Apostates are ex-members of religions or religious movements who become sworn enemies of the faith they have left. They have existed for centuries.
by Massimo Introvigne
Article 1 of 5.
In April 2018, I visited Tasmania and stayed at the MACq 01 Hotel in Hobart. It is a unique “storytelling hotel,” where each room is named after, and displays memorabilia of, a significant character in Tasmanian history. For an extraordinary coincidence, my wife and I were assigned room 215, named after Charles Chiniquy (1809–1899). I had devoted several studies to the notion of apostasy, and Chiniquy was the most famous “professional apostate” of the 19th century.
Chiniquy was a Catholic priest from Quebec, ordained in 1833 and well-known for his campaigns on behalf of temperance. During his tours, however, he was frequently accused of inappropriate conduct with female devotees, and was suspended in 1851 by his Canadian bishop, who accused him of having performed a “criminal act” on a young girl. He was later pardoned and allowed to continue as a priest if he accepted to move to the United States and never to return to Canada. In the United States, however, local bishops started receiving what they described as “grave testimonials regarding the moral conduct of Mr. Chiniquy,” and he was suspended again and excommunicated in 1858.
Chiniquy then joined the Presbyterian Church, and devoted the remaining forty years of his life to campaigning against Roman Catholicism. He claimed that accusations against him had been fabricated by the liquor lobby (which also controlled the Catholic hierarchy) because of his temperance activities, that the Pope and several Bishops were secretly atheistic, that they planned to take over the United States through immigration of Catholic masses from Europe, and that the Vatican had ordered the assassination of Abraham Lincoln (who had represented Chiniquy in one of his court cases).
None of these accusations was supported by evidence, but Chiniquy became one of the most famous international speakers of the late 19th century. He inflamed the masses, which sometimes at the end of his speeches assaulted Catholic churches and convents. On June 23, 1879, he spoke at Hobart’s town hall, but Tasmania had a sizable Catholic population and even most Protestants cherished religious peace. The lecture was attended by 4,000 Tasmanians, most of them hostile to Chiniquy, whose speech was interrupted. He had to hide himself behind the piano of the stage, until 500 troops from the nearby Anglesea Barracks restored order, and persuaded the flamboyant apostate to leave the island.
Chiniquy is normally called an “apostate” by historians, and his story offers an opportunity to discuss the different meanings of this word, which sometimes create confusion. It is also a cautionary tale reminding us that some apostates (obviously, not all) leave their religions following accusations of moral impropriety, yet the media rarely discuss the initial reasons for their disaffiliation.
In its oldest meaning, “apostasy” means disaffiliation from a religion and conversion to another religion (or to atheism). In social and political systems where it was mandatory to adhere to a state religion, apostasy was a crime, often punished with the death penalty. Apostates from the official Zoroastrian religion were executed in the Sassanid Empire in the 3rd century CE. Among the Jews, capital punishment of the apostates was alluded to in Deuteronomy 13:6–16. The Catholic Church persuaded the Christian Roman Emperors to make apostasy a crime, and the Code of Emperor Justinian (482–565) mandated the execution of those who would apostatize and return to the pagan rites. Those who would induce Christians to apostatize should also be executed. Islam also punished apostates with the death penalty, which is still part of the laws of some Islamic states.
These measures did not really distinguish between different positions and attitudes of those who had left a religion. The fact of disaffiliating was punished as such. When the modern sociology of religion started studying disaffiliation, it introduced a new use of the word “apostate.” According to this more technical meaning, not all those who leave a religion are apostates, only those who militantly turn against their former faith and publicly speak against it. Chiniquy was a quintessential apostate, but scholars were also inspired for their terminology by the figure of Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate (331–363), who as a young man was a Christian (of the Arian persuasion) and as a ruler tried to restore paganism and persecuted Christians.
As it often happens, the reality precedes the scholarly label. Apostates, in the sense of ex-members turning to sworn enemies of their former religion, existed for many centuries before scholars studying religious disaffiliation found a name for them. The systematic study of the apostates started with the study of new religious movements. Its scholars, as Stuart Wright wrote in 1988, made a “curious discovery,” i.e., that there was a “paucity of data,” and the sociological study of apostates was “astoundingly scant” (“Leaving New Religious Movements: Issues, Theory, and Research,” in David G. Bromley, ed., Falling from the Faith: Causes and Consequences of Religious Apostasy, Sage 1988, 144–65 ). Historians had studies ex-Catholic apostates such as Chiniquy, and others who had left the Mormons, but sociological theory before the 1970s was scarce.
It is not coincidental that scholars of new religious movements were those who devoted substantial attention to the issue of the apostates. The so-called anti-cult movement systematically used apostates to prove that movements it labeled as “cults” were up to no good. While the anti-cult movement was never successful in the academia, where only a handful of scholars accepted its theories that “cults” were not “real” religions and used brainwashing to lure their converts, it was much more successful among the media. Apostate stories about religions attacked as “cults” were immediately popular with journalists. Unlike complicated accounts by scholars, they painted simple black-and-white stories with clearly identifiable heroes (the apostates and the anti-cult activists) and villains (the cult leaders, and sometimes the scholars who doubted the reliability of the apostates). They also included lurid tales of abuse, which made for good copy.
While it was true that sociological theory was missing, unbeknownst to many journalists debates on the apostates had already been an important feature of discussions about religious minorities in the 19th and early 20th century. We will return to this theme in the second article of this series.