Legislation

Laws against dissent
In the ten years following the Act of Uniformity (1662), parliament passed a series of penal laws intended to suppress dissent, including two Conventicle Acts (1664, 1669), the Five Mile Act (1665), and two Test Acts (1673, 1678), in addition to the earlier Corporation Act (1661). The Corporation and Test Acts were intended to stop office-holding by dissenters. The two Conventicle Acts made it unlawful for more than five people aged 16 and over, besides the household, to ‘be present at any Assembly, Conventicle, or Meeting’ for religious worship other than that of the Church of England, and were intended to prevent ejected ministers from gathering new congregations. The Five Mile Act was intended to prevent nonconformist ministers from coming within five miles of any corporation that returned members of parliament, or any parish where they had been the minister or preached since 1660. Offenders risked a £40 fine or six months’ imprisonment. In addition, everyone who refused to conform was subject to the late sixteenth and early seventeenth-century recusancy laws (originally introduced against Roman Catholics) for not attending church on Sundays, or for failing to receive holy communion at least once a year.

The 1689 Toleration Act brought an end to the worst persecution. Protestant dissenters who took the oaths of supremacy and allegiance, and made the declaration against transubstantiation, were allowed freedom to worship in public provided their meeting places had been registered. Ministers, in addition, had to subscribe to thirty-six of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England. They were excused those directly concerned with Anglican church government. Baptists were exempt from that part of the twenty-seventh Article concerning infant baptism, and Quakers from taking the oaths and from certain other declarations over which they scrupled. Catholics and those who rejected the Trinity were specifically excluded from the act. Those who qualified themselves under the act were given liberty from the penal laws, except the Corporation and Test Acts which remained in force. The act did not remove but merely suspended the earlier laws against nonconformity.

Legal restraints on teaching
Teaching, like preaching, could only be undertaken by nonconformists at the risk of prosecution. Since the Middle Ages schoolteachers had been subject to ecclesiastical control and, by a series of Elizabethan and early Stuart statutes and injunctions, they had to be licensed by the bishop or his official. In addition, the 1662 Act of Uniformity required all those in holy orders who taught to conform to the doctrine and liturgy of the Church of England, and further penalties were enacted under the 1665 Five Mile Act against nonconformist ministers who attempted to teach. During the period before the Toleration Act many dissenters who taught were prosecuted for conducting private schools and academies, or had their work disrupted by the threat of prosecution. A clause granting nonconformist schoolmasters exemption from having to obtain a licence from their bishops was lost during the committee stage of the Toleration bill. Thus the Toleration Act left unaltered the restrictions on nonconformist teaching.

As the laws against dissenters worshipping in public could no longer be enforced after 1689, opponents of dissent were obliged to use alternative means to pursue them, and the prosecution of unlicensed teachers was one of the major weapons employed. Few dissenters who taught escaped harassment, particularly during Queen Anne’s reign. The setting up by dissenters of their own places of education was perceived by churchmen as helping to perpetuate schism. The high church party therefore tried to prevent Presbyterians and Independents from educating their own children or ministers, and attempted to suppress their schools and academies. These efforts culminated in the 1714 Schism Act.

The Schism Act was a threat to the continued existence of dissent since it sought to create an Anglican monopoly in education by excluding dissenters from teaching. Although it is commonly argued that the act became redundant with the death of Queen Anne on the day it become law, in fact it remained in force until it was repealed. A number of academies closed their doors for a time because of the threat, and some individuals were prosecuted for teaching without a licence. The Schism Act was repealed in 1719, but freedom for dissenters to teach without the threat of prosecution was a longer and more complicated process, and was achieved through the courts rather than by parliamentary legislation. The attempt to prosecute Philip Doddridge in 1733 for conducting his academy at Northampton without a licence is generally considered to have been the last attempt of this kind. It failed because George II refused to countenance any further persecution of dissenters. The only other major political gain made by dissenters in the eighteenth century was the 1779 Dissenters’ Relief Act, which freed ministers from the need to subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England as required by the Toleration Act, and permitted tutors and schoolmasters to teach without needing to be licensed.

Reform had to wait until the nineteenth century. The Conventicle and Five Mile Acts were repealed in 1812. The Trinity Act, which gave Unitarians freedom of worship on the same terms as Trinitarians, was passed in 1813. Repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts was finally achieved in 1828, though in practice most dissenters had to wait until the 1835 Municipal Reform Act to hold office. The 1832 Reform Act extended the parliamentary franchise to a wider constituency which included representation from the major industrial towns, where dissent was particularly strong. As a result dissent became a powerful force in parliament during the later nineteenth century.

Education was the principal area of discrimination remaining against dissenters. They were still excluded from Oxford and Cambridge by religious tests. The University of London was founded in 1826 free from any such tests or doctrinal forms, and was the first English university to admit students regardless of their religion. Attempts to open Oxford and Cambridge to dissenters with the University Admission Bill (1834) were defeated by supporters of the Church seeking to maintain its privileges in the two universities. Subscription to the Thirty-Nine Articles was still required on matriculation and graduation at Oxford until 1854, and on graduation at Cambridge until 1856, and remained for degrees in Divinity. The colleges still exercised considerable power, and religious tests at the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Durham were only abolished by the Universities Tests Act in 1871 to allow non-Anglicans to take up teaching appointments. Even then the restrictions remained for Divinity fellowships and professorships at Oxford and Cambridge until they were amended by university statute in 1913.

David L. Wykes