The Lethal Mix of Religion and Torture: David L. Kent

By David L. Kent

Torture seems to be a subtext to much of current American discussion.

Although those ancient cultures whose priesthoods focused on death–such as Egypt and Assyria–practiced torture, many cultures–such as India, the T’ang dynasty of China, and Babylonia–did not. In Greece, the naive notions of Aristotle and Demosthenes advanced the idea of afflictive punishment (Rhetoric, 1:15,26; In Onetum, 1:874) in the 4th century B.C.E., which developed into the elaborate Roman system of torture. In the words of the former, Torture is a kind of evidence, and appears to carry with it absolute credibility because a kind of constraint is applied.”

As soon as Christianity had achieved ascendancy in the 4th century C.E., torture in aid of theological positions was widely used, particularly against women, who “had their breasts crushed or scorched,” were beaten with thorn clubs, and were compelled to sit on heated iron plates (McCabe, A Rationalist Encyclopaedia, 1948, pp. 587-89).

Acting on the direct order of deity in Exodus 22:18–“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”–torture leading to death was practiced on increasing hordes of victims as the centuries passed, culminating in the condemnation of 20,000 women by Benedict Carpzov, a Leipzig professor in the 17th century. The Spanish Inquisition added hundreds of thousands to the total, in tortures detailed in George William Foote and Joseph Mazzini Wheeler’s Crimes of Christianity, and Eugene Montague Macdonald’s History of the Inquisition.

Nor was Christian torture restricted to Europe. In 1692, deaf octogenarian Giles Cory was crushed to death–the peine forte et dure–because he could not understand questions asked him. Twenty-one other accused witches were hanged or died in prison in Salem, Mass., where two centuries later the founder of Christian Science, Mary Ann Morse Baker Glover Patterson Eddy, brought up one of her disaffected followers on yet another charge of witchcraft, according to her biographers Willa Cather and Georgine Milmine.

In the same colony, the death penalty was imposed on Nov. 4, 1646, for anyone denying the inspiration of the bible. A dozen years later, various physical mutilations were prescribed for Quakers who would not desist from preaching. It was not an idle threat: on Oct. 27, 1659, the first in a series of Quakers was hanged on Boston Common for violating that law.

Mrs. Baker’s contemporaries, Joseph Smith Jr and Brigham Young–founders of Mormonism–varied the torture, preaching and practicing castration, first of outsiders, later of Mormons, to consolidate their hierarchy (Salt Lake City Messenger, issue 92 (April 1997), pp. 10-14).

All the above historical facts were in the public consciousness in 1890, when the Earl of Shrewsbury and Talbot purchased the world-renowned collection of torture instruments housed in the Royal Castle of Nuremberg, and brought them to the principal cities of Great Britain for display. In 1893, the collection was displayed in New York City. Robert Green Ingersoll was so horrified by what he saw that he wrote a powerful essay against the evils of the Inquisition, which turned public feeling from the evils of torture.

The centerpiece of the collection is #636, the Eiserne Jungfrau, or Iron Maiden, described as follows:

“This terror-inspiring torture instrument is made of strong wood, bound together with iron bands. Opens with two doors, to allow the prisoner to be placed inside. The entire interior is fitted with long, sharp iron spikes, so that, when the doors are pressed to, the sharp prongs force their way into various portions of the victim’s body. Two entered his eyes, others pierced his back, his chest, and, in fact, impaled him alive in such a manner that he lingered in the most agonizing torture. When death relieved the poor wretch from his agonies, perhaps after days, a trap-door in the base was pulled open and the body allowed to fall into the moat or river below. Persons were condemned to death by the embraces of the Iron Maiden for religious unbelief [and other causes]” (Julius D. Ichenhaeuser, Illustrated Catalogue of the Historical and World-Renowned Collection of Torture Instruments, Etc. from the Royal Castle of Nuremberg (1893), pp. 40f).

So what is the lesson of this unhappy history?

Simply that the more closely religion and political power are mingled, the more frequently will both political and religious establishments make use of torture–with imagined impunity, but to the degradation of each in the end.

David L. Kent is a Texas member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Freedom From Religion Foundation