From Persecution to Toleration in the West Country, 1672-1692

Article excerpt

SCHOLARS INCREASINGLY RECOGNIZE that religious toleration for Protestant Nonconformists developed in England only in 1719, although the Whigs repealed the 1711 Occasional Conformity Act and the 1714 Schism Act enacted by the Tories. (1) The 1689 Act of Toleration, or more properly the Act of Exemption, which resulted from the Revolution of 1688, was a politique religious settlement instituted by William III who needed support from Protestant Nonconformists for the new regime. William acted in cooperation with Parliament issuing a royal Declaration of Indulgence rather than acting unilaterally as had James II in 1687 and 1688 and Charles II in 1672. (2)

Political philosophy such as that articulated in John Locke's Letter Concerning Toleration had little to do with the act's passage, (3) nor had sentiments changed among the Anglican and Calvinist clergy during the preceding decades; both sides used "latitudinarian" as a term of contempt for those who attempted to reach compromises with their opposing numbers. (4) Despite the hostility of the civil and clerical authorities, Calvinists and even Quakers were fairly well integrated into the social, economic, and even the administrative structures of their local communities and represented a reasonably good cross section of the population during the late seventeenth century. (5) The demands of national and county authorities often forced their subordinates in the parishes to act against neighbors with whom they otherwise would have lived in harmony. (6) The conflicting needs of the state and politics, the church and religious belief, nation and locality produced unique dynamics during the last decades of the seventeenth-century England. The licensing provisions of the Declaration of Indulgence of 1672 gave Calvinists in a region like the West Country of Devon and Cornwall an institutional cohesion--established congregations--that they had hitherto lacked, but politically motivated persecution and prosecution during the turmoil of the following decades reduced Calvinist Nonconformity to a largely urban phenomenon by 1692.

Following the Restoration, the Cavalier Parliament passed the so-called Clarendon Code, a series of acts designed to eradicate Calvinist influence from the Anglican Church and English politics and society: the Corporation Act (1661), the Act of Uniformity (1662), the Conventicle Act (1664), and the Five Mile Act (1665). The bishop of Exeter in 1663 reported that significant Calvinist activity continued at the edges of his jurisdiction, in East Devon near the boundaries of Dorset and Somerset, in the jurisdictions of the dioceses of Bristol as well as Bath and Wells, and in many parishes in South Devon where the bishop of Windsor held advowson--the right of nominating clergymen. Evidence from county quarter sessions records from across England suggests that the authorities sporadically enforced the Conventicle Act and the second Conventicle Act of 1670. Pro-Anglican or anti-Calvinist justices of the peace might temporarily mount campaigns of repression, but they rarely lasted. Even though the neighboring Seymour family, who were staunch royalists during the Civil Wars, dominated the civic government of Totnes in South Devon, the churchwardens there claimed that in 1669, Francis Whiddon forced his way into the pulpit backed by a large crowd. At the behest of the corporation, he preached in the parish church from 1671 when the regular minister did not appear and apparently continued to do so on an irregular basis even though later mayors objected. The magistrates took him to Exeter to try him for riot after they found him preaching to his family and friends, but the grand jury, under the foremanship of one of his relatives, Richard Whiddon of Chudleigh, returned a bill of ignoramus, arguing that riot could not take place in one's own home. Francis subsequently cooperated with the local parish pastors until his death in 1679. (7)

In 1665, the diocese of Exeter conducted an accounting of the impact of the four statutes of the misnamed Clarendon Code on Devon and Cornwall (see Table 1). …