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The progress of the nation page 6


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The question was argued at great length. It was opposed by lord North and Pitt, and supported by Fox, and was rejected by one hundred and seventy-six against ninety- eight. The question was brought forward again in 1789 and 1790, and in both cases was rejected. On the latter occasion Fox introduced the motion, and Mr. Beaufoy, who usually took the lead in it, seconded it. Fox alluded to the very dissenters on whom bishop. Barrington had thrown so much odium. He acknowledged the hostility of such men as Drs. Priestley and Price to the church, and to what had taken place across the channel against the national church there; but he treated these as warnings to the English hierarchy not to keep too tight a grasp on the obstructions which they had thrown in the way of dissenters, and contended that its safety depended in allowing a just participation in civil rights, and thus disarming popular resentment. The motion was opposed by Pitt, Burke, Wilber- force, Sir William Dolben, and others, on those specious pleas of policy which are never wanting to defend the grossest violations of public justice. Burke also referred to the destruction of the French church, and very unphilosopically contended that it was not a time to give way to demands for surrender of what he called the safeguards of the English church; but which, had he read the French history aright, he would have known were not safeguards, but the very things which produced those continual popular attacks, which, in time, must undermine any institution. Mr. William Smith, of Norwich, who continued for so many years the staunch advocate of the dissenters, strongly supported the motion; but, on the other hand, a considerable number of members who had voted for the repeal of these acts had since been warned by their church-going constituents to tack about, and did so. The motion, therefore, was rejected by two hundred and ninety-four against one hundred and five, and the dissenters were so convinced of the uselessness of attempting to procure the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts under George III., that the question was never again agitated during this reign. They remained in force till 1828.

But a brave and liberal member of the peerage, earl Stanhope, did not flinch from endeavouring to get repealed a number of these disgraceful evidences of church bigotry, which still cumbered the statute book from long past periods. In May, 1789, a few days after Mr. Beaufoy's second defeat on the question of the Test and Corporation Acts, lord Stanhope proposed " a bill for relieving members of the church of England from sundry penalties and disabilities to which, by the laws now in force, they may be liable, and for extending freedom in matters of religion to all persons - papists only excepted - and for other purposes therein mentioned." His lordship had given notice of his intention to introduce such a bill in the previous February, as Mr. William Smith had done in the commons, when what was called the uniformity clause in the Regency Bill was discussed, contending that this clause, which prohibited the regent from giving the royal assent to the repeal act for uniformity passed in the reign of Charles II., might prevent the repeal of a preceding act, of a very bigoted character, of a previous date. The bishops, with the archbishop of Canterbury at their head, had quickly risen to oppose his intention, contending that this was not a proper time for such a discussion. Lord Stanhope now detailed the names, dates, and characters of the acts which he had in view. They were these: - The act of 1 Eliz., ordering every person to go to church, and imposing a fine of twenty pounds - a very large sum then - on any one above the age of sixteen absenting him or herself from church for a month; and, in case of non-payment, ordering the imprisonment of the offender till the fine were paid, or the offender conformed. In case of twelve months' absence, the offender was to be bound in a bond of two hundred pounds, with two sureties, for his compliance in future. By the 23 Eliz. these penalties were made still more rigorous, for that famous queen grew more intolerant as she grew older; and by the 35th of her reign, all persons who absented themselves for a month were liable, not only to the twenty pounds a-month, but that money might be refused, if tendered, and the offender be deprived of two-thirds of his lands, tenements, and hereditaments, instead of the twenty pounds. By the 3 James I. these abominable powers were extended, and every person was made amenable for every visitor, servant, and servant of visitors to his or her house, and should be compelled to pay 10 per month for the non- attendance at church of each of them; and over and above ail these penalties, the ecclesiastical courts might as fully exercise their jurisdiction over these offenders as if no such special acts existed.

Nor did these terms contain anything like the extent of tyranny imposed on the conscience of the nation by these monarchs. By the 29 Eliz. it was provided that what right or property any person might dispose of, or settle on any of his family, should still be liable to these penalties if the proprietor and disposer of them neglected to go to church. So that a son might be deprived of lands or other property settled upon him at his marriage, or at any other time, if his father ceased to attend church, though he himself went punctually; and by the 21 James I. the informers were stimulated by great rewards to lay complaints against all whom they could discover offending. And, moreover, any person was to be considered an absentee from church, and liable to all the penalties, who did not remain in church during the whole time of the service; but, also, not only on Sundays, " but upon all the other days ordained and used to be kept as holidays." All these odious enactments were left in force by the Toleration Act, except that they did not compel every one to go to church, but to some licensed place of worship.

Next came the enactments regarding fasting. By 5 Eliz. every person who ate flesh on a fish day was liable to a penalty of three pounds; and, in case of non-payment, to three months' imprisonment. It was added that this eating of fish was not from any superstitious notion, but to encourage the fisheries; but by the 2 and 3 Edward VI., the power of inflicting these fish and flesh penalties was invested in the two archbishops, as though the offence of eating flesh on fish days was an ecclesiastical offence. Lord Stanhope showed that the powers and penalties of excommunication were still in full force; that whoever was excommunicated had no legal power of recovering any debt, or payment for anything that he might sell; that excommunication and its penalties were made valid by the 5 Eliz. and the 29 Charles II.; that by the 30 Charles II., every peer, or member of the house of peers, peer of Scotland, or Ireland, or member of the house of commons, who should go to court without having made the declaration against transubstantiation. and the invocation of saints therein contained, should be disabled from holding any office, civil or military, of making a proxy in the house of lords, or from sueing or using any action in law or equity; from being guardian, trustee, or administrator of any will; and should be deemed "a popish recusant convict." His lordship observed that probably the whole protestant bench of bishops were at that moment in this predicament, and that he had a right to clear the house of them, au l proceed with his bill in their absence. He next quoted the 1st of James I., which decreed that any woman, or any person whatever under twenty-one years of age, except sailors, ship-boys, or apprentices, or factors of merchants, who should go over sea without a licence from the king, or six of his privy council, should forfeit all his or her goods, lands, and moneys whatever; and whoever should send such person without such licence, should forfeit one hundred pounds; and every officer of a port, and every shipowner, master of a ship, and all his mariners who should allow such person to go, or should take him or her, should forfeit everything they possessed, one half to the king, and the other half to the person sueing.

To all this his lordship had to add various specimens of the Canons. By the 3rd, every one asserting that the church of England was not a true apostolical church should be excommunicated. The 4th and 5th excommunicated all who declared that there was anything contrary to sound Scripture in the form of worship of the church of England, or anything superstitious or erroneous in the Thirty-Nine Articles. The 65th enjoined all ordinaries to see that all offenders, under the different acts here enumerated, should be cited and punished according to statute, or excommunicated. The 72nd forbade, under pain of excommunication, all ministers, without licence of the bishop, to attempt, upon any pretence whatever, to cast out any devil or devils, under pain of deposition from the ministry. The 73rd made it a subject of excommunication that any priest or minister should meet with other persons in any private house or elsewhere to consult upon any canon, &c., which may tend to impeach or deprave the doctrine, the book of Common Prayer, or any part of the discipline and government of the church of England; and by the 115th, all churchwardens are enjoined to make presentments of offenders in any of these particulars; and all judges, magistrates, &c., are bound to encourage, and not to discourage, all such presentments. Lord Stanhope observed that the court of King's Bench, in 1737, had decided that these canons, not having ever received the sanction of parliament, were not binding on the laity; and he contended that the ratification of them by James I., not being authorised by the original statute, the 25th of Henry VIII., made them as little binding on the clergy. He had not, therefore, included the Canons in his bill. He took care, too, to except catholics from the benefit of the bill; neither was the bill to repeal any part of the Test and Corporation Acts, nor the 12th and 13th William III., " for the better securing the rights and liberties of the subject." He finally showed that these fierce and persecuting acts were not become utterly obsolete; they were ever and anon revived, and might, any of them, be acted upon at any moment. He enumerated above thirty cases in which these odious acts had been enforced within the last twenty-six years, both against catholics and protestant dissenters: adding, " How shocking and disgusting it is to read amongst these cases, that poor men's tables, chairs, deal shelves, pewter dishes, bolsters, and beds had been sold by public auction, in order to pay the penalties for not going to church! Others of these laws had been enforced within the last ten years, and some within the last 'twelve months- No later than yesterday I received a letter, inclosing the case of a protestant dissenter who has been prosecuted under the law of recusancy this very year."

It might reasonably have been supposed that the bishops would have supported the bill unanimously; that they would have been glad to have ail such evidences of the odious means by which their church had been forced on the public, swept out of the statute-book and forgotten. No such thing; such is not the spirit of churches by act of parliament. They came forward in a body, with the archbishop of Canterbury at their head, to resist the slightest invasion of these precious old relies of ecclesiastical barbarism. The archbishop of Canterbury declared, if dissenters were allowed to defend their principles, the atheist and the theist might be allowed to defend theirs. Such was the reasoning of a man who had been regularly drilled into theology at the university, and placed, by his knowledge of Christianity, at the head of the church of England. But bishop Horsley, then of St. David's, was the chief speaker against the repeal of these precious laws. He declared that this repeal would level every bulwark of the church; that " the Christian religion would not remain in any shape, nor, indeed, natural religion! " Such were the notions of Christianity entertained towards the end of the eighteenth century by the prelates of the Anglican church! In what did they differ from the doctrines of St. Dominic and Loyola? They only went not to the same extent, because the enactments did not go to the same extent as the laws of the Spanish and Italian inquisitions Undoubtedly, had those laws and practices been the matters in debate, Horsley and his right reverend colleagues would have lauded their Christian efficacy just as much; they would have been declared bulwarks of the church. It is needless to say that the bill was rejected; it could not attain even to a second reading.

Undaunted by this display of prelatical bigotry, lord Stanhope immediately gave notice of a bill to prevent a tyrannical exercise of severity towards quakers, whose principles did not permit them to pay tithes, church-rates, or Easter offerings; this he did on the 3rd of July of the same year. By the 7 and 8 William III., two justices of peace could order a distress on a quaker for tithes under the value of ten pounds; and by 1 George I., this power was extended to the non-payment of Easter and other dues; but his lordship showed that of late the clergy had preferred to resort to an act of Henry VIII., a time when quakers did not exist, which empowered the clergy, by warrant from two justices of peace, to seize the persons of the defaulters and throw them into prison, where, unless they paid the uttermost farthing, they might remain for life. Thus the clergy of the eighteenth century in England were not satisfied with the humane enactments of William III. or George I., by which they could easily and fully obtain their demands, but they thirsted for a little vengeance, a little of the old enjoyment of imprisoning and tormenting of their neighbours, and therefore went back to the days of the brutal Henry VIII. for the means. They had, two months before, thrown a quaker of Worcester into gaol for the non- payment of dues, so called, amounting to five shillings, and there was every prospect that he might lie there for life. At Coventry, six quakers had lately been prosecuted by the clergyman for Easter offerings of the amount of fourpencs cache; and this sum of two shillings amongst them had, in the ecclesiastical court, been swelled to three hundred pounds. For this three hundred pounds they were cast into prison, and might have lain for life, but being highly respected bf their townsmen, these had subscribed the money and let them out. But this, his lordship observed, would prove a ruinous kindness to the quakers, for it would whet the avarice of the clergy and proctors to such a degree that the people of that persuasion would everywhere be hunted down without mercy for small sums, which might be recovered at once by the simple process of distrait. He declared that he would have ail clerical demands satisfied to the utmost, but not by such means, worthy only of the dark ages; and he therefore, in this bill, proposed the repeal of the obnoxious act of 27 Henry VIII. But the glutting of their vengeance was too precious to the clergy of this period, and the bill was rejected without a division.

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