All in all it sounded like a much bigger deal than it was when on May 24 William and Mary gave their joint Royal Assent to England’s Act of Toleration of 1689. The act gave relief from persecution to a narrow set of exclusively Protestant dissenters—including Puritans, Baptists, and some Quakers. Such largess was not extended to Catholics, Jews, non-Trinitarians, and atheists—a term applied to virtually no one we would recognize as godless today, but to a great many folks with unorthodox religious scruples.
To even become eligible to stop being subject to arrest, imprisonment, and at least theoretically, execution by being burnt at the stake as heretics, nonconformists had to pledge an Oath of Allegiance to the monarchy and an Oath of Supremacy acknowledging the monarch as Supreme Governor of the Church of England as well as reject the Doctrine of Transubstantiation. This obviously excluded Catholics, but many Protestant dissenters, including most Quakers, eschewed oaths or had other objections.
Those who signed on the dotted line could cease looking over their shoulders for the sheriff and were even given leave to worship, but not in homes—who knew what kind of heresy might be preached in small gatherings behind the sanctity of the English home? Their buildings could not be called churches—chapel or meetinghouse were the preferred terms—nor could the building have a bell tower or steeple. Preachers had to be vetted for orthodox opinions and licensed by the state.
Moreover individual adherents of Dissenting sects were still banned from holding any public office, attending universities, and even testifying in certain court cases. And, of course, they were subject to taxation in support of the established church.
The last person actually executed for heresy was the unfortunate dissenting clergyman Edward Wightman way back in 1612. The Church of England and Protestants had become less concerned with each other than being united in opposition to the Papists who were seen as an existential threat not only to the established Church but to the monarchy. William and Mary had come to the throne earlier the same year from the Netherlands in the Glorious Revolution as Protestant rulers to prevent the return of Catholic Stewarts. They and Parliament hoped that the symbolic toleration of Protestant dissidents would solidify their rule.
Influential Enlightenment philosopher John Locke had been advocating for just such toleration for years. But now it was especially politically expedient.
Under the Act perhaps some dissenters were safe from the lingering threat of the horrors of the flames and the stake. But apparently a cheeky school boy still had plenty to worry about. Thomas Aikenhead was a 20 year old Edinburgh student who with the swaggering bravado of many a young man, and a tongue likely oiled by the Scottish national beverage, was overheard making shocking statements to his friends. To wit:
…that theology was a rhapsody of ill-invented nonsense, patched up partly of the moral doctrines of philosophers, and partly of poetical fictions and extravagant chimeras: That he ridiculed the holy scriptures, calling the Old Testament Ezra’s fables, in profane allusion to Esop’s Fables; That he railed on Christ, saying, he had learned magick in Egypt, which enabled him to perform those pranks which were called miracles: That he called the New Testament the history of the imposter Christ; That he said Moses was the better artist and the better politician; and he preferred Muhammad to Christ: That the Holy Scriptures were stuffed with such madness, nonsense, and contradictions, that he admired the stupidity of the world in being so long deluded by them: That he rejected the mystery of the Trinity as unworthy of refutation; and scoffed at the incarnation of Christ.
…Or so read the indictment against him for blasphemy drawn up by the zealous Lord Advocate, Sir James Stewart, who demanded the death penalty to set an example to others who might otherwise express such opinions in the future. The boy refused to recant and a court convicted and sentenced him.
The case was appealed to the Privy Council where two members of the Court and two prominent ministers begged for mercy on account of the defendant’s tender age. The Council declined to commute the sentence unless the Church of Scotland would intercede on his behalf. Not only did the church refuse, its General Assembly urged “vigorous execution” to curb “the abounding of impiety and profanity in this land.”
At the appointed time the lad was taken from jail where upon he delivered a fine speech that may have been a semi-recantation and was taken to the gallows to be swung. “the preachers who were the poor boy’s murderers crowded round him at the gallows, and. . . insulted heaven with prayers more blasphemous than anything he had uttered,” according to Thomas Macaulay’s much later account.
Aikenhead’s death was a testimony to how hollow Toleration could be. He may have been the last to be sent to the gallows for blasphemy, but plenty more would rot in prison for it. The last would be John William Gott of the Freethought Socialist League who served the last of several sentences with 9 months at hard labor in 1922. Yes, you read that right, 1922. The harsh conditions of his final imprisonment broke his health and he died at the age of 56 shortly after his release.
But back to the days and years after the Act. It affected the far off North American Colonies. Perhaps nowhere more significantly than in New England. The virtual Puritan theocracy there saw that the act gave some relief to their English cousins. But they had always vigorously persecuted any deviation from their own Standing Order. Baptist Roger Williams was driven out to establish Rhode Island. Anne Hutchinson, her family and allies were banished in 1637 and she had to make a nearly fatal 40 mile trek through virtual wilderness to join Williams. Mary Dyer and her family were allies of Hutchinson and were also banished. But Mary returned to England where she met William Fox and became a Quaker preacher. She boldly returned to Boston, where the pious authorities were glad to hang her and three other Quakers in 1660.
Now, under the Act of Toleration, Protestant dissidents were finally given some measure of freedom in the New England colonies. Not, however, Catholics who remained in danger.
Naturally Rhode Island and William Penn’s Pennsylvania went further than the Act required and forbad any established religion. They were joined by neighboring New Jersey and Delaware. But only Pennsylvania extended toleration to Catholics. In Maryland, the proprietary colony of Catholic Lord Baltimore, Anglican settlers had swamped his first Catholic settlement and upon gaining the upper hand in the Assembly had promptly disenfranchised the “bloody Papists.”
In Virginia the haughty planters who controlled the government refused to recognize that the Act of Toleration applied to them. They rallied to the support of the Anglican clergy who demanded the persecution of rapidly spreading dissenting sects, particularly the pesky Baptists. Baptist preachers were assaulted and arrested, open air meetings were rousted by the militia, homes invaded to prevent private services. The persecution continued for decades, as did appeals by the Baptists for relief. Despite numerous attempts and the support of members of the elite who were schooled in the Scottish Enlightenment, Virginia failed to extend protections to the Baptists and others right up to the American Revolution. But a sympathetic Thomas Jefferson and his allies would finally rectify matters with the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom in 1777. Jefferson’s ally James Madison would insure that religious liberty and the Separation of Church and State were enshrined in the new Constitution.
Back in the Mother Country a long list of reform acts slowly, excruciatingly slowly, widened what passed for religious freedom. Here is a list to give you some idea.
The Papists Act of 1778—Allowed some Catholics who would make oaths of loyalty to the Crown and reject claims of Pretenders to hold some public offices, inherit or purchase land. Perpetual imprisonment for keeping school was abolished and the persecution of Catholic clergy lifted.
Roman Catholic Relief Act 1791—Admitted Catholics to the practice of law, permitted the exercise of their religion, and the existence of their schools. Chapels, schools, officiating priests and teachers were to be registered, assemblies with locked doors, as well as steeples and bells to chapels, were forbidden; priests were not to wear their robes or to hold service in the open air; children of Protestants were not to be admitted to the schools; monastic orders and endowments of schools and colleges were prohibited.
Doctrine of the Trinity Act 1813—Extended the protections of the Act of Toleration of 1689 to Unitarians on the same basis as other Protestants.
Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829--Allowed Catholics to be elected to Parliament and most Crown offices
Roman Catholic Charities Act of 1832—Extended the protection of the Act of Toleration to Catholic schools, places of worship, education, and charities.
Religious Disabilities Act 1846--Ended most remaining restrictions on Catholics for education, charities, and property although Oxford, Cambridge and Durham Universities were allowed to ban Catholics.
Jews Relief Act 1858--Extended the protection of the Act of Toleration to Jewish schools, places of worship, education, and charities.
Places of Worship Registration Act 1855—Offered an optional system of registration for non-Anglican places of worship was passed which gave certain legal and fiscal advantages for those that registered, and finally held that “alternative religion was not only lawful, but was often facilitated by the law.”
University Tests Act 1871—Allowed Oxford, Cambridge and Durham Universities to admit Catholics and allow them on their faculties.
Promissory Oaths Act 1871—Repealed most, but not all, of the remaining restrictive clauses of the Act of Toleration.
Statute Law (Repeals) Act 1969—Repealed the final remaining provisions of the Toleration Act.
Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008—abolished the common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel in England and Wales. Blasphemy remains a criminal offense in Scotland.
The Church of Scotland—Presbyterian—is a “National Church but not a State Church.” The Anglican Church of Ireland was disestablished as a State Church by the Irish Church Act 1869. The Anglican Church in Wales was disestablished by the Welsh Church Act 1914. But the Church of England remains the state church there with Queen Elizabeth II as its official head.