On the Spanish Inquisition

The record of Christian history over the past two thousand years is of course a mixed bag, with so much good at times offset with incidents of evil. Fallen individuals, even redeemed fallen individuals, can and do get things wrong. And of course many things done in the name of Christianity were done by those who were Christians in name only.

So not everything done for the past two millennia was done by actual Christians, and if they were true believers, they have at times gotten things wrong. The Spanish inquisition is a case in point here. Of course the critics of Christianity – be they atheists, secular humanists, etc – love to raise this issue, along with the Crusades and the witch-hunts of the past.

But as with these other two incidents, there is so much hype, falsehood, exaggeration and misinformation swirling all around that some qualifications and corrections need to be offered to clear up the record. I do not do this as an excuse, but to offer some historical accuracy and balance to what has often been an emotive and wildly misunderstood topic.

spanish inquisitionAt the outset it can be said that there have been various inquisitions in various places over the centuries. There were various main waves of it, and these are some important dates to be aware of:
1163 – Pope Alexander III told the bishops to stamp out heresy.
1213 – The Fourth Lateran Council gathered by Pope Innocent III in part condemns various heresies.
1233 – Pope Gregory IX established the papal Inquisition.
1472 – Isabella and Ferdinand helped to establish the Spanish Inquisition.
1542 – Pope Paul III started hunting down Protestants, especially Calvinists.

Here I primarily want to consider the case of the Spanish Inquisition, officially started by a papal bull issued by Pope Sixtus IV in 1478. Various things can be said about this. The first and obvious thing I could say as a Protestant is that this was overwhelmingly a Roman Catholic undertaking, and therefore something which of course I can therefore easily condemn.

But I will not rely on that. While it is true that these inquisitions were primarily the stuff of the Catholic church, Protestants over the centuries have of course not been free of such things. We too can have blood on our hands in this regard.

But here I want to offer a more general look at this, and offer some historical and sociological perspective. Historian Paul Johnson offer some of the political and social rationale for this:

The religious wars were based on the assumption that only a unitary society was tolerable, and that those who did not conform to the prevailing norms, and who could not be forced or terrified into doing so, should be treated as second-class citizens, expelled, or killed. Thus they reinforced or brought back to life destructive forces which already existed in medieval society. . . . In Spain, the Inquisition was part of the process whereby Castilians penetrated and unified the whole of Spanish society: it was set up in 1478 to examine the credentials of the converts.

Such historical background is important, and many have sought to offer this, but the many myths surrounding the Spanish Inquisition continue to swirl around heavily in modern thought and imagination. Careful historians have decried all the mythology and ahistorical silliness surrounding this topic.

In his very important scholarly work on the subject, The Spanish Inquisition: A Historical Revision, historian Henry Kamen writes: “From its very inception, the Inquisition in Spain provoked a war of words. Its opponents through the ages contributed to building up a powerful legend about its intentions and malign achievements. Their propaganda was so successful that even today it is difficult to separate fact from fiction.”

And fiction has certainly abounded. In his carefully researched volume, The Triumph of Christianity, historian Rodney Stark has a chapter on “The Shocking Truth About the Spanish Inquisition” in which the opening pages lay out a number of claims about this event. He then writes: “But the most shocking truth about the Spanish Inquisition is that everything above is either an outright lie or wild exaggeration!”

So let’s look briefly at some of these reckless and patently false claims. First, consider the numbers. A careful examination of the historical record reveals that at tops, around 2000 people were executed for heresy by the Inquisition. This is 2000 too many. But this works out to an average of less than 6 people a year during the 350 years. This is a far cry less than the many millions a year killed in the name of godless communism or ruthless fascism.

Stark offers some details here: “The fact is that during the entire period 1480 through 1700, only about ten deaths per year were meted out by the Inquisition all across Spain – and usually to repeat offenders.” He continues, “during the time in question there was no religious toleration anywhere in Europe and capital punishment was the norm for all offences, religious or otherwise. In context, then, the Spanish Inquisition was remarkably restrained.”

And as careful historians like Kamen have pointed out, the Inquisition trials were fairer and more lenient than their secular counterparts. Often the sentence was quite lenient, such as a period of fasting or some community work. He writes, “A comparison with the cruelty and mutilation common in secular tribunals shows the Inquisition in a relatively favourable light. This in conjunction with the usually good level of prison conditions makes it clear that the tribunal had little interest in cruelty and often attempted to temper justice with mercy.”

Or as Stark says about the issue of torture: “This may be the biggest lie of all! Every court in Europe used torture, but the Inquisition did so far less than other courts. For one thing, church law limited torture to one session lasting no more than fifteen minutes, and there could be no danger to life and limb. Nor could blood be shed!”

He cites historian Thomas Madden who “estimated that the inquisitors resorted to torture in only about 2 percent of all the cases that came before them”. Contrast this with the atheist hell holes of Stalin or Hitler or Castro or Mao, where torture and terror were routine and commonplace. Simply reading The Gulag Archipelago by Solzhenitsyn should offer a strong contrast here.

Stark continues: “So there it is. Contrary to the standard myth, the Inquisition made little use of the stake, seldom tortured anyone, and maintained unusually decent prisons.” And again, “The Inquisitors were far more concerned with repentance than with punishment.”

Or take the issue of witchcraft (which I have written about elsewhere – see link below). Says Stark in For the Glory of God, there were “comparatively few witchcraft trials in Spain. Even more striking is the fact that hardly any of these resulted in the death penalty. Except for several unusual instances when local, secular courts launched witch-hunts unsanctioned by the Inquisition, few of those accused were brought to trial, and almost all of those who were convicted received mild penalties.”

So how should Christians think about all this? In many respects this was a real perversion of biblical Christianity. No Biblical commands are found anywhere in the New Testament about the torture and killing of heretics. So yes, this was a blight on the Christian record.

But we should not throw the baby out with the bath water. Heresy is a vitally important issue, and must be dealt with. Of course how we deal with it is crucial. The truth is, truth matters – and it matters greatly. Therefore heresy matters as well. If heresy “ultimately ends up subverting, destabilizing, or even destroying the core of Christian faith” as Alister McGrath puts it in his book on this subject, then we must certainly deal with it with utmost seriousness.

As mentioned, killing heretics is not the New Testament answer to this problem. But at the very least, it can be said that Christendom back then took the issues of truth, orthodoxy and heresy seriously. Far too few believers today take such matters with the importance and earnestness which they deserve.

So while we can look back with disapproval, even condemnation, of so much that took place under the heading of inquisitions, we can at least try to offer some semblance of historical accuracy here. As usual, the critics have radically overstated their case, and it is imperative that some truth in advertising be offered here.

For those who want more on this, I encourage you to get hold of the volumes that I mention above, and do some serious study on your own. This is vital as we seek to engage in Christian apologetics with a world quite hostile to Christianity, as well as to truth.


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9 Replies to “On the Spanish Inquisition”

  1. Excellent article, Bill. Particularly highlighting that the death penalty was common for putting the deaths into context by stating “capital punishment was the norm for all offences, religious or otherwise.” But are you able to clarify “all” offences. Was CP the norm for, say, petty theft?

  2. Thanks Bill for an excellent, informative and easy to follow article which I shall use whenever the need arises; Indeed I may even introduce the topic myself. I make the same comment about your articles on the Crusades and the Witchcraft Trials. Your last three articles have been very helpful to me so thank you again.

  3. It also needs remembering that Isabella and Ferdinand helped to establish the Spanish Inquisition at a time in Spain when they were looking to finalise the Reconquest. Religious fervour helped them finish that job and thankfully they had it, unlike our appeasing leaders today, and finding closet Muslims pretending to have converted would have been one of the reasons behind setting up the Inquisition. In those anti-semitic times Jews were lumped in with the former too. There would have been a whole host on related reasons and one cannot judge what they did from today’s secular environment in the West which has tossed out religion and from which we are suffering the consequences. Today’s star chambers enforcing political correctness are the modern equivalent of the Spanish Inquisition and they are facilitating the two things often addressed on this site: society’s surrender to Islam and to Homosexuality.

  4. The Spanish Inquisition is often used to undermine Christianity. However, let us be clear on what it was: In the first instance, it was enacted by the State and not the Church.

    Secondly, the Church, who offered sanctuary, would abandon the seeker if it was obvious that the seeker sought sanctuary to escape being taken prisoner as a Muslim spy or soldier or an Islamic fundamentalist. In short, those who sought sanctuary sought that sanctuary as Christians and if the Church found that that was not rue then the Church would hand them over to the State officials.
    Sadly, the way things are going with terrorism,we may reach that stage again and soon.

  5. Bill, there is a movement in Brazil, the largest Catholic nation in the world, that wants the rehabilitation of the Inquisition and its members are using YOUR article to attack me. They just did it. Here is an exemple of its revisionist efforts: https://youtu.be/Cpq8eaAy7JY

    You used Henry Kamen to back your revisionism. Very convenient — for Catholic revisionists, which highly recommend Kamen, a notorious revisionist of the Inquisition.

    The revisionism of the Inquisition advocates a change (revision) in the way historians have always written about the Inquisition.

    On July 2016, the Brazilian state of Pernambuco established March 31 of each year as a Memorial Day of Jewish Victims of the Inquisition. Does this need a revision too?

    In 2012, the Brazilian Association of Jewish Descendants of the Inquisition inaugurated the Museum of the Inquisition in Belo Horizonte. Does this need a revision too?

    These are small Jewish efforts fighting revisionist lies, which ascribe to Protestants an alleged “demonization” of the Inquisition.

    In 2013, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Pope Francis at the Vatican, and gave the leader of the Catholic Church “The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain,” a book that largely revolves about Spanish Catholics questioning, torturing, and punishing the Jews, exposing how thousands of them were expelled from Spain or burned at the stake.

    The Jewish Journal said that “The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain,” a scholarly magnum opus and in-depth tome on the Spanish Inquisition, describes how the Catholic Church persecuted, and often executed, masses of Jews.

    Business Insider noted that “it is important to think of the context of the book, which is written by Netanyahu’s father Ben-Zion Netanyahu, a well-regarded historian who worked at both Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Cornell University.”

    CBS News said, “Netanyahu’s father, Ben-Zion Netanyahu, was an Israeli historian… best known in academic circles for his research into the Catholic Church’s medieval inquisition against the Jews of Spain.”

    Renowned Catholic historian Paul Johnson, in his book “A History Of Christianity” (published in the United Kingdom in 1976), said of the Inquisition:

    “Convictions of thought-crimes being difficult to secure, the Inquisition used procedures banned in other courts… The names of hostile witnesses were withheld, anonymous informers were used, the accusations of personal enemies were allowed, the accused were denied the right of defence, or of defending counsel; and there was no appeal. The object, quite simply, was to produce convictions at any cost; only thus, it was thought, could heresy be quenched.”

    “Many countries would not admit the Inquisition at all… There was the destruction of records.”

    “In Spain, the Catholic crown, through its instrument the Inquisition, exterminated Protestantism in the 1550s.”

    “The Inquisition was a popular instrument, directed against Jews…”

    “The Inquisition was set up in Rome, under the fanatical Neapolitan papalist Cardinal Caraffa (later Pope Paul iv), whose watchwords were: ‘No man is to abase himself by showing toleration towards any sort of heretic, least of all a Calvinist’; and ‘Even if my own father were a heretic, I would gather the wood to burn him.’”

    “The Inquisition… proved durable, largely because it was self-financing from the confiscated property of the condemned. The fact that it needed the money for its operations meant that it had to secure convictions. Hence the use of torture.”

    “The Inquisition finally ran out of money in the late eighteenth century, and from that point it became moribund, though it was not effectively abolished until 1834. The last official Spanish execution for heresy was in 1826, when a schoolmaster was hanged for substituting ‘Praise be to God’ in place of ‘Ave Maria’ in school prayers.”

    “[Protestant states] might have state religions but they tended to be more tolerant. They rarely persecuted systematically. They had no equivalent to the Inquisition. They were not clericalist. They permitted books to circulate more freely. They did not burden commerce with canon law. They accepted ‘private’ religion, and placed marriage and the family at the centre of it. They were thus more congenial to the capitalist community. As a result, Protestant societies appeared far more successful than Catholic ones as the capitalist system developed.”

    Sorry, Bill, but your article makes a so important disservice as the revisionism of the Holocaust does. This revisionism uses Jews who betrayed Jews to support their ideas — not different from revisionist Catholics who are using you to support their radicalism.

    Here is my article on the chief revisionist of the Inquisition in Brazil: http://bit.ly/1Q3jYqM

    And if you think that he is “honest” only in the Inquisition issues, read this: http://bit.ly/2cSDxnh

  6. Thanks Julio for your comments, but a number of things can be said in reply if I may:

    -This article was first and foremost an apologetics article, aimed at refuting the often reckless charges made by the secular humanists and atheists. That is why I wrote it. I certainly did not write it with the intention of saying or implying that everything done in the name of Catholicism over the centuries has been just peachy. Thus it was not intended to be a piece whitewashing all things Catholic, or seeking to give them a free pass in any way. In the same manner, if Protestants have engaged in activities in the past which are not commensurate with biblical standards, I will not seek to whitewash those either.

    -I of course also wrote companion pieces on the Crusades and the witchcraft trials. They were done for the same reason: to challenge some of the misinformation, the excesses, and just plain fabrications of the anti-theistic critics. In all three articles I mentioned that things were not ideal in each case, and some things were done wrongly or against the teachings of Christ. The articles were not written to say everything was rosy in each case, but to challenge a lot of falsehoods and reckless charges made by critics of Christianity – mainly by the angry atheists.

    -I of course quoted other historians besides Kamen in my piece. Are they all guilty of Catholic bias as well? And as you should know, in a fallen world there is no such thing as a completely bias-free study of history. All historians have a bias, as do all bloggers, writers, scientists, etc. The trick here is to allow the facts of history a chance to be discovered and heard as much as possible, despite the historian’s preferences and biases. Kamen is a renowned historian who has his biases just like anyone else. If I were to write on this or any other controversial historical topic using only bias-free historians, I would not have any to draw upon of course.

    -Your situation is quite different than mine, so you need to appreciate why and how I write as I do. My main concerns and focuses centre on America, Europe and Australia, where I have lived. In these places the main “enemy” is the new atheism, secular humanism, and so on. So they are often my main target. And in the culture war battles here I often will work with others – be they Catholics, or even those of no religion – when they are pro-life, pro-family, etc. That is called co-belligerency which I have often sought to defend, eg.: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2010/09/02/on-co-belligerency/

    I realise that in predominately Catholic Latin America things are rather different, and you may well see yourself as a besieged and beleaguered Protestant there. Well, that unfortunately may be your situation to deal with, not mine. I do not write my articles with particular individuals and their particular situations in mind, whether you or anyone else. I write apologetics articles – often in generic fashion – in the attempt to get truth out into the public arena.

    -You use the term ‘revisionism’ in a purely pejorative sense to attack me and others, even resorting to unhelpful non sequiturs to insinuate I might as well be defending the Holocaust. Sorry, you when head down that path then I start to lose respect for your cause. There is a proper revisionism which is needed when historians have gotten things wrong, and others come along seeking to balance things out. For example, plenty of secular left historians have painted all of Christianity in a very bad light. Seeking to set the record straight there is something I and all concerned Christians should engage in. That is a proper and much needed sort of historical revisionism. And no, it does not mean we will in similar fashion seek to exonerate the Holocaust as you rather recklessly suggest.

    -I am not going to throw these three articles out because they happen to have been used in a way I may not have wanted or anticipated. The truth is, people can and do misuse and abuse my writings all the time, and even use them as they turn on me. That some might use them to turn on you is unfortunate, but is of course out of my control. Writing in a way where no one will be offended or nothing will be misused is not how I do my ministry. I will keep writing as God leads. That some of my writings will be misused and used as weapons against me or others cannot be prevented, no matter how careful and prayerful I seek to be.

    I will keep you in my prayers. God bless.

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