Religion and Politics, 1690-1715

Religion was central to the political identities of politicians in the 1690s and early 1700s. In part this was because of the Church of England’s difficulties with the Revolution of 1688-9. Having developed firm views on the unlawfulness of resistance to kings, some of its clergy found it impossible to justify the deposition of James II and his replacement by William III and Mary II. Whigs keenly exploited those difficulties, and ensured that Parliament imposed on all office-holders (including the clergy) oaths of allegiance to the new regime. A number – non-jurors – refused to take the oaths and lost their offices.

Among those clergy who were prepared to swear, deep divisions developed about the legitimacy of the Revolution. These were often displayed in the Church’s own Parliament, Convocation, where the lower clergy would frequently be in conflict with the bishops who had been handpicked by the government and, in some cases, reflected the ‘low church’ attitudes of Whig ministers.

Although dissenters had been allowed under the Toleration Act to worship freely in their separate chapels and meeting houses, they were still disabled from holding civil office by the requirement under the Test Act for office-holders to take communion according  to the Church of England. Some adopted the practice of ‘occasional conformity’ – taking communion from time to time in order to qualify for office, but worshipping normally as dissenters. Tories tried a number of times, without success, to outlaw this practice.

The greatest confrontation between Whigs and Tories came over a sermon delivered to the House of Lords by one of the most strident voices of the Tory clergy, Dr Henry Sacheverell. Some Whig politicians, determined to make an example of Sacheverell because of his uncompromising views, tried to impeach him in 1710. His acquittal was a major Tory success.

The 1690s saw several responses to the perception that there had been a serious decline in standards of moral behaviour, and calls for the ‘Reformation of manners’. There were a number of efforts to promote bills against blasphemy and swearing, and the foundation of the Societies for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel.

Author: Paul Seaward