HC Deb 21 June 1825 vol 13 cc1250-2
Mr. W. Smith

rose, to present a petition signed by a small number of individuals who were, however, well known and of great respectability, complaining of the situation in which they were placed by the present state of the existing laws affecting the profession of certain religious opinions. He had heard that it had been stated in a very high quarter in another House, in respect to the laws affecting the Unitarians, that before any act could be passed for relieving them from the operation of particular statutes, it would be well that some bill should be passed previously, to protect them from the penalties to which they were still subject at common law. At the same moment, and from the same high and learned quarter, there proceeded an appeal which it was impossible not to perceive to be directed and addressed to him (Mr. Smith) personally, and which went to remind him, that at the time a bill which he had been instrumental in carrying through parliament was passed—such bill having for its object to protect Unitarians, in certain cases, from the legal consequences that might attach to the impugning of the doctrine of the Trinity—he had made a declaration to the noble and eminent person in question, whereby he agreed, as to all cases not provided for by such statutes, to leave the Unitarians liable to all the visitations that they might be still exposed to from the common law. Now, most unquestionably, he had never made such a declaration. On a former occasion, when he was preparing a measure for the further relief of the Unitarians from the obligation of taking certain oaths, he had had an interview with that most reverend and distinguished prelate, the archbishop of Canterbury, for the purpose of explaining to his grace the principle of the bill he was then about to bring into the House. The archbishop of Canterbury, at that time, told him, that if his object was only to remove such penal liabilities as operated to prevent, perhaps, the fair, friendly, and candid discussion of the doctrinal points to which the Unitarians excepted, he was willing to consent to the repeal of those statutes that might be thought to stand in the way of such a discussion; but, of course, not extending this understanding to any denial of Christianity in general, or to blasphemy; both of which he (Mr. Smith) himself proposed to except out of the operation of his bill. The object of his bill, the 3rd Geo. 4th, was simply this—to put Unitarian Dissenters on the same footing, as to the consequences of professing certain peculiar tenets, as all other Protestant Dissenters had been placed by the act of Toleration. Now, it had been clearly stated by lord Mansfield, that unconformity, simply and as such, was no offence at common law. Why then, it was very desirable that these parties should feel assured that the common law would not visit them as if their unconformity was an offence. The act of the 53rd Geo. 3rd, cap. 160, which recited the act 19th Geo. 3rd, exempted Protestant Dissenters from all penalties to which they were previously liable at law for non-subscription to certain doctrinal articles and oaths. So that he inferred, that nothing could be clearer than this fact—that it was only the denial of Christianity in general, or blasphemy, which was an offence made penal at common law, and not mere non-conformity to particular points of doctrine. By introducing the 53rd Geo. 3rd, he had flattered himself, at one time, that he had done some service, by amending and explaining the law in the respects he had mentioned. The penalties denounced against the profession of these tenets by the common law were of the most severe and heavy kind—fine and imprisonment at the pleasure of the judge, who was authorized, therefore, if he should see fit, to take from a man the half of his fortune and years of his liberty for dissenting from the received doctrine of the established church. With the knowledge of facts like these, how was it possible that he should have made any such agreement as that imputed to him? Really, a statement of so serious and so mischievous a nature ought not to have been lightly made in the quarter to which he was alluding. The hon. gentleman, adverting to the other bill he had brought in for the relief of Unitarians from the obligation of taking certain oaths prescribed by the marriage, ritual, observed, that after it had received, with one exception only, the sanction and support of all the most efficient and responsible of his majesty's ministers, it was thrown out in the other House. The petition he had now the honour to present, entered so fully into the object of the petitioners, that he could not do better than refer the House to the object of their prayer, premising only, that if the House should feel hereafter disposed to accede to its prayer, the denial of Christianity as such, and blasphemy, would of course remain, as they at present were, offences at common law.

Mr. Robertson

expressed himself decidedly adverse to the prayer of the petitioners, and cautioned the House to be aware how they encouraged too much the prevailing spirit of innovation.

The petition was read, and ordered to be printed.