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Philip Schaff on the History of Torture

In the 4th Volume of his History of the Christian Church, Philip Schaff devotes a chapter to the discussion of torture. Professor Schaff is wholly opposed to the use of torture in order to extract information or obtain a confession of guilt, and it is clear that he believes the best of Christian thought is also opposed to it. However, Prof. Schaff freely admits the church’s failings on this point. He begins with the ancient history of torture, moves through the early church and middle ages, and then concludes with the 18th and 19th Centuries.

Interestingly enough, Schaff begins by linking torture to the more ancient “trial by ordeal.” He claims that the two share the same fundamental logic but that torture replaced ordeal in that it was “less superstitious.”

The torture rests on the same idea as the ordeal. It is an attempt to prove innocence or guilt by imposing a physical pain which no man can bear without special aid from God. When the ordeal had fulfilled its mission, the torture was substituted as a more convenient mode and better fitted for an age less superstitious and more sceptical, but quite as despotic and intolerant. It forms one of the darkest chapters in history. For centuries this atrocious system, opposed to the Mosaic legislation and utterly revolting to every Christian and humane feeling, was employed in civilized Christian countries, and sacrificed thousands of human beings, innocent as well as guilty, to torments worse than death.

One can, we believe, discern Prof. Schaff’s basic feelings on the matter here. It is worth pointing out, as Schaff does, that both torture and the ordeal use extra-legal methods to obtain their goal. A sort of trial by ordeal is found in the Mosaic Law in Numbers 5:22ff, though it is clearly a unique and divinely superintended process wholly bound up in the Mosaic ceremonial law. It could not be recreated today even if the desire were to arise. But importantly, there is no torture in the torah.

Prof. Schaff goes on to explain the introduction of torture into the Western world by charting its history as a legal and, ashamedly, ecclesiastical practice. It originally came from the Greeks and Romans:

The torture was unknown among the Hindoos and the Semitic nations, but recognized by the ancient Greeks and Romans, as a regular legal proceeding. It was originally confined to slaves who were deemed unfit to bear voluntary testimony, and to require force to tell the truth.

Schaff notes that torture was expanded to include freeman, initially only when they sinned against the majesty of the rulers, but then, eventually, to those whom despots wished to humiliate. It is worth noting, however, that Acts 22:24-25 illustrates the way in which torture was not permissible against Roman citizens in the 1st century. It was only as the emperors became more degenerate (and the empire more and more fragile) that the use of torture as a legal device became more widespread. It was eventually, however, incorporated into the Justinian Code:

The torture was gradually developed into a regular system and embodied in the Justinian Code. Certain rules were prescribed, and exemptions made in favor of the learned professions, especially the clergy, nobles, children below fourteen, women during pregnancy, etc. The system was thus sanctioned by the highest legal authorities. But opinions as to its efficiency differed. Augustus pronounced the torture the best form of proof. Cicero alternately praises and discredits it. Ulpian, with more wisdom, thought it unsafe, dangerous, and deceitful.

Prof. Schaff explains that torture against freemen was generally not allowed among the Northern tribes of Europe, to include English common law, but that these societies were eventually influenced by and even, in some cases, overtaken by Roman law.

The ecclesiastical history is mixed. The earlier clergy mostly opposed torture (due in part, no doubt, to the memory of their predecessors in the faith), but the rise of papal power and the infamous Inquisition brought it back on a grand scale:

The church, true to her humanizing instincts, was at first hostile to the whole system of forcing evidence. A Synod of Auxerre (585 or 578) prohibited the clergy to witness a torture. Pope Gregory I. denounced as worthless a confession extorted by incarceration and hunger. Nicolas I. forbade the new converts in Bulgaria to extort confession by stripes and by pricking with a pointed iron, as contrary to all law, human and divine (866) Gratian lays down the general rule that “confessio cruciatibus extorquenda non est.”

But at a later period, in dealing with heretics, the Roman church unfortunately gave the sanction of her highest authority to the use of the torture, and thus betrayed her noblest instincts and holiest mission.

While the Inquisition rightly came to be hated by all, this did not mean that the use of torture fell with it. Unfortunately, many Protestant leaders continued to allow for it. It was not until the 18th century that it was condemned:

The Inquisition carried the system of torture to its utmost limits. After the Reformation it was still employed in trials of sorcery and witchcraft until the revolution of opinion in the eighteenth century swept it out of existence, together with cruel forms of punishment. This victory is due to the combined influence of justice, humanity, and tolerance.

Of course, those final sentences are generalizations, and sadly, it is not quite true that torture has been swept out of existence. Prof. Schaff gives an end note with more historical data, showing the varying levels of progress:

The torture was abolished in England after 1640, in Prussia 1740, in Tuscany 1786, in France 1789, in Russia 1801, in various German states partly earlier, partly later (between 1740 and 1831), in Japan 1873. Thomasius, Hommel, Voltaire, Howard, used their influence against it. Exceptional cases of judicial torture occurred in the nineteenth century in Naples, Palermo, Roumania (1868), and Zug (1869). See Lea, p. 389 sqq., and the chapter on Witchcraft in Lecky’s History of Rationalism (vol. I. 27–154). The extreme difficulty of proof in trials of witchcraft seemed to make a resort to the torture inevitable. English witchcraft reached its climax during the seventeenth century, and was defended by King James I., and even such wise men as Sir Matthew Hale, Sir Thomas Browne, and Richard Baxter. When it was on the decline in England it broke out afresh in Puritan New England, created a perfect panic, and led to the execution of twenty-seven persons. In Scotland it lingered still longer, and as late as 1727 a woman was burnt there for witchcraft. In the Canton Glarus a witch was executed in 1782, and another near Danzig in Prussia in 1836. Lecky concludes his chapter with an eloquent tribute to those poor women, who died alone, hated, and unpitied, with the prospect of exchanging their torments on earth with eternal torments in hell.

The noteworthy opponents of torture actually occupy a variety of theological backgrounds. As previously noted on our site, Anton Praetorius, a Calvinist, and Friedrich Spee, a Jesuit, both opposed the use of torture in the early 17th century. Of course, in the 18th century, the Lutheran Christian Thomasius and the Catholic (though certainly Enlightenment-influenced) Cesare Beccaria did the most to discredit it. Finally, we can return to Schaff, as he quotes the Calvinist American Philanthropist, Charles Loring Brace, whose work Gesta Christi deserves to be recovered today:

I add a noble passage on torture from Brace’s Gesta Christi, p. 274 sq. “Had the ’Son of Man’ been in body upon the earth during the Middle Ages, hardly one wrong and injustice would have wounded his pure soul like the system of torture. To see human beings, with the consciousness of innocence, or professing and believing the purest truths, condemned without proof to the most harrowing agonies, every groan or admission under pain used against them, their confessions distorted, their nerves so racked that they pleaded their guilt in order to end their tortures, their last hours tormented by false ministers of justice or religion, who threaten eternal as well as temporal damnation, and all this going on for ages, until scarce any innocent felt themselves safe under this mockery of justice and religion—all this would have seemed to the Founder of Christianity as the worst travesty of his faith and the most cruel wound to humanity. It need not be repeated that his spirit in each century struggled with this tremendous evil, and inspired the great friends of humanity who labored against it. The main forces in mediaeval society, even those which tended towards its improvement, did not touch this abuse. Roman law supported it. Stoicism was indifferent to it; Greek literature did not affect it; feudalism and arbitrary power encouraged a practice which they could use for their own ends; and even the hierarchy and a State Church so far forgot the truths they professed as to employ torture to support the ’Religion of Love.’ But against all these powers were the words of Jesus, bidding men ’Love your enemies’ ’Do good to them that despitefully use you!’ and the like commands. working everywhere on individual souls, heard from pulpits and in monasteries, read over by humble believers, and slowly making their way against barbaric passion and hierarchic cruelty. Gradually, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the books containing the message of Jesus circulated among all classes, and produced that state of mind and heart in which torture could not be used on a fellow-being, and in which such an abuse and enormity as the Inquisition was hurled to the earth.”

Given the current controversial discussion of torture in America, the early-modern history deserves to be re-studied and its pressing points highlighted anew.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.

3 replies on “Philip Schaff on the History of Torture”

For slight qualification of Schaff’s remarks, it might be useful to point to the work of Ed Peters, who, after (ni fallor) writing a whole book on the history of torture, said the following:

“If sufficient evidence accumulated against an accused who did not confess, the Inquisition had torture at its disposal, as had all ecclesiastical and secular courts–except in England–since the thirteenth century. Although torture as an incident of legal procedure was permitted only when sufficient circumstantial evidence existed to indicate that a confession could be obtained, inquisitorial torture appears to have been extremely conservative and infrequently used. There is enough inquisitorial literature on torture contained in Instrucciones intended only for the eyes of inquisitors for us to to conclude that the Inquisition’s use of torture was well under that of all contemporary secular courts in continental Europe, and even under that of other ecclesiastical tribunals” (92).

I certainly don’t want to appear as if I’m *defending* the Inquisition here. But, even if they should have been much more illuminated by the example of Jesus’ life than they were, it is useful to see their practices in the context of their own times. But I am thankful that you have brought to light the history of these debates in the Christian tradition. They might induce a spirit of repentance. Perhaps the consequentialist politicians might be restrained by seeing how much they sound like a Spanish Inquisitor (without the extensive legal and moral training)!

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