Please find attached here the presentation notes from the historical lecture delivered on 2 March 2019 by Angela Platt-Arnold.
"Every man has an unequivocal right to enquire and judge for himself, - to worship God according to the dictates of his conscience, - to vindicate his own principles, and to invite others to embrace them."[i]
This was noted by Baptist Thomas Williams in an essay titled 'On Intolerance in Religion' published in 1816. The mainstay of this essay was the importance of permitting religious liberty for the sake of conscience. On his mind was the, multiple times failed, effort to repeal the 'Test and Corporation Acts' which shall be discussed today.
Indeed, this talk will cover religious liberty in the 19th century, looking at the experience of two groups: the dissenters, and their pursuit of the Repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, and Catholic Emancipation. I will uncover how the Lord’s Supper features resolutely in these debates (especially the former) and hopefully inspire thoughtful reflection on what this means for religious liberty.
There are two questions I’d like you to consider:
1. What constitutes religious liberty? – what is its extent and what does it involve?
2. Who has the right to experience religious liberty? – should there be boundaries, limitations, restrictions?
The Repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts took place in 1828, which effectively allowed Protestants participation in the political sphere – without needing to first submit to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in the Church of England. Catholic Emancipation – took place on year later, which allowed them to also participate in the political sphere.
Repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts:
This active pursuit by Dissenters refers to those laws which had long disadvantaged those Christians outside of the Church of England - especially the Dissenters - Methodists, Quakers, Baptists, Unitarians and Congregationalists. The Test and Corporation Acts restricted their practice and enjoyment of religion, under measures initially designed to protect the sovereignty and influence of the Church of England. In order to maintain the ‘religious liberty’ of the Established Church, others were restricted. The Act of Toleration passed in 1689, which permitted these Dissenters to legally practice their religion but the Test and Corporation Acts still stood.
Corporation Act 1661
It intended to protect corporate offices from influence outside Church of England and required that anyone elected to the government of a corporation or city could not take up the position UNLESS – took sacrament of the Lord’ Supper in the past year with the Church of England.
The Test Act 1673
The Test Act was a continuation from the Corporation Act which extended the requirements to military and civil work. Thus, those who wishes to take up these jobs could not do so unless they had taken the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in the Church of England in the past year.
Notably, the intention of this act had been to exclude Catholic intrusion into these jobs, noted by the title 'An act for preventing danger which may happen from Popish recusants'[ii] Efforts of Repeal sought to terminate these two acts, and allow Dissenters to participate in corporate, civil and military offices without taking the sacrament from the Church of England.
What was the problem with Repeal?
The Repeal of these laws wasn’t granted until 1828, even though efforts had begun at least as far back as the 18th century. There were various objections to repeal which arose in the late 18th century, and continued until it was finally granted in 1828.
1. Threat to Established Church
There was fear that Protestant control might challenge the strength and sovereignty of the Church of England. Concerns arose that if a myriad of Dissenters began to enter these powerful offices, they might unite and displace the national church with one of their own. There were concerns that Dissenters in power could jeopardise the Christian kingdom.
However, this was disputed by Dissenters who zealously sought Repeal. Williams (the Baptist quoted above) asserted there was no danger of the Dissenters changing ecclesiastical norms - even if they became the majority of the population. He suggested that because of the diversity of Dissenting denominations, who differ from one another as much as they do from the Established Church, there would be no possibility of them uniting to form a National Church which might displace the incumbent one.[iii]
2. Effect on Catholic Emancipation
Another serious deterrrant to Repeal was the effect on Catholic Emancipation. It was believed that if the Dissenters were granted more liberty, it would a short and slippery slope to require Catholics to be allowed the same thing. A precedent would be established by Repeal which would inevitably result in Catholic Emancipation.[iv] Pro-repeal advocates wholly denied these claims, arguing that Repeal would actually strengthen the anti-Catholicism in the political sphere, given the vast numbers of Dissenters who held anti-Catholic principles. In their minds, Repeal would definitely prevent Emancipation.
On the other hand, those who were concerned about the connection between these two fights for liberty were not chimerical - as already noted, the original intention behind the Test Act was directed at Catholics (popish recusants). Thus, a formal repeal of said act might be interpreted as a significant gesture in their favour.[v]
3. Repeal was deemed unnecessary
A third argument against Repeal was that Dissenters could already access the political sphere through the practice of ‘occasional conformity’ where they would only occasionally participate in the Lord’s Supper in a Church of England church.[vi] While this did not require them to regularly attend the Church of England, they had to do so ‘occasionally’ (usually twice per year) in order to maintain their political offices or jobs.
However, this was not digestible to all members of Dissenting groups. The most conscientious Dissenters were unwilling to sacrifice their principles to engage in occasional conformity.[vii] Most Quakers, for instance, rejected the practice of the Lord's Supper altogether as an unnecessary ritual. Thus, 'occasional conformity' was not an option for most devout Quakers who would have undoubtedly seen this as compromising.[viii]
Likewise, such practice was seen as a compromise amongst some Baptists. Indeed, the Lord's Supper was a hot topic of debate in this period for Baptists in England, as they disputed over whether churches should only permit Baptists to participate, or whether they might also allow Congregationalists for this sacred ordinance. The late 18th century was the reinvigoration of the debate on open vs closed communion – wherein Baptist church members heavily debated whether or not those who were not ‘baptised by immersion’ could be permitted to participate in the Lord’s Supper in a Baptist church. Those who believed they should not be permitted to participate were ‘Strict Baptists’ – which Westminster Baptist – identified as until Spurgeon’s intervention in 1865.
One of the main proponents of this view, Abraham Booth, argued that the Lord’s Supper is to be regulated by Christ alone, through scripture - not according to the whims and fancies of men. Said Booth:
“A gospel church has no more power to fix the terms of communion, or to set aside those prescribed by Jesus Christ, than to make a rule of faith, or to settle ordinances of divine worship.”
He, and those who agreed with him, believed that a proper understanding of Baptism was a prequel to this participation according to the Bible. Thus, the very notion of 'occasionally conforming' to the Lord's Supper in the Established Church, for political gain, would have been unconscionable to many. Indeed, you will find some Baptist Church Minutes note that occasional conformity is a grounds for ejection from church membership.[ix]
Interestingly, it was this very notion of the value and sacredness of the Lord's Supper which persuaded many to support Repeal in 1828. A bill was presented which supported Repeal – because it would save the Lord’s Supper in Church of England Churches. Russell argued that if Repeal was granted, Dissenters would no longer need to partake of the Lord’s Supper in the Church of England for the purposes of political gain – which would ‘save’ this practice from being profaned. It was largely on the basis of this argument that Repeal passed in May 1828. A year later Catholic Emanpation was granted.
Indeed, the question of religious liberty was a salient one for both Catholics and Dissenters of this period. Although they were inextricably linked in this quest for liberty, Catholic Emancipation is typically known far more widely than the Repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts. Both groups were tremendously active in the late 18th century seeking their religious liberty – Catholics had success in 1778, 1789 while Dissenters were were unnsuccessful in their attempts to Repeal in 1787, 1789, and 1790.[x]
Interestingly, while Catholics progressed in the late 18th century - in some part due to sympathy afforded by the French Revolution, the hostility towards Dissenters increased; concern had arisen as to the political nature of their aims, given their strong connection to the Whigs whose ambition was strongly in favour of the 'rights of the people' - which sounded too similar to French Revolutionary sentiments for comfort.[xi]
As I noted that the Test and Corporation Acts discussed already were largely implemented to thwart efforts of the Catholics. Indeed, the Catholics were quite likely the most ‘hated’ religious group in the late 18th and early 19th centuries in England – a vitriol which is evident in the following story:
A Significant Duel
Saturday morning, 23 March 1829 became a significant day in England; it was the last time a sitting Prime Minister was to be involved in a duel - which took place on the Battersea-fields in the early hours of the morning. The Duke of Wellington, incumbent PM, had challenged Lord Winchilsea to 'that which a gentleman never refuses' due to aspersions Winchilsea had made of Wellington's character. The subject of this quarrel was the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829, which was only weeks away from Royal Ascent. Winchilsea had churlishly accused Wellington of disregarding the Protestant constitution and claimed he had disingenuously represented himself as a Protestant Christian, opportunistically, at previous events.[xii]
Fortunately, neither Wellington nor Winchilsea lost their lives in this 'gentleman's duel' though it does demonstrate the significant vitriolic tension which existed in England regarding the Catholic cause. The root of these tensions, of course, dates to the Reformation, and was re-emphasised throughout the 16th and 17th centuries through political upheavals which, significantly, saw Catholics and Protestants on opposing grounds. For a time, the Dissenters shared in some of this persecution, through the Acts of Uniformity which caused intolerance for those groups outside of the Established Church; these were first issued under Queen Elizabeth I, and again under Charles II during the Restoration. The Act of Toleration, passed in 1689, relieved certain Dissenters from some of these restrictions, though the Catholics continued to be subject to restrictions and penalties for their faith through the 18th and 19th centuries.
In the aftermath of the Act of Toleration, Catholics were generally able to practice their faith, if it was done privately – out of the public eye. The key was to avoid the attraction of Protestant attention. Penal code was extant which forbade Catholics from various practices, though interestingly these were enforced far more vigorously in Ireland than in England. To name just a few disadvantages: Catholics were not allowed to have their own schools or send their children abroad for Catholic education; they had few rights to property, and - perhaps most importantly - could not legally practice their religion freely. However, as long as English Catholics conducted themselves under the radar, they generally were not prosecuted.[xiii]
Considering this growing 'tolerance' towards Catholicism, a Committee was formed - 'The Catholic Committee' in the late 18th century which sought political reform, to officialise the position of Catholics in England. They were instrumental in the 1778 Catholic Relief Act which allowed Irish Catholics to participate in the military. However, this unwittingly drew Protestant attention (indeed, some Catholics were irate, and wished things to be left as they were to avoid a reprisal of persecution). The Gordon Riots, notably inspired by Lord Gordon and his new 'Protestant Association' were enraged by this move, resulting in riots, harassment of MPs, and the destruction of Catholic chapels.[xiv]
Nevertheless, the Catholic cause progressed. In 1791 another relief Act was passed which finally allowed Catholics to freely exercise their religion. Full Catholic emancipation was on the horizon, and - indeed – was expected to arise soon. In 1800 the Act of Union between Ireland and the Great Britain was passed; William Pitt, the Prime Minister, had pledged emancipation as part of this deal. This was an attractive offer to Ireland, comprised mainly of Catholics at this time, who suffered strict enforcement under the anti-Catholic penal codes. However, the Protestant ascendancy rejected this pledge, and Catholic emancipation was delayed...until 1829.[xv] There are numerous reasons why delay arguably took place – three of which are displayed below.
1. Fears of persecution
Protestants – both Anglicans and Dissenters – recalled periods of Protestant persecution under Catholic rule. They believed fervently that permitting Catholics into the political sphere posed risks. However, sympathies were also awakened by the anti-religiosity of the French Revolution and the myriads of Catholics who fled to Britain for protection during this period.[xvi]
Another closely related issue was that of nationalism; concession to Catholics violated ‘Protestant Constitution’ were believed to violate the Protestant Constitution. Indeed, this was the accusation thrown at Prime Minister Wellington by Winchilsea, in the story above. Their main concern was over the authority of the Pope; he was seen as authoritative not only over spiritual matters, but also over all civil issues. The Catholic Committee therefore tried to account for this when they claimed that while the first was true, the second they would happily concede to the English monarch. This leads to the third cause of delay…
3. Internal divides
Finally, delay to Catholic Emancipation was a product of internal divisions amongst the Catholics themselves. The Catholic Committee tried to offer concessions, as noted above, which were interpreted by many Catholics as compromising the Catholic Faith. The inability to agree over these concessions caused delay to Emancipation.
Success in 1829
Emancipation itself arguably was the result of Irish Catholic activism, especially that which was led under the militant pro-Catholic agitator known as Daniel O'Connell. In 1828, he took advantage of an opportunity to stand against an Anglican opponent for a seat as an MP in Ireland. He won a considerable victory, and this created a conundrum for English parliament - they had to either allow O'Connell to take his seat, and thus initiate emancipation, or risk Irish uprisings and threats to the recent Act of Union. The former was chosen, and the Catholics had finally enjoyed their most significant victory to date - representation in the political sphere. Notably, historians have suggested that this progress was not isolated, but based on the growing tolerance towards Catholicism which had been germinating amongst the English people since the 18th century.
It is likely no coincidence, however, that Catholic Emancipation took place so soon after the Repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts… and the root of these changes was found in the Lord’s Supper and how it was practiced. Established Church members were attracted by Repeal since it would ‘purify’ their sacrament – and prevent Dissenters from taking it for secular purposes only.
Dissenters, of course, also found it attractive since many were unwilling or heaviliy conflicted about this dual participation - by taking the Lrod’s Supper in a Church of England Church just for the sake of the political benefits.
And the successful passage of Repeal which allowed religious freedom to Dissenters undoubtedly laid the groundwork for Catholic Emancipation which took place a year later.
Conclusion: Religious Liberty today
This history compels us to consider various questions in our own faith and practice today.
[i] Thomas Williams, Religious Liberty Stated and Enforced on the Principles of Scripture and Common Sense (London: J. Haddon, 1816), p. 95.
[ii] Robert Winter, Corporation and Test Acts. Statement of Legal Position of Dissenters, by the London Society of Deputies of the Presbyterian, Independent, and Baptist Denominations (London: Fauntleroy and Burton, 1827), pp. 2–16; Committee for the Repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts Minutes 1786-1790 and 1827-8, ed. by Thomas W. David (London: London Record Society, 1978), p. vii; Rowland Hunter, Statement of the Case of the Protestant Dissenters under the Corporation & Test Acts, 3rd edn (London: Howland Hunter, 1827), p. 2.
[iii] Williams, p. 115.
[iv] Machin, pp. 127–29.
[v] Machin, pp. 119, 122; Richard A. Gaunt, ‘Peel’s Other Repeal: The Test and Corporation Acts, 1828: Peel’s Other Repeal’, Parliamentary History, 33.1 (2014), 243–62 (p. 247) <https://doi.org/10.1111/1750-0206.12096>.
[vi] Machin, pp. 121–22.
[vii] David, p. xxi; Gaunt, p. 246; Hunter, p. 9.
[viii] Pink Dandelion, An Introduction to Quakerism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).
[ix] ‘Maze Pond Church Minutes’ (Oxford), Angus Library and Archive, Regent’s College Oxford, C/LONDON/MAZEPOND 1/6; Robert W. Oliver, History of the English Calvinistic Baptists 1771 - 1892: From John Gill to C. H. Spurgeon (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2006); Hunter, p. 13.
[x] G. M. Ditchfield, ‘The Parliamentary Struggle over the Repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, 1787-1790’, The English Historical Review, 89.352 (1974), 551–77 (p. 551).
[xi] Ditchfield, pp. 562–69; David, pp. x–xvii; H.L. Short, ‘Presbyterians under a New Name’, in The English Presbyterians: From Elizabethan Puritanism to Modern Unitarianism, ed. by Jeremy Goring (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1968), pp. 219–86.
[xii] Brian Dolphin, ‘Gentlemanly Satisfaction: The Wellington-Winchilsea Duel of 1829’, Fontanus, IX (1996), 59–76; ‘Duel between the Duke of Wellington and Lord Winchilsea, London’, Sussex Advertiser, 23 March 1829.
[xiii] Denis Gwynn, The Struggle for Catholic Emancipation (1750-1829) (London: Longmans, Green and Co, 1928); Catholic Culture in Early Modern England, ed. by Ronald Corthell (Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007); Francis Young, English Catholics and the Supernatural, 1553-1829, Catholic Christendom, 1300-1700 (Farnham, Surrey, England ; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2013).
[xiv] Gwynn; Young; Brian Carter, ‘Controversy and Conciliation in the English Catholic Enlightenment, 1790-1840’, Enlightenment and Dissent, 7 (1988), 3–24.
[xv] Leonard B. Wurthman, ‘The Militant‐moderate Agitator: Daniel O’Connell and Catholic Emancipation in Ireland’, Communication Quarterly, 30.3 (1982), 225–31 <https://doi.org/10.1080/01463378209369453>.
[xvi] Michael A. Mullett, Catholics in Britain and Ireland, 1558 - 1829, Social History in Perspective (Basingstoke: Macmillan [u.a.], 1998).
Pastor Jonathan Arnold
Jonathan Arnold has been the minister at Westminster Baptist Church since April 2016. Please follow this blog for brief occasional biblical/theological studies and devotional words.