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The Politics Of Religion In Restoration England; & From Persecution To Toleration

By W.A. Speck | Published in 1992 
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Two new works on Religion in England from the Restoration
  • The Politics Of Religion In Restoration England
    Edited by Tim Harris, Paul Seaward and Mark Goldie - Basil Blackwell, 1990 - xii + 259 pp. - £35
  • From Persecution To Toleration: The Glorious Revolution And Religion In England
    Edited by Ole Peter Greel, Jonathan I. Israel and Nicholas Tyacke - Clarendon Press, 1991 - x + 443 pp. - £40

Readers of both these volumes on religion in Stuart England could profit from first studying the text of the Toleration Act of 1689, published as an appendix to the latter book. Although the facsimile reproduction in the copy reviewed here is not crystal clear, it nevertheless was well worth publishing in its entirety, since it is often abridged in compilations of constitutional documents. There has been a tendency of late to downplay its significance, and to refer to it as a grudging concession, less liberal than James II's Declarations of Indulgence. And certainly if one reads the small print its limitations become apparent. It did not extend to all Christians, for Catholics and Unitarians were specifically excluded, whereas, as David S. Katz points out in his essay in From Persecution to Toleration, even Jews were allowed by James II to 'quietly enjoy the free exercise of their Religion' by an Order in Council of November 1685. Non-Anglicans were not exempt from the payment of tithes nor from the Corporation and Test Acts. Even the penal laws remained on the statute book, since the so-called Toleration Act, as its proper title makes clear, was merely 'An Act for exempting their majesties Protestant subjects, dissenting from the Church of England,
from the penalties of certain laws.'

It is only when one reads the essays in the Harris, Seward, Goldie book, however, that the full impact of the title is felt. For, as Tim Harris demonstrates, when the laws were rigorously enforced in the reign of Charles II, the dissenters who felt the full weight of persecution were injured in their liberties and estates, while not a few died in prison. It is in the light of their sufferings, especially in the 1680s, that the remark which Samuel Jeake, a nonconformist merchant, entered in his diary the day the Toleration Act became law can be fully appreciated: 'now we were freed from the fears of Persecution'. Moreover as Jonathan Israel demonstrates in 'William III and Toleration' (From Persecution to Toleration), it was not just the letter of the law which gave relief, but the whole spirit in which it was enacted and which the king did much to inculcate. Despite the explicit wording of the statute, Unitarians and even, as John Bossy makes clear in the same book, Catholics benefited from the relaxation of repression. Israel draws a convincing distinction between the Toleration Act and 'the Toleration'. In this respect, to quote Professor Trevor-Roper's concluding words to the Grell, Israel, Tyacke work, 'perhaps Macaulay, as so often, was irritatingly right'.

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