HC Deb 07 June 1827 vol 17 cc1145-9
Lord John Russell

said:—In rising to present several petitions for the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, I deem it my duty to explain to the House, as clearly as I can, my reasons, for the unusual course I am about to pursue on that important question. Ever since I have been a member of this House, my votes have been guided by the principle, that the subjects of these kingdoms ought not to suffer any civil penalty, any civil hardship, any civil inconvenience on account of their religious belief. Directed by this principle, I have voted for removing the disabilities imposed by law on the Roman Catholics from whatever quarter, and in whatever shape the motion appeared. But if I gave the full benefit of this principle to the Roman Catholics, whose religion has been mixed even at this day by some of its more extravagant professors, with the most objectionable, and the most slavish political doctrines, I could not refuse to extend it to the Protestant dissenters, who have ever been attached to the free constitution of this country; if I admitted to all the privileges of that constitution, those who, during the last century, had been the adherents of the house of Stuart, I could not but grant the same admission to the Protestant dissenters, who have ever been the zealous, persevering, constant, and active, friends of the house of Hanover.

When, therefore, I was applied to by the committee of deputies, and others, who for more than ninety years have been considered as the organs of the body, I did not for a moment hesitate to assure them, that I would willingly move this House for a repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts. Had that motion been proceeded in, I trust I could have shewn that these statutes were nothing but the dregs of that persecuting spirit which caused the calamities and civil wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. I trust I could have shewn, that the test required in this instance is peculiarly revolting, inasmuch as it tends to the profanation of one of the most sacred rites of our religion; making the mask of piety and holiness a qualification for ambition, and converting that which was left as the bond of brotherhood among all the followers of Christ, into the sign of disunion and separation. I trust I could have shewn that the annual Indemnity Act, upon which some persons rely so much in argument, is nothing but an incomplete and insulting pardon to men who have committed no offence. Incomplete, because it leaves it open to any one by making a previous objection, to exclude a dissenter from a corporation; incomplete, because it does not shelter the dissenter who accepts office from the penalties of the Test Act if judgment be already obtained—insulting, because by the terms of the Indemnity Act, any dissenter who holds office is liable to the imputation, an imputation sanctioned by the high authority of lord North, that he is guilty of a mental fraud, and evades the provisions of the law.

Sir, upon these grounds and many others, I trust I should have been able to convince the House, that the Statute-books ought to be cleansed of these disgusting acts. But, after I had given my notice, occurred those changes in the administration which have been the subject of so much remark and discussion. Upon that event, many of the dissenters, feeling, as it were, by instinct, that a ministry was formed more favourable to religious liberty, than any which had existed during the thirty-seven years in which their question had slept, doubted whether it were fair, and whether it were politic to force such a ministry to an immediate expression of opinion upon this important subject. Others, with whom I agreed, did think that the present was a favourable time for the discussion. Amid this diversity of opinion, I thought I could do nothing better than refer to that committee of dissenters, which had been allowed to act as their organ since the year 1734. They, after much discussion and deliberation, agreed, by a large majority, to request me to postpone the motion of which I had given notice. They at the same time desired me to express their determination to press the question forward early next session, and, if unsuccessful, to bring it in from year to year. With regard to bringing it in from year to year, I desire at present to express no opinion, but with regard to next session, I must say I think they have a right to expect that the question should then have a fair discussion in this House. I will not conceal from the House, that, since the resolution of the committee, I have received various intimations from individuals, that in their opinion the majority of the dissenters wished the question to be pressed. But, as they did not refer me to any organ by which the general sentiments of the body might be collected and expressed, I felt myself bound to abide by the decision of that body which for so long a time had been considered as speaking the sense of the dissenters. Had I done otherwise, had I persisted, it is easy to perceive that many members of this House would have taken advantage of the vote of the committee, and would have voted for the previous question, on the express ground that the petitioners themselves did not desire the motion to be persevered in during the present year. Undoubtedly it is a painful situation for any man to be liable to the imputation of acting from personal or party interest, but I should despise myself if, for the sake of removing such an imputation from myself, I should injure the great cause with which I have been intrusted.

It only remains for me to call the attention of the House in a few words, to the petitions which have been presented. They are not only numerous almost beyond precedent, but there are many of them which deserve, in a peculiar degree, the consideration of the House. I allude to those which are founded on the broad ground of the injustice and impolicy of all disabilities on account of religion. In support of these petitions, I have had many letters from dissenters, declaring that they asked for concession, with an earnest desire that the liberty they claimed for themselves might be extended to others. There are likewise many petitions from members of the church of England, calling themselves friends of religious toleration, praying for the repeal of those acts as an unjust infringement on the freedom of conscience. I shall likewise have to present a petition from the Roman Catholics of the midland counties, signed by a Roman Catholic baronet, the president of a Roman Catholic college, and many Roman Catholic clergymen, praying for the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts. In the letter, giving me notice of this petition, I am informed, that endeavours have not been wanting to persuade the petitioners that the dissenters, if admitted to the full enjoyment of the constitution, would afterwards prove the most bitter opponents of similar concessions to themselves. But they say, wisely and generously say, "with interested calculations of this kind we have no concern: for our co-operation in the cause of religious liberty we are responsible; for the use they may make of that liberty, the Protestant dissenters are alone responsible."

Sir, these sentiments have my cordial concurrence; and I cannot but wish that the Protestant and Roman Catholic dissenter, with the liberal-minded of the Established Church, would unite in the cause of freedom of conscience. Then we might hope to see all the civil penalties, and disabilities on account of religion, which unhappily distinguish our Statute-book, from the laws of all the more enlightened nations of Europe, entirely swept away. I feel confident that such an end to persecution of all kinds, would strengthen and enrich the state; would secure, and fortify the established church; would purify and exalt the spirit of religion.

Mr. W. Smith

said, it would be ungrateful in any one connected with the Protestant dissenters, not to thank the noble lord for the part he had acted on the present occasion. The dissenters very naturally thought their interests were connected with those of the state. It was true there were differences of opinion amongst the body, as to the question of bringing on their case in the present session; but the majority, in deciding for its postponement to the next, hoped that by that time their situation would be better known, that the prejudices against them would be removed, and that they would stand better with parliament. It was a gross fallacy to suppose, that the grievances of the Protestant dissenters were only theoretical; was it not a practical grievance, that a dissenter could not be a member of Oxford university without declaring his assent to the thirty-nine articles? —that he could not take his seat as a magistrate, without the sacramental test, if any person chose to insist on it? He trusted, that the justice of parliament would soon put an end to these disabilities.

Mr. J. Wood

was favourable to the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, and contended that their existence were practical grievances to the dissenters. It was a practical grievance, that many of that class, who were men of immense wealth, should be shut out from all influence in the corporation of Liverpool. Ordered to lie on the table.