Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

Dissenters, Anglicans and the Glorious Revolution: The Collection of Cases

Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

Dissenters, Anglicans and the Glorious Revolution: The Collection of Cases

Article excerpt

Increasingly historians have interpreted the Glorious Revolution as principally a Protestant revolution, in which a defence of both the Church of England and tolerance of Protestant Dissent were in the forefront of participants' minds.1 It is clear that Churchmen and Dissenters were in the vanguard of the resistance to James II and that many laymen and women saw the Revolution in religious terms. For contemporary observers and historians one of the critical moments in the events that led to the Revolution came in May 1688 when James ordered Anglican clergy to read his Declaration of Indulgence first in the churches of London and then in the rest of the country. The refusal to do so led directly to the trial of the seven bishops who challenged the dispensing power with which James issued the Declaration. However before they defied the King the bishops ensured that the views of Anglican and Dissenting clergy in London had been carefully canvassed. The Anglican clergy in London were stiffened in their resistance to the King's demand by the reaction of the Dissenting ministers of the capital, who encouraged them to refuse to read the Declaration. As Lord Macaulay put it 'the time had come when it was necessary to make a choice; and the Nonconformists of the City, with a noble spirit, arrayed themselves side by side with members of the Church in defence of the fundamental laws of the realm'.2 Yet this act of solidarity with Anglicans came at a time when the Dissenters had recently been subjected to extraordinarily harsh penalties. Macaulay described the first half of the 1680s as a period in which 'never, not even under the tyranny of Laud, had the conditions of the Puritans been so deplorable as at that time'.3 More recently Mark Goldie has asserted that 'Restoration England was a persecuting society.'4 Michael Watts has also indicated the severity of persecution of Dissenters: in 1685 alone, £17,000 in fines was raised from the prosecution of Dissenters and the crushing of conventicles. John Hilton, one of a number of independent prosecutors, led a gang of fifty informants and investigators who tracked down the location of Dissenters' meetings and arrested participants.5

Evidence of the persecution of Dissenters in the Provinces was legion. In Somerset, where there was a number of large Dissenting congregations, this persecution took two forms. First, the Bishop of Bath and Wells tried to stretch the law as far as to attempt to deny votes in Parliamentary elections to those Dissenters who were excommunicated for non-attendance at church. Secondly, besides repeated imprisonment and prosecution of ejected clergy who continued to minister to Dissenting congregations, the mayor of Taunton used the militia to pull down the meeting house in 1683 and burnt ten cart loads of fittings and furniture from the meeting house in the market square. This persecution was repeated up and down the country where Anglicans and Dissenters clashed.6

Why then, were Dissenters, principally Presbyterians, prepared to stand shoulder to shoulder with those churchmen by whom they had been so recently persecuted? Macaulay's Whiggish explanation, that the Dissenters were motivated by an abstract commitment to the 'fundamental laws of the realm' over their own sectarian interests, which might have been better served by supporting James's conversion to greater toleration of religion, is unsatisfactory. While James's Declaration of Liberty of Conscience, which was aimed at advancing Catholicism, may have been unpalatable to Dissenters because of their abhorrence of Catholicism, this alone does not explain the refusal of Dissenters to exploit the division between the Church and the King to obtain religious toleration. In 1672, when Charles II's Declaration of Indulgence had briefly been in force - and with the same objective: to allow relief for Catholics - numerous Dissenters applied for licences to legitimise meeting houses. An important factor in the Dissenters' recognition that in 1688 they shared a political interest with Anglicans was a growing emphasis within the Church of England on the desire for reunion with Dissent. …

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