The English writer Daniel Defoe was put in the pillory for seditious libel after publishing a politically satirical pamphlet.

Defoe had authored a number of political pamphlets by the time he published The Shortest Way with the Dissenters, which satirised the increasing hostility towards religious Dissenters after Queen Anne succeeded to the throne. Also known as nonconformists, the term applied to a range of Protestant denominations that had broken away from the Anglican High church over the course of the previous century, and who were often the target for criticism and persecution.

Shortly after Anne came to the throne parliament began to debate a Bill that would make it more difficult for Dissenters to hold public office. In its wake, High church clergymen and the Tory press published numerous sermons and pamphlets warning against Dissenters assuming positions of political power.

Defoe himself was a Presbyterian, who responded with a pamphlet of his own. Written as a satire from the point of view of the High church and Tory arguments, Defoe later explained that he sought to mock them by taking their arguments to the extreme. However, the pamphlet was initially taken seriously by both sides and ultimately led to the Tory ministry of the time coming under scrutiny for their handling of the issue of Dissenters.

Despite publishing the pamphlet anonymously, Defoe was identified and later found guilty of seditious libel. He was sentenced to endure public humiliation in a pillory, and then to be imprisoned until he paid a punitive fine that he was unlikely ever to afford. While in the pillory the public allegedly threw flowers at him instead of the customary unpleasant objects. He was later released from prison after his fine was paid in return for him agreeing to work for the Tories.

John Thomas Scopes, a substitute science teacher in Tennessee, was found guilty of teaching evolution in school.

In March 1925 Tennessee governor Austin Peay signed into law the Butler Act, which prohibited teachers in state-funded schools from teaching human evolution as it went against the Biblical account of mankind’s origins. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) soon announced that it was keen to finance a legal test case to challenge the constitutionality of the Butler Act if a teacher was willing to act as the defendant.

George Rappleyea, the manager of the Cumberland Coal and Iron Company in the small Tennessee town of Dayton, believed that a trial of this type could bring valuable publicity to the town. With the support of other local community leaders he approached 24-year-old John T. Scopes. Although Scopes couldn’t recall specifically teaching evolution he did accept that he may have gone through the state-endorsed textbook chapter and chart relating to it. His students were consequently encouraged to testify against him, which led to his indictment on 25 May and the subsequent trial that began on 10 July.

The ‘Monkey Trial’ brought enormous crowds to Dayton where their attention was split between carnival entertainments such as performing chimpanzees on the courthouse lawn, and the numerous preachers who converged on the town to address the crowds.

The trial’s bitter exchanges between the prosecution and defence generated extensive media coverage on both sides of the Atlantic for almost two weeks before Scopes was found guilty and ordered to pay a fine of $100, the minimum amount possible. The Tennessee Supreme Court later overruled the verdict on a technicality, but the Butler Act stayed in place until its repeal in 1967.

On the 24th June 1374, people in Aachen in Germany suddenly and mysteriously began dancing in the streets and didn’t stop for many weeks. Known variously as St John’s Dance, St. Vitus’ Dance, or the ‘dancing plague’, the occurrence in Aachen was neither the first nor the last – but is one of the best documented.

Many hundreds of people were affected by the dance mania, which involved erratic movements and often involuntary shouts and screams. Of those afflicted many would continue to dance until they dropped to the floor of exhaustion, foaming at the mouth and twitching their limbs until they had recovered sufficiently to resume the dance again. Others died of cardiac arrest or from injuries sustained during the dance.

It’s understandable that people at the time were concerned about the mania and that various theories were suggested about its cause. Religion, and punishment from saints John or Vitus, were closely associated with both the cause and the cure. It’s been suggested that the virtual disappearance of outbreaks by the 17th Century coincided with the spread of Protestantism and its rejection of the veneration of saints.

More recent theories point towards the fact that the first dancers were people on pilgrimage, not citizens of the town in which the dancing happened. The suggestion is therefore that the dancers were members of cults performing highly-planned rituals that would have seen them executed for heresy if not for the excuse that it was a mass outbreak of dancing plague. Others commentators simply suggest that the dancing was a form of mass hysteria.


The 22nd June 1633 saw Galileo Galilei, the famed scientist, was found “vehemently suspect of heresy” by the Papal Inquisition and forced to recant his belief in the heliocentric universe originally put forward by Copernicus ninety years previously. Galileo was sentenced to house arrest where he remained for the final nine years of his life.

Galileo had visited Rome nearly two decades earlier in order to defend his belief that the Earth orbits the Sun rather than the other way round after complaints to the Inquisition had been raised in early 1615. Despite his attempt to prove that heliocentrism didn’t contradict the Bible, an Inquisitorial commission in 1616 unanimously declared it to be “formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture.”

At that time Galileo was ordered to “abandon completely… the opinion that the sun stands still at the center of the world and the earth moves”. However, he was permitted to discuss heliocentrism in theory. It was this that caused him problems when, in 1632, he published a new book called Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. Although written with permission from the Inquisition and the Pope, the book implicitly defended heliocentrism. Therefore, argued the Inquisition, Galileo had broken the sentence passed down 16 years earlier and should be forced to recant and be imprisoned.

Nearly 400 years later, in 1992, Pope John Paul II issued a declaration that recognised and expressed regret at the way the Catholic Church had handled the so-called Galileo affair.

Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức burned himself to death at a busy crossroads in Saigon.

Quảng Đức’s self-immolation came in response to the persecution of Buddhists by the government under Diệm, who belonged to the Catholic minority and was supported by the USA. Buddhists were regularly subjected to discriminatory policies that ranged from limited access to United States aid to employment. Even the military saw some Buddhists convert in order to improve their chance of promotion.

In early May 1963 the government banned the Buddhist flag. This coincided with Phật Đản, otherwise known as Vesak, the birthday of Gautama Buddha. Buddhists were incensed by the ban and, on 8 May, a number of Buddhists in the city flew the flag and later marched on the government-controlled radio station where government troops repelled the protesters with live ammunition. Nine people were killed, but Diệm blamed the violence on the Viet Cong. His refusal to hold the local authorities to account or to grant religious equality triggered more protests around the country.

On the morning of 11 June, 350 Buddhist monks and nuns processed along the road outside the Cambodian embassy in Saigon. Thích Quảng Đức calmly emerged from a car and adopted the lotus position on a cushion in the intersection where he was doused in petrol from a five-gallon can. After chanting a prayer he struck a match and his body was engulfed in flames.

Photographs of the act shocked the world, and increased international pressure on Diệm who failed to implement reforms that he promised in the aftermath. On 1 November he was overthrown in a coup and assassinated the following day.

The Indian Mutiny, also known as the First War of Indian Independence, began in Meerut.

By the middle of the 19th century, the British East India Company ruled two thirds of the Indian subcontinent on behalf of the government. The remainder paid tribute to the British, but there was increasing discontent among native rulers about their rapidly declining position. For ordinary Indians there were also concerns about the pace of Westernisation that threatened local traditions and ignored religious practices.

Against these undercurrents of hostility the East India Company relied on its sizeable army to maintain order. Although figures vary between sources, by 1857 up to 300,000 Indian sepoys had been recruited to the army alongside approximately 50,000 European troops. While this meant the Company relied on local troops to maintain control, this presented few problems until the introduction of the Enfield P53 rifle in 1856.

The new rifle required soldiers to bite the end off a pre-greased cartridge to release the powder and load the weapon, but rumours began circulating that the grease was made from cow and pig fat. The former was offensive to Hindus, while the latter was offensive to Muslims. On 9 May 1857, 85 seepoys of the 3rd Bengal Light Cavalry were court marshalled in the garrison town of Meerut, 40 miles northeast of Delhi, for refusing to use the new cartridges.

Sentenced to up to ten years’ imprisonment, their comrades broke them out of jail the next day. They killed a number of Europeans, as well as up to 50 Indian civilians, before marching to Delhi from where the uprising spread throughout northern India. The response from the British was brutal, but it still took them more than 18 months to regain control.

On the 7th May 1794, just a few weeks before the Law of 22nd Prairial that created the Great Terror, Maximilien Robespierre formally announced the creation of the Cult of the Supreme Being in a meeting of the National Convention.

The Cult had been devised almost exclusively by Robespierre, and followed a period of dramatic de-Christianisation that had seen the French Church stripped of its authority.  The Republic had fought hard to remove the influence of the Church from politics, with even the calendar being changed to remove all religious connotations.

What made the Cult of the Supreme Being unique as the state religion was that it recognised that God had created the universe, but that he did not interfere or intervene in its operation.  Therefore, humans were responsible for their own actions and destinies.  In the words of Robespierre, the existence of God and the immortality of the human soul were, “constant reminders” of the virtuous way people should live their lives in the Republic.

A month later, on the 20th Prairial (otherwise known as the 8th June 1794), Robespierre ordered a national celebration known as the Festival of the Supreme Being.  The most significant celebrations were in Paris, where a huge man-made papier-mâché mountain was built on the Champs de Mars.  This event is seen by many as marking the pinnacle of Robespierre’s influence.  However, within just 8 weeks the Thermidorian Reaction had removed him from power and executed him.

On the 7th April 1498, a group of Franciscan monks met their Dominican rivals in the Piazza della Signoria in Florence to take part in the first trial by fire in 400 years. The belief was that God would intervene to protect the rightful side from the flames as they walked over them. But the trial never went ahead.

The Dominican friar Savonarola had built a powerful following in Florence with his passionate sermons against vices and luxuries that tempted people to sin. The previous year he had been excommunicated for defying Pope Alexander VI’s order to stop preaching sermons in which the Pope himself was criticized for corruption and greed. However, Savonarola ignored the Pope’s order and continued to preach and to celebrate mass. Combined with his support for the French invasion of northern Italy, which he claimed was God’s punishment for the Florentines’ sinful past, Savonarola began to face a large and vocal opposition.

When he hinted at having performed miracles, monks from the rival Franciscan order proposed a trial by fire to prove Savonarola’s holiness. When the two sides met on the 7th April, they squabbled for so long that a rainstorm eventually led to the cancellation of the event.

With Savonarola unable to prove his claim, the crowd turned against him. The next day his convent was stormed by an angry mob and he was arrested. Within six weeks he and two fellow friars had been executed for heresy.

(The image shows Savonarola’s execution, but we can’t find any of his trial by fire.)

The Book of Mormon is a key sacred text of the Latter Day Saint movement that was published by Joseph Smith, the founder of the movement, when he was twenty-four years old. He claimed to have been visited by the angel Moroni who showed him the location of a buried book etched on golden plates in a previously unknown language referred to as ‘reformed Egyptian’. He translated the plates into English with the help of special spectacles or seer stones, and dictated the resulting text to a scribe.

Smith approached the printer and publisher Egbert B. Grandin after work on the book was completed in 1829. He was eventually persuaded to print 5,000 copies, but only went through with the full task after prosperous local farmer and early Mormon convert Martin Harris mortgaged his farm to cover the $3,000 security payment. It took Grandin’s staff of eight men and boys under the oversight of chief compositor John H. Gilbert almost eight months of working 12 hour, six day weeks to complete the job.

Concerned that the book might undermine existing Christian beliefs, and could even be blasphemous, local people in Palmyra organised a boycott. With thousands of original copies remaining unsold, the financier Martin Harris was later forced to sell his farm to cover to outstanding debt.

The original building in which Grandin printed and sold the first edition of the Book of Mormon was bought by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in October 1978. It was subsequently restored to its original layout and appearance, albeit with the addition of a visitors’ centre.

On the 23rd March 1540, Waltham Abbey in Essex became the last abbey to be dissolved by Henry VIII. Henry had visited the abbey a number of times and is known to have stayed there with Queen Anne Boleyn in 1532. However, despite surviving for a number of years Waltham Abbey eventually succumbed to the Dissolution of the Monasteries. This caused an economic disaster in the town, which had grown prosperous as a result of pilgrims visiting the abbey.

The Dissolution of the Monasteries saw the more than 850 religious houses that existed in England at the start of Henry VIII’s reign disbanded and their property taken by the crown. Although only some of these were actual ‘monasteries’, England’s religious houses together owned between a quarter to a third of all the land in England. Furthermore, many of them were rumoured to tolerate decidedly un-monastic behaviour.

Having severed his ties with the Catholic Church in the 1534 Act of Supremacy, Henry was free to deal with religious houses without needing approval from the Pope. Within two years his ministers began to shut down religious houses on financial grounds, and by 1540 all the abbeys except for Waltham had been closed. Abbot Robert Fuller surrendered the abbey and its property on the 23rd March 1540, and within just a few years all the buildings except for the parish nave were demolished or collapsed due to neglect. The Dissolution of the Monasteries was completed in less than four years, but brought Henry significant income as well as suppressing political opposition from those who might have sided with the Pope.