Today in London’s blasphemous history: Peter Annet, freethinker, dies, 1769.

“PETER ANNET, a deist, upwards of seventy years of age, was indicted in the Court of King’s Bench, at Westminster, in 1762, for being the author of divers blasphemous remarks on the five books of Moses. The charge being fully proved, he was sentenced to be imprisoned one month in Newgate, and within that time to stand twice in and upon the pillory, once at Charing Cross and once at the Royal Exchange; to pay a fine to the King of six shillings and eightpence; then to be sent to Bridewell and kept to hard labour one year, and at the expiration thereof to find securities for his good behaviour during the remainder of his life, himself in one hundred pounds, and the sureties in fifty pounds each.”
(The Newgate Calendar)

Deism as a philosophy holds that God (or gods) does not interfere directly with human affairs, rejects revelation as a source of religious knowledge, basing their belief in a creator on reason and observation of the natural world.

Deism was popular during the Age of Enlightenment—especially in Britain, France, Germany and the United States— among intellectuals who, raised as Christians, believed in one God but had become disenchanted with organised religion. Many Deists publicly doubted traditional pillars of Christian belief like the Trinity, the truth of everything in the Bible, and the supernatural interpretation of miracles. Many of the leaders of the American and French Revolutions and radicals of the late 18th and early 19th centuries identified themselves as Deists. Deism acted as a staging post for many towards atheism and rejection of religion.

In Britain in the mid-18th century, a number of groups grew up in London to discuss religion, which attracted repression and notoriety as being ‘blasphemous societies’. The best known was the Robin Hood Club, of which Peter Annet was a ‘leading spirit’. Annet bridges a gap between earlier philosophic deists and later propagandists like Thomas Paine and those inspired by him. Annet seems to have been the first freethought lecturer.

Born in Liverpool, Peter Annet trained for the ministry in a non-conformist church, then became a schoolmaster.

Annet was very hostile to the clergy, being a thoroughgoing deist, and his arguments are said to be forcible but to lack refinement. In 1738 he delivered two lectures in London, which contained Deistic assertions, and challenged what he saw as the bigotry of the Methodists and other Christian revivalists. In 1739 he wrote and published a pamphlet, Judging for Ourselves, or Freethinking the Great Duty of Religion, a strong criticism of Christianity, specifically criticising contemporary Christian bishops. For writing this and similar pamphlets, he lost his teaching position, and moved to London.

In London, he spoke as a radical deist and freethinker in a debating society that met at the Robin Hood and Little John Inn, in Essex Street, the Strand. As such he appears in a play, The Robin Hood Society, A Satire, by Richard Lewis (a sometime member of the Society himself), in 1756. But it was his writings, often published anonymously or under false names, that were to get him into trouble…

Peter Annet’s periodical The Free Inquirer which ran for at least nine issues is reckoned to be the first freethought journal. It was later published in book form as A Collection of the Tracts of a certain Free Enquirer.

Annet liked to take on Christian apologists, whether basing their creed on belief in miracles, from personal witness or on the historicity of Biblical evidence. In his Resurrection of Jesus (1744), Annet assailed the validity of such evidence, and first advanced the hypothesis of the illusory death of Jesus, suggesting that Saint Paul should be regarded as the founder of Christianity. In Supernaturals Examined (1747) Annet denied the possibility of miracles.

Annet was fond of publishing critical biographies of biblical figures, examining their lives, moral behaviour and character as recorded in the scriptures. Which given the blood, gore and viciousness of much of the Bible, provided him with plenty of material. He was particularly critical of the character and reputation of King David. A work called A History of the Man after God’s own Heart (1761) is attributed to him [also to John Noorthook]. In it he argued that a comparison of King George II with King David should be interpreted as an insult. The book is said to have inspired Voltaire’s Saul.

Annet also specialised in examining the contradictions and inconsistencies in the bible and asking repeatedly, how could anyone rely on the scriptures when they speak with such double tongues?

Peter Annet is one among seven people listed in the Newgate Calendar as utterers of blasphemy and sedition. In the 1760s, freethinkers were subjected to a campaign of prosecution by the authorities, and Annet’s career had marked him out for attention…

At the age of 68 or 69, he was convicted in 1762 at the King’s Bench, Westminster, of blasphemous libel, specifically ridiculing the holy scriptures. This was related to articles printed in his Free Inquirer in October-December 1761, particularly ’A Review of the Life and Doctrines of Moses, the Celebrated legislator of the Hebrews’. Annet was sentenced to Newgate prison for one month, and to be put in the pillories at Charing Cross and at the Royal Exchange, as well as being fined and sent to Bridewell Prison for one year’s hard labour, and to pay further sureties for future good behaviour.

He was put in the pillory on December 14th 1762, despite being 70. His imprisonment broke his physical health, unsurprisingly, though “his mind [was] as clear, alert and active as ever.”

Some of his associates thought he had gone a but too far in his writings: Oliver Goldsmith, sometime attendee of Robin Hood Club meetings, described him as Having engaged in a “fanatic crusade against the Bible…”

After his release he kept a small school in St George’s Gardens, Lambeth, but his few pupils were eventually removed from his school; due to his notoriety. He also invented a system of shorthand and corresponded with non-conformist radicals like Joseph Priestley.

He died on January 18th, 1769.

Some writings by Peter Annet on Google Books

and at Project Gutenberg

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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