May 25th 1085: Pope Gregory VII dies


Pope Gregory VII (1020 – 1085)


On this day in 1085 Pope Gregory VII died in Salerno. He became Pope in 1073 and was known for his advocacy of Church reform such as ending the practice of simony (selling Church offices) and ensuring clerical celibacy. Gregory VII was crucial in the Investiture Controversy which was a dispute between the Pope and Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV over who had the power to invest bishops with the symbols of their office. Gregory VII excommunicated Henry IV twice, leading the Emperor to wait outside Canossa Castle for the Pope for three days in the snow, begging for his excommunication to be rescinded, which Gregory granted. Gregory’s excommunication of Henry was considered by some as an over-extension of papal power over secular matters.



Emperor Henry IV (1050 – 1106)


March 26th 1830: The Book of Mormon published


1830 edition of the Book of Mormon


On this day in 1830, the Book of Mormon was first published at E.B Grandin’s New York bookstore. The founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith Jr, claimed that he had been visited by an angel called Moroni who told him of ancient writings on golden plates which described people whom God led to the Western hemisphere before the birth of Jesus. These plates were supposedly found by Smith buried by a tree on a hill in his back yard. Smith said he was told by Moroni to translate the plates into English and publish them. Smith initially struggled to find someone to publish the book as many considered it risky, fraudulent and blasphemous. Smith and his friend Martin Harris began work on translating the Book of Mormon, with Smith dictating by either reading directly or using seer stones placed in a top hat (accounts vary).



A page from the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon


Work was halted when Harris’s wife stole some pages of the manuscript. Translation recommenced in 1829 and was soon finished and ready for publication and sale in March 1830. It took eight men and boys working 12 hours a day, six days a week, for almost eight months to print the initial 5,000 copies. Upon the book’s publication Smith said he returned the plates to Moroni. The building in New York where the Book of Mormon was first published and sold is now the Book of Mormon Historic Publication Site.



Printing press where book was published


Mormonism continues to be a prominent religion in the United States and abroad. Despite enduring questions about the origins of the religion – many believe Smith planted the plates or made them up altogether – it still has a large following. Mitt Romney, in the 2012 election, became the first Mormon presidential candidate in the United States. I have been interested in Mormonism for some time, though I must admit my interest has been encouraged by seeing the musical ‘The Book of Mormon’. Even though the musical is a parody of Mormonism (‘I Believe’ explicitly pokes fun at Mormon beliefs and ‘All-American Prophet’ mocks the origins story recounted here), I thought it was surprisingly gentle considering some other things Matt Stone and Trey Parker have done. I personally didn’t see it as a vicious attack on Mormons or their beliefs, however as I am not a Mormon I cannot say it hasn’t offended anyone. I would always recommend reading historical and contemporary material on the religion, but if you’re a fan of Matt and Trey (and even if not!), ‘The Book of Mormon’ is a fantastic musical and a good laugh.

February 23rd 303: Great Persecution begins


Emperor Diocletian (244 – 311)

On this day in 303, the Roman Emperor Diocletian began the systematic persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. This became known as the ‘Great Persecution’ or the ‘Diocletianic Persecution’. It was this day that Diocletian ordered the total destruction of the new Christian church in Nicomedia, demanding the building and its scriptures to be burned and its treasures seized. The following day Diocletian issued an ‘Edict Against the Christians’; the persecution of Christians had begun.



‘The Christian Martyrs’ Last Prayer’ by Jean-Léon Gérôme

Christians had been targeted throughout the history of the empire, but violence was at its fiercest between 303 and 313. The campaign did not end with Diocletian’s retirement in 305, as his successors continued what he had begun (though to varying degrees of intensity). The persecution saw the execution of Christians, the rescinding of their legal rights and the requirement that they embrace traditional Roman polytheistic religion. The persecution is generally considered to have ended with the 313 Edict of Milan issued by the converted Christian Emperor Constantine and Licinius.



Emperor Constantine (272 – 337)

This is true religious persecution: the pressure to abandon one’s identity, the threat of violence, the violent destruction of culture. Whilst Christianity may be one of the dominant religions in the world now, we must not forget the sacrifices made by early Christians who would rather die than renounce their faith. When you hear conservative Christian commentators in the United States proclaiming that the ‘liberal establishment’ is waging a war on Christianity because one town didn’t have a nativity display, I would like to show them the Great Persecution of the fourth century. Maybe then they will realise what a true war on Christianity looks like.

February 18th 1954: Church of Scientology established


L. Ron Hubbard (1911 – 1986) pictured in 1950 in LA

On this day in 1954, the first Church of Scientology was established in Los Angeles. The Church was originally incorporated in December 1953 but the first church appeared a few months later. Scientology is a religion (though some have labelled it a cult) which was founded by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. Its main teachings are that humans are in fact immortal beings who have lost their true nature and need help to recover it through counselling. Members have to pay for these sessions during which they recount painful memories, which is intended to be therapeutic.


The first Scientology Church in LA

The higher up in the levels a member gets, the more teachings they are told. One of the most famous of these is the belief that millions of years ago the intergalactic tyrant Xenu dropped people into volcanoes on Earth. The thetans (souls) then stuck to the bodies of the living, and continue to do so today. The organisation has a considerable celebrity following, with actors such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta as famous advocates of the Church. Scientology is very controversial; those who claim it is a cult maintain it exploits its members for financial gain, whereas its defenders insist it is a valid religion.

January 18th 1769: Ekaku dies


Hakuin Ekaku (1686 – 1769)


On this day in 1769, the Zen Buddhist master Hakuin Ekaku died. He was one of the most important masters of the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism. Hakuin was born on January 19th 1686 in Hara, a small town at the foot of Mt. Fuji on the Tokkaido Road between Edo (modern day Tokyo) and Kyoto. Rinzai is known for its rather eccentric teaching methods, favouring shouting and sometimes physical violence in order to encourage a student to experience satori (instant enlightenment). Hakuin described satori as like shattering a block of ice. Thus Rinzai was the religion of the samurai warriors, and Soto (the other main Zen school) was for the farmer and the peasant.



A scroll Ekaku drew showing Bodhidharma (founder of Zen Buddhism). The calligraphy reads “Zen points directly to the human heart, see into your nature and become Buddha”


The Rinzai school had been deteriorating in the 14th Century, but Hakuin reformed it and bought it back to the mainstream. He stressed the importance of koans (paradoxical, riddle like questions students dwell upon) and zazen (sitting meditation), in order to understand the true nature of reality and experience enlightenment, which is the goal of Zen. He became a famous teacher around Japan, and is credited with popularising Rinzai Zen once more.

He died on 18th January 1769, aged 83. Hakuin left behind over 90 enlightened students to carry on his legacy. Now, Hakuin is probably best known for one particular koan he invented for use in Rinzai training:


“What is the sound of one hand clapping?”

January 16th 1786: Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom enacted


Thomas Jefferson (1743 – 1826)


On this day in 1786, the Virginia Assembly enacted the Statute for Religious Freedom. The statute was written by Thomas Jefferson in 1777 and provided for freedom of religion in Virginia. It ended the dominance of the Church of England and instead ensured there was no established church.

“no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place or ministry whatsoever”



A 1779 draft of the Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom


Jefferson was, as we know, a man of many achievements. However he only requested for three of his accomplishments to be recorded on his grave: authoring the Declaration of Independence, founding the University of Virginia, and drafting the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.



Jefferson’s grave at Monticello which records what he considered his three great achievements


This statute was very important to Jefferson, it reflected many of his core beliefs about religion and government. It enshrines his firm commitment to the separation of church and state, evidenced by the fact that this statute was the influence behind the Establishment Clause of the US Constitution which prevents Congress from establishing  a religion. The statute also reflects Jefferson’s belief that the people have the right to change laws through elected assemblies, as he asserts that the law is not irrevocable. The Virginia Statute was the model that the rest of the United States would follow to ensure it remained a beacon of religious freedom for the oppressed. It is debatable whether modern America lives up to Jefferson’s utopian ideal of a religiously neutral state. Despite this, we can certainly agree with Jefferson that the Virginia Statute was one of his crowning achievements.

January 10th 1645: Laud executed


William Laud (1573 – 1645)

On this day in 1645 the Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud was executed for treason at the Tower of London. He was appointed to the archbishopric in 1633, during the reign of King Charles I. Laud worked closely with the King, and his tenure was marked by conflict with Puritans. The latter felt so threatened that many set sail for the North American colonies to be free from persecution. His focus on ceremony led to rumours that he held ‘popish’ (Catholic) sympathies. His dominance of religious policy made him a target of popular hostility.


Etching of Laud’s trial by Wenceslaus Hollar

Charles had to call Parliament in 1640, and on 18th December he was impeached for high treason by the Commons. By the time of his execution in 1645, the English Civil War was in full swing. Laud was buried in a London church, but after the Restoration his remains were moved to the chapel of St John’s College, Oxford.

January 3rd 1521: Luther excommunicated


The 1521 Decet Romanum Pontificem

On this day 1521, Pope Leo X issued the papal bull ‘Decet Romanum Pontificem’ which excommunicated Martin Luther. Luther was a German monk who became disillusioned from the Catholic Church due to its corruption, such as taking money from people as a guarantee into heaven. Luther protested this corruption by famously writing his ‘95 Theses’ in 1517, an event which symbolically began the Protestant Reformation. The Pope did not accept Luther’s anti-Catholic writings and eventually expelled him from the church in 1521.



Martin Luther (1483 – 1546)

Luther’s excommunication finalised the split between Luther and his followers and the Catholic Church. The Protestant Reformation is one of the most important moments in European history, as it established the religious divide which shaped European history from 1517 onwards. Had it not been for the Reformation and the establishment of the Protestant Church the European wars of religion, and numerous other events, which raged in early modern Europe would not have occurred.



Pope Leo X (1475 – 1521)

December 29th 1170: Thomas Becket killed


Depiction of Becket’s murder


On this day in 1170 Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was assassinated. He became Archbishop in 1162 after the death of Archbishop Theobald of Bec. Becket was killed inside Canterbury Cathedral by men loyal to King Henry II, with whom Becket was in a feud over the rights and privileges of the Church. Becket excommunicated various opponents to his church, which angered the King. It appears that some knights believed the King gave them a command to kill Becket, and thus did so. Becket is considered a saint and a martyr by the Catholic Church.



King Henry II (1133 – 1189)

“For the name of Jesus and the protection of the Church, I am ready to embrace death”
– Becket’s last words, according to eyewitness Edward Grim

December 7th 1965: Catholic-Orthodox Joint Declaration


Pope Paul VI (1897 – 1978)

On this day in 1965 Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras I issued the Catholic-Orthodox Joint Declaration. The Declaration simultaneously revoked the mutual excommunications made by the Holy See and the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople in 1054. This event was known as the Great Schism and contributed to the medieval separation of the East and West churches, the former being Greek and the latter Latin. The Declaration represented an important moment in the reconciliation of the two churches, with both being represented by their respective leaders.


Patriarch Athenagoras I of Constantinople (1886 – 1972)