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Freedom of speech, 1500-1850$
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Robert Ingram, Jason Peacey, and Alex W. Barber

Print publication date: 2020

Print ISBN-13: 9781526147103

Published to Manchester Scholarship Online: January 2021

DOI: 10.7765/9781526147110

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Pearls before swine: limiting godly speech in early seventeenth-century England

Pearls before swine: limiting godly speech in early seventeenth-century England

(p.47) Chapter 3 Pearls before swine: limiting godly speech in early seventeenth-century England
Freedom of speech, 1500-1850

Karl Gunther

Manchester University Press

Seventeenth-century English Protestants believed that they possessed a ‘right’ to exercise something they called ‘freedom of speech’, which was a biblically mandated duty to speak the truth boldly by rebuking sin and proclaiming Christian doctrine. It is well known that early modern Christians sought to place limits on what they deemed ungodly speech, but, as this chapter argues, early Stuart Protestants also placed crucial limits on what they considered to be godly free speech. On their view, free speech should always be exercised to promote God’s glory and the good of those who heard it. There were circumstances in which even godly speech would not serve these ends, instead provoking blasphemous counter-speech, violence and spiritual harm to those who heard it. Stuart Protestants therefore identified various situations in which they advised private persons and ministers not to cast ‘pearls before swine’ (Matt. 7:6) and to remain silent rather than speak words of godly admonition or instruction. Their arguments drew together a series of terms that would (with different meanings and content) lie at the heart of later arguments about free speech and its proper limits: restricting ‘liberty’ of speech in order to prevent ‘harm’, ‘offence’ and violence. This combination of familiarity and foreignness, the chapter concludes, is precisely what makes these seventeenth-century discussions of free speech so relevant and useful for helping us to think more clearly about the purposes, circumstances and limits of free speech in our own time.

Keywords:   Puritanism, biblical criticism, liberty, Protestantism

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