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Second, furnishes a vindication of the Nonconformist divines, sufficient to silence their modern calumniators. The Act of Uniformity has, we should imagine, in the course of a century and a half, imparted all its benefits to the Church. Whatever it may have effected, we know what it has not accomplished. It has not kept either the idle or the profane from eating its bread, and ministering at its altars; it has not either healed old divisions, or prevented new animosities. The Church is, even now, distracted with schism; her ministers are engaged in bitter contentions with, one another. The Act of Uniformity is nugatory and impotent, except in its excluding power. As to any effect in producing harmony of opinion and of doctrine within the pale of the Church, it has become a dead letter.
In less than two years from the time of the passing of the Act of Uniformity, the Conventicle Act was passed. This act, enacted for the purpose of putting down all nonconformist worship, provided, that if more than five persons of the age of sixteen years, besides the household, were present at any religious meeting not allowed by the liturgy, or practice of the Church of England, they were respectively, on the oath of one witness, and on conviction by one justice of the peace, to be imprisoned, for the first offence, three months, or fined; for the second, six months, or fined ten pounds; and for the third offence, the party was to be expatriated, on pain of death if he returned. The Oxford Act followed up these penal severities. It enacted that all Nonconformist ministers who should refuse to swear not to endeavour at any time any alteration of go'vernment in church or state,' should be excluded from inhabiting corporations, and should not be suffered to come within five miles of any city, or corporate town, or borough, or place where they had preached.
Such were the penal statutes enacted during the first five years of Charles the Second; and the reflections which they suggest, demand to be cherished with seriousness. A monarch notorious for irreligion and licentiousness, is here exhibited, issuing declarations, and putting his signature to Acts and Proclamations, which purported to be for the promotion of true Godliness, and at the same moment he presumes to interpose human authority between the conscience of man and the Supreme Being, imperiously dictating a form of worship repugnant to the views and feelings which some of the most enlightened men entertained with regard to the requisitions of the Divine law. To complete the iniquity, we contemplate as the victims of the most grievous punishments, men whose morals were unimpeachable, whose peaceable demeanour was not questioned, in whom the most conspicuous characteristics were a good conscience and a holy life. And yet this complication
of hypocrisy and cruelty in the monarch, is not to be ascribed to his personal character: except so far as his indolence and want of feeling, together with his hereditary attachment to arbitrary power, led him to yield to the counsels of those bigoted and designing partisans of an ecclesiastical institute, who sought to make religion the engine of secular power.
It was not till the designs of James the Second to restore popery as the national religion, began to awaken the suspicions of the clergy, that the Nonconformists experienced any relaxation of the severity of persecution. The inroads made by that arbitrary monarch on the Universities, his assumption of a dispensing power, for the purpose of setting aside the penal statutes, and the publication of his declarations for liberty of conscience, which were all intended as measures for the introduction of popery, alarmed the partisans of the existing church establishment; and now those very persons who had solemnly pledged themselves to the royal authority, who had so stoutly maintained the abominable doctrines of passive obedience and non-resistance, raised the standard of rebellion against the Lord's anointed.' Uniting their counsels, they sought aid from foreigners, to resist and to control an authority which they had declared it was damnable on any pretence whatever to oppose. They crouched to the Dissenters, and endeavoured, by canting solicitations and affected assurances of good-will, to gain their co-operation. "We are brethren," became suddenly the style in which Episcopalian Churchmen spake of Dissenters. A long series of years had now passed, during which the Nonconformists had been subject to the inflictions of penal laws. Long had they been reviled, stripped, imprisoned, and exiled, but the influence of the clergy had never been exerted to procure the mitigation of their sufferings. Their sympathy and their justice had remained dormant while the Nonconformists were wandering as outcasts, and languishing in noxious jails, breathing the contagion of death. Why, when they could have visited the ejected ministers sick and in prison, and ministered to them, did they forget that they were brethren? Why was the disposition to recognise them as such, first manifested at a time when their own usurped authority began to be endangered? Why out of the same mouths, under a mere change of political circumstances, proceeded blessing and cursing?
It was a most favourable circumstance for the Nonconformists, that William, to whom on the abdication of James the crown of England was offered, had been educated in a community in which the high pretensions of Episcopalians were regarded as nugatory, and that the notions which he entertained on the subject of religious liberty, were of a more liberal
nature than those which had distinguished any of the preceding English sovereigns. Under the auspices of the new monarch, the persecution of the Nonconformists was arrested, and their right to worship apart from the National Church, was recognised by the Toleration Act, which was passed in May, 1689. "When we reflect,' says Dr. Toulmin, on the inefficiency of the more enlarged views, and the liberal wishes expressed by the king; on the unsuccessful issue of other conciliating mea❝sures which were proposed; and on the implacable hatred to the Nonconformists shewn at that time by the clergy, who 'discovered a disposition to renew old severities; it may seem
a matter of surprize that this Act was carried.' The temper and indeed the proceedings of the Convocation, which was assembled soon after the passing of this celebrated Act, afford sufficient evidence to exclude the clergy from the praise of providing for the security of Dissenters. The Toleration Act did not emanate from the Church, but resulted from the unusual circumstances attending a change of Monarchs, wisely improved by the new Sovereign. The violent struggles, the insubordination, the unvaried rejection of every liberal proposition, and the determined spirit of hostility towards Dissenters, which marked the proceedings of the Convocation, too clearly prove, that if the measure of religious freedom which the Toleration Act recognised in Protestant Dissenters, had depended on the vote of the clergy, it would never have been allowed. Our sentiments with regard to the Act itself, are in strict accordance with the following remarks.
• But after every encomium to which it has a just claim has been bestowed upon it, this first charter of religious freedom was confused and partial. It by no means repealed all the penal statutes on the subject of religion. It left the laws against the papists in full force. It did not abrogate the statutes of Elizabeth and James I. that enact the inflicting of certain penalties on such as absent themselves from divine worship in the Established Church. It still left heresy subject to cognizance in the ecclesiastical court; and a clergyman convicted of it to deprivation, degradation, and excommunication; and a layman to the latter with all its train of severities. Its operation and benefits are limited to Protestant Dissenters only; and did not embrace all of them, for Unitarian Christians are expressly excepted. As to those whom it does comprehend, its influence is confined. It has its exclusive clauses, not only requiring from all who would plead the benefits of it, the oaths to government, but exacting of their teachers subscription to the thirty-nine articles, with an express exception, indeed, of those relating to the government and powers of the church, and to infant baptism; but it did not supersede the Corporation and Test Acts; and, at this time, after repeated applications to parliament renewed in different periods, the Dissenters still lie under the obloquy, still feel all the disabilities,
attached to those Acts. The Toleration Act did not exonerate the Dissenters from the obligation imposed on them to contribute to the maintenance of the public religious establishment, though they do not attend on its ministrations. The Toleration Act did not give any sanction or permission to the solemnization of marriage in their own assemblies, and by their own ministers.' pp. 23, 24.
It may afford matter for astonishment, that notwithstanding the enlightened feelings and accumulated knowledge of the nineteenth century, Dissenters in England should be still exposed to the obloquy and impositions of the greater part of the above specified restrictions and disabilities. Subscription to the Thirty-nine Articles is indeed no longer required of Dissenting teachers; Socinians are no longer excepted from the degree of toleration extended to other classes of Dissenters; but the Corporation and Test Acts remain in full force; contributions for the support of a Church to which they do not belong, are still levied on Dissenters; and fines are still imposed in certain instances upon meetings for religious worship among them. These we can view only as direct abridgements of that freedom in matters of religion, which is the inalienable right of rational and accountable agents, the authority of human legislation being related only to civil objects. Toleration, in all its forms, is nothing else than modified injustice; where it is largest in its provisions, and most liberal in its spirit, it still retains the character of an encroachment upon human conscience. Nor can we ever concede, that permission to profess the Christian faith and to worship God, is either to be solicited, or accepted as a favour, at the hand of man. No human creature can ever of right be laid under legitimate obligation to another in respect to these sacred duties.
What then, it will be exclaimed, is the State to be without a religion? If by the State' be meant the persons on whom the executive powers of civil government are devolved, the highest personages in the kingdom, there can be but one reply, By no means. Religion is as essential to their welfare, as it is necessary for the good of their subjects. It constitutes their highest interest, for "with God there is no respect of persons." The fruits of the Spirit would be most excellent ornaments in princes, and the exemplification of Christian virtues in the wide circle of their movements, could not fail of promoting in an eminent degree the cause of religion.
Or are we to understand, by the State,' those persons who transact, through all its ramifications of office, the business of the government, comprising the executive, legislative, and judicial functions. Nothing is more deplorable than that they should be without religion. Were they to imbibe the pure spirit of the Gospel, and to regulate their deportment according to
its laws, how greatly might they advance the prosperity of society! We should not then be subjected to hear political men enlarging on the duty and glory of defending the Church, while they pour contempt on its institutions by habitually and boldly neglecting the observance of them. The visible influence of religion in palaces and in courts, on legislators and on men of high official stations, is an admirable means of recommending it to the world. What laws are wholly inadequate to effect in aid of true piety, such an influence would assuredly command.
But if by the State the great body of the people at large be intended, and if the consequence apprehended from unbounded toleration be, that the nation would soon be without a religion; we must contend that no human legislators are authorized to govern the conscience, or to provide a religion for their subjects. Religion is important to the community only as connected with the sincere belief and profession of the individuals who compose that community. It is a matter of conviction, not of civil obedience. It forms no part of the social compact, except as it constitutes the basis of individual character. It rests not on the authority of human legislators, but on the accountability of man as the subject of a higher government.
If religious inquiry be proper for one rational being, it is proper for all intelligent creatures upon earth; and if religious profession be the choice of any individual, acting from the result of his examination of religious tenets, it must, for the very same reasons which make it obligatory in such instance, be acknowledged as the right of all other individuals. Whatever is predicated of the rights and obligations of one man, in reference to religion, must be predicated of those of all men. To examine, to choose, to believe for himself in religious matters, enter into the very essence of duty, no less than they partake of the nature of a right. Authoritative influence is, therefore, of necessity excluded. No member of the community, how elevated soever his station in a civil relation, is entitled to say to another, You must believe this set of propositions; you must support religious worship in this manner; you must receive this form of doctrine and discipline. Who is the man that is authorized to use this language?-that may propose his will as the measure of religious obligation to others? The right of one person is exactly the same as the right of another; and as the right is purely identical with individual accountability to God alone, prescription or authority in religion has no place in point of justice among men. This is precisely the state of things which the Christian religion, as exhibited in the New Testament, contemplates. It acknowledges no religious rights but such as are individual and common to all men. Would the State that is, the people, be without religion, if there were no connexion