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Edinburgh Free Thinkers' Zetetic Society

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The Edinburgh Free Thinkers' Zetetic Society was formed in Edinburgh in 1820 to provide support for the jailed republican and freethinking publisher Richard Carlile and his family. The word "zetetic" was used as meaning one who proceeds by inquiry - a seeker after truth (from the Greek zetetikos, from zeteo, I seek); it was used by Sextus Empiricus (c. 160-210 CE), whose philosophical work includes the most complete surviving account of ancient Greek and Roman skepticism.

In 1820, Carlile was beginning six years of imprisonment in Dorchester jail for publishing Thomas Paine's Age of Reason, and was the first of many local groups that were formed to support Carlile. Its president was William Wilson, and leading figures included the brothers James and Robert Affleck.[1] In February 1822, the Society sent twenty-nine subscriptions to the victim fund.

The Society was committed to the politics of the French Revolution and to the spirit and philosophy of the Enlightenment. Meetings were held every Sunday evening, at which an essay on the favourite topic was submitted to consideration; one rule was applied - no person was allowed to speak against it for more than ten minutes. At these meetings, according to the Lord Advocate, "not only the Christian, but every religion was turned into ridicule, and the existence of God himself denied and laughed at." The Lord Advocate "could not bring himself to believe, that in Edinburgh men could be found so full of wickedness and folly."

The members of the Society were not intellectuals, but mostly artisans and shopkeepers; as the Lord Advocate said in 1823, it "was attended by the lowest description of persons; not a person above a grocer belonged to it".

Carlile and The Age of Reason

Carlile was the publisher of (and main contributor to) a weekly periodical, Sherwin's Political Register, which, in August 1819, he restarted under its original title of Republican and continued to publish until the end of 1826. At first, it sold for twopence, but after the Blasphemous and Seditious Libels Act came into force in 1820, which made small, cheap papers illegal, he doubled the number of pages and put up the price to sixpence. The contents generally included criticism of repressive actions by the government, extracts from a freethought classic; and discussions of religious or political controversies.

After reading the Age of Reason, Carlile decided to reprint it, and, in December 1818, he did so. Only a hundred copies were sold in the first month, but Carlile also began a number of other, cheaper, reprints: Paine's Common Sense and Rights of Man were issued in weekly parts along with Sherwin's Political Register.

At first the government took no action, but in 1819 the Society for the Suppression of Vice initiated a prosecution. The immediate consequence of this was to boost sales of the Age of Reason. However, Carlile had been present at Peterloo in August 1819, when, on the orders of local magistrates, cavalry charged into a crowd of 60,000–80,000 gathered at a meeting in Manchester to demand parliamentary reform, killing 11-15 and injuring several hundred. When he published an account of those events, he was arrested on a charge of seditious libel. This charge was not pursued, but now the blasphemy charges were prosecuted instead. On conviction, he was sentenced to two years in prison and fined £1,000 for publishing the Age of Reason, and to one year in prison and a fine of £500 for publishing Elihu Palmer's Principles of Nature. He was sent to Dorchester gaol, and, as he refused to pay the fines he was not released until November 1825. From his gaol, he corresponded extensively with the local Societies formed in his support. On the charge of blasphemy, he was unrepentant: to James Affleck, he wrote "Of all the Mythologies aud Idolatries that ever disgraced mankind, the Christian is the most contemptible, the most ill founded, and that which can be least defended or excused."[2]

The effect of Carlile's imprisonment that two thousand copies of the Age of Reason were sold in six months. Moreover, as Carlile had read the work out by in court as part of his defence, it could now be circulated legally in the verbatim reports of the trial, - and these sold another sold ten thousand copies. Carlile's shop, now called The Temple of Reason, thrived and, although the sheriff's officers cleared the stock and closed the premises when Carlile was convicted, Carlile's wife and then his sister reopened it and carried on the business until they too were arrested and jailed. Even after this, volunteers kept the shop open and not only continued to sell the Republican, the works of Paine and Palmer and the report of the trial, but also undertook new ventures, including an issue of the Qur'an.

In 1826, when Carlile was free, he started a joint Stock Book Company which reissued, among other works, the French classic Bon Sens and Shelley's Queen Mab.

Prosecution of the Edinburgh Zetetics

The Scottish blasphemy laws were even harsher than the English. James Affleck was indicted in the High Court of Justiciary for selling the Age of Reason and other books including a translation of a Chinese prayer. The society was closed down by the police, and among the books seized from the Society's library were Mirabaud's System of Nature, Shelley's Queen Mab, Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary, and Owen's Essays on the Formation of Character. In consequence, the society did not meet again; and a similar society in Glasgow declined to meet also.

However, the prosecution did not stop Affleck, in 1824 he set himself up as a bookseller, only to be imprisoned for three months for selling the Republican and the Theological Works of Paine.[3]

The petition

On 16 April 1823 Joseph Hume, a Radical Member of Parliament for Aberdeen Burghs, Scotland, presented a petition to the House of Commons:[4]

"The Petition of the undersigned individuals, who were members of the Edinburgh Free Thinkers' Zetetic Society, humbly sheweth,

"That in the spring of 1820, your petitioners, with some others, began to meet every Sunday as a society, for the purpose of discussing literary, philosophical, and theological subjects, without intending to interfere in the smallest degree with the public, or wishing the public to inter-with them:

"That the principal object which your petitioners had in view by their meeting as a society was, by their unanimous and expressed opinion, to encourage virtue and suppress vice among their members, and to keep Free-thinkers who did not go to church, from spending Sundays in drinking and dissipation, to which, on that day, they might be seduced by idle company:

"That your petitioners are of opinion, that virtue cannot be properly encouraged nor vice suppressed, but by men joining in society, and expressing their united opinion as a body; and your petitioners considered they had some reason to meet for that purpose, as Free-thinkers have often been reproached for vice and immorality by those who have used every exertion to make them vicious and immoral, by exciting public prejudice against them, and, if possible, to make them outcasts from every society:

"That, at the Whitsunday term of 1820, your petitioners took a hall, in which they afterwards held their meetings, and began to collect a library for their common use and instruction; and such of their members as were qualified, successively composed, and read each Sunday, an essay or discourse upon some literary, philosophical, or theological subject, which was afterwards strictly criticised and debated upon by the members:

"That, the hall which your petitioners took for their accommodation having been formerly occupied as a place of worship, strangers occasionally called, but were generally informed that the meeting was held for discussion, and not for any kind of religious worship:

"That in many instances these strangers expressed a wish to remain, and as your petitioners deemed it illegal to force them away, they were allowed to sit and hear, but not join in the debates; at length some of them began to insinuate that your petitioners acted unfairly in preventing strangers from speaking, who perhaps might be able to give some information upon subjects which, they thought your petitioners did not seem to understand. It was then agreed upon, that strangers should be allowed to join in the debates as long as they kept their temper, and behaved with propriety:

"That the persons who generally attended the meeting were well informed men, supposed to be capable of judging of the truth and propriety of the subjects discussed. Boys and children were always excluded, except they were brought by some member or person of years who constantly attended:

"That your petitioners were forced by the subjects of some of the discourses which were read, and the warm arguments of some zealous Christians, to enter into a close examination of the fundamental principles and doctrines of Christianity; and because your petitioners were not convinced by the arguments of their opponents, but defended their own opinions with freedom and earnestness, their antagonists resorted to the mean expedient of misrepresenting to the civil authorities the object and arguments of your petitioners, and thus procured their dispersion by force:

"That on the 17th day of November last, while your petitioners were engaged, as usual, quietly debating, the sheriff of Edinburgh, with the superintendent of police, and a number of officers and police men, suddenly entered the hall. The sheriff declared that he was informed that there were illegal discussions carried on in the hall. The unexpected entrance of the civil authorities put a stop to any further proceeding in the debates; they then proceeded to take down the names of every person present, and to search them one by one, for books and papers; afterwards they were all dismissed, except the president of the day, and two other members, who were detained as prisoners:

"That after this violent dispersion of the meeting, the authorities proceeded to examine the library which your petitioners had collected, and they seized and took away a number of books, among which were the following:—Watson's Apologies for the Bible, Leslie's Short Method with Deists, Ogden's Deist Unmasked, St. Pierre's Studies of Nature, Mirabaud's System of Nature, the Works of Thomas Paine, Toulman's Eternity of the Universe, The Black Book, Carlile's Republican, Queen Mab, Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary, Hume's Essays, the Liberal, Odelebene's Campaign in Saxony, Owen's Essays on the Formation of Character, besides some small pamphlets, all of which are still retained, although most of them are to be found in every library, and are openly sold in every bookseller's shop:

"That the persons made prisoners were detained from Sunday afternoon till Wednesday night, about eight o'clock, when they were allowed to find bail, one in 60l. and the other two in 100l. each, for their appearance at any time when called upon within the space of six months:

"That the three individuals gave the bail required, and though men of irreproachable moral character, and unconscious of having committed any crime, except that of expressing their opinions freely in public concerning the doctrines of religion, they are still in a state of painful suspense, uncertain but they may be ruined by prosecution:

"That your petitioners humbly represent, that, if the magistrates are authorized by law to seize all such books as have been taken from your petitioners, no library, either public or private can be considered safe:

"That your petitioners also represent, that if magistrates are authorised by law to disperse all meetings held for free discussion, men have no way of detecting error, and arriving at the truth of any subject; and the boasted freedom we are said to enjoy is only an empty name:

"That your petitioners are convinced there is no necessity for one party attempting to crush or overthrow another, that by equal toleration they might all exist together more peaceably than the Christians, Hindoos, and Mahometans live together in India, or Protestants and Catholics in Europe:

"That your petitioners have little wish to make converts to their opinions, and no wish whatever to attack people of a different way of thinking; their only desire is, to obtain the liberty of free discussion on all subjects:

"May it therefore please your honourable House to take your petitioners' case into your most serious consideration, and to make a law allowing free discussion on all subjects, that men may be convinced by reasoning, and not be forced by law, as at present, to be hypocrites; and your petitioners, as in duty bound, will ever pray."

Discussion in parliament

According to Hansard, Hume explained that, when he received the petition, he had suggested that the petitioners should apply to a court of law for redress. The answer he received was, that the petitioners did not complain of the conduct of the sheriff, nor of those who acted under his control, but of the law of Scotland by which they acted. He then referred to the English statutes, and was convinced that no person in authority in England would act towards any such society as the sheriff at Edinburgh acted towards the society of Freethinkers. However, by the law of Scotland, not only might such a society be dispersed — but the persons forming it might be imprisoned, and even hanged. By an act of Charles II, while there was no law against blasphemy in Scotland, if any person or persons who were not distracted in their wits, should rail at or curse God, they should suffer the punishment of death.

The Lord Advocate pointed out that, in addition to this, "an act of William and Mary made the person guilty of blasphemous expressions, the denial of the divinity of Christ, etc. for the first offence subject to imprisonment, for the second, subject to fine and imprisonment, and for the third, subject to suffer capital punishment."

§ Mr. Monck said, he wished to know whether there were Jews in Edinburgh? Now, Jews were decidedly more hostile to Christianity than those philosophers who had fallen under the displeasure of the learned lord. The philosophers, it seemed, fairly discussed important questions. They did not form a party; for no two of them agreed in opinion; whereas, the Jews to a man ridiculed the Christian religion. The law of Scotland appeared, in this respect, more severe than the Inquisition.

§ Mr. Hume considered the law a most horrid one. He was convinced that the Christian religion could only stand upon the ground of discussion and free inquiry. The proceeding altogether was one which was not to be defended.


  1. Fraser WH (1996) Owenite Socialism in Scotland Scottish Economic and Social History 16:60-91
  2. The Republican, Volume 6 (Google eBook) W. T. Sherwin, Richard Carlile
  3. Royle E Victorian Infidels] The Origins of the British Secularist Movement 1791-1866
  4. Edinburgh Free Thinkers' Zetetic Society Hansard April 16 1835