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The progress of the nation page 7


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The benevolent exertions of lord Stanhope on behalf of the society of friends were, in 1796 - that is, six years later- revived in the house of commons by Mr. Serjeant Adair. "He stated that seven of the people called quakers were prisoners in the gaol at York for not paying tithes, and unless some alteration in the laws on that subject took place, they might lie there till they died. In fact, one of these friends did die in the prison, named Joseph Brown, and his death is the subject of a poem by James Montgomery. Mr. Serjeant Adair moved, on the 26th of April, for leave to bring in a bill to extend the provisions of the act 7 and 8 William III., by which tithes could be recovered by distrait when amounting to ten pounds, to tithes of any amount. Wilberforce, Pitt, Dolben, and others, usually opposed to concessions, spoke in favour of the bill. Sir Philip Francis only opposed it on the ground that the petitioners probably did not entertain any serious objection to paying tithes, but only wanted to look like martyrs. The bill went on swimmingly till it was about going into committee, on the 10th of May, when Francis rose again. A new light had burst upon him. He said that he had learned that the bill did not proceed from the suffering individuals, but from the yearly meeting of the society itself - as if that were any solid objection, and as if a measure ought not to tome with more weight from a whole suffering community, than from a few individuals!

The bill readily passed the commons, but no sooner did it appear in the lords, than the bishops, the perpetual impediments to redress of injustice and suffering, fell foul of it. The archbishop of Canterbury saw danger to the- church in it, and moved that it be read that day three months, and this was carried. Thus the bill was lost for that session; but Adair brought a fresh bill for the same object, into the new parliament, in October. The learned serjeant was not, however, very learned in the tenets of Quakerism, and stated that the quakers did not object to the payment of tithes, but their scruples led them to think that any activity of their own was criminal, the levying of tithes being contrary to Christian principles. A more absurd jumble of ideas never came out of a legal head. The quakers objected altogether to pay tithes, as an unchristian demand: one of their great principles being, that all religious ministration must proceed direct from the spirit of God, and therefore is not to be bought or sold; and that all forced payments for the maintenance of such a ministry are, therefore, contrary to the gospel. Accordingly, on the proposal to go into committee upon the bill, Sir William Scott, brother of lord Eldon, and afterwards lord Stowell, attacked the bill on these grounds. He said, if the quakers did not object to pay tithes, why did they wait to be compelled? That, in that case, they were not persecuted, but actually persecuted the owners of tithes. Ile, therefore, approved of the compulsion, and cited instances in which, he said, compulsion had induced quakers to pay tithes. Such cases, from our knowledge of friends, must, indeed, have been very rare. His statements of facts were, altogether, very incorrect. Six quakers, at Coventry, he said, had been prosecuted for non-payment of tithes, but no imprisonment had taken place. These were the same whom lord Stanhope had already shown to have been imprisoned, and only liberated by a subscription amongst their townsmen. No prosecutions, lie said, had been carried on in the diocese of Canterbury. Perhaps not; but what of the seven quakers, mentioned by serjeant Adair, at that moment lying in York Castle?

But the unfortunate serjeant now made worse of his case. To take his clients out of the dilemma in which Sir William Scott had placed them, of having no objection to pay tithes, and yet waiting to be compelled, he avowed that the quakers had not prayed for anything but simply to have the power of imprisoning their persons repealed. They were not answerable for anything else in the bill. This seems to have been fatal to the whole bill, and a number of members began heartily to abuse the quakers, as a body inveterately obstinate, and opposed to the laws. If they had said unjust laws, they would have truly described them. A Mr. Frazer, no doubt a hard Scotch presbyterian lawyer, advanced a most singular objection to them, namely, that " they never went to law, and had a mode of deciding their own disputes without any application to any courts of justice! " This charge seemed to ruin them with the lawmakers. The bill was thrown out.

But the question of the restrictions upon dissenters was again taken up by lord Stanhope, in 1811. On the 21st of March he presented to the house of lords a short bill " For the better securing the liberty of conscience." It had the same fate as his former ones. Ministers seemed rather inclined to abridge the liberty of conscience, for immediately afterwards, namely, on the 9 th of May, lord Sidmouth brought in a bill to limit the granting of licences to preach, asserting that this licence was made use of by ignorant and unfit persons, because having such a licence exempted them from serving in the militia, on juries, &c, The bill excited great alarm amongst the dissenters, and lord Stanhope and lord Grey, on the 17th of the month, when lord Sidmouth moved for the second reading of the bill, prayed for some time to be allowed for the expression of public opinion. The second reading was, accordingly, deferred till the 21st, by which time a flock of petitions came up against it, one of which was signed by four thousand persons. Lord Erskine said that these petitions were not a tenth part of what would be presented, if time were afforded for the purpose; and he ridiculed the idea of persons obtaining exemption from serving in the militia, by merely taking out licences to preach. Lord Grey confirmed this, saying that it was impossible for persons to obtain such licences, except they were ministers of separate congregations. This was secured by an act passed in 1802, and still more, the party applying for such licence was restricted from following any trade, except that of keeping a school. These regulations, he stated, were most minutely adhered to, both in the general and local militia, and he challenged Lord Sidmouth to show him a single instance, since the act of 1802, where exemption had been improperly obtained by a dissenter. Lord Grey showed, from actual returns, that the whole number of persona who had been licensed during the last forty-eight years, had only been three thousand six hundred and seventy-eight, or about seventy-seven annually on an average, and that the highest number reached in any one year had been only about one hundred and sixty. He contended that these facts demonstrated the non-necessity of the bill. It was lost.

In the following June lord Stanhope - who had assured the bishops that if he could not remove the rubbish of their antiquated enactments against freedom of conscience by cartfuls, he would endeavour to carry it off in wheelbarrows; and if that mode of removal was resisted, he would, if possible, take it away, a little at a time, with a shovel - again came forward with a bill to remove some of these enactments, and he showed that the literal fulfilment of several of them was now impossible; that as to compelling every man to go to church, by returns lately made to that house, it was shown that there were four millions more people in England than all the churches of the establishment could contain. With respect to the church enforcing uniformity, he said that the variations between the book of Common Prayer printed at Oxford and that printed at Cambridge amounted to above four thousand. His bill was again thrown out by thirty-one against ten; but his end was gained. He had brought the injustice towards the dissenters so frequently forward, and they were now so glaring, and the dissenters themselves were become so numerous and influential, that the question could be no longer blinked. On the majority being pronounced against the bill, lord Holland rose and asked whether, then, there was to be nothing done to remove the disabilities under which dissenters laboured? If that were the case, he should be under the necessity of bringing forward a measure on that subject himself. This compelled ministers to promise that something should be done; and, on the 10th of the same month, lord Castlereagh proposed to bring in a bill to repeal certain acts, and to amend others respecting persons teaching or preaching in certain religious assemblies. This act, when explained, went to repeal the 13 and 14 Charles II., which imposed penalties on quakers and others who should refuse to take oaths; the 16 of Charles II., known as the Five Mile Act, which prohibited any preacher who refused to take the non-resistance oath, coming within five miles of any corporation where he had preached since the act of oblivion, under a penalty of fifty pounds; and the 17, which also imposed fine and imprisonment on them for attempting to teach a school, unless they went to church, and subscribed a declaration of conformity. It also repealed the 22 Charles II., commonly called the Conventicle Act. Instead of those old restraints, his act simply required the registration of all places of worship in the bishop's or archdeacon's court; that they must not be locked, bolted, or barred, during divine service, and that the preachers must be licensed according to the 19 George III. These conditions being complied with, all persons officiating in, or resorting to such places of worship, became entitled to all the benefits of the Toleration Act, and the disturbance of their assemblies became a punishable offence. This bill passed both houses, and became known as the statute of 52 George III. It was a great step in the progress of religious freedom; and Mr. William Smith, the leader of the dissenting interests in the house of commons, expressed his heartfelt gratification at this proof of the increasing liberality of the times.

But whilst some little freedom from restrictions for dissenters was thus forced from the church, a stout battle was going on, and continued to go on through the whole reign, for giving to the Roman catholics the common privileges of citizens. On account of their faith they were excluded from all civil offices, including seats in parliament. We shall see that some slight concessions of both civil and military privilege were, in the course of this contest, made to them; but to the end of this reign, and, indeed, until 1829, the full claims of the catholics continued to be resisted. We can only cursorily note the main facts of this long-protracted struggle. In the early part of the reign a degree of relief was afforded which promised well for the cause of the catholics; but these promises were not fulfilled. In May, 1778, Sir George Saville brought in a bill to relieve the catholics from the provisions of the act of 1699 for preventing the growth of popery. By this act catholic priests were not allowed to enter England, and, if found there, were at the mercy of informers; Roman catholics were forbidden to educate their own children, or to have them educated by papists, under penalty of perpetual imprisonment; and they were not allowed to purchase land, or hold it by descent or bequest; but the next of kin who was a protestant might take it. Sir George's act passed both houses, and by it all Roman catholics were restored to the privileges of performing divine service, if priests, and of holding land, and educating children, on taking an oath of allegiance, of abjuration of the pretender, and rejection of the doctrine that it was lawful to murder heretics, was right to keep no faith with them, and that the pope or any foreign prince had any temporal or civil jurisdiction within these realms. The consequence of this degree of indulgence to the catholics was the famous Gordon Riots in London and similar ones in Edinburgh, which had the effect of frightening the government out of further concessions. A similar bill had been passed in Ireland in 1782. The bill of 1778, however, was confirmed and considerably extended by a bill brought in by Mr. Mitford, afterwards Lord Redesdale, in 1791, and, after a long discussion, was passed by both houses in June of that year. This bill legalised Roman catholic places of worship, provided they were registered and the doors were not locked during service; it recognised the right for catholics to keep schools, except in Oxford and Cambridge, and provided that no protestant children were admitted. It permitted catholic barristers and attorneys to practise on taking the new oath; and it removed the penalties on peers for coming into the presence of the king; in fact, it left little disability upon catholics except that of not being eligible for places in parliament, or any other places under government, unless they took the old oaths.

In the following session Fox introduced a bill to grant some further privileges to the catholics, but it was rejected; but in 1793 the catholics of Scotland were admitted, by an act introduced by Mr. Robert Dundas, the lord-advocate, to the same privileges as the Irish and English catholics. The question appeared to rest till 1799, when there seems to have been a proposition on the part of the English government to make an independent provision for the catholic clergy of Ireland, on condition that they, on their part, should enter into certain engagements. There was a meeting of Roman catholic prelates in Dublin at the commencement of that year on the subject, in which they agreed to accept the proposal. Pitt was favourable to the catholic claims, though the Irish parliament previous to the Union would not hear of them. He had caused promises of catholic emancipation to be circulated in Ireland in order to induce the Irish to accept the Union; and when he found that the king's immovable resistance to this measure would not allow him to make good his word, he resigned office. Nothing was done in it during the time that he continued out, chiefly, it is said, through his influence; and when he returned to office in May, 1801, he did so without any mention of the catholics. In truth, he appears to have given them up for the sake of enjoying power again; for, when, on the 9th of March, 1805, the question was introduced by lord Grenville into the house of peers, and, on the 10th, by Fox into the commons, Pitt opposed the motion on the ground that the reasons which had occasioned him to quit office still operated against this measure, and that it was impossible for him to support it. It was negatived by three hundred and thirty-six against one hundred and twenty-four.

Both Pitt and Fox died in 1806, and a circumstance occurred in the following year which showed the inveterate obstinacy of the king regarding the catholics. Lord Howick, secretary for foreign affairs, obtained leave to bring in a bill to enable catholics to hold the higher offices in the army and navy; but the king soon let him know that he should not ratify any such bill, and he agreed to withdraw it. But this did not satisfy George; he demanded from the ministers a written engagement to propose no further concessions to the catholics, and as they declined to do this, he dismissed them, and placed the duke of Portland at the head of a new cabinet.

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Pictures for The progress of the nation page 7

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