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Chapter XII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 7 page 3


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Mr. Peel urged against the measure the usual conservative arguments - that it is dangerous to touch time-honoured institutions in an ancient monarchy like this, if the dissenters did not feel the tests as a grievance; if they did, it would be a very strong argument for a change. " But," he asked, " are the grievances now brought forward in parliament really felt as such by the dissenters out of doors? So far from it, there were only six petitions presented on the subject from 1816 to 1827. The petitions of last year were evidently got up for a political purpose." He quoted from a speech of Mr. Canning's, delivered, in 1825, on the catholic relief bill, in which lie said, " This bill does not tend to equalise all the religions in the state, but to equalise all the dissenting sects of England. I am, and this bill is, for a predominant church, and I would not, even in appearance, meddle with the laws which secure that predominance to the church of England. What is the state of the protestant dissenters? It is that they labour under no practical grievances on account of this difference with the established church; that they sit with us in this house, and share our counsels; that they are admissible into the highest offices of state, and often hold them. Such is the operation of the Test and Corporation Acts, as mitigated by the Annual Indemnity Act; this much, and no more, I contend, the catholics should enjoy." With regard to Scotland Mr. Peel appealed to the facts that from that country there was not one solitary petition; that there was not any military or naval office or command from which Scotchmen were shut out; that, so far from being excluded from the higher offices of government, out of the fourteen members who composed the cabinet, three - lord Aberdeen, lord Melville, and Mr. Grant - were Scotchmen, and good presbyterians. Even in England the shutting out, he said, was merely nominal. A protestant dissenter had been lord mayor of London the year before. The acts had practically gone into desuetude, and the existing law gave merely a nominal preponderance to the established church, which it was admitted on all hands it should possess.

The restrictions, however, if not to any great extent a practical grievance, were felt to be a stigma utterly undeserved, and the necessity for an annual indemnity act continually reminded a large, influential, intelligent, energetic portion of the nation of their inferiority to the rest of the king's subjects. The government felt that public opinion was against them. They therefore allowed the bill to go into committee without opposition, and there they adopted it as their own by carrying certain amendments. It passed the commons by a majority of 44, the numbers being 237 to 193. From the tone of the debate in the commons, it was evident that the government was not sorry to be left in a minority. In the house of lords the measure encountered more opposition. Lord Eldon, exasperated with the treatment he had received from the ministers, denounced it with the utmost vehemence. When he heard of its success in the lower house, he was in a state of consternation and despair. When it was about to be introduced to the lords, he wrote: " We who oppose shall be in but a wretched minority. The administration have, to their shame be it said, got the archbishops and most of the bishops to support this revolutionary bill. I voted as long ago as in the years, I think, 1787, 1789, and 1790 against a like measure, lord North and Mr. Pitt opposing it as destructive of the church establishment; Dr. Priestley, a dissenting minister, then asserting that he had laid a train of gunpowder under the church which would blow it up; and Dr. Price, another dissenting minister, blessing God that he could depart in peace, as the revolution in France would lead here to the destruction of all union between church and state. The young men and lads in the house of commons are too young to remember these things. From 1790 to 1827 many and various have been the attempts to relieve the catholics. But through those thirty-seven years, nobody has thought of proposing such a bill as this in parliament as necessary or fit."

The prejudiced old man fought with desperation against the measure in the lords. He was tremendously severe on the government. He said, much as he had heard of the march of mind, he did not believe that the march could have been so rapid as to induce some of the changes of opinion which he had witnessed within the last year. His opinions are now among the curiosities of a bygone age. His idea of religious liberty may be seen from the following " The sacramental act, though often assailed, had remained ever since the reign of Charles II., and the annual indemnity took away all its harshness. The obnoxious act did not interfere with the rights of conscience, as it did not compel any man to take the sacrament according to the rites of the church of England, and only deprived him of office if lia did not." He concluded by solemnly saying, "From his heart and soul, not content." He was effectually answered by the duke of Wellington, and the bill was read a second time, without a division, on the 17th of April. On the 21st, he proposed an amendment to exclude Roman catholics from the benefit of the measure by inserting in the declaration the words, "I am a protestant." The amendment was negatived by 117 to 55; but so eager was he to have it adopted, that he renewed it on the third reading of the bill, when the contents were 52, not contents 154. j Still he entered on the journals a violent protest against the bill, in which he was joined by the duke of Cumberland and nine other peers. As soon as the measure was carried, all the world acknowledged the duke of Wellington's sagacity in declining the offer of lord Eldon to return to office; for if that sturdy adherent to ancient prejudices had been lord chancellor or president of the council, the government must either have been speedily dissolved by internal dissensions, or overthrown by a vain resistance to the popular voice.

This act, which repealed the Test Act, provided another security in lieu of the tests repealed: - " And whereas the protestant Episcopal church of England and Ireland, and the protestant presbyterian church of Scotland, and the doctrine, discipline, and government thereof respectively are by the laws of this realm severally established permanently and inviolably, I., A. B., do solemnly and sincerely, in the presence of God, profess, testify, and declare, upon the true faith of a Christian, that I will never exercise any power, authority, or influence which I may possess by virtue of the office of ------, to injure or weaken the protestant church, as it Is by law established in England, or to disturb the said church, or the bishops and clergy of the said church, in the possession of any rights and privileges to which such church, or the said bishops and clergy, are or may be by law entitled."

Great interest was excited by the discussion. " The Test Act Reporter " contained a special report of the proceedings, including parliamentary debates and public documents, which made a volume of more than five hundred pages. The reports of the debates in the Times newspaper were also reprinted in a volume, with a preface by the Rev. John Burder. On the 18th of June a public dinner, to commemorate the abolition of the sacramental test, was given at Freemasons' Hall, when his royal highness the duke of Sussex occupied the chair. The friends of the cause felt that to secure an aggregate meeting of the most opulent, talented, and influential dissenters from all parts of the empire was a measure of no common policy, and it was evident that the illustrious and noble guests felt at once surprised and gratified to witness the high respectability and generous enthusiasm of that great company. Mr. William Smith, as deputy chairman, proposed, in an interesting and appropriate speech, " the health of the duke of Sussex, and the universal prevalence of those principles which placed his family upon the throne." The health of the archbishops, bishops, and other members of the established church who had advocated the rights of the dissenters was proposed by a Baptist minister, the Rev. Dr. Cox. The health of " the protestant dissenting ministers, the worthy successors of the ever memorable two thousand, who sacrificed interest to conscience," having been proposed by the royal chairman, the Rev. Robert Aspland returned thanks. Another commemoration of the full admission of nonconformists to the privileges of the constitution was a medal struck by order of the united committee. The obverse side exhibits Britannia, seated on the right, presenting to a graceful figure of Liberty the act of repeal, while Religion in the centre, raises her eyes to heaven with the expression of thankfulness for the boon. The inscription on this side is " Sacramental Test Abolished, May 9th, 1828." The reverse side presents an open wreath, inclosing the words, " Truth, Freedom, Peace, and Charity".

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