecution, but to the public, and to the world, -to state what I feel and know concerning the evidences of that religion, which is denied without being examined, and reviled without being understood.
I am well aware that by the communications of a FREE PRESS, all the errors of mankind, from
age age, have been dissipated and dispelled ; and I recollect that the world, under the banners of reformed Christianity, has struggled through persecution to the noble eminence on which it stands at this moment, shedding the blessings of humanity and science upon the nations of the earth. It
may be asked then, by what means the Reformation would have been effected, if the books of the Reformers had been suppressed, and the errors of now exploded superstitions had been supported by the terrors of an unreformed state? or how, upon such principles, any reformation, civil or religious, can in future be effected? The solution is easy: