Category Archives: Religion

1816: Pious teen avoids rope swing – just like Jesus

James Walter Douglas was born in Virginia in November 1797. After completing his elementary education, Douglass moved to the village of Christiana, Delaware, where he obtained a position as a trainee clerk.

The teenaged Douglass also became a pious and active member of the local church. The extent of his faith is evident in Douglass’s personal diary. In its pages he explains his reasons for not using a rope swing, popular with numerous other young men in Christiana:

“A very high and quite expensive swing was put up in the village by the young men [and has become] a great resort for the young people of the town. I was very much in doubt whether I ought to attend it, and at length determined that I ought not, for these reasons:

1. It takes time and we must account for our time.

2. It is setting an example of levity.

3. The Lord Jesus would not attend such a place.

4. Nor [would] his apostles.

5. Nor [would] our minister Mr Latta…

6. Please when carried to excess is criminal. Is this not excess?

7. What good can I get [from the swing]. Will I be more virtuous? Wiser? Better tempered? More full of grace? No, no I will not…”

In October 1816, Douglass had another moral dilemma when he visited New York. Out walking, he found himself continually drawn towards the printed handbills of the theatre, which threatened to “inflame [his] imagination”. But Douglass triumphantly reported being able to return to his lodgings without succumbing to temptation, passing the theatre and looking inside.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Douglass later entered the church. By 1823, he was preaching in North Carolina and in 1833 he married a woman from Virginia. He died prematurely in August 1837, just weeks before his 40th birthday.

Source: Diary of James W. Douglass, July 1st 1816. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1731: Brazilian termites abide by court order

In 1713, a group of Franciscan monks in north-eastern Brazil lodged a complaint with their local bishop. A swarm of termites had taken up residence in their monastery, St Anthony’s, and chewed their way through food, furniture, floorboards and foundations. Attempts to drive away the termites had failed and St Anthony’s was now on the brink of collapse.

The friars asked their bishop to excommunicate the hungry insects before it was too late. The bishop agreed to submit the matter to an ecclesiastical court, which heard the matter over several days.

As was usual in legal action against animals, the termites did not attend but were granted human legal representation. Their lawyer, whose name is not recorded, argued that his clients were resident in the area long before the monks; not only that, as God’s creatures they were entitled to foraging rights. Further, the lawyer suggested that the termites’ busy activities:

“…some might contend, hath proven them more industrious and attentive to their labours than those who stand to accuse them [the monks].”

The court eventually reached a compromise, ruling that the monks set aside timberland and ordering the termites to relocate there forthwith. According to the chronicles of St Anthony, cited by Evans, the court’s ruling was:

“…read officially before the hills of the termites [then] they all came out and marched in columns to the place assigned… conclusive proof that the Almighty endorsed the decision of the court.”

Sources: Bernardes, Nova Floresta &tc., vol.5, 1747; Edward P. Evans, The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals, 1906. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1642: Mob plays football with Catholic priest’s head

Hugh Greene, also known as Ferdinand Brooks, was a victim of anti-Catholic persecution during the English Civil War. Greene was born in London to Anglican parents but converted to Catholicism after his graduation from Cambridge. After studying in France, Greene became a parish priest in Dorset.

In 1642, Charles I banished all Catholic priests from England. Greene complied with the king’s order but was held up and missed the deadline by several days, and was arrested trying to board a ship in Lyme Regis.

Greene was imprisoned for several months, committed to trial on charges of high treason and sent for execution. The sentence was carried out in Dorchester in August 1642. According to the written testimony of an eyewitness, Elizabeth Willoughby, Greene was hanged to the point of unconsciousness, then messily quartered:

“The man that was to quarter him was a timorous, unskilful man, by trade a barber, and his name was Barefoot… he was so long dismembering him that [Greene] came to his perfect senses and sat upright and took Barefoot by the hand… then did this butcher cut his belly on both sides… Whilst [Greene] was calling upon Jesus, the butcher did pull a piece of his liver out instead of his heart, tumbling his guts out every way to see if his heart were not amongst them…”

This barbarous ordeal went on for more than a half-hour, with Greene either praying devoutly or screaming in agony. According to Willoughby, Greene only expired after his throat was cut and his head was hacked off with a cleaver. His heart was eventually removed and thrown into a fire, before it was snatched up and stolen by a local woman.

As for the priest’s severed head:

“An ungodly multitude, from ten o’clock in the morning till four in the afternoon, stayed on the hill and sported themselves at football with his head [then] put sticks in his eyes, ears, nose and mouth and buried it near to the body.”

Source: Letter from Elizabeth Willoughby, Dorchester, June 20th 1643. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1529: Silver rings help pilgrims deal with erectile problems

In the late 1520s, Sir Thomas More penned a defence of the Catholic church that also included a condemnation of obscure and superstitious rituals being practised in some areas.

One of the sillier examples described by Sir Thomas occurred at an abbey in Picardy, near the mouth of the Somme. The abbey, dedicated to St Valery, had become a shrine for men suffering from kidney stones, impotence and erectile problems. It attracted visitors from across western Europe, including some from England.

Seeking the blessings of St Valery, these pilgrims sometimes left offerings peculiar to their impairment:

“..Just as you see wax legs or arms or other parts hanging up at other pilgrimage shrines, in that chapel all the pilgrims’ offerings hung about the walls, and they were all men’s and women’s private gear [genitalia] made out of wax.”

More also describes a particular ritual carried out at the abbey, apparently intended to help pilgrims with their impotence and erectile problems:

“At the end of the altar there were two round rings of silver, one much larger than the other, through which every man puts his privy member, not every man through both… for they were not of the same size but one larger than the other.”

Source: Sir Thomas More, Dialogue concerning Heresies, 1529. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1742: New Jersey man makes himself “an eunuch”

In November 1742 the Boston Evening Post reported that Mister John Leek of Cohansey, New Jersey had:

“…after twelve month’s deliberation, made himself an eunuch… it is said for the Kingdom of Heaven’s sake… He is now under Dr Johnson’s hands and in a fair way of doing well.”

According to the Evening Post, Mr Leek was following the example outlined in Matthew 19:12 which reads:

“For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others. And there are those who choose to live like eunuchs, for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Source: The Boston Evening Post, November 8th 1742. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1757: Farmer whipped, fined for venting his frustration with women

In 1757 Samuel Rhodes, a yeoman farmer from Stoughton, Massachusetts, was charged with “wilfully and maliciously” uttering “false and blasphemous words”. According to witnesses Rhodes was overheard saying to another person:

“God was a damned fool for ever making a woman.”

The court found Rhodes guilty and sentenced him to be:

“…set upon the gallows with a rope about his neck for the space of one hour; that he be publicly whipped twenty-five stripes; and that he become bound by way of recognisance in the sum of twenty pounds… for the term of twelve months and that he pay [the] costs of prosecution.”

Source: Minutes of the Superior Court of Judicature of Massachusetts Bay, Suffolk County, November 1757. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1807: Preacher drowns baptism candidate; others not so keen

In the early 1800s, travelogue writer Charles W. Janson told of winter baptisms in New England where the preacher “ducked” baptismal candidates in half-frozen rivers. Janson described his first experience of these chilly baptisms:

“During this unnatural ceremony, I was no less entertained with the remarks of the spectators. One of them observed that severe as the discipline was, they seldom took cold or suffered subsequent bodily pains, adding that their enthusiasm was so great, and their minds were wrought up to such a degree of religious frenzy, that no room was left for reflection or sense of danger.”

Janson then reported one baptism in Connecticut that ended in tragedy:

“It was performed in a small but rapid river covered with ice, except a place cut for the purpose. The minister, with his followers, advanced to the proper distance into the water. After the usual introductory prayer, being in the act of immersing the first, he [the preacher] accidentally lost his hold of the unfortunate person, who was in an instant carried down the stream, still running under the ice, and irrecoverably lost.”

The preacher, apparently unflustered by this disastrous turn of events, pressed on:

“The good man finding his subject gone, with a happy serenity of mind exclaimed: “The Lord hath given, the Lord hath taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord. Come another of you, my children.” The remainder, astonished and confounded, lost their faith, and fled.”

Source: Charles William Janson, The Stranger in America, 1807. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1822: Breeches foil buggering bishop’s getaway

In July 1822, Percy Jocelyn, Bishop of Clogher and son of the Earl of Roden, was arrested for sodomy. Witnesses caught Jocelyn “deep in the act of buggery” with a young soldier behind the White Lion in Westminster. According to witnesses, Jocelyn was still wearing his bishop’s cassock, which was hitched up around his waist.

A different report says His Grace tried to make a getaway but was foiled by his own undergarment:

“The affair of the Bishop has made a great noise. The people of the public house have made a good deal of money by showing the place [where they were discovered]… The Bishop took no precautions and it was next to impossible he should not have been caught. He made a desperate resistance when taken and if his breeches had not been down they think he would have got away.”

Jocelyn was dragged through the streets and beaten up then handed over to city authorities, who released him on £1,000 bail. He immediately fled to Scotland, where he worked as a servant under an assumed name. John Moverley also absconded and was not heard of again under that name.

The 1822 incident was not Jocelyn’s first brush with accusations of sodomy. In 1811, one of his brother’s servants, James Byrne, attested to “indecent acts and propositions” made to him by the bishop. Byrne was sued for defamation. He was found guilty, fined heavily and publicly flogged.

Source: Report from July 30th 1822, cited in the Greville Memoirs, vol. 1. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1683: Charlestown pastor sacked for baptising a bear

Atkinson Williamson was parson of St Philip’s, an Episcopal church in Charlestown, South Carolina, in the late 1600s. Several private letters from the early 1700s make mention of the fact that Williamson, sometimes referred to as “Williams”, was an alcoholic. Some report that he was removed from his position after an unseemly incident.

In one exchange of letters, South Carolinian gentlemen Thomas Smith recalls this as Williamson turning up to church drunk and being convinced to baptise a young bear:

“[He] was too great a lover of strong liquor, etc… Some wicked people… made him first fuddled and then got him to christen the bear.”

The incident was also mentioned by James Moore, the British governor of South Carolina between 1700 and 1703. After Williamson’s removal he remained in Charlestown and continued as a clerk of the church.

Source: Various, inc. letter from Thomas Smith to Robert Stevens, January 16th 1707. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1051: Dodgy clerics to be whipped, shaved, spat on and fed grain

Petrus Damiani was an influential Benedictine monk, born in Ravenna in the middle of the 11th century. Damiani was widely respected for his piety, devotion and self-discipline, as well as his attempts to eradicate clerical corruption.

Around 1051, Damiani wrote Liber Gomorrhianus or ‘Book of Gomorrah’, in effect an open plea to Pope Leo IX to do something about licentiousness and perverted behaviour among members of the clergy. Of particular concern to Damiani was the sexual mistreatment of boys by some monks and priests. In this extract he calls for stiff penalties for transgressors:

“A cleric or monk who seduces youths or young boys or is found kissing… is to be publicly flogged and lose his tonsure. When his hair has been shaved, his face is to be foully besmeared with spit and he is to be bound in iron chains for six months…”

Furthermore:

“He shall never again associate with youths in private conversation nor in the counselling of them. [And he should be] be denied bread but fed only barley, as whoever acts like a horse and a mule [should] not eat the food of men”.

Liber Gomorrhianus caused a stir until around 1062 when the original manuscript was ‘borrowed’ from Damiani by Pope Alexander II – who locked it away and refused to return it.

Source: Pietro Damiani, Liber Gomorrhianus, c.1051. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.