A Morality Tale for Moralists Excessive in Their Zeal



Someone has been bad.

I grow weary of hearing self-proclaimed moralists banging on people because they think them immoral in some way. Usually the persons doing the accusing are doing the deed they are accusing others of doing.

In this brief tale, taken from The Victorian Underworld by Donald Thomas, we learn the following about bad things which happen to good moralists by those who claim to be even more moral.

Under an anti-obscenity law passed by the British parliament in 1866, a respectable bookseller in England was prosecuted for selling a book published by an anti-obscenity group, the Protestant Electoral Union. Seems the book in question, The Confessional Unmasked, was an anti-Catholic book which contained passages from books by Roman Catholic theologians on priests who had violated the oath of the confessional. Something like that. And since the mission of the Protestant Electoral Union was to defend the Protestant faith throughout the British Empire from the proselytizing of persons of different faiths, this was a respectable group indeed.

Hard to say, of course, not having read the book myself, what the violations of the confessional were alleged to have been. Nonetheless, one doesn’t haven’t to think long and hard to come up with the probable subject matter.  The Confessional Unmasked must have included confessions of various sorts and not just one sin confessed to over and over, don’t you think? There are many ways to do things one should probably not have confessed to in those days.

If these confessions recounted acts of a less than perfect Christian behavior, then these would had to have be written by inference since one couldn’t write that person X seduced person Y and they had relations of an intimate and domestic nature in a sylvan glade while being watched by sheep. However, perhaps the violations of the confessional were completely without obscene suggestions.

The Crown prosecutes the bookseller for selling a book which had been in print since 1836 and sold publicly and openly the entire time and not one person had been prosecuted over this worthy volume. It had never been against the law in Great Britain to sell this book nor had it heretofore been thought obscene. Fortunately, a serious moralist with the Office of the Crown Prosecutor,  perhaps suffering guilt and poor eyesight over self-abuse,  who had both a fervid imagination and not enough to do, reads the book, and brings the bookseller to the bar for selling pornography.

AND THE BOOKSELLER IS CONVICTED AND SENT TO PRISON. This is absolute balderdash if you ask me. But even better, an activist named Mr. Mackay, working for the Protestant group which published the book, goes around giving lectures using a sanitized version of the book which was already sanitary enough for surgery. He gets prosecuted for obscenity and sent to prison.

Finally, and much to the satisfaction of those who wanted to live in a kingdom free of anything which could  be suggestive of immoral behavior, the Secretary of the Protestant Electoral Union is prosecuted for obscenity.

What violation of the obscenity laws did this respectable group of moralists commit? They published an account of the trial of their friend and supporter, Mr. Mackay, and said account contained a copy of the indictment against Mr. Mackay. In the indictment were cited various passages from the book about Roman Catholic priests abusing the confessional. We are really getting far afield here. Although an indictment is public record under English common law, the Crown convicted the Secretary of the Protestant Electoral Union of obscenity for publishing this pubic document because material in the indictment violated the laws on obscenity.

All I can do is quote the words of Mayor Behrman of New Orleans after the Federal Government closed down the legal red-light district in New Orleans at the beginning of World War One: “you can make it illegal but you can’t make it unpopular.”





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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/