HL Deb 04 July 1882 vol 271 cc1354-81

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


in moving that the Bill be now read a second time, said: My Lords, it will be in the recollection of the House that at an early period of the Session—now three months ago—the attention of your Lordships was called to the question of Parliamentary Oaths by no less an authority than the noble Earl the Chairman of Committees (the Earl of Redesdale). Although the proposal then made by the noble Earl did not receive the sanction of the House, and although, indeed, I might safely say that after debate it did not commend itself to the judgment of any portion of the House, yet I am sure that it was not felt that my noble Friend had opened the subject unduly, or had proposed to interfere with a state of the law which was highly satisfactory. My noble Friend, whose earnestness and sincerity of character are well known, was evidently moved by deep concern for the grave scandals which have arisen under the present law, and for the still graver scandals which are likely to arise in the future. I am not surprised at the terms of the Motion in opposition to this Bill which is about to be moved by my noble Friend opposite (the Earl of Carnarvon). I perfectly understand the attitude of mind in regard to this subject which is represented by the Amendment of my noble Friend. How should I not understand it when, up to a late period, it had been the attitude of my own mind with respect to it? Of course, in the year 1880, like others, and especially the Members of the Government, I knew the discussions which arose out of the existing state of the Parliamentary Oaths Act; and, like others, I foresaw the inevitable result. Looking at the condition of our society, looking at the condition of the Christian world with regard to these questions of Atheism and of Deism, and of speculative opinions on such subjects—I foresaw the inevitable result of a contest on this subject; but I am bound to say that so distasteful to my mind was the conclusion which I saw to be inevitable, that I was glad to take refuge, as my noble Friend opposite wishes this House to take refuge, in procrastination and delay. When conclusions are presented to us which, we deeply dislike, it is natural to take refuge in delay; and I am bound to confess that I would willingly fall back upon the belief that the Parliamentary Oaths Act was not a question likely at present to be raised in the House of Lords, and I was very glad to leave it to those Members of the Government who are Members of that House in which the question was raised. But, my Lords, subsequent events, and, I am bound to add, the speeches made in this House upon the Bill of my noble Friend the Chairman of Committees, have compelled me to give fresh attention to the subject; and I am now bound to the deep conviction that nothing more injurious than the present state of the law could exist to the character and reputation of public men and the dignity of Parliament, and, above all, to the interests of morality and religion. My Lords, this is the conclusion which I am here to-night to support in the hearing of this House, and, through this House, in the hearing of the people of England. I wish to direct the attention of the House, first, to the question, What is the law? and, secondly, to the question, What is the application of that law to the existing state of facts before us? During the time which has elapsed since I gave this Notice, I have been overwhelmed with letters from all sorts of persons; but I have observed this with regard to them, that in almost every case the writer seemed to be very imperfectly informed, or totally uninformed, as to the state of the present law, and as to its bearing upon the facts of our Parliamentary experience. Let me, in the first place, direct the attention of the House to the state of the existing law. The Parliamentary Oath, as it now stands, is regulated principally by the Act of 1866, which establishes the Oath of Allegiance, which is familiar to your Lordships. After providing for that Oath, the Act of 1866, in the 4th clause, says— Every person of the persuasion of the people called Quakers, and every other person for the time being by law permitted to make a solemn affirmation or declaration, instead of taking the Oath, may make a solemn affirmation or declaration. In the year 1869 another Act was passed, not with reference directly to the Parliamentary Oaths, but in regard to evidence given before Courts of Justice; and the terms of that Act are these—and it is very important that the Hours should attend to the words—it provides in the Preamble that in Courts of Justice the object is the discovery of the truth— Whereas the discovery of the truth has been signally promoted by the removal of restrictions upon the admissibility of witnesses; and it provides that— If any person called to give evidence in any Court of Justice, whether in a civil or criminal proceeding, shall object to take the Oath, or shall be objected to as incompetent to take the Oath, such person shall, if the presiding Judge is satisfied that the taking of the Oath would have no binding effect on his conscience, make the following declaration. Now, my Lords, this was the state of the law when these circumstances arose which called the attention of Parliament to the subject. Several friends of mine, with reference to the Notice I have given, have warned me that I was undertaking a very difficult task; because, although they agreed with me in the abstract proposal I was about to make, they thought I should dissociate the abstract merits of the Oath from those circumstances and personal cases which have raised so much scandal in the land. My Lords, I know too well the nature of the Assembly which I have the honour to address to suppose that I should gain anything by an artificial statement of the question; and besides, instead of those circumstances militating against the argument which I have now the honour to address to this House, in my opinion there could be nothing so conclusive as showing the evil of the present Oath as applicable to the existing condition of matters. Therefore, the House must allow me to go in some detail into the narrative of the circumstances. In doing so, I shall refer merely to what appears in the Journals of the House of Parliament which are accessible to us, and will say nothing of the words spoken in that Assembly. On the 3rd of May, 1880, one of the Members for Northampton came to the Table of the House of Commons and laid upon the Table the following written demand:— I, the undersigned Charles Bradlaugh, beg respectfully to claim to be allowed to affirm as 'a person for the time being by Law permitted to make a solemn Affirmation or Declaration instead of taking an Oath.' Now, when laying that Paper on the Table of the House, he was asked by the Clerk upon what Statute, or in virtue of what law, he made that claim? His reply was, that he made it by virtue of the Evidence Amendment Acts, 1869 and 1870, the terms of which I have just read to the House. Thereupon the Member for Northampton was informed by the Speaker that, it being a matter of grave doubt whether his claim could be admitted, he would be permitted to address the House of Commons in support of it; whereupon the Member for Northampton used these words— I have repeatedly for nine years past affirmed in the highest Courts of Jurisdiction in this Realm. Your Lordships will now observe the effect of these formal declarations of the Member for Northampton. It put the House of Commons in formal and official possession of the fact that the Member for Northampton was an Atheist, upon whose conscience an Oath had no binding effect. He pleaded his right to affirm under the Evidence Amendment Act, and that Act allows a man to take the Affirmation instead of the Oath if the Judge presiding in Court shall be of opinion that an Oath has no binding effect upon him. The result, therefore, of these declarations of Mr. Bradlaugh was clearly to place the House of Commons in possession of the fact that he was an individual upon whom an Oath in itself had no binding effect. Therefore, the House of Commons appointed a Committee to consider the claim made by Mr. Bradlaugh to affirm in the House of Commons under the Evidence Amendment Act. That Committee reported in the following terms:— That, in the opinion of the Committee, persons entitled under the provisions of the Evidence Amendment Act (1869–70) to make a solemn declaration or affirmation instead of an oath in Courts of Justice, cannot he permitted to make a Declaration or Affirmation in place of an Oath in the House of Commons. The Committee came to that finding by a majority of 2, but still by a majority, that Mr. Bradlaugh had no right under that particular Statute—that he was not competent as one of the persons who under that Statute had the privilege of substituting an Affirmation for an Oath. Now, my Lords, the next step was that the Member for Northampton, finding that he was precluded from affirming, made an endeavour to take the Oath. That being objected to, a second Committee was appointed by the House of Commons to consider whether Mr. Bradlaugh was entitled, after the Declaration he had made at the Table of the House, to swear as an ordinary Member. That Committee reported as follows:— Your Committee are of opinion that under the circumstances (that, of course, refers to the Declaration which had been made by Mr. Bradlaugh), the taking of an Oath by Sir. Bradlaugh would not be the taking of an Oath within the meaning of the Statute, and, therefore, the House can, and in the opinion of the Committee ought, to prevent Mr. Bradlaugh from, going through this form. But they recommended that, in order to test the legal question, the Member for Northampton should be allowed to affirm, subject to the penalty which anyone might sue for in a Court of Justice. The House did not at first adopt the recommendation of the Committee. On the contrary, they came to the resolution on the 23rd of June that they would not allow the Member for Northampton either to swear or to affirm. But on the 1st of July, 1880, I believe under the influence of the Government, the House of Commons came to a contrary Resolution. That Resolution was as follows:— That every person returned as a Member of this House, who may claim to be a person for the time being by Law permitted to make a solemn Affirmation or Declaration instead of taking an Oath, shall henceforth be permitted, without question, to make and subscribe a solemn Affirmation subject to any liability by Statute; and this Resolution was not only passed by the House of Commons, but it was subsequently passed and made a Standing Order of the House. Your Lordships will thus see that, so far as the House of Commons is concerned, the law of the House of Commons is that in future any Member may come to the Table and ask to be allowed to affirm without any question being put to him, either by the Clerk or by the Speaker, subject to any penalty by Statute. I do not think now what may be the final effect of this Resolution; but it appears to me it is a Resolution in virtue of which the House of Commons has absolutely disclaimed, as a House, the duty of maintaining the present law, which refuses Mr. Bradlaugh, and such as Mr. Bradlaugh, the right to affirm. In virtue of that Resolution, Mr. Bradlaugh came forward to take the Affirmation. He was allowed to take the Affirmation without question, and in virtue of that he sat and voted for five months in the House of Commons. The legal question was then raised by a private person. It was brought before a regular tribunal in the form of a suit. The next step was the decision of the Court—namely, the Court of Queen's Bench. Mr. Justice Mathew, who delivered the decision, held that the Evidence Amendment Act applied only to the class of persons who were allowed to make an Affirmation instead of an Oath, and that the Parliamentary Oath was not within the purview of that Act. The question was brought before the Court of Appeal, which confirmed the decision of the Queen's Bench Division. The decision of the Court of Appeal was delivered by three eminent Judges who presided over it. Your Lordships have now the honour of having as a Member of your House the noble and learned Lord (Lord Bramwell), who first delivered judgment, and whom I believe I have the honour of addressing to-night. The noble and learned Lord said he thought it was perfectly plain that the defendant was not entitled to affirm, or to declare, by virtue of the Act, for the further amendment of the Law of Evidence. The same decision was given by Lords Justices Baggallay and Lush. Though the decision of these two Courts was quite unanimous, an opposite opinion was maintained in the Committee of the House of Commons, which included both the Law Officers of the Crown, two eminent Queen's Counsel, and, I believe, another eminent lawyer. In the Courts of Law, the Judges had not the least doubt about the question. We are entering upon a period of political agitation and speculation, in which these rights and obligations of men are subjected to the closest scrutiny from many different points of view; and I confess I am not a little alarmed by the arguments which have been addressed by many eminent lawyers in regard to some of these matters. I gather from the fact that these eminent lawyers have given their opinion upon this question, differing so materially from those of the Judges, that we cannot safely trust this question to the decision of any body or any legal authority, except the trained and responsible interpreters of the law. I must say I envy the position of the noble and learned Lords who, on that Bench, have sometimes to deal with arguments which have been clearly governed by circumstances of political convenience or popular feeling. I now ask your Lordships to look to the effect of the decision which I have brought under the consideration of the House. It is now settled that under the existing law no person can come to the Table of either House of Parliament and claim the right to substitute an Affirmation for an Oath, because there are certain Atheists to whom the privilege has been given of making an Affirmation instead of taking an Oath in Courts of Justice. The contest now entirely turns on the question whether these Atheists can or cannot be allowed to swear? It is perfectly true that the Committee of the House of Commons decided that an Atheist, who had declared himself so at the Table of the House, was not entitled to swear. But, remember, that the decision had reference solely to the fact that he had made that declaration in that Parliament, and at the Table of the House, confessing that he had claimed the right to affirm as an Atheist in a Court of Justice. Remember that the Committee distinctly disavowed any right on the part of the House to cross-question any man in regard to his religious belief. This is a most important matter, and I beg the attention of the House to it. The Committee, when they found a verdict against Mr. Bradlaugh's right to swear, said that their decision did not imply that the House of Commons possessed any power to interrogate any Member desiring to take the Oath of Allegiance upon any subject connected with his religious belief, or upon the question whether the Oath would bind his conscience. The decision of the House of Commons, refusing Mr. Bradlaugh the right to swear, was founded, and founded alone, upon the fact that he had been misinformed as to the legal effect of the Evidence Amendment Act, and, under the influence of that mistake, he had unadvisedly confessed that he was an Atheist, and that the Oath was not binding upon him. The result is, that for the future—and I beg your Lordships to look to this—there will be no impediment whatever in the way of Mr. Bradlaugh, or any other Atheist, to take the Oath at the Table of the House. The House of Commons has repudiated any right to interrogate any man as to his religious belief; and I am sure your Lordships will feel and see, if you choose to pursue the question, that it would be impossible to admit that right, because no man knows where it would stop, or how far such an interrogation might go. We have, therefore, this fact clearly before us—that the exclusion of Mr. Bradlaugh, in respect to taking the Oath, is a purely accidental exclusion. There is some doubt as to whether it applies even in his case, after he has been re-elected, because he returns a new man; and it is possible that, in the interval of time, he may become convinced of the reality of God, and might be willing to take the Oath under the belief in a God; but the House of Commons has ruled against that view of the question. There is no doubt whatever of this—that in a new Parliament, or a new constituency, where an Atheist may be elected, he would have nothing more to do than to take warning of the accidents and the calamity in which Mr. Bradlaugh fell, in making an illegal claim, and then he would be perfectly free and open to become a Member of the House of Commons. I will not stop to inquire whether those are right or wrong who have expressed such great blame on Mr. Bradlaugh for the course which he has chosen to take in offering to take an Oath in the sanctity of which he did not believe. It would be a waste of the time of this House. I know of no standard by which to judge of the immorality of a man who has persuaded himself to say in his heart that "there is no God." I do not deny that he may have a standard of his own. He may have that standard founded on the utilitarian theory of morals, which, as a matter of speculation, at any rate, has recommended itself to many powerful minds. He may have a standard derived from those traditional feelings of virtue and of honour which I believe come to us mainly from the Christian faith, and which may dwell in many minds after that faith has been abandoned, just as the light at this time of the year lingers after the sun has set. But these are questions into which it is no use to enter. But this I am bound to say in reference to the conduct of such a man—that if he proclaims beforehand and out of the House, although not in it, that he takes the Oath as a mere form, he does something at least to set himself right with the honour and conscience of mankind. There are others, whom I confess I am surprised at, who say they are indifferent to the fact that Mr. Bradlaugh was willing to take the Oath, although not believing in the existence of a God. I believe in the language which has been held on this subject by a man who, I believe, as much as any other, represents, I am happy to say, the feelings and consciences of the working classes of this country, many of whom stray loose from Christianity. I do not know whether your Lordships noticed some weeks ago a letter from Mr. Holyoake in one of our weekly journals, in which he speaks of the indifference with which many public men seem to regard the fact that Mr. Bradlaugh was willing to come to the Table of the House of Commons and take this Oath, although he believed that the words "So help me God" were an empty form. Mr. Holyoake says Petitions are sent from many towns—I wonder whether any Petitions presented against my Bill come from the same towns which have presented Petitions to which Mr. Holyoake refers. Petitions are sent from many towns praying that a Member may take the Oath who does not believe in its terms; and a Nonconformist minister—I omit his name, because I do not wish to introduce personalities in this discussion—has entreated the House of Commons to assent to it, and several other ministers have taken part in demanding that this shall be done. Now, what does Mr. Holyoake say?— The Jesuits have never openly maintained a doctrine more intrinsically immoral than this. The one principle by which Christianity has commanded the respect even of dissentients has been its profession that truth is higher than any consequence. And he went on to say— The legal doctrine of Parliament is, that every Member has a right to take the Oath who is willing to take it; but that right assumes at the same time that he who takes it believes in its terms. I entirely agree with Mr. Holyoake, and I point to the fact which he points to—that Nonconformist congregations with- out number, and towns in considerable number, have sent Petitions to Parliament asking that Mr. Bradlaugh should be allowed to take the Oath, without uttering or feeling any compunction whatever as to the scandalous immorality of the transaction. Let us look at the demoralizing effect of the present state of the law. Let me go from Mr. Holyoake to a much more distinguished man—so distinguished a man, I think I may say so great a man, as Mr. John Stuart Mill. I am not one of Mr. John Stuart Mill's disciples. I dissent from many of his views, and I think there is much mischief in many of his writings; but no man can have studied those writings, no man can have known him personally, as I had the honour to do, without feeling that Mr. John Stuart Mill was a very high-minded man, and a very pure-minded man, and what you find him saying is a significant indication of what an honourable man will be brought to think and say in respect to taking the Oath under certain circumstances. Mr. John Stuart Mill, in answer to a question which was put to him by Mr. Holyoake, says distinctly— You may justly take to yourself (addressing Mr. Holyoake) a good share of the credit of having brought about things up to the point at which the Evidence Amendment Act was passed. With regard to taking the Oath, I conceive that when a man has made that a condition of the performance of a public duty, he may take it without dishonour, although he is a person who avowedly feels no binding force in the religious part of the formality. I confess I was shocked by the views and opinions of Mr. John Stuart Mill. I agree with Mr. Holyoake that it has an immoral effect, and that it has a demoralizing effect upon the public mind. Now, this is the position of affairs before us. Whatever be the fate of Mr. Bradlaugh in this particular Parliament or in this particular Session—whatever may be the decision of the legal tribunals with regard to this, the fact is quite certain that, in a new Parliament, and in other new constituencies where any Atheist may be elected, he may come to the Table of the House of Commons and take the Oath without a single question being put to him; and the House, having repudiated the right of asking questions with regard to occurrences outside the walls of St. Stephen's, even Mr. Bradlaugh may in future Parliaments come to the House immediately after speaking in opposition to our holy religion, and claim to take the Oath, and no one would have a right to ask him a question about his belief. It is no wonder that my noble Friend the Chairman of Committees (the Earl of Redesdale) was scandalized at the present state of the law and the prospect which was before us. My Lords, let me direct the attention of the House to this fact—that the Bill which was introduced by my noble Friend was a public confession that the present Oath could not prevent an infidel taking his seat in Parliament. The very title of that Bill was—"An Act to make Provision to exclude Atheists from taking part in the Legislation of this Country." If the present law excluded Atheists, there was no need of my noble Friend's Bill. It was quite certain that the present law could not exclude Atheists; and here let me observe that, whilst this Oaths Bill will certainly not exclude Atheists, it is just possible it may exclude someone. If that fact be kept in view, only two courses appear to be open to us. It is perfectly certain we cannot stay where we are; it would be revolting to the public conscience, and lead to consequences still more revolting. There are, therefore, but two courses open. The one is to follow the course recommended by my noble Friend, and to invent a new religious test to be added to the present Oath; the other is to give up the pretence that Parliamentary Oaths can be made actually effective to prevent Atheists entering Parliament. The Bill of my noble Friend was really one to convert the Parliamentary Oath into a religious test. The very minimum effect of such a proposal would be to provide a preliminary declaration of the belief in the existence of an Almighty God. The first objection which recommends itself to my mind is this—that the mere declaration of a belief in a God is of no value in itself whatever. I hope no Member of this House will suppose I intend to say that the belief in the existence of God is not of the greatest use as the foundation stone of religious belief; but what I say is this—that the bare declaration of a belief in the existence of a Divine Being, and without reference to His attributes and His power, is of no value whatever. In saying this, I need not remind your Lordships that I do not use language which is incon- sistent with the most solemn declarations of the Divine law. The Creeds and Confessions of the Christian Churches do all universally proceed to add to their faith in a God certain doctrines with regard to His attributes and character. We are told in the Divine Word that we must not only "believe that He is, but that He is the Rewarder of all they that diligently seek Him." I may remind the House that we now know that no less distinguished a man than Mr. John Stuart Mill was inclined to believe in the existence of a Divine Being, but distinctly held the view that He was not omnipotent; and yet Mr. John Stuart Mill took the Oath without the smallest reluctance, and sat for several Sessions in the House of Commons. In my opinion, this is not a fit medium for a religious test. The Oath taken in the Northern part of this country, in Scotland, is much more solemn in its form than the English Oath, respecting which we are discussing the present proposal. Nothing can be more solemn than the Scottish Oath, or approach more nearly to a declaration of religious belief. No one who has seen the Oath administered in a Scottish Court of Justice can ever forget the solemnity and impressiveness of the scene. The Judge says to the witness— Hold up your hand and repeat after me these words—'I swear to Almighty God, as I shall answer to him at the Great Day of Judgment, that I shall speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.' That is something more near a declaration of religious belief than the mere words "I swear," and "So help me God" at the end. The alternative of making the Oath a real religious test was objected to in the debate by two distinguished Members of this House—one was my noble Friend opposite (the Earl of Shaftesbury), who of all men is entitled to speak for the working classes of this country; the other was my right rev. Friend—if he would allow me to call him so—who presides over the Diocese of London. My noble Friend (the Earl of Shaftesbury) objected to the proposal on the ground that the working classes were, of all things, jealous about what concerned matters of faith. I believe the time will never come when the services of my noble Friend to the working classes of this country will be forgotten, or that they will ever deviate from those principles which will naturally follow in their minds from the authority of his life, and the belief which it inspires. But what I think my noble Friend meant was that the working classes are especially jealous of the application of Parliamentary law to matters of religious belief. That is an argument which strikes at all attempts to convert the Parliamentary Oath into a religious test. The right rev. Prelate has a higher and still deeper objection; it is—and never did I hear a wiser speech from a Prelate of the Christian Church—that there are many men who may be speculative Atheists, because they have a difficulty in believing in the personality of the Divine Being, and who would object to a question being put to them as to belief in a personal God. And the right rev. Prelate gave it as his solemn advice to the House not to ask those people to commit themselves to this question of doctrine, whether they believed in a God or not; but to leave it to their own consciences. The suggestion occurred to my mind, while the right rev. Prelate was speaking, that I never feel quite sure that there is such a thing in the world as a real, pure Atheist. I always suspect that there is in all the phases of mind of all men some fear, at least, of the awful presence in which we stand; and I am often confirmed in this belief when I see the violent passion with which the negative position is sometimes taken up. Why should there be that passion? Why should there be that heavy sea on that little bit of water? Why is it? Because there is in the minds of most men a kind of real fear, a real feeling that there is a Divine Being who rules over all. On all these grounds, I say we neither can nor ought to convert the Parliamentary Oath into a real test of religious belief. I say that we are driven to the other alternative, and that is—to give up altogether the idea of converting the Parliamentary Oath into a religious test. And so evident was that feeling in the House when my noble Friend brought forward his Bill, that there was but the scantiest attendance of Peers, while the Spiritual Estate was represented by a single Bishop. That was not because they were indifferent; but because they knew that the condition of things made it impossible for such a Bill to pass. What, then, is the value of the present Oath? It is, it may be said, a declaration of belief in a Divine Being, which, you ask from every man. It appears to me that every objection urged against the new declaration proposed by my noble Friend's Bill told against the present Oath, if you put upon it the condition to which I have referred. I say, then, the only alternative is to ask men to give whatever promise you like under whatever form is most binding upon their conscience. That is all the power you have, and I think it is all the power you have a right to ask. The Bill simply extends to all persons who object to take an Oath that declaration which is now allowed to certain religious sects. There is a curious anomaly in the present state of the law in regard to these sects. Not only are Quakers, Moravians, Separatists, and others specially allowed to make an Affirmation, but also individuals who have been members of those bodies. But if a man has been ejected from these bodies for grossly immoral conduct, or has abandoned their particular form of religion, he, under existing law, would be a privileged man, and would be allowed to make an Affirmation which honest objectors to an Oath, not a member of these bodies, would not be allowed to do. This Bill meets both classes of objections; it simply provides that all persons may make an Affirmation to whom the Oath is objectionable upon any ground whatever. It would include all those now excluded. It would include Atheists without the necessity of making them go through the form of taking the Oath, and would simply exact the promise required by Parliament in the form of a solemn Affirmation, which is binding upon the conscience of the man who takes it. There is one objection which I have heard stated to the Bill since I gave Notice of it, to which I am bound to make some reference. It is a very plausible objection, and one which, if well founded, would be a great objection to my own mind. I think very likely it may tell in the minds of some noble Lords opposite, as well as noble Lords who sit on this side of the House—I have heard it stated in private by a noble Earl sitting on this side of the House—that at the present moment it appears as if this House were inclined to decide in favour of Mr. Bradlaugh, the Member for Northampton, against the majority of the House of Commons who wish to keep him out. I should say that is an objection which, if it were true, is not fatal, because this House has a perfect right to take its own opinion. The other House may express its own opinion and reject the Bill. This House is perfectly entitled to have its own opinion, and if it comes to the conclusion that the present state of the law is demoralizing to the public mind, the House has a right to express its opinion. But I am bound to say that if it appeared at the present moment to be so, I should think it a very serious objection to the Bill. But your Lordships will see it is an entire misapprehension of the fact. The House of Commons had had three contentions with the Member for Northampton, and, in my humble opinion, the majority of the House of Commons has been absolutely right in every one of them. The first contention was that Mr. Bradlaugh, under the existing laws, had no right to affirm. That contention of the majority of the House of Commons has been sanctioned by the highest legal Court of Appeal in this country. The majority of the House of Commons have a right to prevent Mr. Bradlaugh, under the existing law, from coming forward to the Table to affirm. The next contention was that after the declaration he had made at the Table, the House had a right to say that the taking of the Oath by him would be invalid; that his oath was no oath, and that it was not binding on his conscience. That is not a question which can be submitted to Courts of Law. It is a question which the House of Commons, judging of its own honour, has a right to decide. Although my opinion is of no importance in the matter, yet I bring forward my Bill entirely concurring in the opinion of the majority of the House of Commons that, under the circumstances of the case, they were right in preventing Mr. Bradlaugh from taking the Oath. Then the next contention was in respect of discipline. Mr. Bradlaugh was ejected from the House of Commons for conduct strictly contumacious. That action had no reference whatever either to the question of affirming or swearing; but simply with reference to the conduct of Mr. Bradlaugh at the Table of the House of Commons. Nothing in this Bill can interfere, or ought to interfere, with the discipline of the House of Com- mons in respect of its own Members; and I should like to add this, that, of course, we have no right to anticipate what may or may not take place in the other House in the future. On the 10th of March Mr. Bradlaugh circulated by post—it came to me by post, and I suppose it came to other noble Lords—a most violent and scurrilous attack upon the House of Commons in consequence of the vote of the 6th of March. I will not take up the time of the House by reading any part of that address. It was called "An Address to the Majority of the House of Commons," and, as far as I can judge, it is full of matter insulting to the House of Commons; and if the House should be of that opinion, there is nothing whatever in this Bill, or in any Bill which we would pass, which would prevent the House of Commons from continuing the exclusion of this particular Member on the ground of discipline. I will only add, in conclusion, that I have understood from the outset the attitude of mind that finds expression in the Amendment of my noble Friend opposite, and I hope that my noble Friend will not decline to consider the Bill from my point of view. I believe I have proved that the present state of the law does not exclude Atheists from Parliament. I have proved, secondly, that it is an inducement and inseparable temptation to Atheists to desecrate the Oath at the Table of the House of Commons. I have proved, therefore, that the present state of the law is most injurious to public morals, and I think I have done something to show that it has affected injuriously Parliament itself. I submit, then, that there is no other alternative before us than to abandon the religious test altogether. Now, what is the Amendment of my noble Friend? He does not meet my Bill in the face. He does not say it is expedient to maintain the present Oath, because it excludes Atheists from Parliament. It is entirely with reference to temporary circumstances that my noble Friend asks the House to retreat from the adoption of this Bill. Now, my Lords, with these tremendous evils before us, and these greater evils which may be to come, it appears to me that this is simply flying from the inevitable conclusion. It is saying, "A little more sleep, a little more slumber, a little more folding of the hands in sleep." For a few months, possibly for a few years, you may have an interval during which Atheists without a word of question will take the most solemn Oath at the Table of either House of Parliament, and the New Testament will be kissed by other Bradlaughs. Is that a condition of things which this House is contented to allow to continue to exist for an hour longer? I am not. It is to prevent that state of things—the possibility of sacrilege of our holiest religion from being transacted at the Table of either House of Parliament—that I now move the second reading of this Bill.

Moved, "That the Bill be now read2a."—(The Duke of Argyll.)


rose to move, as an Amendment— That nothing has arisen in the proceedings of this House which makes it expedient at this time to propose a change in the existing Parliamentary Oath. He admitted that there were many and great recommendations in favour of the course which his noble Friend asked the House to take. He had the recommendation of his own great oratory, of which he was an admired master in the House; he could point to the present state of the law, to its most unsatisfactory condition and to its anomalies, and could describe the abominable profanation that had recently occurred; and last, but by no means least, he could produce a very short Bill—an achievement which in these days had no small merit in the eyes of Parliament. He could make his noble Friend a present of many of the arguments he had used, and would go so far as to admit that the existing Oath did not give an effectual security against the admission of Atheists to Parliament. He would concede at once the justice of all his noble Friend had said as to the profanity that had been perpetrated in the other House, and as to the way in which religion had been trampled under foot; and he would admit that currency had been given to destestable opinions out-of-doors. Those of his noble Friend's premisses he admitted willingly, but he could not accept the conclusion that had been drawn from them. Granted that the present state of things was bad; granted that the future prospect was bad also; the admission constituted no reason for wholly doing away with that which, after all, gave a certain security for morals and religion. His arguments were substantially three—first of all, he did not think that the measure in itself was one that could be accepted; secondly, even if it were, this was not the place to consider it; and, thirdly, this was not the time when such a Bill ought to be adopted. He discarded altogether the supposed objection that their Lordships, by accepting this Bill, would disagree with a majority of the House of Commons. There was a very serious objection to the Bill in the fact that it was an optional Bill, and that it would place a believer under the obligation to take the Oath, while it would exempt the Atheist from any such obligation. If there were to be legislation at all, it ought to be uniform; it certainly ought not to be optional, giving the privilege to those to whom it was least desirable to give it. This was not the place in which such a measure ought to be passed, because the difficulty had arisen in the House of Commons. For a long time past there had been a wise comity between the two Houses, which had hindered one from interfering in the transactions and affairs of the other, and he would be slow to disturb such a relation. His noble Friend might say, as his speech implied, that it was for the advantage of the House of Commons that this House should step in and extricate them from that difficulty. He was not sure that that might not be regarded as a dangerous interference. On one occasion this year, at the instance of the Prime Minister, a Vote of Censure was passed upon this House because they had interfered with certain matters; and he thought it was wise in a case like this that they should not stir up division. But even if this were the right measure and the right place, he should strongly demur to its being the right time. His noble Friend was far too experienced a politician, much too great a master of oratory, not to know that he would have served his case very much better had he been able to dissociate it from the case of Mr. Bradlaugh. He believed his noble Friend would have had the opinion of the House upon the abstract merits alone; but do what he would, he could not dissociate this Bill in the mind of the House from the case of Mr. Bradlaugh. If they passed this Bill, they passed a Relief Bill for Mr. Bradlaugh, and who was he to whom Parliament was invited to grant this relief? Was it the case of one with a tender conscience, scruples, conscientious doubts? It was one who had avowed himself an Atheist, and then expressed his readiness to take the Oath, though he knew that it could have no binding effect on his conscience. It was one who had not confined himself to this, but who, far and wide through the country, had shocked the whole moral sense of the community, had shocked the public decency, and had offended all those who, in the simplicity of their hearts and in the quiet of their homes, desired to worship the God of their fathers, as previous generations had done. With this Bill indissolubly connected with such a man they had a right to ask whether it was a case in which the House ought to interpose. The Bill touched the whole foundations of civil government. There was a time when this country was of one single religion; that time had passed away, and they had widened the area to the cases of Nonconformists, Catholics, and Jews; but they had preserved the common ground that all recognized one Father, the sanction of whose name they were willing to invoke in public acts. For his own part, he believed that when once a country became godless, its legislation could not be wise; and when once the fear of God ceased to be, the fear of man would not be of very long existence. Hitherto, in every public act, they had not been ashamed to appeal to the name and the sanction of God. Even in the case of the wisest heathens in old times, they were not willing to depart so far from the Almighty Maker; and the greatest orator of Rome was contented to say, in a well-known passage, that it was not by the numbers or physical strength of the Roman people that the Empire of the world was achieved, but by the belief in the moral government of God. So he held that, whenever this nation should throw aside the God-fearing, God-recognizing character which it had hitherto held, from that time he could augur but evil for the future. He did not see that he could answer his purpose by following his noble Friend into the history of Parliamentary Oaths, or into the case in the House of Commons. The latter was a most painful history, and, perhaps, not the least painful thing had been the conduct of the Prime Minister on this question. He did not wish to mix up Parliamentary considerations in a question of this kind; but he would say this—that if there was any one thing that had grieved and disappointed those who knew the Prime Minister, and who admired his great abilities in happier and better times, the conduct which he could reconcile to his conscience and adopt on this occasion had gone far to change that opinion. He did not think he need follow his noble Friend through the history of previous debates in this House, except to say this—that just as the House was unwilling then to tighten the Parliamentary Oath, so he believed on this occasion it would be found unwilling to relax it. As to the form of the Motion which he had adopted, he might be asked why he had preferred this indirect form to a direct negative? His first reason was the respect which he thought was due to the character and position of his noble Friend; and, secondly, he was quite willing to admit that if this question were not raised incidentally by the case of Mr. Bradlaugh, he, for one, should be quite willing to argue the question of declaration in lieu of oaths on purely abstract grounds. He was ready to admit that the Parliamentary Oath was not the best test of religious faith. It was of necessity a very bad test. The Parliamentary Oath differed from that taken in the Law Courts, because in them a penalty was attached to perjury. There were two questions which were indirectly raised by his noble Friend's statement. He had alluded to the case of the Quakers. In his opinion, that differed toto cœlo from the case of the Atheist. The Quaker declined to take the Oath on account of his excessive reverence for the Word of God. The Atheist, on the other hand, declined to take it because he treated it as a mockery. Then his noble Friend said they were already powerless to keep out Atheists from Parliament. His answer was that if the Atheist was dishonest—if his conscience was not sufficient to deter him from the sin he committed of taking an Oath in which he did not believe—then he admitted that the Oath did not afford any security; it must be left to the Great Searcher of hearts to decide upon the extent of his sin. But to say that because the Oath had been abused therefore it must be abolished was a perversion of all knowledge. His noble Friend had, as he had already said, introduced this Bill from the best motives; but he would observe that only a short time ago the National Assembly of France had passed a Resolution abolishing the Oath. The Oath had been swept away, and with it all the external forms and symbols of religion had disappeared from the French Law Courts. On that occasion arguments were used and a spirit was shown which recalled to mind the days of the Revolution and the spirit that led to the enthronement of the Goddess of Reason. It might be said that this was part of the great wave of free thought which was sweeping over the countries of Europe; but this was an instance not of free thought, not of irreligion, but of the anti-religious spirit which had gone so far as to poison the political, religious, and social life of the people. He did not himself believe that this spirit would permanently prevail; but that the wisdom and truth of God would, in the long run, be found to do so. He believed that it was only the fool who said in his heart "there is no God." There were only two methods by which men could meet this spirit; one was by concession and the other by resistance. His noble Friend proposed to cut away all those formulas and all those limits which he would term political weakness, but which had arisen and grown up partly from a religious spirit and partly from principle. He did not think that was the time or the place for volunteering a measure of relief for one who had avowed himself an Atheist, and desired the destruction of the religion of this country, and of all associations that were nearest and dearest to them. For these reasons, though his respect for his noble Friend prevented him from moving an entire negative, he, for one, would be no party to the second reading of this Bill. The noble Earl concluded by moving the Amendment of which he had given Notice.

Amendment moved, To leave out from ("That") to the end of the motion for the purpose of inserting the following words ("nothing has arisen in the proceedings of this House which makes it expedient at this time to propose a change in the existing Parliamentary Oath.")—(The Earl of Carnarvon.)


said, he had been endeavouring to free himself from the influence of the eloquence of the noble Duke, and to ask himself what was the logical argument upon which the noble Duke wished the House to give a second reading to this Bill. Would not this be a fair compendium of his argument—that because one man, who had been elected by a constituency to sit in the House of Commons with the universal reprobation of the better classes of society in the highest sense of the term, including the lower as well as the higher strata of society, had refused to take the ordinary Oath, whereby he invoked the name of God, and had been refused admission several times to the House of Commons—therefore this Bill should be passed to relieve him, although he had appealed to the highest Courts in the Realm, and they had decided that he was wrong? The noble Duke had spoken of this person in terms which showed that had he been one of the electors of Northampton he would not have been one of his supporters, and he had argued that the doors of the House of Commons should be opened, and the Constitution be altered, to allow this individual to be admitted. He could not separate the case of this person from the general principles which the noble Duke had enunciated. They were told it was wrong to make the taking of an Oath a religious test. Well, it was not the most convenient way, certainly, of having a religious test; but we here in England were a practical people. He was old enough to remember the discussion which took place on the subject of the admission of Jews to Parliament; and he had never heard that, supposing it were right that Jews should be excluded, it was a thing altogether inconsistent and improper in itself that the mode of excluding them should be the very Oath in connection with which Mr. Bradlaugh was now excluded. The general principle condemnatory of all Oaths was not then brought forward, and he did not see that the present case necessitated the adoption of that line of argument. It was quite an open question whether it was a good thing to keep our Oaths at all. That had nothing to do, or very little to do, with the particular case before them at the present moment. They were told they had better make an arrangement in this particular ease, because a whole stream of persons similar in character to him who had been so aptly described by the noble Duke were likely to be returned by the constituencies. He did not think so badly of the constituencies of England. He did not think so badly of the human race as to suppose that the constituencies were to be at once called upon to make arrangements for having the office of legislator in this country filled in the particular way which the noble Duke had pointed out. It was perfectly true that it was undesirable to have more Oaths than were necessary. A Christian, a gentleman, an honest man was as much bound by his promise as by his oath. What was the nature of the Parliamentary Oath? It was that the person taking it would be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Victoria. No one would say that there ought to be no promise made by those who were intrusted with the legislation of this great country; and, if they were to be bound by a promise, he did not see that it made much difference whether or no they were bound by Oath. He was not unwilling that, on any fitting occasion, the Oath should not be insisted upon if a promise would do equally well; but then came the question, were they to hold the doctrine that every man elected by a constituency was entitled to take his seat in the Legislature without looking to any of those arrangements whereby, in past times, our forefathers thought it well to make an accurate distinction between those who were fit to be legislators and those who were not? At present there were certain restrictions as to the persons who were entitled to sit in the House of Commons. No woman, however strong-minded, was allowed to sit in the House; and no minor, however precocious, was permitted to take his seat. For what reason he did not know, no clergyman of the Established Church was eligible as a Member of the House. Why one of the restrictions maintained should not affect the case of a man who had publicly renounced all belief in what they held to be the very foundation of Christian morality and Christian philosophy, upon which all social life depended and which kept society together, he was at a loss to understand. If any mode should be devised whereby they could secure that such men would not use their influence as legislators for the destruction of the very society for which they legislated, there might be no need for such a restriction; but so long as there was opportunity for the persons who lived by agitation against our social life, and against every sanction upon which our political and social life depended, to use the position in which they found themselves to destroy the political and social life which they were placed in office to maintain, he thought that it would be unwise to alter the law. He could conceive that there was an infinitude of questions of social philosophy that ought to be considered in dealing with this question; but until each of those questions presented itself for consideration he did not think that it would be well to tamper with our existing system, although there might be things in it which they would be glad to see altered. Before he concluded, he wished to say that he had thought it his duty to speak upon this subject as the Head of the Church of England in that House. He held in his hand a paper showing that the sentiment of the clergy of the Church of England generally, as well as of the great majority of the ministers of religion throughout the country, was opposed to the present Bill. The paper was supported by the heads of the Roman Catholic Church, by the heads of the Wesleyan Body, by a great number of the ministers of the Established and the other Churches in Scotland. He could not help thinking that the Dissenting Bodies were more agreed upon this subject than could have been expected from what they heard at the last General Election. He could not also help thinking that there were many gentlemen belonging to Dissenting Bodies who had been carried away by the feelings of the moment at the last General Election, but who now would act differently.


My Lords, I quite suppose that many noble Lords will be of opinion that, after the able speeches which have been delivered, it will be unnecessary that this debate should be prolonged before we come to a division. Still, I cannot help hoping that I am not altogether singular, at least among the supporters of the Bill, in wishing to abstain from a silent vote, on account of the peculiar importance of the matter, and the vital doctrines which are indirectly associated with it. In a word, it is, perhaps, reasonable on this occasion to wish to be able to say Animam meam liberavi. For my own part, this desire is increased after listening to some of the arguments of the noble Earl who moved the Amendment. The noble Earl said, in the course of his speech, that it was impossible to dissociate this measure from Mr. Bradlaugh and the proceedings which have recently taken place in the other House. Now, if the inference that the noble Earl intended to draw from that fact was that the supporters of this Bill are thereby indicating any support of Mr. Bradlaugh, or desire that he might have been, or may in future be, admitted to the House of Commons, I entirely demur to that inference. The noble Duke pointed out that the House of Commons had ample opportunity for debarring that gentleman from the House of Commons quite apart from the question of the Oath, owing to a certain address which he published reflecting upon the conduct of the majority. My Lords, I venture to think that this measure, emanating from your Lordships' House, if it be carried, will be a measure carried simply on grounds of public policy, and with sincere regard to the interests of morality and religion; for, however much we may regret the incidents which have taken place, and which have influenced the noble Duke in bringing forward this measure, we cannot ignore them. They are matter of history. We may regret them, and wish to forget them; but we may be sure that others will not forget them, and that the strife which, unhappily, has raged around this question of the Oath will be renewed at another time. The noble Earl said that the noble Duke desired to abolish the religious element in the Oath. My Lords, I do not see anything of the kind in the measure. The measure provides only for an exceptional state of matters, should such arise. The Oath would continue to be the ordinary, and, I hope, the universal, mode of proceeding. My Lords, I dare say it would have been very reasonable to argue—I dare say it was argued at the time of the passing of the Catholic Emancipation Bill—that in the event of that Bill being passed, the Constitution would cease to be Protestant; but, my Lords, it has been shown that the Protestant character of the Constitution has not been affected by it. My Lords, I think we must all admit that the time of religious tests has passed away. We admire the motives that prompted them, and desire the maintenance of the doctrines which they were intended to protect; but why should we be reluctant to admit that this particular mode of protection is not adapted to the altered times and circumstances in which we live? This House is opened by prayer; but if it were proposed to make the attendance of every Member of the House compulsory, it would probably be opposed by those who would most regret the abolition of the present system of opening our proceedings with prayer. My Lords, I can only conclude by expressing the deep regret which I feel in having to go into a different Lobby from the most rev. Primate. I can only say that when the Primate rose I was not aware on which side he was going to speak, so convinced was I in my own mind that the support of this Bill could in no way be associated with the idea of indifference to the maintenance of those important religious doctrines that I hope will always be inseparably connected with the Constitution of this country.

On question that the words proposed to be left out stand part of the motion? Their Lordships divided:—Contents 62; Not-Contents 138: Majority 76.

Selborne, L. (L. Chancellor.) Hothfield, L.
Houghton, L.
Lawrence, L.
Westminster, D. Leigh, L.
Loftus, L. (M. Ely.)
Lansdowne, M. Monck, L. (V. Monck.)
Monson, L.
Camperdown, E. Mostyn, L.
Cowper, E. Mount Temple, L.
Derby, E. Oxenfoord, L. (E. Stair.)
Ducie, E.
Fortescue, E. Ponsonby, L. (E. Bessborough.)
Granville, E.
Kimberley, E. Ramsay, L. (E. Dalhousie.)
Minto, E.
Morley, E. Reay, L.
Northbrook, E. Ribblesdale, L.
Saint Germans, E. Rosebery, L. (E. Rosebery.)
Sydney, E.
Sandhurst, L.
Gordon, V. (E. Aberdeen.) [Teller.] Saye and Sele, L.
Sefton, L. (E. Sefton.)
Leinster, V. (D. Leinster.) Somerton, L. (E. Normanton.)
Powerscourt, V. Stafford, L. (V. Enfield.)
Sherbrooke, V.
Stratheden and Campbell, L.
Aberdare, L.
Belper, L. Sudeley, L.
Boyle, L. (E. Cork and Orrery.) Sundridge, L. (D. Argyll.) [Teller.]
Bramwell, L. Thurlow, L.
Breadalbane, L. (E. Breadalbane.) Tweeddale, L. (M. Tweeddale.)
Carlingford, L. Tweedmouth, L.
Carrington, L. Vernon, L.
Coleridge, L. Waveney, L.
De Mauley, L. Wentworth, L.
Erskine, L. Wolverton, L.
Fitzgerald, L. Wrottesley, L.
Hammond, L.
Canterbury, L. Archp. Sidmouth, V.
Templetown, V.
Buckingham and Chandos, D.
Gloucester and Bristol, L. Bp.
Leeds, D.
Norfolk, D. Hereford, L. Bp.
Northumberland, D. Llandaff, L. Bp.
Richmond, D.
Rutland, D. London, L. Bp.
Sutherland, D. Peterborough, L. Bp.
St. Albans, L. Bp.
Abercorn, M. (D. Abercorn.)
Amherst, L. (V. Holmesdale.)
Exeter, M.
Hertford, M. Ashford, L. (V. Bury.)
Salisbury, M. Balfour of Burleigh, L.
Winchester, M. Borthwick, L.
Botreaux, L. (E. Loudoun.)
Amherst, E.
Annesley, E. Brabourne, L.
Ashburnham, E. Brancepeth, L. (V. Boyne.)
Bandon, E.
Cairns, E. Brodrick, L. (V. Midleton.)
Carnarvon, E.
Clonmell, E. Carysfort, L. (E. Carysfort.)
Dartmouth, E.
De La Warr, E. Chelmsford, L.
Denbigh, E. Clements, L. (E. Leitrim.)
Devon, E.
Doncaster, E. (D. Buccleuch and Queensberry.) Clinton, L.
Clonbrock, L.
Colchester, L.
Dundonald, E. Colville of Culross, L.
Feversham, E. Conyers, L.
Harewood, E. Cottesloe, L.
Harrington, E. Crewe, L.
Lathom, E. [Teller.] De Freyne, L.
Leven and Melville, E. Delamere, L.
Lindsey, E. Denman, L.
Lucan, E. de Ros, L.
Lytton, E. Digby, L.
Macclesfield, E. Dinevor, L.
Manvers, E. Douglas, L. (E. Home.)
Mar and Kellie, E. Dunsany, L.
Milltown, E. Ellenborough, L.
Onslow, E. Forester, L.
Powis, E. Foxford, L. (E. Limerick.)
Ravensworth, E.
Redesdale, E. Gage, L. (V. Gage.)
Rosse, E. Gormanston, L. (V. Gormanston.)
Shaftesbury, E.
Sondes, E. Haldon, L.
Stanhope, E. Harlech, L.
Strathmore and Kinghorn, E. Hay, L. (E. Kinnoul.)
Heytesbury, L.
Vane, E. (M. Londonderry.) Howard de Walden, L.
Hylton, L.
Verulam, E. Inchiquin, L.
Waldegrave, E. Kenlis, L. (M. Headfort.)
Wilton, E.
Lamington, L.
Bolingbroke and St. John, V. Leconfield, L.
Lovat, L.
Bridport, V. Lyveden, L.
Clancarty, V. (E. Clancarty.) Manners, L.
Moore, L. (M. Drogheda.)
Cranbrook, V.
Gough, V. Norton, L.
Hardinge, V. O'Neill, L.
Hawarden, V. [Teller.] Oranmore and Browne, L.
Melville, V.
Oriel, L. (V. Massereene.) Stewart of Garlies, L. (E. Galloway.)
Ormathwaite, L. Strathspey, L. (E. Seafield.)
Ormonde, L. (M. Ormonde.)
Talbot de Malahide, L.
Penrhyn, L. Templemore, L.
Poltimore, L. Tollemache, L.
Raglan, L. Trevor, L.
Saltersford, L. (E. Courtown.) Tyrone, L. (M. Waterford.)
Saltoun, L. Ventry, L.
Shute, L. (V. Barrington.) Wimborne, L.
Windsor, L.
Silchester, L. (E. Longford.) Winmarleigh, L.
Wynford, L.
Stanley of Alderley, L.

Resolved in the negative.

Motion, as amended, agreed to.