HL Deb 22 May 1834 vol 23 cc1181-92
The Lord Chancellor

said, he held in his hand several petitions, coming from a large number of Dissenting bodies of the highest respectability. They emanated from Dissenting congregations meeting at Liverpool, at Silver-street London, at Halifax, at Newmarket, at Aldborough, and several other places, and all of them were very much to the same purpose. The petitioners complained of the civil disabilities under which they laboured, and they prayed their Lordships to lose no time in removing and redressing their grievances. They strongly complained of the want of a legal registration of births, marriages, and deaths. This, it might be observed, was not a grievance peculiarly affecting Dissenters, but still it was to them a very great grievance; and the more they succeeded in acquiring landed property, precisely in that proportion did they feel this grievance in a greater degree than others. The Bill connected with this subject, which it gave him great satisfaction to find had been introduced to the House of Commons by an hon. and learned Gentleman, had, it seemed, so far as it went, conciliated the feelings of that House. With respect to the right of graduating at the Universities, the refusal of which also afforded ground of complaint to the Dissenters, he should at present say nothing. With respect to the solemnization of marriage, they complained that they could not go through that which many of them considered a civil process, without conforming to religious rights of which they did not approve. This he agreed with them in considering a very great grievance. Whether marriage was considered as a religious or a civil contract, or whether it was viewed as a contract of a mixed nature, was quite immaterial to the question. They complained that they could not be married without undergoing certain ceremonies, which they looked on, from conscientious motives, with very great repugnance. Some points which he had stated on a former occasion when he addressed himself to this subject, had, he knew, the effect of setting at rest the unpleasant feelings of several respectable Dissenting bodies in Lancashire and elsewhere—feelings which arose from their not understanding thoroughly the measure of relief which it was meant to extend to them; and he should now say a word or two to correct the mistake which they laboured under with reference to the important measure which was intended for their benefit. That measure would relieve all Dissenters of all denominations whatever—Presbyterians, Unitarians, Catholics, in short, Dissenters of every denomination and description, from the only grievance that affected their feelings as professors of any particular religion, by enabling them to contract valid marriages—valid for themselves and for their issue, without going to Church of appealing to any ecclesiastical authority or submitting to any religious ceremony of which they did not approve. By the measure to which he referred, they need not go into Church at all to be married; each of them would be as much at liberty as any individual then present was, to have the ceremony performed in his own dwelling. They might have the ceremony performed in their own meeting-house or place of religious worship; just as those who professed the doctrines of the Established Church, chose to have the ceremony performed in their Church. But those who objected said they were unwilling to have their names published by bans. Now, he would ask, what was the object of publishing bans; and he would pray those who objected to such a proceeding to consider what was the nature of the publication of bans in church? It was a secular, it was a civil notification, and had no more to do with religion of any kind or sort—no, it had no more to do with religion, than the proclamation of the King in the market-place, had to do with the selling of meat. The proclamation was made in the market-place to give due publicity to the King's lawful commands; not simply because the spot was the market-place, but because, being the market place, it was much frequented. The publication of bans, in like manner, was not made in the Church merely because it was the Church, but because many people were in the habit of frequenting the Church. It was clear, that the reason of publishing the bans was not because it involved a religious ceremony, but because it gave due publicity to the fact of a marriage being contemplated between certain parties. Now, the Statute of George 2nd said, whether rightly or wrongly it was not necessary for him to inquire, "that before a person under age shall contract marriage, the consent of the parent or guardian must be obtained;" and in order to give notice to the parent or guardian of any such intended marriage—in order to prevent a good-for-nothing man from running away with a young woman of fortune, it was enacted that publicity should be given to the matter by bans. And why was the Church selected for the publication of those bans? The reason was evident—namely, because people were supposed to go, and did go, in large numbers there. But even this precaution might in some cases be inefficient; as, for instance, in the case of a Church at Manchester, where many hundred bans were published on a Sunday. Would those who objected to this risk the total loss of that security which the Statute intended to give to parents? Then it was said, "Why not look to some other mode of publicity? Why not place the names on the Church-door? But as great an objection had been raised against that plan as against the other; the chief opposition to which arose from the mixing up secular matters with matters of a sacred nature. When it was said, "Let the names appear on the Church-wall," that proposition was objected to at once. Such a proceeding would be unpleasant to the feelings of many; and, besides, it would not secure publicity. Individuals who wished to be secretly married might, in the first instance, have their names put up; but they also might, immediately after, employ a friend to take down the names, and thus they might be married without any notice. Again, it was said, "Let the law respecting marriages be placed on the same footing as in Scotland;" and some of the petitions, coming from individuals of great respectability, approved of this suggestion. The petitioners proposed to make marriage at once a civil contract, as it was in Scotland. Now, he very greatly approved of many of the institutions of Scottish law, and he had often said, that some of them might, with great propriety, he adopted here. One peculiarity of that law—namely, its conciseness—might be adopted with considerable benefit. He believed that his noble friend on the cross-bench, who was deeply versed in that branch of legal knowledge, might carry about him the whole statute law of Scotland in a space not larger than his snuff-box would occupy. Some of the statutes of Scotland were confined to three lines, some even to two and a-half; while, in England, there were goodly statutes that occupied some hundred pages. This brevity he conceived might be adopted with advantage; but if there were any one part of the Scottish law the adoption of which he never would recommend to their Lordships, and which he thought ought to be shunned, it was the Scottish Law of Marriage, which some individuals would fain introduce here. He would ask those who advocated that system to look at the state of the law. A young man in Scotland could not dispose of 1–20th part of an acre of land in any manner whatever till he had attained the age of twenty-one. But what was the case with respect to marriage? A youth, when he was barely fourteen years of age, might, though he were by rank a duke in the land, though his expectations were of the most exalted description—such a youth might, without one moment afforded for the advice of friends—without the means of cool reflection—without the knowledge of his guardians, without the "spatium requiemque," he would not say, "dolori," as it might not be thought by some applicable to the subject, or "germane to the matter,"—that youth might, thus situated, contract a shameful alliance, he might contract a disgraceful marriage, by his saying two words, "Will you accept of me as husband?" and the female answering, "Yes!"—there was as valid a marriage contracted as ever was solemnised by king, priest, pope, or bishop. Such was the Scottish law of marriage. Here was a youth of fourteen; here was a girl, older or younger—"I take you," says the one, "for my wife," and "I take you," replies the other, "for my husband," and, according to the Scottish law, the marriage was good and valid. He should say no more on this subject to the rational portion, and they were by far the largest portion of his dissenting countrymen. He had thus, most respectfully towards them, stated his idea of the introduction of the Scottish law of marriage. He hoped sincerely, that his argument would open their eyes to the groundlessness of the objections made to that which was proposed for their benefit. He trusted, that they would see the anxiety that was manifested in the plan proposed to conciliate their feelings, and that they would not oppose that part of the measure, the object of which was, to prevent fraudulent or improper marriages. Relieved, as they would be, from every thing that could be considered a real grievance, he hoped, that the Dissenters would not attempt to plunge the country into all the mischiefs which must result from abolishing the Law of Marriage as it now stood, and allowing parties to enter into that solemn obligation without proper guards and checks against artful and insidious devices. He felt greatly obliged to his dissenting countrymen for the approving manner in which they had received his former observations, and he hoped that they would take in kind part—and in kindness most assuredly it was meant—the advice which he had now given to them.

Petitions laid on the Table.

Lord Kenyon

having presented a petition against allowing Dissenters to graduate at the Universities, observed, that the petitioners stated, that the Universities ought to be, in accordance with their foundations, exclusively appropriated to the support of the Established Church, and in that sentiment he entirely agreed.

Earl Fitzwilliam

said, that if the noble Baron had laid the petition on the Table without any observation, he should not have made a single remark. The petitioners, it appeared, asserted, that the Universities were established solely for the support of the Church. Now, the greater part of the colleges were founded by individuals, and it did not appear, that those individuals had any particular sect in view. The petitioners could not make out, that the founders had such a feeling, either by reference to the mode in which those Universities were established, or by reference to particular foundations; or, lastly, by reference to the time when they were founded.

Lord Kenyon

said, he did not rise for the purpose of stating, that the Universities of this country were established for the purpose of promoting the doctrines of the Church of England, because it was well known, that many of them were established before the Reformation; but that they were established for the purpose of promoting religious instruction in connexion with the State, at the time they were founded, there could be no difficulty in maintaining. He had not made any speech in presenting the petition, because he did not wish to detain their Lordships with any discussion, and therefore he had done nothing more than shortly state to their Lordships what the nature of the petition was. He had another petition to present to the same effect, from the friends of the Established Church at Denbigh, which would give the noble Earl opposite the opportunity, if he wished it, of making any further observations he liked. He begged to have the petition read; it was signed by the clergy, and all the principal persons, as well as all the poorer persons residing in that place.

Earl Fitzwilliam

hoped it was quite unnecessary for him to assure the noble Lord, that the Universities were not founded with that sort of connexion with the Church which was alleged in the petition; he had meant merely to state, that they were founded in Roman Catholic times. What he meant was, to call their Lordships attention to the allegation of the petitioners, which had been repeated again in the next petition, and in perhaps still stronger terms, viz. that persons who entered the Universities being bound to subscribe to any particular sect of religion, was not consistent with the original foundation of those Universities. He was satisfied, that the petitioners could not make out that proposition, inasmuch as it was perfectly well known, with respect to at least one of them, that the tests which were now required in that University were, if he might so speak, of modern introduction, and therefore it was quite impossible to substantiate the allegations which the petitioners made, that the object of the Universities was to maintain one particular sect of Christianity.

The Duke of Wellington

wished to say one word upon the subject to which the noble Earl had adverted. The noble Earl had stated, that the Universities were not founded for the maintenance of any particular doctrine or sect in religion, and that they were not founded for the exclusive support of the Protestant faith. This was perfectly true, inasmuch as many of the colleges were founded before the Reformation; but he defied the noble Earl to prove, that it ever was the intention of the founders, that any religion but the Christian religion should be taught in those colleges. The Roman Catholic religion, which was formerly the religion of the country, was reformed; and, being reformed, it was introduced, as their Lordships knew, into the Universities. Then it was, that tests of faith were required from the students seeking admission. And what was the nature of those tests? They were simply tests of Christianity, as taught and maintained by the Church of England. This was the nature of the tests which students were required to take; and could it be contended, that such tests were not proper in guarding the admission to Universities founded for the maintenance of the Christian religion. These tests met the concurrence of the noble Earl himself (Earl Fitzwilliam), and of every other noble Lord in that House, so far as concerned their purport. Did the noble Earl mean to say, that these tests against the Catholics, having been necessary at the time of the Reformation, were less necessary now, because of the Catholics having obtained greater power within the last three or four years? He was sure that could not be his argument; but, if it was, he was sure that House would not sanction it. When most of the colleges of the Universities were founded, the belief of the country was different from what it afterwards became. The truth was not discovered until afterwards, and then, of course, those learned bodies were bound to take measures and precautions for the propagation of what was believed to be the true faith. He should like to know from the noble Earl, whether he meant to say, that any thing but the truth was to be taught at the Universities?

Earl Fitzwilliam

said, the noble Duke had advanced one or two propositions to which, and he hoped the noble Duke would forgive him, he should endeavour to call the attention of the House. The noble Duke said, that the greater part of those colleges were founded in Roman Catholic times. That he (Earl Fitzwilliam) admitted. But the noble Duke also said, that, at the period of the Reformation, those tests which were now complained of had been imposed. They certainly were not then imposed in the University of Cambridge. He would not speak of the University over which the noble Duke presided; but those tests, he was certain, were not introduced into Cambridge until long after the Reformation. Until the noble Duke showed, that the Reformation took place in the time of James 1st and James 2nd, he could not justly contend, that those tests were imposed at the time of the Reformation. But the noble Duke said, that those persons who were educated at the University, when they took those tests declared, that they fully believed in the reformed religion, as opposed to that which had been superseded. Now, vast numbers of persons in this country held, that the Reformation was but half a reformation, and they would find that opinion very prevalent on the other side of the Tweed. It was perfectly absurd to say, that the Protestant religion, properly so called, was imposed, if he might use the expression, on those who came to the Universities, and were required to take certain tests. It was no renunciation of Popery they were called on to make. They were required to sign thirty-nine articles, containing various propositions, many of them connected with subjects of a deep, subtle, and metaphysical character. So abstruse were they, that he was certain that ninety-nine out of 100 students who entered at Oxford—yes, that ninety-nine out of 100 of those young men who were called on to subscribe those articles, did not comprehend them. Would the noble Baron (Kenyon) tell him, that young men of nineteen years of age, going to enter at Oxford, understood and comprehended the doctrines of free-will, of necessity, of transubstantiation, and a great many other propositions equally difficult? Would the noble Baron get up, and tell him, that very young men, coming from Eton or Westminster, could understand all those subjects, most of them, he might say, embracing points on which many of their Lordships themselves had not perhaps formed a determined and steadfast opinion? It was not possible to suppose, that they should understand them, and yet they were called on to sign those articles.

Lord Kenyon

was enabled, as a member of the University of Oxford, to give a practical denial to the charges of the noble Earl who had just sat down. A right rev. Prelate near the noble Earl would tell him, that his opinions were entirely founded in error. When latterly his own son was entered at the University of Oxford, he was called upon to subscribe the Thirty-nine Articles. The meaning of his so subscribing them, however, was explained to him in a manner very different from the explanation of the noble Earl. The tutor told him distinctly, that he did not call upon him to say, that he understood the Thirty-nine Articles, but simply that he was willing to receive instructions respecting them. He had subsequently, the gratification to hear that his two sons had attended to the instruction offered to them, and fully comprehended the meaning of all the Articles they had signed. Whether he (Lord Kenyon) had himself understood the meaning of these articles or not, when he entered the University, he would not pretend to say; but he would say, that he was at that time fully as competent to enter into discussion upon them as the noble Earl seemed to be at present; and, at a proper time and place, he should be willing to enter into the controversy with the noble Earl. There was an irregularity in the prayer of the petition he had presented, and he should therefore withdraw it.

The Bishop of London

begged to trouble their Lordships with one or two observations, having been alluded to by the noble Lord who had last spoken. The noble Earl (Earl Fitzwilliam) had told their Lordships, that few in that House understood the meaning of the Thirty-nine Articles. He (the Bishop of London) had certainly very distinctly traced the unacquaintance of the noble Earl with those Articles. As he had taken and subscribed them, he was bound now to be acquainted with their meaning.—[Earl Fitzwilliam had not subscribed them.] At all events, the noble Earl was a sincere member of the Church of England, and as the Thirty-Nine Articles contained the doctrines of the Church of England, he ought to be acquainted with them. The noble Earl had said, that the Thirty-nine Articles did not contain a renunciation of the errors of Popery. On the contrary, he begged leave to state, that each of these Articles emphatically denied some one of the erroneous doctrines of the Church of Rome. He wished to make one remark upon the assertion, that the religion of the country had been changed by the Reformation. That, he humbly conceived, was not a proper mode of stating the effect of the Reformation. The national religion upon that occasion was rather purified than changed. It was not denied, that these colleges were bound to teach Christianity. As they were connected with the State, were they not bound to teach it according to the belief of the Church of England? If the Dissenters should be forced, eo nomine, upon the Universities, their character would be completely changed.

Earl Fitzwilliam

had not said, that an assent to the Thirty-nine Articles did not amount to a renunciation of Popery; but it was not necessarily so. He had merely maintained, that the majority of that House did not fully understand the meaning of those Articles. For one, he had no hesitation in avowing, that he did not understand them; and questions of so much metaphysical abstruseness and subtlety were involved in them, that he doubted if any noble Lord could get up and conscientiously declare, that he felt no difficulty on the subject.

The Bishop of Exeter

did not wish to prolong the discussion; but he could not avoid entering his protest against the noble Earl's statement, that the Thirty-nine Articles would admit of various interpretations. The object of those who drew them up was, to make them as precise and intelligible as possible. As to a young man of sixteen being required to subscribe to them, and not understanding them, the student always placed implicit confidence in his tutor to teach him the meaning of them, and that had been the answer upon all occasions to the objections that had been urged against them. That answer had always been considered as a triumphant one. The objection was a very old one, and it had always been met as he then met it, and in a manner which was considered to be conclusive. Many years ago, in Parliament, the same objection had been brought forward by Sir W. Meredith, who was answered by Lord North. It had really always been laughed down for its absurdity, and as undeserving a single observation in reply. The question had fallen in the way of Dr. Johnson, who encountered it in the conclusive and convincing manner in which he was accustomed to meet every matter of controversy. Nothing more amusing could be imagined than to see the noble Earl stand up in such an argument against Samuel Johnson. In the sense to which he had referred, it had always been declared by tutors at College that the Thirty-nine Articles ought to be received and in none other; and it was unjust and absurd to contend that the contrary was the understanding.

Earl Fitzwilliam

was surprised, that the right reverend Prelate should have advocated and sanctioned such a practice as that which he had stated, which called upon undergraduates to subscribe to one thing, while they professed another, ["No, no."] He (Earl Fitzwilliam) would say, "Yes, yes;" for, if the statements of the right reverend Prelate meant anything, they meant that. He knew not how amusing it might be to the right reverend Prelate to see him (Earl Fitzwilliam) enter into argument with such a man as Dr. Johnson; but he thought few things could be much more amusing than to see a right reverend Prelate get up and declare that it was right for a young man to subscribe to what he did not pretend to understand or mean. The right reverend Prelate had begged the question from beginning to end, and had made himself quite as amusing upon this as he had upon a former occasion.

The Earl of Winchilsea

thought the noble Earl had formed extremely erroneous notions of what the right reverend Prelate had stated. What he had said was, that the under-graduates were called upon to subscribe to the Thirty-nine Articles, reliance being placed on their tutors to impress upon them their effect. These Articles were chiefly as a test of the willingness of the student to become a proficient in the doctrines of the Church of England. The Roman Catholics had seminaries for the instruction of their priests. Why should not the Church of England have institutions for the instruction of their clergy? If the House were to take from the Established Church those liberties which she now possessed, they would place her in a worse situation than any body of Dissenters in the kingdom. No young man, upon subscribing the Thirty-nine Articles, could be supposed to assert, that he understood all they contained. There were questions in religion beyond the narrow comprehension of man's understanding altogether.

The Archbishop of Canterbury

would not have said one word on this subject, but for the harsh and unjust observations of the noble Earl (Earl Fitzwilliam) upon the right reverend Prelate, (the Bishop of Exeter). From the tone of the noble Earl's animadversions, it might be supposed, that the spirit of the Jesuits of old animated the observations of the right reverend Prelate. He (the Archbishop of Canterbury) might probably fall under the same obloquy; but he should feel, that he was a miserable creature if he did not come forward and add his word in a case in which the truth was in jeopardy. He did not know that it was necessary for him to say, that he concurred entirely in all that had fallen from the right reverend Prelate who had just spoken, and he need not tell their Lordships, that the right reverend Prelate's construction of the rules of the University of Oxford was the true one. The most reverend Prelate then read certain parts of the statutes of the University of Oxford, which required students to subscribe to the Articles of Faith, and to acknowledge the King's supremacy, from which it appeared they were compelled to subscribe to the Articles of Faith and Religion at the age of twelve years, but were not to take the Oath of Supremacy and Fidelity until they arrived at the age of sixteen. It required a great deal of knowledge to comprehend the Articles of the Church, and it was, therefore, not to be supposed that students entering the Universities were required to have a full understanding of their doctrines, but were only declaring a general belief in them as members of the Church of England. So, when children were asked if they were Christians, and to say the Belief, he apprehended that it was not expected of them that they entirely comprehended the declaration of the Creed at that time, but only that they were ready to adopt it as it should be taught them, until their minds acquired the power of examination. The duty of requiring subscription to the Articles from students was imposed upon the tutors of youth at the University in this sense. This was required of the tutors, who were bound to watch over the morals of the students committed to their charge, and to instruct them in their duties, more particularly in their religious duties, and in the Articles of Doctrine agreed to in Council in the year 1562. After looking at these directions, which he was enabled to say were at Oxford most fully and faithfully obeyed, he did not know how any one could say, that the subscription of the Articles by students implied a belief in all their doctrines. It was only a declaration that they were members of the Church of England, and that they were desirous and willing to be instructed in its doctrines. When the subscription was made by persons undertaking the ministry of the Church, then, indeed, he understood that such persons subscribed to the Thirty-nine Articles their full belief in all that they contained, and not as in the case of the child or student.

Petition withdrawn, being irregular.