HC Deb 29 November 1826 vol 16 cc171-8
Sir. Hume

said, he had an important petition to present, in which the rights of a British subject, and the cause of civil and religious liberty, were deeply concerned. The right of which the petitioner complained he was deprived, was that enjoyment of religious freedom which it was consistent with the spirit and practice of the British constitution that every British subject should possess. The petitioner was Mr. Robert Taylor, who had been canonically ordained a clergyman of the established church. He was also a Bachelor of Arts of St. John's College, Cambridge. He stated in his petition, that after the most mature consideration, he could not give a conscientious credence to the doctrines of Christianity. That this was the result of a conscientious conviction on the part of the petitioner, was shewn by his having resigned a cure, which he held in a parish in Suffolk, in consequence of his sincere disbelief in the tenets of the established church. The petitioner further stated, that he arrived at that state of mind that he could conscientiously declare himself a Deist. He declared, that in various instances those who were of the same faith with him had experienced hardship and injury from being deprived of protection in courts of law, on account of the profession of Deism. This was the more a subject of just complaint, as under the act of Toleration they were entitled to protection, unless their mode of faith was opposed to morality, or was inimical to the interests of the state. The petitioner set forth an example of the hardship experienced by persons professing Deism, in the instance of a shopman of Mr. Carlile, who was prevented from prosecuting in a court of justice, in consequence of his adherence to the tenets of Deism—and because he would not take an oath according to the forms of law. The hon. member proceeded to argue, that by a resolution of that House, unanimously passed in 1680, the acts of Elizabeth and of James did not extend to Protestant Dissenters, and that the enactments of the Penal laws were not to be put in force against them. Under these resolutions, in his opinion, the petitioner was entitled to protection, and to a freedom from the oppression of which he so justly complained. It was inconsistent to refuse the oath of a person who disbelieved in Christianity, and at the same time to receive, as appeared from proceedings in the court of Chancery, and from proceedings before the lord mayor, those of Hindoos, who were infidels, and who were sworn after the form of their faith, and after the manner of their country. The profession of a belief in God was surely sufficient for the purpose of taking an oath in a court of justice. He had himself seen the natives of India sworn on the head of a child, by the water of the Ganges, and on a variety of other forms, which were found to answer all the purposes of justice before British tribunals in India. Surely, if the evidence of a Pagan would be received in a court of law, while this gentleman's would be rejected, he had a right to say, that toleration in its full sense did not exist. The petition was respectfully worded. The petitioner fairly stated his grievance, and called upon the House to take his case into consideration, and cause that right to be extended to him to which he was entitled. Every man should be allowed to enjoy liberty of conscience uncontrolled by civil disability. It would be recollected what a struggle was made, at no very distant period, against the power of the Catholic church. History did not exhibit greater exertions made by any people, than were then made by the people of this country, to free themselves from the shackles of intolerance; and yet we now refused to extend toleration to others. He believed England was the only country in the world that placed a large portion of its population under restriction on account of their religious tenets; but he hoped the time would soon come when liberty of conscience, without civil disability, would be extended to all, whatever creed they might profess.

Mr. Serjeant Onslow

said, he felt con- siderable surprise, after what had fallen from the hon. gentleman last session, to find him presenting a petition like the present, and introducing it with a speech such as should never have been addressed to a British House of Commons. What could the hon. gentleman mean by comparing this petitioner and his sect to Protestant Dissenters? Had the hon. member ever read the Toleration act? The hon. member, however, had himself given an answer to that question, when he said that the shopman of Mr. Carlile would not allow himself to be sworn according to the established usage of the country. He contended, that infidels could not give evidence in courts of justice, and yet the hon. member himself furnished instances to the contrary when he said that a Jew or a Mahommedan might be sworn according to their respective creeds. The law of England sufficiently provided for the grievance of which the hon. member complained; for a man who conformed to the religious forms of any sect, however wild or preposterous, found protection in the law of the land, and his evidence was admitted. Many members of the House, who were also members of the legal profession, knew, from experience in courts of justice, that the oaths of such individuals were admitted. The oath was administered according to the particular creed of the individual who made it; but what form of oath could bind the man who openly, professed no creed at all? Would not the natural question be, do you believe in a future state, and in rewards and punishments hereafter?

Mr. Hume

here intimated, that the petitioner did believe in a future state.

Mr. Serjeant Onslow

continued. If the petitioner did not believe in a future state, what assurance had the country, that any form of oath would be binding upon him? If such a person presented himself to seek redress before a magistrate, and refused to comply with the form prescribed by the law of England, the magistrate must tell him, "then, Sir, I have no power to administer any other form of oath than that which the law points out." Such must be the reply in all similar cases. No magistrate could, and he hoped that no magistrate ever would, deviate from a rule that was founded in sound and constitutional principles.

Mr. Bailey

said, that as a member of that House, although a very young one, he could not but rise up to oppose both the petition and the principles laid down by the hon. gentleman. The hon. gentleman said, that this petition was most respectfully worded; but he begged leave to contradict that assertion, and say, that it was most disrespectfully worded, from the allusions which it made; and he conceived, that a person who did not believe in our Saviour ought not to be tolerated in a British House of Commons. It was really astonishing that the hon. member was not interrupted in his speech, and an objection in limine taken to his arguments before they were suffered to proceed. The petitioner professed a disbelief in Christianity; in the being of our Saviour; and in those doctrines and tenets on which the best and highest hopes of the community rested. Jews and Mahometans were admitted to be sworn in courts of justice, and they were sworn according to the form of their respective faiths; but the Deist could give no such sanction to his oath, for he professed no settled form of worship.

Sir E. Carrington

expressed his horror that any gentleman, educated in a Christian country, could be found to entertain the doctrine stated in the petition, and to claim a right to be sworn in courts of justice upon the Works of Nature. The fact was, that the case of the petitioner was not the case of Deism. He was sorry to say, it was nothing short of Atheism; for it attempted to set up the works of nature, in contradistinction to the works of the Deity. He had often, in the course, of his life, administered oaths to the Persian worshippers of fire, and to other idolaters in the East, who did not believe in Christianity, and he had done it by that form which they held binding; but certainly, nothing should induce him to administer an oath to a Deist, on what the petitioner was pleased to call the "works of nature."

Mr. Secretary Peel

said, he rose for the purpose of bringing back the attention of the House to the real question before them; from which it appeared to him that they were in some degree departing. There were two questions arising out of this petition. The first was, whether it was proper to accede to the prayer of the petition; the second, whether it was proper to receive the petition. With respect to the first question, he certainly had a strong opinion. He would not then state it; but, if ever the hon. gentleman should bring in a bill for the purpose of relieving any man in the situation of the petitioner from the obligation of an oath, he, for one, should be prepared to meet that hon. gentleman, and those hon. gentlemen by whom he might be supported, and to contend, that, for the preservation of the best rights, and the protection of the best interests of the community, such a bill ought to be decidedly rejected. But that was not the question now before the House; which was simply, whether or not the petition should be received. Now, he was not prepared to say that it would be wise to reject a petition because the House might not be disposed to accede to its prayer. Nor did he think it would be wise, on the present occasion, to attach so much importance to this petition as its rejection might involve. Whatever might be the feelings which the House laudably entertained on this subject, he thought it would be prudent on their part to restrain themselves from expressing themselves at the present moment with reference to question, which, although it had been mixed up with the other, was not actually before them.

Mr. W. Smith

observed, that the remarks which had fallen from the right hon. Secretary afforded another proof o that prudence and moderation for which he had so much distinguished himself. He regretted that the right hon. gentleman had not, by speaking earlier in the discussion, set the example of those excellent qualities to the two honourable members who had spoken on his side. One of those hon. gentlemen wag, as yet, but a very young member, and no doubt, when he had more experience in that House, he would learn to discuss subjects with a little more temper. With respect to the other hon. member, he thought, that if he had practised as a judge in this country, as long as he had done abroad, he would have made a distinction between receiving a petition and complying with its request. He was sorry to find hon. members confounding the opinions of an Atheist with those of a Deist. He knew not that an Atheist could give any sanction to an oath; but he believed that a Deist could, and he had no hesitation in asserting, that the interests of justice were much more likely to suffer from the oath of a man who swore on the gospels, which he did not believe, than from that of him who fairly stated that he denied the truth of the gospels, but, at the same time, firmly acknowledged the existence of a God.

Mr. Hume

expressed a wish that the petition should be read, in order to set the learned serjeant right as to the petitioner's belief.

The Petition was then brought up and read, as follows:—

"To the Honourable the Commons of Great Britain and Ireland assembled, the Petition of Robert Taylor, of Carey-street, Lincoln's-Inn, Clerk,

"Humbly showeth,

"That your petitioner has been ordained a Clergyman of the Established Church, is a Bachelor of Arts of St. John's College, Cambridge, and is a Member of the College of Surgeons.

"That your petitioner is Chaplain of a society called "The Universal Benevolent Society," which is in the habit of meeting every Tuesday evening, for the purpose of investigating the evidences of the Christian religion.

"That your petitioner has determined, after a most laborious investigation and philosophical research, that he cannot give credence to the Christian faith, and has seceded from it solely from motives of honour, conscience, and conviction, and not from obstinacy, singularity, or prejudice.

"That your petitioner is in the habit of performing Divine Service before the said society, upon every Sunday, upon the principles of Deism.

"That your petitioner has ascertained that he cannot give evidence in any Court, touching any matter, suit, or cause, depending therein, in consequence of his not believing in revelation, although your petitioner has carefully investigated its evidences, but cannot believe in its truth.

"That your petitioner considers, under the Act of Toleration, he is entitled to profess what religion he pleases, and publicly to propagate it, unless such religion be opposed to public morality and the welfare of the State.

"That your petitioner believes in the existence of a future state, and instils such belief into the minds of his hearers. That a short time ago a shopman of Mr. Carlile's was robbed of his watch, but was unable to prosecute the offender, in consequence of his adherence to the tenets of Deism,

"That your petitioner considers the law, as it now stands, is injurious to the fair and equal administration of justice, and is at variance with the interests of the State, inasmuch as it allows persons guilty of atrocious crimes to escape with impunity, and deprives your petitioner and others of justice.

"That your petitioner will consider an oath sworn on the Works of Nature as binding on his conscience, as one sworn by the Christian on the New Testament, the Jew on the Bible, or the Mahomedan on the Alcoran.

"Your petitioner, therefore, humbly prays, that your Honourable House will be pleased to decree, that persons professing Deistical principles be sworn in courts of justice, as all persons professing Christianity, Judaism, and Mahomedanism; and that the degree of credit due to such shall, in all cases, be left to the consideration of the judge, jury, magistrate, or whatever tribunal by which such case shall be tried. And your petitioner, as in duty bound, shall ever pray."

Mr. Hume

observed, that the petition itself was a complete answer to the learned serjeant. With respect to the argument of the hon. gentleman under the gallery, against allowing a Deist to take an oath, he would ask that hon. gentleman what was a Jew, but a Deist? According to the hon. gentleman's principle, a Jew ought not to be allowed to be sworn. The argument of the hon. gentleman, therefore, was directed against the existing statutes. As to the hon. baronet, it really appeared to be very strange, that a gentleman who had for such a length of time, in Ceylon, been administering oaths to men who did not believe in the Christian revelation, should now say, that he would not believe a Deist on his oath. With respect to the introduction of any future measure on this subject, he did not intend to bring in any, but he confessed it was his opinion that some such measure ought to be introduced. He desired to see religious scruples respected by the House and the law of the land put on a liberal footing, in that respect. At one period England set an example of liberality to the world, and he hoped that the time was not far distant when she would again resume the lead, and not be as she was unhappily at present, rather following than guiding the spirit of the age.

The petition was ordered to lie on the table. Mr. Hume then moved, that the petition be printed, in order that gentlemen should be acquainted with its objects. Mr. Robinson opposed it; and on the cry of "No, no," becoming general, Mr. Hume withdrew the motion.