Page images


The Protestant Nonconformists formed the third considerable branch of the Whig party; but the reaction which followed the Restoration, the persecuting laws of the Stuarts, and the gradual diminution of the yeomanry had reduced both their numbers and their influence. In a very imperfect return made to the Government in 1689 those in England and Wales were estimated at about 110,000, and, according to a paper in the possession of William, among the freeholders of the kingdom the proportion of Protestant Nonconformists and Catholics united was not quite 1 to 22.2 The strength of the Dissenters lay among the tradesmen of the towns and among seafaring men; they reckoned among their number many rich merchants and capitalists, and some of them, as we have seen, attained the highest municipal dignity. They could also boast of a very considerable intellectual eminence. Baxter, Howe, Calamy, and Bunyan would have done honour to any Church. The writings of Matthew Henry are even now the favourite Scripture commentaries of thousands; and Defoe, if not quite the greatest, was certainly the most versatile and prolific of that brilliant group of political writers who have made the reign of Anne so remarkable in literature. The Catholics, and also the Unitarians, Socinians, and all others who spoke against the doctrine of the Trinity, or against the supernatural origin of Christianity, continued after the Revolution subject to penal laws which, if they had been strictly enforced, would have amounted to absolute proscription; but other Dissenters were exempted, on certain conditions, from their provisions by the Toleration Act.

See Skeats' Hist. of the Free Churches of England, p. 151. This return reckons the whole population of England and Wales as only 2,600,000, which is cer

tainly far below the truth.

2 Dalrymple's Memoirs, partii. book i. append.

Davenant's Works, iv. 411.

They were allowed to attend their own places of worship, and were protected by law from all disturbance, provided they took the oaths of allegiance and supremacy and subscribed the declaration against transubstantiation, provided their congregations were duly registered in the Court of the Bishop or Archdeacon or at the County Sessions, and provided also the doors of their meeting-houses remained unlocked and unbarred. Their ministers, however, were compelled to subscribe the doctrinal portion of the Anglican Articles, with the exception of the Baptists, who were exempted from the article relating to infant baptism. The Quakers, who objected to all oaths, and to all subscriptions to human formularies, were only required to affirm their adhesion to the Government, to abjure transubstantiation, and to profess their belief in the Trinity and in the inspiration of the Bible.

This measure undoubtedly conferred a great practical advantage upon the Nonconformists, though it is hardly, I think, deserving of the enthusiasm that has been bestowed on it. It is, indeed, extremely doubtful whether the cause of religious liberty in England owes anything to the Revolution; for James, stupid and bigoted as he was, had at least quite sufficient intelligence to perceive that he could only relieve the small Catholic minority by associating their cause with that of the much larger body of Protestant dissidents, while those who opposed the royal designs would have been almost inevitably driven to compete by large concessions for the alliance of the Dissenters. As we have already seen, the Act of William was technically described only as an Act of Indulgence,' suspending in certain cases the operation of laws which still remained upon the statute book, and thus leaving the Dissenters, more or less, under the stigma of the law. They were still excluded from the universities, they could be

[ocr errors]

married only according to the Anglican ceremony, and the Corporation and Test Acts prevented them from entering corporations and public offices without receiving the Sacrament according to the Anglican rite. William earnestly desired complete religious toleration, if not equality, among Protestants; but such a policy, when the fear of a Catholic sovereign was removed, was impossible. Measures to abolish the sacramental test, or to make the reception of the Sacrament in any Protestant form a sufficient test, were introduced and defeated. Another measure, which the King was very anxious to carry, was the Comprehension Bill, the object of which was, by slight alterations in the Anglican Liturgy, by making optional the surplice, the practice of kneeling at one Sacrament, the intervention of sponsors and the employment of the sign of the cross in the other, and by substituting for subscription to the Articles a general declaration that the Anglican worship and doctrine contain all things necessary to salvation, to remove the objections of the great majority of the Dissenters, and to reunite them to the Church. According to the first cast of this Bill, Presbyterian ordination was recognised as valid, but only after the imposition of the bishop's hands; and by this restriction the Romish or sacerdotal element which runs through the English Church would have been preserved. Sectarian spirit, however, on both sides was opposed to the measure. Politicians of all shades saw that an alteration in the forms and Liturgy of the Church would give an increased importance to the Nonjuror schism. The great majority of the clergy were violently opposed to all overtures to the Dissenters. Many of the Dissenters dreaded a Bill which, while it would certainly not extinguish Dissent, would as certainly divide and dislocate the Nonconformist body, impoverish many of its ministers, and lower the position of almost all; while

many Whigs feared that the transfer of a large portion of the descendants of the Puritans to the Established Church would incline the balance of power still more to the side of despotism. The opposition grew stronger and stronger, and the Bill was at last referred to Convocation and speedily crushed.

One other measure had been carried in this reign which was of considerable importance, as securing the position of the Quakers. This eccentric, but, in many respects, most admirable sect will always be remembered in history for its noble services to the causes of religious tolerance and of the abolition of slavery; and its members, in these latter days, have been chiefly distinguished for their singular benevolence, for the quaint, quiet decorum of their manners, and for their systematic but very harmless defiance, in many small matters of conduct and of belief, of what appear to the outer world to be the dictates of common sense. In spite of much atrocious persecution, they had multiplied greatly in the closing years of the Stuarts, and as soon as the Toleration Act was passed, England was studded with their meeting-houses. Between 1688 and 1690 licences were taken out for 131 new temporary and 108 new permanent places of worship for the society, 64 being in Lancashire.1 The fanaticism which had led some of the first apostles of the sect to walk naked, or almost naked, through the streets, to interrupt the services in the churches, and to rebuke the judges and magistrates in the courts, had gradually subsided. An austere

morality, and a tone of manners which rendered impossible most of the forms of wasteful, luxurious, and ostentatious expenditure, speedily raised the society to wealth. It had produced a great statesman in Penn, a great writer in Barclay, a considerable scholar in George

Skeats' Hist. of Free Churches, p. 153.

Keith, and it was now a large and well-organised body. Many of the peculiarities of the Quakers were of a kind which gave little or no trouble to the legislators. Such was their refusal to recognise the gods Tuesco or Woden by speaking of Tuesday or Wednesday, to flatter a single individual by addressing him with a plural pronoun, to take off their hats in salutation, to use the ordinary phrases of deference or courtesy, or to abandon on any occasion their peculiar attire; and such, too, in a country where there were few soldiers, and where there was no conscription, was their objection to bear arms. Their refusal, however, to take oaths, to pay tithes, and to subscribe articles, rendered necessary a considerable amount of special legislation. The first great step, as we have seen, was taken by the Toleration Act. The second was the measure, carried in 1695, which, enacting that the solemn affirmation of a Quaker' in presence of Almighty God' should in legal cases be accepted as equivalent to an oath, gave the sect for the first time a power of protecting their property against fraud, and saved them from a vast amount of petty persecution and annoyance. It was only enacted for a period of seven years, and to the end of the following session. It was then renewed for eleven years, but in the Tory ascendency in the last days of Queen Anne it was greatly imperilled. Early in the session of 1713 the Quakers petitioned the House of Commons for a continuance of the Act, but the House would not even permit the petition to be brought up. They then applied to the Lords, who passed a Bill in their favour, but the Commons refused even to give it a first reading. Fortunately, however, for the sect, the Tory power was speedily destroyed, and the new Government made the Act of William perpetual. In the matter of tithes the Quakers

1 See the Hist. of the Last Four Years of Queen Anne.

« PreviousContinue »