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Wesley’s Britain in the 1700s - Crime and punishment



Type of Spiritual Experience


The Sermons of John Wesley - Sermon 130 - National Sins And Miseries

A man has no security for his trade, his house, his property, unless he will swim with the stream. Nay, he has no security for his life, if his popular neighbour has a mind to cut his throat: For there is no law; and no legal magistrate to take cognizance of offences.

Crime and punishment in Georgian Britain -  Dr Matthew White [Research Fellow in History at the University of Hertfordshire]

18th-century law enforcement was very different from modern-day policing. The prosecution of criminals remained largely in the hands of the victims themselves, who were left to organise their own criminal investigations. Every parish was obliged to have one or two constables, who were selected every year from local communities, and were unpaid volunteers. These constables were required to perform policing duties only in their spare time, and many simply paid for substitutes to stand in for them.

This system was not working.  Crime was rising at a phenomenal rate. Theft rates in particular remained alarmingly high and by the second half of the century many people were beginning to question the effectiveness of the methods used to investigate and arrest wrongdoers.  The system was not helped by the fact that many people viewed criminals and law breaking as heroic and courageous.  Stories of daring criminality were widely reported in a host of printed pamphlets, books and newspapers, and generated high levels of public interest across the country.

Crime and punishment in Georgian Britain -  Dr Matthew White

The vast majority of criminal cases during the 1700s were brought before local magistrates, who dealt with crimes without the benefit of a jury. Magistrates were themselves unpaid officials who were drawn from the ranks of the wealthy, and were expected to defend the English law as amateurs. As a result, many magistrates were easily corrupted. In London, Horace Walpole believed that ‘the greatest criminals of this town are the officers of justice’.
For more serious crimes such as rape or murder, cases were referred to Crown courts, who sat at quarterly assizes in large towns or at the Old Bailey in London. For the ordinary citizen, trials at these higher courts were hugely intimidating experiences. Much of the courts’ daily business was conducted in Latin. Most felony cases did not involve defence barristers, and witnesses were usually examined directly by the judge … The vast majority of cases lasted for only a matter of minutes, and it was not uncommon for dozens of cases to be heard in a single day.

So as one can see ‘justice’ was pretty well non existent.  If we then view this in the context of punishments meted out, we can see that, indeed, the 1700s were hell on earth

Crime and punishment in Georgian Britain -  Dr Matthew White

The 18th-century criminal justice system relied heavily on the existence of the ‘bloody code’. This was a list of the many crimes that were punishable by death - by 1800 this included well over 200 separate capital offences. Guilty verdicts in cases of murder, rape and treason - even lesser offences such as poaching, burglary and criminal damage - could all possibly end in a trip to the gallows. ….Most punishments during the 18th-century were held in public. Executions were elaborate and shocking affairs, designed to act as a deterrent to those who watched. Until 1783 London executions took place at Tyburn eight times a year, where as many as 20 felons were sometimes hanged at the same time. Prisoners were transported to the gallows along a three-mile route by cart, often followed by a huge, jeering crowd numbering several thousand people. Prisoners were executed in front of these noisy, riotous audiences and many hangings resembled more of a fair than a solemn legal ceremony. ……
A range of other punishments were, however, also frequently imposed. Many felons were transported to the American colonies (and later in the century, to those in Australia), where they served out their sentences in hard labour. Other criminals convicted of lesser crimes were fined, branded on the hand by a hot iron, or shamed in front of the general public: by being whipped ‘at the cart’s tail’, for example, or being set in the pillory and pelted with rotten eggs and vegetables. Long-term prison sentences in ‘Houses of Correction’ were also more widely imposed towards the century’s end.

During the 18th century, the number of crimes that were punished by hanging had risen to about 200. Some were minor offences. For example, the death sentence could be passed for picking pockets or stealing food, the kinds of crime likely to be committed by people in most need, at a time when many families lived in poverty.  The type of gallows used and the short drop resulted in death by strangulation, which could take several minutes before the victim lost consciousness.

A description of the experience

John Wesley's contribution

1.  Laying the ground rules, stating the punishments

Wesley’s preaching was about right and wrong. In effect, he tried to lay down some standard of moral and ethical behaviour, where none appeared to be in operation.  He had no police force to help him, no justice system and so he used the fear of God.  And By George! did he do that effectively.   Those who were doing wrong came away from his sermons in  no doubt that they might think they had got away with it on earth, but eternal damnation of the most terrible kind – graphically depicted in Dante’esqu detail was awaiting them. 

For example, when preaching on the alternatives of hell or salvation by faith to condemned felons in Newgate Prison, [who were due to be hanged very soon anyway]. this is what happened.

Journal April 16th and 27th, 1739.
While I was preaching at Newgate on these words, 'He that believeth hath everlasting life!' ... Immediately one, and another, and another sunk to the earth; they dropped on every side as thunderstruck. One of them cried aloud. We besought God in her behalf, and He turned her heaviness into joy. A second being in the same agony, we called upon God for her also; and He spoke peace unto her soul . . . One was so wounded by the sword of the Spirit that you would have imagined she could not live a moment . . . All Newgate rang with the cries of those whom the word of God cut to the heart.

Equally important, those who were doing no wrong felt that even if justice was non-existent on earth, it would be done in heaven. 

And by these beliefs, a shift in thinking and behaviour occurred.

Redemption and Reparation

As the century progressed, it was realised that the sorts of punishments, achieved via public spectacle did not deter criminals but encouraged troublemakers and if anything made people immune to brutality.  The Prisons Act of 1868 made it mandatory that all future executions were to take place within the prison walls.

But Wesley's ambitions exceeded those of a decent treatment of prisoners - prisoners in fact who may not have been guilty given the standards of justice.  Wesley was a believer in repentance, redemption and reparation:

The Sermons of John Wesley - Sermon 85 - On Working Out Our Own Salvation

"Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; For it is God that worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure." Phil. 2:12-13.

Proceed we now to the Second point: If God worketh in you, then work out your own salvation. The original word rendered, work out, implies the doing a thing thoroughly. Your own; for you yourselves must do this, or it will be left undone forever. Your own salvation: Salvation begins with what is usually termed (and very properly) preventing grace; including the first wish to please God, the first dawn of light concerning his will, and the first slight transient conviction of having sinned against him. All these imply some tendency toward life; some degree of salvation; the beginning of a deliverance from a blind, unfeeling heart, quite insensible of God and the things of God. Salvation is carried on by convincing grace, usually in Scripture termed repentance......
But what are the steps which the Scripture directs us to take, in the working out of our own salvation The Prophet Isaiah gives us a general answer, touching the first steps which we are to take: "Cease to do evil; learn to do well."

Sir Robert Peel established the first Police Force – the bobbies – and in 1823, he reduced the number of offences for which convicts could be executed, by over 100.  As the century went on, the number of people who were sentenced to be hanged decreased. Between 1801 and 1837, 13 executions took place in Bedford, but between 1838 and 1878 there were only 4. Despite this, between 1800 and 1900, remember this is only 200 years ago, of the 3524 people sentenced to hang in England and Wales, only 1353 were for murder.

Wesley in his own way had helped in the changes we see here, better systems of justice, a trained police force, more humane ways of punishment. 

We still have a long way to go before we see reparation, instead of punishment, but the path was laid by people like Wesley.

The source of the experience

Wesley, John

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