English Toleration Act

A 1689 Act of Parliament granted increased religious freedom for Protestants whose beliefs or practices did not conform (hence, nonconformists) to the national Church of England. The act allowed dissenters separate places of worship, as well as their own preachers and teachers.

Of the many issues taken up by the Convention Parliament at the height of the Glorious Revolution in January 1689, none proved more difficult than settlement in the church. Although historians disagree regarding the depth of political division within English society at the end of the seventeenth century, few doubt the magnitude of religious tensions throughout the Stuart period. Indeed, religious loyalties shaped the political affiliations that caused the Glorious Revolution. Just as England wrestled over royal prerogative and Parliamentary rule, Tories versus Whigs, so too was the nation having to choose between the established church and nonconforming Protestantism, Anglicans versus Dissenters. Dissent had escalated during previous periods of toleration in a way that generated grave concern among Anglicans (a term describing members of the Church of England that really only entered common usage in the nineteenth century). Furthermore, religious fervor was easily politicized, rendering dissent against the church equivalent to dissent against the state. It was no small coincidence that Tories favored royal prerogative to the same degree that Whigs feared arbitrary rule, nor that the former tended to be Anglicans while the latter accepted dissent. A significant distrust of centralized power united politics and religion.

The rash of Protestant sectarianism that fomented during Cromwell’s Commonwealth in the 1650s (for instance, Baptists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Quakers) gave way to the post-Restoration discord among three main camps: separatists who dissented against, and desired toleration from, the established church; hard-line Anglicans who refused to concede anything to anyone; and Presbyterians who were open to compromise, namely a settlement with Anglicans that did not include toleration for separatists. Despite the fact that Protestant Dissenters constituted less than 6 percent of the total English population, their influence was disproportionately large. Parliament was pressured to consider three statutory alternatives relating to the Church of England: abolition of the sacramental oath required of office holders (mandated by the Test and Corporation Acts of 1661 and 1673); the incorporation of moderate dissenters (known as ‘‘comprehension’’); and complete freedom of worship, including even the more radical dissenters (toleration). These proposals represented increasing levels of challenge to Anglican supremacy; each threatened the status quo.

In 3,100 words and nineteen paragraphs, the act did not repeal any laws relating to religion per se, nor did it exempt anyone from the obligation to tithe for the established church. On the other hand, certain dissenting practices would henceforth be tolerated, but only for ‘‘certified’’ Protestants willing to sign loyalty oaths. The act makes repeated mention of these professions of loyalty, demonstrating the insecurity still prevalent within both the political realm and the Church of England. Future tolerance was predicated upon an oath ‘‘to be true and faithful to King William and queen Mary and . . . abhor, detest, and renounce . . . any authority of the see of Rome.’’ Although comprehension never passed and toleration did not extend to non-Christians, Quakers, or Catholics, Parliament granted nonconforming Protestants outside the Church of England the freedom to worship in their own meetinghouses under their own leaders.

The Toleration Act gained royal assent in May 1689, thus becoming one of the most important elements of the Revolution settlement. Through the act, Parliament demonstrated that it had statutory authority stretching beyond royal prerogative; it also put an end to Anglican hegemony as it liberalized religious practice. In the first year after passage of the act, hundreds of non-Anglican places of worship were licensed; two decades later, parishes of the Church of England outnumbered other Protestant meeting places by fewer than four to one.

R. OWEN WILLIAMS

References and Further Reading

  • Harris, Tim. Politics under the Later Stuarts, 1660–1715. London: Longman Group, 1993.
  • Hoppit, Julian. A Land of Liberty? England 1689–1727. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

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