The Toleration Act, 1689


Reasons for passing the Toleration Act, 1689

  • Many of the senior Anglican clergy were concerned with ensuring that worship within the Church of England was not modified and would remain uniform.
  • However, in early 1689, William urged the removal of the Test Act for public office holders and faced some hostility from Anglicans. 
  • William was aware of the need to maintain good relations with all sides of the religious spectrum.
  • He attempted to pursue a middle path and suggested that a Toleration Act be passed but that Anglican demands for uniformity be discussed later in 1689.
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The Content of the Act

  • Dissenters were exempted from punishments if they took the oath of allegiance to the Crown and accepted the 1678 Test Act. This meant that they could not enter public employment without swearing loyalty to the Anglican Church.
  • Dissenters were not expected to attend an Anglican church but their meetings were clearly monitored and the doors of their meeting houses could not be locked. 
  • The Act gave special dispensations to certain dissenting groups. Quakers were permitted to declare, rather than swear their loyalty to the Crown, as they did not believe in taking oaths. 
  • The Act excluded Catholics, non-Trinitarians and Jews, and as the Test Act had not been repealed, dissenters could technically not sit in Parliament or hold public office.
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The impact of religious toleration

  • The number of dissenters increased and there were 400,000 by 1714. 8% of the population.
  • William used his royal authority to influence judges and curb Church interference in the lives of Catholics and dissenting sects not covered by the Act.
  • The power of the church courts was severely impacted by the Act.
  • Whigs pushed for Anglican clergy to swear an oath to William and Mary. As they had already sworn allegiance to James, many refused and over 400 priests were deprived of their livings. Those removed from office were replaced by more moderate men that were sympathetic to the Whig cause. 
  • The Test Act, Act of Uniformity and Corporation Act were still in force. Those who did not swear allegiance to the Anglican Church could not attend university, work in the legal profession or practise medicine. 
  • Dissenters were still required to pay Church taxes in the form of tithes, even if they did not attend their local parish church. 
  • Further Toleration Acts were passed in Ireland and Scotland and these did not give dissenters the opportunity to participate in local or national government. 
  • In reality, Catholics had little to fear from William as he had entered into an alliance with a number of Catholic powers.
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