Religious Book Burning

Destruction of books by fire has been used through the ages as a means to eradicate ideas considered blasphemous, heretical or against the prevailing religion of a certain country. This lecture will focus on only one element of book burning, the religious one. There are other types of book burning, including books considered seditious or subversive and books considered to be obscene or immoral, but they are beyond the scope of this study, as is the topic of the destruction of entire libraries. (Please see the bibliography below for book titles about the burning of libraries.) I am gratefully indebted to Haig Bosmajian’s 2006 volume, Burning Books, for both many references and historical facts.

I would like to glance at the history of the physical book before delving into the story of religious book burning because it helps illuminate some of the reasons why books were considered so powerful. It is necessary to learn a little of that history because it helps explain why so many eras felt it necessary to eradicate the ideas contained in books. The physical book itself grew out of inscribing writing on papyrus, clay tablets, wax tablets, tree bark and other materials. The Egyptians used woven papyrus stems, which had been hammered flat, and then glued together to form a scroll. The first evidence of such a scroll is from Egyptian account books from about 2500 BCE. The Phoenicians brought their alphabet, writing and papyrus to Greece around the 10th century, BCE. The Greek word for book was “biblos”, which came from the name of the Phoenician port , Byblos, that exported papyrus to Greece. According to historians of the book, that type of scroll was used by the Romans, the Hellenistic Greeks, the Chinese and Hebrew cultures. The codex, the modern form of the physical book, ultimately displaced the scroll.

The codex was composed of uniform leaves bound on one edge and held together by two covers made of a strong material, such as leather. The codex, whose form endures into the modern world, was easier to carry, to read, to refer to and to conceal. The codex was handwritten until the invention of the printing press by Guttenberg in the 15th century CE made moveable type books available to the general public. Previously, books were hand copied, produced in a very limited number of copies, and were expensive to produce and own. When the Roman Empire fell apart in the 5th century CE, most book production was taken over by Catholic monasteries called scriptoriums.

Many illiterate people, and even at times literate ones, believed that books had magical qualities or properties. The origin of writing was quite often ascribed to the gods of different civilizations. The following story is a striking example of the Egyptian belief that letters and words were alive. The Egyptian hieroglyphic writing system was made up of pictographic, ideographic and alphabetical symbols. Some of the pictographic symbols were shaped in the form of animals, eagles, chicks, dogs, owls and so on. Archeologists found the burial room of an Egyptian princess with the customary testimonials written on the walls. But the animal symbols had been maimed- they lacked the correct limbs, wings, or tails. The Egyptians believed that those symbols would come alive after the pyramid was closed and swim, fly, or run away, ruining the important text. The animal symbols were maimed in order to keep the text intact.

From China to India, to the Norse society in Europe, people had the notion that it was gods who had invented writing. There was an early belief in the magic of writing, as well as the association of it with divinity. Gelb discusses the phylacteries worn by Jewish believers at prayer that were inscribed with sacred writings, as well as the inscriptions on Jewish doorposts which were believed to protect the inhabitants from harm. Islamic believers often carry amulets that enclose verses from the Koran. Some Christians fan sick people with leaves from the Bible and even have the sick person swallow paper pellets with written prayers on them. Islamic cultures in some parts of West Africa rely on a practice called “drinking the word.” The writing from the Koran is believed to be most fully absorbed by soaking the inked paper in water, and then having the ill person drink the blackened water.

Revelations 10:8-11 from the Christian Bible contains John’s allegation that an angel gave him a small scroll, telling him to eat it and instructing that it would taste like honey, but then John’s stomach would turn “sour.” He did as he was told, and experienced the predicted results. Then the angel ordered John to go out and prophesy all over the world. Scholars point out that the word, “consume,” is still used in the present day when describing the act of reading books. Book banners often say that certain volumes are not fit for children’s consumption.

In the past, some uneducated people believed that books and writing were able to see and even report what they had witnessed. Gelb writes about an Indian sent by missionaries to a colleague with four loaves of bread and a letter that stated the number of the loaves. The Indian ate one loaf, and when he delivered the bread, found that his theft had been discovered. Sometime later, he was sent out on the same errand. Once again, he could not resist eating one loaf, but took care to get a large stone and put it over the letter so it could not “see” the theft.

John Wilkins, the English prelate and scientist, wrote of a similar occurrence in 1641. The Indian in Wilkin’s story had been entrusted with a basket of figs to deliver and had been given a letter recounting the exact number in the basket. He ate several figs and when he reached his destination discovered that his theft had been detected. The letter had given him away, but he believed that the accompanying letter had “seen” what he had done and had given him away. Having been forgiven and sent out once again, he once more devoured even more of the figs that were so tempting. However, he was confident that he would not be discovered because before he stole the figs, he covered the letter with a stone. Discovered once more, the Indian was astounded. Wilkins reported that the thief was convinced of “the divinity of the paper” and promised that he would be honest in all errands in the future.

Although most likely not the first book burning, the most famous early destruction of a Greek philosopher’s work was for its supposed atheism. Protagoras (492-421 BCE) was condemned for impiety and his book, “On the Gods,” was consigned to the fire in Athens in 415 BCE. Protagoras was forced into exile. He had prefaced his volume with this statement: “As to the gods, I have no means of knowing whether they exist or do not exist.” His contemporary, Anaxagoras (500-428 BCE), was the focus of a 438 BCE Athenian decree that people should “… denounce those who do not believe in divine beings.” Anaxagoras had said he did not believe that the sun was a god, but rather a glowing lump of metal. Both men were close to Pericles, Athens’ ruler, so it is impossible to ascertain how much the charges against both philosophers were political as well as religious. Religion and public life in classical Athens were so entwined that it is often impossible to separate violations against the state and violations against religion. In ancient Greece and Rome, it was tantamount to treason against the state to revile the gods. A few historians maintain that neither philosophers’ books were burned or their authors punished, but there is a general consensus that both books were consigned to the fire for impiety.

Around 215 BCE, the Roman authorities had begun burning books that dealt with foreign religious rites, divinations, or dealt with the sacrificing of animals in any fashion different from the Roman one. The Roman historian, Suetonius, wrote that the Roman Emperor, Augustus, burned more than two thousand books on divination and prophesy as early as 12 BCE. The burning of Christian books took place a little later. When the Christians came to power, they continued the practice. From about 333 CE, Christians burned not only pagan volumes, but the works of various Christian heretics as well as religious books of Jewish origin.

As the first millennium neared its end, scholars explain that heretics had come to be identified with such terms as “poisons,” “infectious,” “serpents,” “tares,” “ravening wolves,” and as “bad trees that cannot bring good fruit.” Haig Bosmajian explains that the burning of heretics and their books was regarded as a practice condoned with the authority of the Christian Bible. In Matthew 12:34, purported blasphemies are called a “brood of vipers;” in Matthew 7:15 false prophets are condemned as “ravening wolves,” and in Matthew 7:19, believers are told that “… every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” There were additional biblical verses in Chronicles and Leviticus that allowed the Church to associate heresy with leprosy. Such verses dealt with the burning of lepers’ clothing and the importance of excluding lepers from the community. According to R.I. Moore, by the 12th Century CE writers frequently, and in great detail, continued to use the analogy between heresy and leprosy.

Bosmajian explains how syllogism was used by the Church when condemning heretics and their books. The first premise of the syllogism was “… that if one is confronted with the presence and spread of pestilence, disease, tares, and the demonic, the effective remedy is to set fire to them,” (as biblical passages and traditional farmers’ practices, especially concerning diseased fields, indicated). The second premise was that “… the Christians were confronted with the presence and spread of {heretical} pestilence, disease, tares and the demonic.” The conclusion of the Church was that the effective remedy was to set fire to them, i.e. the heretics and their writings. It is obvious to those of us in the present day, but not to Christians at the beginning of the second millennium, that the entire connection between the so-called heresy of ideas and actual physical pestilence was false. Furthermore, there was Church equivocation between using the words, “pestilence,” “disease,” “tares,” and so forth in one sense, the physical one, and then converging it with the pestilence of ideas, a different sense.

Levy states that from the beginning of the 13th Century, the Catholic Church associated Jewish people with blasphemy. The Jewish religion, the Church authorities claimed, had not merely rejected Jesus, but killed him. Tens of thousands of copies of the Jewish Talmud were burned during that time and later. (Please see Christian Anti-Semitism for a history of the Christian attacks on the Jewish people and their books.)

There were burnings of books in other countries around the same time. Luther C. Goodrich reports that the Chinese were persecuting non-Confucian sects and religions at about the same time the Christians were burning books and heretics in Europe. In 843 CE, the Chinese burned the books and persecuted the religious sect of the Manicheans. In 845 CE, Buddhists were persecuted and their books burnt by the Chinese authorities. In 1258 CE, Kublai Khan ordered the burning of Taoist books and woodblocks.

Attacks on books and various Christian sects continued in Europe into the 13th Century, with the Church authorities’ attack on what they deemed Catholic heresy. Cathar towns were burned, masses of people were slaughtered, and their books were put to the fire. (Please see Heresy for a comprehensive description of Cathar beliefs and persecution.) The Inquisition was established early in the 13th Century. As it gained strength and power, Cathars started to be described with the earlier metaphors used by the Church. They were associated with such words as disease, infection, plague, poison, tares and leprosy.

Pope Gregory IX used similar metaphors when he issued his 1231 CE decretal titled: “humani generis.” The pope referred to heretics as “…crabs, scuttling about in hiding,” and as “poisonous animals.” He went on to say that heretics were like “…little foxes, attempting to destroy the vineyards of the Lord of hosts.” The cleansing of the land from parasites, disease, plague and tares came to mean burning any copies of the bible written in the vernacular as well. By this time, the Church had established a firm practice of keeping biblical texts and interpretations of them in the hands of its hierarchy, which doled out very selective doctrines to the masses of believers.

The 14th Century saw the Church’s continued attacks on so-called heretics and on so-called heretical books. According to Bosmajian, many books that were destroyed by official Church fires continued to be described as pestilent, diseased and poisonous. Various types of books began to be consigned to the flames, such as volumes discussing predestination, astrology, marriage and challenges to Church authority.

Not even the great Dante’s (1265- 1321 CE) work was excluded. The author of The Divine Comedy, arguably the greatest philosophical work in Italian, wrote another work between 1310 and 1313, titled De Monarchia. The work was comprised of three volumes and in them Dante criticized the popes. He additionally advocated the creation of a distinction between the powers of the church and of the state. De Monarchia was put to the fire in 1329 CE. Eventually it was placed on the Church’s Index of Forbidden Books. The Church attempted to obtain Dante’s bones after his death, in order to consign them to the fire along with his books, but was unsuccessful in its attempt.

The Church continued the tradition inherited from the pagan Roman Empire of burning many books on magic and sorcery, preserving the legacy of superstition and fear of the earlier era. By the end of the 15th Century, Catholic Spain burned large numbers of books on magic. But the Church in Spain took care not to neglect other categories of what it deemed dangerous volumes. Llorente states that “… in 1490, several Hebrew bibles and books written by Jews were burnt at Seville; at Salamanca more than six thousand volumes of magic and sorcery were committed to the flames.”

The 15th Century brought an increase of book burnings, because more knowledge began to be disseminated to the public. This dissemination was vigorously opposed by the Catholic Church. There were two reasons for the spread of knowledge: the invention of the printing press and the beginnings of the Reformation. Gutenberg’s moveable type, invented around 1440, began to be widely used in Europe. Caxton began to print in England in 1464. In 1470, book printing arrived in France, and in 1498 to Copenhagen. Finally, printing reached the shores of Spain and North Germany as well.

It is one of the ironies of history and technology that the rulers of the Church at first welcomed the printing presses. They believed that god had made printing presses available to the Church in order to disseminate its rigidly crystallized doctrines and to enlighten believers with correct theological teachings. Putnam states that some Church rulers supported the work of printers with money and paid them to keep circulating works that were considered sound theological instruction.

It took the Church authorities about three quarters of a century after the advent of the Guttenberg Press to realize that they were dealing with a technology capable of spreading highly subversive material to the general public. The leaders of the Protestant Reformation began using the presses of Wittenberg, Germany to spread their putative heresies. The Church rulers became aware that the dissemination of Protestant theology was challenging their doctrines and authority. The beleaguered hierarchy tried to stem the flow of dangerous ideas by ordering that no books could be printed until approved by ecclesiastical censors. The Pauline Index of Forbidden Books was issued in 1559. Mass produced moveable type that disseminated large amounts of forbidden material continued, however. Finally the Church resorted to book burning on a larger scale than it had practiced previously.

The Church had begun to fear that books, printed by what they deemed “moderns,” would shake the faith of the people. Its hierarchy suspected that what it believed was sound and static doctrine would come to be exchanged for the sophisticated and false doctrines promulgated by the “moderns.” Several historians have noted that the Church came to believe that the physical book and its contents, now produced more cheaply and with exponentially greater speed, was a “silent heretic.” The Church realized that the book was often a propagator of heretical thought. Its authorities began to review all the printed matter they could find and very frequently, condemned the books they examined as objectionable. Any volumes they deemed objectionable were mutilated. The Church rulers began an attempt to impose absolute authority over written matter. The book became an object at the mercy of the Inquisition.

In 1490 CE, the Grand Inquisitor of Spain, Torquemada, presided over several book burning festivals. In that same year, many Hebrew books were burned. A little later, at Salamanca, Spain, about six thousand volumes were destroyed by fire because they had been condemned for containing Judaism, the magic arts and other illicit material. The Spanish Inquisition arguably destroyed the greatest number of books during the 15th Century, but there were many more book burnings in many other nations during that era.

Another surge of books being consigned to the fire occurred in Florence, Italy in 1497. Florence experienced a large number of plague deaths at that time, and fear had made the worldly population of that city superstitious and vulnerable. A fanatic monk, Savonarola, convinced the affluent people of Florence to sacrifice their earthly vanities. He was very persuasive, using eloquent and threatening sermons. The search for valuable consumer goods commenced, with Savonarola’s young followers helping in the detection of vanities to be destroyed by fire. Works of art, jewelry, make-up, playing cards, dice, furs- all finery that could be found was sometimes freely given, and sometimes forcibly relinquished. These goods were placed on a huge “Bonfire of the Vanities,” and consumed by the flames.

But it was not only finery and other worldly items that went up in flames that day. Paul Grendler states that many works by Boccaccio and Petrarch and Dante were burned, as well as chivalric works, books of magic and what Savonarola deemed were works with obscene pictures. Priceless paintings were destroyed in the general carnage as well.

As the plague receded, the people of Florence began to lose their fear of sickness and hell fire, and before long began to regret the loss of their valuable possessions. They began to resent Savonarola fiercely. Then the fanatic monk had the misfortune to come under the displeasure of the pope who deemed Savonarola a heretic. He was arrested, tortured and excommunicated. In 1498, he was hanged and his body burned on the same spot where his bonfire of the vanities had taken place. Savonarola’s ashes were consigned to the Arno River.

Book burnings increased during the 16th and 17th centuries. Bosmajian has provided an excellent explanation for such an increase in the reduction of books to ashes. The chokehold of the formally so-called Church Triumphant of earlier centuries was finished, even though the Church continued as a wealthy and dominating power over many countries of the world. Bosmajian believes the printing press and the growing Protestant popularity in Europe gave rise to the Church’s increased desire to eradicate seditious volumes. The success of printing presses and Protestantism resulted in increased activity by the Inquisition to burn books which by that time disseminated blasphemous and heretical material at an alarming rate.

Maurice Rowdon has discussed the impact of printing in the 16th century. He is of the opinion that printing was even more responsible than the voyages of discovery for the separation of the Modern Age from the Medieval World. His argument is cogent. Latin had been the shared language of the Middle Ages. That language was ecclesiastical language and was the province of the Church and of the wealthy. But printing significantly and permanently diminished the influence of Latin. The figures are telling. From the 15,000,000 or 20,000,00 books that were printed prior to 1500 CE, at least 12,000,000 had been printed in Latin. “But by 1530, books in the vernacular had exceeded books printed in Latin by far.” Anthony Kenny states that the Bible suddenly became a layman’s book, due to the influence and force of Protestantism and printing.

Kimberly Van Kampen writes of the impact of the mass replication of texts and their historical and sociological influence. She states that: “Even the most cursory examination of a catalogue of early printed books for a given country displays a pattern of gradual progression- more vernacular books, more secular classical and literary books, and a relatively higher percentage of contemporary texts (as opposed to those which had circulated for generations in manuscript.)

The tensions of the 16th and 17th centuries gave rise to an almost continuous destruction of books, and sometimes of libraries. The destruction of books, “those silent heretics,” took place all over the world, in England, Italy, Spain, France and other European nations. The burnings were widespread, enormous, and egregious in the extreme.

Chase has observed that cathedrals and squares were favorite spots for book burnings, as well as being the public spaces for the recanting and humiliation of repentant heretics. Chase believes that such public spaces provided an example to the people about the fate of heretics, and especially those who wrote heretical books. But the burning of books in public squares and in front of cathedrals also demonstrated the beginning of the cleansing of the cities which had been polluted. That such ritual and public cleansing took place over and over likely served to emphasize the continual danger from heretics, both the human ones and the silent ones- the books.

Using fire was important because the flames were seen as the best element and the most efficacious element to achieve purification. Such purification was considered most effective when authors and printers were set on fire along with their books. It is important to note that the 16th and 17th centuries, in the desperate attempt to eradicate dangerous ideas, religion resorted to burning not only authors of heretical volumes, but also publishers, printers, booksellers and others associated with circulating them.

As thousands of books were burned across Europe and in the “New World” as well, the same metaphors used in earlier centuries to dehumanize so-called heretics and their books continued. Various specialists in heresy, churchmen from both the Catholic and Protestant religions, and royalty frequently spoke of the poison-plague-devil-infection-wolves disease so often, according to them, inherent in heretical authors and their equally heretical books. During the 16th and 17 Centuries, the derogatory metaphors used in earlier centuries markedly increased in venom and scurrilous description. According to some of the most fanatic of those hunters of heresy, the metaphoric plague of heresies was worse than the actual physical plague. They insisted that those people exposed to metaphorical heresy were in more danger than the people exposed to the physical plague. They made such a preposterous claim at a time when five thousand people died in one week from the plague.

The 18th Century began much like the end of the 17th century in terms of book burning. One of the highlights of such persecutions was the burning of Daniel Defoe’s The Shortest Way with Dissenters, which was burned in 1702 England by the public hangman. Defoe, if you will recall, was also the author of the classic novel, Robinson Crusoe (1719). However as the 18th century neared its end, burning heretical-blasphemous authors and their works declined. Many historians who have studied that era believe the emphasis on book destruction shifted to more secular concerns, such as destroying books deemed to be seditious or subversive with regard to the state.

It began to be unclear whether a sermon preached by a prelate against certain writers was a religious or secular attack on them. There was a significant decrease in the amount of books being burned because of apostasy and church-related heresy. Earlier centuries had seen a preoccupation with writers who wrote outside the strict boundaries considered acceptable on such topics as the trinity, baptism, reincarnation and so on. But the 18th Century gave rise to preoccupation with immorality, attacks on the state and its power, and attacks on royalty.

Levy states: “Book burnings …were as typical of the 18th century in character as that of the 17th. But a proceeding against an author’s writings instead of against the author represents a leap in toleration.” (This statement gives rise to uneasiness when we contemplate some of the acts against authors’ physical persons in the 20th and 21st centuries.) But part of the reason for the decline of book burnings in the 18th Century was that the Inquisition was beginning to lose some of its grip on power. There was even a suggestion or two that: “…the Holy Office should be abolished.”

While the Inquisition was not formerly abolished for many more years, a loosening of respect for it had begun to appear. The royal courts and their secular ministers found the Inquisition a hindrance and disliked its power. Feeling the general lack of respect and indifference from both high and low quarters, the officials of the Inquisition, who were frequently poorly paid, grew slack in their previously zealous attention to heresy and blasphemy.

The educated classes reacted to the Inquisition with no support and sometimes outright hostility when that office tried to assert its domination. Historians have noted that book burnings began to go out of fashion and to occur only sporadically. But history also notes that book burnings did continue to take place in England, New England, France, Italy, Spain, Poland, China and many other countries and localities.

I would like to focus attention on the attempted repression of some of the famous philosophers in 18th Century France. (Please see The Enlightenment, Part 1 and Part 2 for a comprehensive discussion of the philosophers and their influence on thought and culture.) The 18th century was a heady time in the history of Europe and the history of ideas. The French philosophers began to question many ideas about religion, culture, morality and so on. They interrogated the authority of the Church and the politics of the time. Most establishment values came under the scrutiny of the philosophers, displeasing both church and state officials.

In 1746, Denis Diderot’s book, Pensees Philosophiques was burned in France. Diderot was the author of the important Encyclopedia (1745-1772) and other works. The Parliament of Paris claimed that: “It (the book) presented to restless and bold minds the most absurd and criminal thoughts of which the depravation of human nature is capable, and of placing all religions, by an affected uncertainty, nearly on the same level, in order to end up not recognizing any.” One contemporary author said this about Diderot’s book. He stated that the work contained a defense of the passions and tried to view man as a biological and psychological entity. The book also relentlessly attacked fanaticism, religious dogma and any tyrannical forces. Finally, Diderot’s work made a strong argument that adherents of any religion should subject their faith to critical reasoning.

Claude Helvetius was another important Enlightenment philosopher. His magnum opus, “De l’esprit, or “Mind”, was published in 1758 and publicly burned in 1759. Helvetius believed that human faculties were made up of physical sensations, that humans were motivated by love and pleasure and avoidance of pain, that humans have no freedom of choice between good and evil and that there is no absolute right. He stated that justice, morals and other ideas changed according to custom.

The openly atheistic Baron d’Holbach’s System of Nature was also put to the fire in 1770. His materialistic views were so similar to Helvetius, that many thought the anonymous volume had been authored by Helvetius. Holbach’s worst offense seemed to be his attack on the state, as well as the Church. Near of the end of System of Nature, Holbach dared to defend and praise atheists and atheism. The famous philosopher, Voltaire, found Holbach’s work too extreme. Voltaire was a deist, who very effectively ridiculed religion in general. But Holbach was too radical for Voltaire, who wrote a refutation of System of Nature. His refutation was burned along with the System of Nature.

It is often difficult, when studying the history of book burning during the 18th Century, to determine whether books were burned in Europe because they were heretical and/or blasphemous, or because they seen as seditious and dangerous to the state. The answer would seem to be that both perceptions, that certain books were blasphemous and heretical, and also a danger to the state, were the reason they were consigned to the flames.

The same situation can be seen in China at that time. The Catholic missionaries there had been encouraging Christian converts to destroy Buddhist writings, statues and buildings. The Chinese government in turn would often burn the missionaries’ religious works and send the proselytizers off to slavery. By the 18th century, however, the Chinese government was burning the wood blocks and books of some of its own writers as well as Christian volumes. The motivation appeared to be more secular than religious, but the notion that books undermined religion, as well as the state, remained strong. There were so called “tests” that were used to determine whether a book should be burned or not. While many of the “tests” concerned attacks on the government or lack of respect for it, one important tenet interrogated whether the book contained “heterodox” opinion on the Confucian canon.

While the mutual burning of Chinese religious works and of Christian religious works were going on in China, in Europe the Catholic Church continued to burn Hebrew works such as the Talmud. In 1757 Poland all books except the Christian bible were confiscated and one thousand copies of the Torah were tossed into a large ditch and consigned to the flames. The people who adhered to the Jewish religion also burned some of the Jewish authors and books which they believed were heretical and abominable. During the 18th Century, many Jewish works were condemned and reduced to ashes. In order to emphasize the danger to the Jewish community that came from such works, the familiar accusation against them was repeated once again- that they were poison.

At the same time in the Near East, Muslims were burning Islamic books for “betraying and corrupting Islam.” The practice of condemning books continued in Islam during the 18th and 19th centuries. The rise of Wahhabism was accompanied by a brutal attempt to return to what Wahhabis thought was a pure and authentic Islam. They slaughtered large numbers of dissidents, making little distinction between men, women and children. They also burned Islamic books on law and on theology. The authorities often executed those who wrote, copied or taught with such condemned volumes.

During the 19th century, the South American country of Chile condemned the works of the dissident Bilbao, whose Nature of Chilean Society, strongly condemned the practice and effects of Catholicism on men, women and children of that nation. He wrote a newspaper piece that was condemned as “blasphemous, seditious and immoral.” His work was publicly burned by the hangman in a public bonfire in 1844.During the 1850’s, Irish Protestants burned copies of the Catholic Bible and the Catholics burned the Protestant King James version of the Bible. Book burning was becoming less popular, but it was still all too prevalent.

Despite such egregious attempts on the part of religion to silence dissenting writers and their works, the zeitgeist was undergoing a significant change. We can look to the United States and its courts to observe the shift that was beginning to take place in the national laws of some countries. In 1872, the United States Supreme Court stated unequivocally that “the law knows no heresy, and is committed to the support of no dogma, the establishment of no sect.” This statement was used as precedent in other court decisions regarding religious issues, including books.

There was a 1944 case involving fraudulent religious claims to obtain funds and new members. Justice Douglas stated on behalf of the Supreme Court: “The law knows no heresy… It {the First Amendment} embraces the right to maintain theories of life and death and of the hereafter which are rank heresy to followers of the orthodox faiths. Heresy trials are foreign to our country. Men may believe what they cannot prove.” In a 1968 anti-evolution case, Justice Fortas reiterated the same principle when delivering the opinion of the Court. He said: “The law knows no heresy.”

In 1952, the Supreme Court ruled on a statute that had permitted banning of films on the ground of their being “sacrilegious.” The justices ruled that the state could not ban a film on the basis of a censor’s conclusion that it was “sacrilegious.” Justice Clark delivered the Court’s opinion in that case. He concluded the opinion with: “We hold only that under the First and Fourteenth Amendment a state may not ban a film on the basis of a censor’s conclusion that it is sacrilegious.”

The 20th century experienced the contradictory currents in American society which are still in play during the present day. Both the Supreme Court and the lower courts continued to assert that “the law knows no heresy,” and that the states were not allowed to ban what some people deemed as sacrilegious. But there were a number of Christian and conservative groups who became citizen watchdogs and tried to rid the United States of books they considered anti-Christian.

For example, Bosmajian describes in detail the action taken by a 1957 board of education, which removed books from the school libraries of the Island Tress Union Free School District. The board lost the case when it arrived at the Supreme Court. Some of the books the board members attempted to ban were “Go Ask Alice,” “The Naked Ape,” and Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five.” In 1973, “Slaughterhouse Five” was burned in Drake, North Carolina. The author, Kurt Vonnegut, wrote the school board a scathing letter. One of his most telling points was his accusation that the Drake School Board had taught young people a “rotten lesson” about living in a free society.

In 1977, book burners in Warsaw, Indiana gathered together to protest and burn copies of a controversial volume, Sidney Simon’s “Values Clarification.” The book was aimed at people who wanted to clarify values relevant to themselves vis-a-vis mainstream culture. It had been part of an elective high school course but was banned by the school board during a purge of many books in general. The banning included volumes of Black Literature, Gothic Literature, Science Fiction Literature and so on. A few teachers who had used such texts were fired. On December 15, 1977, the Warsaw Senior Citizens’ Club burned forty copies of “Values Clarification” in a parking lot in the middle of town. The book burners saw the book as, and I quote: “… indoctrinating students with anti-Christian secular humanism and moral relativity.

I have discussed the furor that accompanied the publication of Salmon Rushdie’s “The Satanic Verses” in 1988. (Please see “Heresy” at for a comprehensive discussion of the egregious religious behavior that accompanied the book’s publication.) The volume enraged many Muslims, and Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini called for a “fatwa” for the assassination of Rushdie. The writer was protected by the British police and security agents. But one of his translators died after being stabbed, a publisher was hurt and there were others injured in the furor caused by the book. In January, 1989, a group of 1500 Muslim protestors from Manchester and Bradford, England, burned a copy of the “The Satanic Verses.” Such violence created sympathy for Rushdie, who finally announced he would begin to make public appearances again in 1998.

In September, 1993, Taslima Nasrin had a “fatwa” issued against her because her book, “Lajja,” infuriated many Muslims. The volume was consigned to the flames. Nasrim had used her book to explore Islamic taboos on the role of women and severely criticize all religion as well. She has stated: “Religion is the great oppressor, and should be abolished.” Muslim fundamentalists in Bangladesh burned several hundred copies of “Lajja,” and called for Nasrin’s death.

When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan in the 1990’s, it put together a penal code that included the burning of books on sorcery and the imprisonment of the writers. The members also burned over one thousand reels of film stock in a public spectacle which took place in a sports stadium. Apparently they could not distinguish between prints and negatives. Afghan Films, the company whose reels were confiscated, explains that the Taliban burned mostly replaceable prints; the negatives had been hidden and survived the blaze.

Book burnings have continued into the early years of the 21st Century. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series about a boy sorcerer, his magical school and friends, was subjected to book burning by Christians. J.R.R. Tolkien’s books were also burned in the 21st Century, as were the complete works of Shakespeare. Bosmajian cites an ABC News report that said on March 26, 2000, “… the congregation of a church in suburban Pittsburgh gathered around a bonfire Sunday night to burn Harry Potter books, Disney videos, rock CDs and literature from other religions, purging their lives of things they felt stood between them and their faith. They also burned videos of Pinocchio and Hercules, and CD’s by Pearl Jam and Black Sabbath. Jehovah’s Witnesses pamphlets were consigned to the flames as well.”

Within a few years of the new millennium, Christians set fire to the Koran, and Muslims burned newspapers with satirical articles on religion. In nearly every known instance of book burnings in African countries, the retaliation from the other side was swift, resulting in riots, more book burnings, and destroyed churches and mosques. In April, 2004, the United Talmud Torah’s elementary school library in Montreal, Quebec was burned while the teachers and 250 students were away for the Jewish Passover Holiday. The burners destroyed around ten thousand books. Twenty-five volumes were salvaged. The message taped to the front of the building claimed the firebombing was to avenge the killing of the radical Islamist, Sheik Ahmed Yasin, by the Israeli military.

Adina Applebaum has compiled a list of ten modern day book burnings. I am gratefully dependent on her list for some of the 21st century religious book burnings that I have listed in this portion of the paper. In 2009, Wendy Doniger, a University of Chicago professor of religion, wrote an alternative history of the Hindu religion. The volume was shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle non-fiction award in 2009. Doniger wrote the playful, but penetrating history from the view, she explained, of women, horses, dogs and outcasts rather than from the point of view of either male Brahmanism or White Orientalism.

In 2011, a Hindu national group in India began protesting the publication of Doniger’s book by Penguin India. In February 2014, before there was a court verdict, Penguin India agreed to destroy every copy in India. The publisher referred to an Indian penal code that does not allow insulting a group’s religious beliefs to justify its agreement to destroy all the volumes of “The Hindus: An Alternative History”. Penguin’s decision was vociferously protested by many writers. The end result was that the publicity occasioned by the case caused more copies of “The Hindus” to be sold outside India. Some bookstores in India have carried and sold copies of the book in brown paper wrappers.

I am going to discuss the burning of the book, “Fifty Shades of Grey” by E.L. James as a good example of religious morality mixing in with secular events to create the destruction of books and films. Most literary critics consider the novel soft core pornography at best, but the book became instantly popular. As of this writing, it has sold over 125 million copies worldwide. In 2012, two DJs claimed they had had calls made to their Cleveland, Ohio station protesting the volume. A book burning was organized, with the local fire department on hand to ensure the safety of the burners. Some participants brought their own copies. Twenty to twenty-five volumes of “Fifty Shades of Grey” were burnt. Applebaum states that some people have felt that the fact that fire fighters were on hand for the burning created a real situation too uncomfortably close to the classic Ray Bradbury 1953 book, “Fahrenheit 451.”

Fahrenheit 451 is the temperature at which paper burns. The firemen in that futuristic, dystopian novel burn books and the citizens are diverted from thought by the endless babble of television. I highly recommend Bradbury’s volume to anyone interested in book burning and censorship. I decided to discuss “Fifty Shades of Grey” and its burning because I believe most of its burners were inspired by Christian religious restrictions on sexual topics.

The March, 2011 burning of the Koran by Pastor Terry Jones at his Florida church gave rise to several tragic events. His September burning, to commemorate the 2011 bombing of the World Trade Center, was postponed due to United States and other world leaders becoming involved. But other burnings took place in Springfield, Tennessee and Topeka, Kansas as a result of Jones’ inspiration. Predictably, the Koran burnings led to riots in Kashmir, in which thirteen people died. His March, 2011 burning led to more protests in Afghanistan, where thirty citizens perished. Jones decided to burn 2,998 copies of the Koran in 2013, one for each victim of the Trade Center Bombing, but on the way to his designated area, he was arrested for the illegal conveyance of gasoline.

In 2009, the Amazing Grace Baptist Church in Canton, North Carolina, planned to sponsor a book burning of bibles. Their pastor, Marc Grizzard, had announced that the night of October 31 would be spent burning all satanic literature. Why were the bibles chosen? The pastor and his flock apparently believed the only true biblical translation was the original King James version. They had the notion that all other copies were “perversions” and needed to be consigned to the flames. The church cancelled the burnings because of protests and bad weather. Instead, the members retreated into their church building and had a “book-tearing.” As of this writing, Grizzard’s church conducts the book-tearing ceremony every year.

The purpose of this paper has been to try to shed some light on the fears and the motives of book burners and to provide some examples of the type of words they use to justify their actions when they give voice to their intentions. I have focused on religious book burning, and generally on the destruction of volumes written by individual writers. But whole libraries have often been destroyed by fire. (Please see the Bibliography at the end of this paper at for titles of books which cover the destruction of libraries.) Millions of books have also been put to the fire for being seditious and/or subversive or for being obscene or immoral.

Bosmajian points out that through the centuries the language of the book burners has remained much the same. He very effectively calls attention to the similar use of words and imagery. He points out the analogous language, “… from the Theodosian Code’s “polluted contagions” of the heretics in 391 CE, to the “pestilence and contagion” of heretical and Hebrew writings condemned by 5th Century Christians, to the Inquisition’s “poisons of disbelief and detestable plague of heresy” of the 16th Century, to the “filthy blasphemies” of Muslim books in India in the 20th Century, to the “satanism and dirt” of the Harry Potter books burned by Christians in the 21st Century.” The use of such metaphoric, bibliophobic words has always been an important factor in justifying the destruction by fire of “vermin-infested,” “disease-carrying,” “cancerous,” “pestilent,” “satanic inspired” books.

Neither the language has changed, nor the intent. It is true that people are not burned any longer with their books tied or chained to their bodies. But people associated with books other people find dangerous still die. The internet has made the censorship of books more difficult, but we have seen the extreme censorship exercised by such nations as China that blocks books and information from people. The fear and anger of religious followers continues to spur people on to censor or destroy works they do not agree with and often do not understand.

Religion has attempted to hold back progress in all areas that have helped human beings attain the accomplishments that have made life better for so many. Religion has not only tried to limit the output of the printing press, it has also tried to censor and destroy books informing people about science, medicine, morals, ethics and so on. We need to keep religion confined to the back room to which it has retreated in our century. The time is coming when we can open the door and let religion creep out into the darkness and obscurity where it belongs. The day will arrive when not one person, not one book, not one film, not one magazine or paper will be consigned to the religious fires that have attempted to stifle and destroy the progress and freedom of human well-being.


Applebaum, Adina. 10 Modern Day Book Burnings. accessed from the Web 9/13/2016. The Airship- Surveying Literature, Art and Culture.

Baez, Fernando. A Universal History of the Burning of Books. New York: Atlas and Company, 2008.

Bosmajian, Haig. Burning Books. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland and Company, Inc. 2006.

Chase, Mary Jane. “Cathedrals: The Continent.” The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation. Ed. Hans J. Hillerbrand. Vol. I, New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. 282-284.

Fellows, Otis. Diderot. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1989.

Goodrich, Luther C. The Literary Inquisition of Ch’ien-Lung. Baltimore: Waverly Press, 1935.

Grendler, Paul F. “The Destruction of Hebrew Books in Venice.” In American Academy for Jewish Research. Vol.45. Jerusalem: Central Press Proceedings, 1978. 103-130.

Knuth, Rebecca. Burning Books and Leveling Libraries. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2006.

Levy, Leonard. Blasphemy. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.

Llorente, J.A. A Critical History of the Inquisition in Spain. Williamstown, Mass.: John Liliburne, 1967.

Polastron, Lucien X. Books on Fire. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 2007.

Putnam, George Haven. Authors and Their Public in Ancient Times. New York: G.P.Putnam’s Sons, 1896.

Rowdon, Maurice. The Spanish Terror: Spanish Imperialism in the Sixteenth Century. London: Constable, 1974.

Van Kampen, Kimberly. “Biblical Books and the Circulation of Psalms in Late-Medieval England.” In The Bible as Book: The First Printed Editions. Eds. Paul Saenger and Kimberly Van Kampen. New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Press, 1999. 79-94.