HC Deb 06 May 1824 vol 11 cc530-2
Lord John Russell

rose to present a petition from a religious class of persons of Clara and other places in Ireland, denominated Separatists, who felt themselves forbidden by conscientious scruples to take oaths. They prayed, therefore, that the indulgence granted by the legislature to Quakers, should be extended to them; and that their affirmation, without swearing, might be deemed sufficient. From what he understood, the petitioners were highly respectable and moral persons; and he considered it the duty of the legislature to respect scruples founded on conscientious motives.

Sir J. Newport

spoke from knowledge of the meritorious character of the petitioners, and of the hardships to which, from the law they were exposed. There were instances of some of the most respectable clerks of the Bank being actually driven, after years of service, from the situations they held, because they refused, on conscientious grounds, to take the official oaths.

Mr. Hume

supported the prayer of the petition. A century and a half had now elapsed since the simple affirmation of the Quakers had been received in courts of justice; yet, in the whole of that period, there had been but one instance of a prosecution for a violation of the truth; as such violation was subject to a prosecution for perjury, the fact was a proof that such affirmation was as binding as an oath. Why should we not follow the example of the United States, and respect in our enactments the conscientious scruples of all denominations.

Mr. Secretary Canning

fully admitted the respectability of the names attached to the petition, but was at a loss to conceive how they could attach any consideration to the prayer of it, unless the House was prepared to say, that every man who might feel objections to taking an oath should be at liberty to refuse it. He did not wish to argue the question at present, but he could not conceive how any distinction could be taken in favour of the petitioners, which would not be equally applicable to any other parties choosing to decline an oath.

Lord J. Russell

thought the relief might be given to the petitioners on their assuming a certain designation; but, for his own part, he should prefer a general measure, which would relieve every man who had a conscientious scruple against taking oaths. He wished, however, to ascertain how the law operated in the United States, before he originated any such measure.

Mr. Spring Rice

referred to the relief given, on similar grounds, to the Quakers, and to certain seceders in the province of Ulster. Besides the inconvenience to the petitioners themselves, the rights of third parties were deeply affected thereby; as the members of this congregation could not take out probate, letters of administration, or any of those civil acts which required the administration of an oath. On what principle could the legislature, which respected, in its courts of law, the religious scruples of a Hindoo and a Mahometan, refuse a similar indulgence to a most respectable, though a small, branch of the Christian community.

Mr. J. Williams

observed, that his hon. friend the member for Aberdeen, was quite correct when he stated that there was but a solitary instance of prosecution for the violation of the Quakers' affirmation in the course of 150 years. There was a flagrant inconsistency in the law as it stood, in relation to that very respectable class of British subjects. Their affirmation was valid in civil cases, but it was not admissible in criminal prosecutions. Such an inconsistency ought not to remain, and it was his intention, next session, to introduce a bill to remedy such a glaring defect.

Ordered to lie on the table.