The Inquisition - Battling Heresy

(Lecture Notes from Mr. Kersey's 8th Grade Religion Class - Church History)


  • Since the first days of the Church, people who taught ideas that were against the teachings of the Church were called heretics.
  • Committing heresy was sometimes an accident, sometimes it was on purpose.
  • Teaching from gospels not included in the Bible would be a heresy, for example.
  • Many laws were based on the teachings of the Church before and during the Middle Ages.
  • Because of this, committing heresy was often a crime against the state and the Church.

The Inquisition

  • As time went on heresy became a real problem for the Church.
  • By the 13th century, Christian Europe was so threatened by heresy the pope had to do something.
  • The pope appointed special, permanent judges who acted in the name of the pope.
  • Wherever they went, that was the Inquisition.
  • Inquisition is from the Latin word inquirere, which means “to look to.”
  • One of these special judges, or inquisitors, would secretly question suspected heretics and witnesses.
  • If he thought a heresy had been committed, he would officially charge the person.
  • The person charged with heresy would then have a trial, and the inquisitor would pass judgment.

The Inquisitors

  • Inquisitors were usually priests from the Dominican and Franciscan orders.
  • These priests had superior theological training and an excellent understanding of the Church’s teachings.
  • They also often took vows of poverty, which made them immune to bribery and selfish motives.

The Procedure

  • The procedure for conducting the Inquisition went something like this:
    • Grace Period
    • Witnesses and Charges
    • Trial
    • Judgment and Sentencing

Grace Period

  • Usually when an Inquisitor arrived in town, they allowed every one a month-long grace period.
  • Anyone who came forward during this period and confessed to being a heretic received a light penance or sentence.

Witnesses and Questioning

  • After the grace period, the inquisitor would question suspected heretics and witnesses in secret.
  • If he thought there was enough evidence, he would charge someone with heresy.


  • If someone charged with heresy made a confession after being charged, they were usually let off with a light punishment.
  • More often the accused would not admit heresy and other methods had to be used to get the truth.
  • The inquisitor had about four methods of getting a confession.
    • Fear of death (like burning at the stake)
    • Imprisonment, sometimes with limits placed on food
    • Visits from convicted men who would try to persuade the accused to confess
    • Torture
  • When an accused heretic would not admit his or her guilt, the inquisitor had to rely on the testimony of witnesses.

Judgment and Sentencing

  • When the trial was over, the inquisitor would often ask for the opinions of respected members of the community, both priests and laymen alike.
  • It was the job of these men to determine the guilt or innocence of the accused and what punishment they should receive.


  • More often than not, punishment for heresy was pretty forgiving.
  • If you were sentenced by the Church, the sentence focused on coming back into the Church.
  • These sentences often included attending Mass on Sundays or helping to build a church. More severe ones might include participation in a Crusade or going on a pilgrimage.
  • When a case was particularly serious, the convicted heretic might be turned over to the civil authorities for punishment.
  • These punishments could include imprisonment, fines, a beating, or sometimes death.
  • Still, even these sentences were often commuted by the inquisitor to something less severe.


  • Despite the efforts of the Church to keep the Inquisition fair, some inquisitors became corrupt or even drunk with power.
  • It is these men that brought such a dark history to the Inquisition.
  • The Inquisition is a controversial but important part of the history of Christianity.