Today (December 21) in London History – Guilty of blasphemy, God goes to prison

God commits blasphemy, goes to prison. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

Five. And counting.

Having trouble counting because my head is spinning.

And that’s by way of saying, this one’s going to degenerate real fast. So hold on to the handrail, let’s get the sensible stuff said before the pitching and yawing gets completely out of control and we go over the edge and into the hurly-burly.

It’s December 21st, 1921. 

We’re at the Old Bailey, the Central Criminal Court, where 

John Gott has just been tried and found guilty of blasphemy. He’s sentenced to nine months imprisonment with hard labour. He’s the last person imprisoned for blasphemy in Britain. 

Ok, fasten your seatbelts – here comes the funfair ride. The Freakout. The Shoot the Chute. 

It bears repeating, the defendant – now the convicted blasphemer – is named Gott. Gott’s a Germanic name. It means God. 

So God has just been convicted of blasphemy. And will be doing nine months hard labour.

It gets worse. Or at least infinitely more dizzying. God’s first name – his, er, Christian name is John. John comes from an old Hebrew name that roughly translates as Yahweh is Gracious. Or Yahweh is Merciful.

Yahweh of course means God.

So – hang on here – the name John means Yahweh is Gracious which means God is Gracious. Or the variant Yahweh is Merciful, which means God is merciful. 

So throw the switch our man, our blasphemer, John Gott – his full name is God is Gracious God. Or, if you prefer, God is Merciful God.

Now let’s make sure we know what blasphemy is. It’s the action or offence of speaking sacrilegiously about God. Of showing disrespect to God. Or saying something that shows disrespect to God.

Denying God’s holiness, for example. Or rejecting Christ. Essentially not believing in God, denying that He exists.

So, what have we got here – hang on tight – what we’ve got here is God is Gracious God saying by God God doesn’t exist, god damnit.

Excuse me for a minute while I apply a damp cloth to my forehead. 

Our man, Blasphemer John Gott – Gracious God God (or Merciful God God, take your pick) – also said his Son entered Jerusalem like a circus clown on the back of a couple of donkeys. 

And I might add that he says this just about the time – well, the anniversary of the time –his mother, her name is Mary and she’s heavy with child, is riding a donkey to a stable in Bethlehem where she’s about to give birth to God is Merciful God who when he grows up and has come amongst us twenty centuries or so down the road will face his very own mob – in East London, this time – God moves in mysterious ways – and say to anybody who will listen, “I’m not Him, I don’t exist.”

The mob’s pretty much had their fill of him. He says the same thing over and over. It’s got a bit boring. So much so that he was locked up in 1911. Anything to shut him up. Didn’t work. As soon as he was released Gracious God God took up where he left off – telling all and sundry that “Gracious God God is here to tell you He doesn’t exist. This time he got eight weeks hard labour in 1916 and 1917. And on it went. There was a fine and more imprisonment in 1918. He just won’t quit. He’s daft as a box of frogs, says the crowd. Where’s Pontius? Send him to Pontius. Pontius as it happens is a High Court Judge in the Old Bailey. He obliges the London Pharisees. Gives God is Merciful God the nine months hard labour sentence on December 21st. 

God appeals it. The Lord Chief Justice dismisses the appeal. He says the defendant, God is Merciful God says he does not exist. Clearly the defendant God does exist – we have the evidence of our eyes and ears – he’s right here in this courtroom. Claiming that he does not exist is manifestly blasphemous.

What’s more, it does not require a person of strong religious feelings to be outraged by a description of God’s son entering Jerusalem like a circus clown on the back of a couple of donkeys.” 

This court refuses to show mercy to God is Merciful God’s appeal. Said appeal is dismissed. 

And so the piece that passeth all understanding – that’s piece spelled p i e c e – says a little prayer at day’s end on December 21st – Now I lay me down to sleep.

Four more days to Christmas. Just four more cases to be heard in the Court of Today in London History. 

Final thought: I wonder if I’m getting a bit end-of-termish. 

And a Today in London recommendation. Famously, we number among our guides the barrister Tom Hooper. Tom’s a member of Middle Temple. You want a memorable day – or half day – in London enlist barrister Tom to guide you through the Inns of Court and then have lunch with him afterward at historic old Middle Temple Hall. You’ll have bragging rights forever. Doubly so if you’re a member of the Legal profession. And hey, you can pick his brains – get some free legal advice – about blasphemy. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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