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A Dissenting Preacher, Fined and Imprisoned for Preaching Seditious Sermons

            This factious priest, convicted before Mr. Baron Perryn, at the assizes for the county of Devon, for preaching a seditious sermon at Plymouth, on the 5th of November, 1792. In the course of this discourse, the defendant talked a great deal about the revolution in 1688. He was sorry to see the laws so much abused as they were at present. He also spoke of the French Revolution, and he did not doubt but that would open the eyes of every Briton. He asked, why the streets were so crowded with vagrants, the workhouses with beggars, and the gaols with thieves? All this, he said, was to be attributed to our oppressive taxes. It was high time for the people of this country to stand forward and assert their rights. He made mention of the national debt—he denied that any part of it was paid off; it was only like taking money out of one pocket, and putting it into another. He said, His Majesty had no more right to the throne than the Stuarts, if he did not maintain the laws and established rules of the country. He urged, that the Revolution in France was wisely calculated for spreading the gospel through twenty-five millions of people.

            The defendant was also indicted and convicted at the same time, for preaching at Plymouth another seditious sermon, on the 18th of November, 1792. He took his text from Romans xiii. 13. viz. "The night is far spent, the day is at hand; let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light." In the course of this discourse, the defendant introduced several strong observations. After the evidence on both sides had been heard, the jury, without hesitation, found the defendant difficulty. Judgment having been prayed by the king's counsel, Mr. Justice Ashurst thus addressed the defendant:

            "William Winterbottom, you have been found guilty of preaching two seditious and atrocious sermons. The first act of this daring profligacy you committed on the 5th of November, and the second on the 18th of the same month. It has been stated, that you are a dissenting preacher: of what sect of religion you are, I know not: but I can collect from your preaching, that you are not at all connected with the Christian religion; for the Christian religion, after first regarding the duty of God, teaches and inspires love for, and obedience to the established government; but the tendency of your doctrine is to overturn all order, religion, morality, and government, and to introduce anarchy and confusion.

            "Your doctrine goes to the abuse of that toleration by which it is meant, that every man may be at liberty to reverence God in the way that his conscience may dictate. But your conscience dictates no such principles; therefore the means that you have taken is a double aggravation of your guilt, and merits a two-fold punishment.

            "In one part of your sermon, you approve of the revolution of France. As to your first proposition, it is sufficient that the pernicious designs intended to have been executed, are frustrated. As to your second opinion, that the French revolution would open the eyes of the people of England, there I agree with you, it does open the eyes of the people—it has taken the veil from off the hackneyed system of liberty and equality. All practical equality consists in the affording equal protection. This chimerical project has been tried in a neighbouring nation, the lamentable effects of which will be handed down with sorrow to the latest generation. This system, which has been tried must press upon the mind of men, and must operate more forcibly than a volume of arguments.

            "As to your second proposition, it is impossible to be justified; you have alleged that the present form of government is a scourge on the people; but that the yoke of bondage will be soon broken; that persecution is near its end, and that every man will soon have to boast of EQUALITY. As to your saying that the French revolution will open the eyes of the people, I trust it will also open your eyes, and be a scourge to those who wish to introduce anarchy and confusion.

            "This court having taken the malignity of your offence into their serious consideration, do consequently order and adjudge that for your first offence, you pay a fine of 100l. to the king, and that you be imprisoned in the New Prison, Clerkenwell, in the county of Middlesex, for the term of two years; and that for your second offence, you pay a fine of 100l. to the king, and be imprisoned in the New Prison, Clerkenwell, for the term of two years, to be computed after the expiration of your first imprisonment; and that at the end of your imprisonment, you give security for your good behaviour for the term of five years, yourself in 500l. and two sureties in 250l. each."

            The defendant then wished to address the court; but Lord Kenyon told him, "The court cannot hear you now. It would have been the duty of the court to have heard you, if you had offered anything before sentence was passed: notwithstanding the source of mercy is open to you."

            The defendant was immediately taken into custody.

            The itinerant declaimers from the pulpit to ignorant auditors, are often, not only a nuisance to society, but, as in the case of Winterbottom, dangerous to the state. Let preachers of the gospel stick to their creed; when they dare to dabble in politics, with which they have no business, we hope to see them follow the disaffected subject of this enquiry, into a prison.


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