187: CHRISTIAN ATROCITIES #6: The treatment of heretics

“Welcome to Zingcreed, the totally unique Christian/Atheist blog. Feel free to ‘eavesdrop’ as I think aloud about religion and the world. I hope you find it interesting!” Peter Turner, M.A., M.Sc.

“Do you think outside the box, have you tried lateral thinking? Then you are a dangerous person. If you are a church member then you should stop thinking right now and let Holy Mother Church do it for you!” This is how the world was a few centuries ago. If the church doesn’t persecute heretics today it’s not because it doesn’t want to, it’s because it’s too weak to do so; and with so many different denominations, the offender can simply go next door. Clergy frequently still get punished by their churches for speaking their minds (i)

For a thousand years, the church had a monopoly. It was called the dark ages. (ii)

Like most things in the Christian religion, it didn’t start with Jesus, It all started with ‘Saint’ Paul.
His work in Galatia was being ‘undermined’ by a counter mission from the original church in Jerusalem (i.e. James, Peter, John: people who had known  Jesus and were approved by him, and worked with him, unlike Paul). Did Paul act reasonably, discuss the issues, work out a compromise, do everything possible to prevent a split in the infant Christian movement. Did he hell!
Paul accused his fellow Christians of

  • impure motives (Gal.4:17; 6:13)
  • of being “false brothers” (Gal. 2:4)
  • preaching a different gospel (Gal. 1:8)
  • worthy of an anathema

Paul uses even stronger language when writing to the church in Corinth:
“For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising then if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve.” (2 Cor. 11:13-15)

While various parts of the early church were sending each other to hell in words, they soon put their threats into practice. In 90-100 C.E., Clement the Bishop of Rome wrote a letter to the Corinthian church (them again!) demanding they reinstate a dismissed leader. He stresses that whoever disobeys the church leaders is guilty of insubordination against the divine master himself. Clement warns that whoever disobeys the divinely ordained authorities “receives the death penalty.” (iii)

In 180 C.E. Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyons wrote a book in 5 volumes attacking some texts which have recently been rediscovered (the Nag Hammadi texts)  and calling for their destruction. These heretical scriptures are “absurd and inconsistent with the truth…Avoid such an abyss of madness and of blasphemy against Christ.” (iv)

As soon as the emperors Theodosius and Gratian (v) raised the numerically strongest commmunity of Christians, the Catholics, to the status of a state church (Edict of 28 February C.E.380), ‘heresy’ at once became a crime against the state.(vi) The law stated:
“We order those who follow this law to assume the name of ‘Catholic Christians’. The rest on the other hand, whom we declare to be mad and insane, have to bear the shame of being called ‘heretics’. Their meeting places may not be known by the name of churches. They must first be struck by the vengeance of God and then also by the punishment of our anger, for which we derive our power from the heavenly judgement.”
The first recorded victim of the draconian new measures was a Spaniard called Priscillian. He had his head chopped off in Trier in 385 C.E. on the initiative of Catholic bishops because he denied the doctrine of the Trinity and the resurrection. And the ‘Dark Ages’ hadn’t even begun yet! (vii)

About 400 C.E. St Augustine weighed in, appealing to a parable (Lk 14:23). he supplied a theological justification for compulsory state measures against Christians who wouldn’t toe the line. He said that a war conducted to preserve or restore unity in the church was a war waged by God himself. (vii)

There can’t have been many non-canonical documents left in circulation by the mid fifth century, however  that didn’t stop pope Leo the Great condemning such writings as “a hotbed of manifold perversity” which “should not only be forbidden but entirely destroyed and burned with fire.” (viii)

In 1209, pope Innocent the Third called on all true Christians to join in a crusade against the Albigensians (or Cathars), a group of awkward Christians in southern France. Participants were promised eternal happiness. The French king and his nobles were promised the Albigensian lands (the earldom of Toulouse and Provence). The land was laid waste in a terrible war of extermination which went on for 120 years! At one point the pope offered a bounty of 2 silver coins for every heretic brought in, dead or alive. (ix) (How could he be sure the corpses were actually those of heretics – they could have been anyone!)

In 1415 Jan Hus (x) the well known non-catholic from Bohemia was burnt to death at the Council of Constance. His followers, the ‘Hussites’ rose up and full scale blood bath broke out with no holds barred. Both side were guilty of  war crimes and had no hesitation in butchering whole towns. Each side carved its symbol on their captives foreheads: chalices for the Catholics, crosses for the Hussites.

The Protestants were as bad as the Catholics.(xi) In 1527, Luther’s ‘Saxon Visitation’ compelled all non-Protestants to to emigrate from Protestant lands. In 1531 he approved the execution of all Anabaptists (xii), In 1536 he approved the death penalty for all heretics. The Protestant reformer Zwingli, in Zurich, favoured a drowning in the river for his local Anabaptists. In 1553, Calvin in Geneva had the pleasure of burning alive a Spaniard who said the doctrine of the trinity was unbiblical. (True) The Protestants turned on each other, with red hot pincers used to get Calvinists to become Lutherans and vice versa (xiii)

Both Protestants and Catholics went about their heresy hunts with great enthusiasm and fervour. The climate was totalitarian, and Europeans went about madly destroying each other, every man convinced he was doing God’s will. (Like sectarian murders in Iraq today?) Pope Paul IV said “Even if my own father were a heretic, I would gladly gather wood to have him burnt.” Italy and Spain purged themselves of Prots, and Protestant Huguenots were slaughtered in France. When several thousand were massacred in one night (24 August 1572) the pope isued a medal with his face on one side and an angel killing a Huguenot on the other. In the mid seventeenth century (1618-1648) the Thirty Years War raged across the whole of Europe. A lot of Huguenots fled to London, where they set up trades such as weaving, to the benefit of Britain.

In my lifetime we have seen the Croatian Ustase movement. Thousands of Catholic fascists forcibly tried to convert the Serbs, who were of the Eastern Orthodox persuasion, to Catholicism. A quarter of a million converted, three quarters of a million who refused were killed. As nuns marched down the streets giving the nazi salute, and Franciscan monks set up concentration camps, the clergy turned monasteries into arsenals. All this under the watchful kindly eye of the Vatican-appointed Archbishop. This was beyond what the nazi germans wanted – in fact they complained to the pope! (who did nothing). Indeed when the war was over, and Tito’s partisans liberated Yugoslavia, the pope (Pius XII) promoted the Archbishop of Croatia to the rank of Cardinal “for great services to the church.”

Be assured, they’ll carry on just like this if we let them. When Christians (or Moslems, or Zionists or Buddhists or Hindus, etc) get power they go mad. They all know God’s on their side!


(i) How churches suppress dissent today
(ii) Christian Atrocities :The dark ages (not yet published)
(iii) Pagels, Elaine “The gnostic gospels” Phoenix (1979) (p. 60)
(iv) Pagels, op.cit. p.17
(v) How emperor Constantine corrupted Christianity
(vi) Kahl, J. “The Misery of Christianity” Penguin (1968) (p. 63)
(vii) Kahl, op. cit. p.64
(viii) Pagels, op.cit. p. 93
(ix) Kahl, op.cit. p.68
(x) Red Christians #8: The Hussites (1420-?)
(xi) Kahl, op.cit.,p.70
(xii) Red Christians #15: The Anabaptists
(xiii) Kahl op.cit. p.70

707: Twenty heresies- Pick the  best one for you!


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