While teaching a course on free speech for English Pen at the Bishopsgate Institute in London a few years ago I came across an intriguing pamplet. For notes on this course, follow this link. This purports to be an essay on blasphemy by J.S. Mill. It is particularly intriguing because it is not included in Mill's published works. If it is by Mill it gives insights into why he focussed so much on truth when discussing free speech in On Liberty (1859). It was first published anonymously in The Westminster Review in July 1824,when Mill was only 18. We know that Mill was actively involved in editing the Westminster Review at that time (working alongside Jeremy Bentham and his father James Mill). He had written a series of letters about blasphemy under the pseudonym of Wycliffe for the Morning Chronicle in 1823 and had been deeply influenced by the trial of Richard Carlile (he had re-published a work by Thomas Paine, been prosecuted for blasphemy, bravely read the entire Paine book out as part of his own defence thereby guaranteeing that the book had further readers, and then was thrown into prison).
There is some doubt as to wheter Mill actually wrote this essay. If he did, perhaps he didn't want to acknowledge it because it makes some concessions to religion. Here's the story:
G.W. Foote confidently published it 10 years after Mill's death in 1883 as ‘J.S.Mill on Blasphemy’. He cited an explicit attribution by the early psychologist Alexander Bain: in his John Stuart Mill: A Criticism With Personal Recollections. Both Foote and Bain knew Mill personally. Bain declares of the Westminster Review article, which he describes as being on the Carlile Prosecutions (though it ranges more widely than that), that he had no doubts that Mill was the author. G.W. Foote, who was himself imprisoned for 6 months for blasphemy in 1883 for publishing religious cartoons (!), reprinted the 1824 Westminster Review essay in the run up to his own trial for blasphemy and followed this with his own autobiographical ‘Prisoner for Blasphemy’ (published by the Progressive Publishing Company). Even if it is not wholly or even partly written by Mill, the Westminster Review article anticipates many of his arguments in On Liberty and is a lively read.
What do you think?
Download 'Mill on Blasphemy' as a pdf
Download 'Mill on Blasphemy' trans pdf (may include typos)