HL Deb 23 March 1882 vol 267 cc1624-47

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


, in moving that the Bill be read a second time, said, he wished shortly to call attention to the circumstances under which it was introduced. They were all aware of what had taken place in the other House on this subject. On several occasions the other House had most properly, and he was sure with the general approval of the country at large, refused to allow a person who was an avowed Atheist, and who had declared himself to be so, to take the Oath as required by Parliament before he took his seat. They felt justly that it would be a degradation of the Oath, and they, therefore, refused to allow him to take it. They were all aware of the embarrassment which had arisen from this, and it was a serious question what was to be done. If nothing was done, Mr. Bradlaugh might again appear and occupy the time of the House, and again put it to trouble and inconvenience, and bring on another painful discussion. So far as he was aware, the only course proposed as an alternative to that which he suggested by this Bill—which provided that before a person could sit in either House of Parliament he should declare his belief in an Almighty God—was that a Bill should be introduced to allow, in the circumstances of this case, that an Affirmation should be taken in lieu of the Oath. However that Bill was to be worded, it was impossible to deny that the purpose for which it would be brought in would be to enable an Atheist to sit in Parliament. He held that any such proceeding by Parliament would be most objectionable. From the earliest time it had been a principle of the Law and of the Government of this country that they should be conducted in accordance with the Christian religion. It was a mistake to suppose that it was not so in the proceedings of other countries. A Return had been made to the Foreign Office of the forms of Oath used in foreign Legislative Assemblies, and it appeared that in Bavaria, in Denmark, in Greece, in Holland, in Prussia, and in many other countries, Oaths were administered in which were used the names of God, of the Holy Gospels, or of the Trinity. It would be a sad thing if, with these examples before it, this country should be the first to take an active step with the view of admitting Atheists into Parliament. He did not say that they might not now come in and take the Oaths which were proffered them; but it was the deliberate intention of the countries to which he had referred that the person who came in should be a believer in Almighty God. An objection taken to what he proposed was that this was a new form of declaration. Certainly the declaration was one which was not required to be made at the present time; but in substance it was not new, for the effect of it was already in the Oath that was taken. This Bill was not proposed for the purpose of making a change, but it was brought in to prevent change, and to enable Business to be conducted in Parliament without a repetition of those offensive scenes which had lately troubled the other House. He really did not know what objection could be fairly taken to the measure. It was very simple, and it did not require anything new to be done; on the contrary, it protected that which was already required. It would be of the greatest advantage that relief should be given to the other House of Parliament in the matter. It was said that the difficulty had arisen in the other House, and that the measure of relief ought to be proposed there. He had not the slightest objection if it were done; but, as it was not, it would be a kind action on the part of this House towards the other, and it would be judicious, as regarded this House, to prevent anything of the same sort occurring. They were not free from the possibility, after what had occurred in the last election of Peers for Scotland, when one was not returned in the usual manner, on account of its being known that he held opinions similar to those of Mr. Bradlaugh. The great principle of the Bill was this, that the man who made the declaration could not escape the result. If he took it, and then said he did not believe in an Almighty God, he declared himself, in face of Parliament and the country, a deliberate liar, and no man could do that without debasing himself to the greatest possible extent. He might have no scruple about taking an Oath which he did not believe, but he would care for what men thought of him in the society in which he lived. The Bill would, therefore, in his opinion, operate in a manner to prevent people making false declarations. No doubt, an Affirmation was at present allowed, but it was confined to people who declared themselves Christians, and who believed in the Affirmation they made, and the same might be said of the Jews. There was no doubt that they believed in the same God, the same Supreme Being, as Christians themselves. The real question was whether it was the deliberate desire of Parliament that Atheists should take part in the political deliberations of their Lordships' House and of the other House of Parliament? All the associations and all the proceedings of Parliament were based upon the supposition that they entertained a belief in Almighty God. Every Speech from the Throne, and every Reply thereto by that House most distinctly acknowledged and avowed such belief. To take only a recent instance, Her Majesty's Most Gracious Speech at the opening of Parliament ended with an appeal to God, and the Address of their Lordships invoked the guidance and blessing of the same Power. Certainly for a long time this country had enjoyed the favour of God—whether it enjoyed it at the present moment he had very grave reasons to fear. It seemed to him that the present time was peculiarly suited to the adoption of the course he proposed, because there never was a period when the country exhibited to the world a state of circumstances so alarming. Was this a time in which they ought to declare themselves indifferent to receiving the assistance of God? Was this the moment to add to their difficulties by the encouragement of irreligion by admitting Atheists to Parliament? In his opinion, the admission of Atheists to either House of Parliament would be to degrade the dignity and impair the usefulness of the Legislature, and he trusted their Lordships would never agree to such a proposal. But what were they to do? Were they to allow the present state of things to continue? If some noble Lord had proposed a better mode of meeting the difficulty, he would gladly have supported it; but under the circumstances he thought the course proposed in this Bill was the wisest the House could adopt. In moving the second reading of the Bill, he ventured to express a hope that the House would come to such a determination upon it as would be pleasing to God and useful to the country.

Moved, "That the Bill be now read 2a."—(The Earl of Redesdale.)


My Lords, in rising to oppose this Bill, I cannot but express my belief that many of your Lordships will feel with me that more regard will be shown for the honour of Almighty God by abstaining from legislation such as this than would be the case if it were passed without a dissentient voice in this great Assembly. The noble Earl admits, and there is no doubt of it, that he proposes a new declaration and a new form of words, such as have never been used in this or in the other House of Parliament. Your Lordships, perhaps, in all your experience, have never had under your deliberations a subject more solemn and more painful than the one now before you. It must be solemn and painful even to those who are disposed to support it, for they admit thereby the awful character of the times in which we live, and the terrible necessity that something should, if possible, be done to resist the strong and rapid tide of infidelity that seems ready to overwhelm us. But if it be solemn and painful to those who are prepared to support the Bill, how much more solemn and serious it is to those who, heartily praising the noble Lord for his generous intentions, and deeply sympathizing with his sentiments and feelings, are yet unwilling—nay, unable—to add a new test as a preliminary to the discharge of Parliamentary duties! My Lords, had it been a form of ordinary character, I should not have hesitated for a moment to say "No." But the gravity of the words is so impressive, and the belief in itself so necessary and so true, that one is compelled to think, and to think deeply too, on the course that ought to be pursued. I wish to be as brief as possible, because, on a subject so solemn, our words, I think, should be wary and few. But however solemn, however religious, may be the motive and the act to which it leads, surely my noble Friend will allow that, even in these things, some regard must be had to times and circumstances. What might have been theoretically and practically good 300 years ago is neither the one nor the other in the present generation. A law of this kind passed in our day would be in absolute and unqualified discord with all the opinions, feelings, and tendencies of the men around us, and, as such, would be opposed and evaded in every possible manner. The great current of opinion seems to be running against all tests and promissory Oaths altogether, and, by attempting to impose a new test, we shall run the hazard, perhaps incur the certainty, of losing the only one that we now possess. For observe, my Lords, the course of legislation on these points. We need not go through a long historical narration; a single instance will suffice. In the 10th year of George IV., the Oath of Allegiance was amended and passed, bearing at the conclusion these solemn and emphatic words— And I do solemnly, in the presence of God, profess, testify, and declare, that I do make this declaration and every part thereof in the plain and ordinary sense of the words of this Oath, without any evasion, equivocation, or mental reservation whatsoever. But in 1866, so entirely had the public mind changed as to its belief that these words were either necessary or effective, that the Oath was changed, and demanded no more than the simple declaration of "So help me, God." Moreover, so entirely did your Lordships approve it, that the Bill effecting this change was carried without a division, and, indeed, with scarcely a debate, in your Lordship's House. My noble Friend (the Earl of Redesdale), in suffering it thus to pass, assented to its principle; and when a protest, signed by two Peers, was inscribed on the books, the name of my noble Friend was not appended to it. Now, does my noble Friend really believe that it would be possible, and, if possible, that it would be expedient, for the House of Lords to travel back some 50 years and revive, both in form and spirit, declarations and tests that have been abrogated by common consent as needless and ineffective? During the last 50 years of my life I have from circumstances been very conversant with the people, and have marked their progress. Few characteristics are more manifest among them than the great and growing dislike of all authority in matters of opinion. The imposition of a new test would make the nation believe that others were behind it, and that the Bill in truth intended much more than was expressed in the enactments. Distrust would be created, and even religious persons, I am sure, would be among the first to take the alarm. Besides, what would be gained were the measure carried? The Oath that we now have, and its consequent securities, if noble Lords will examine it, is far more stringent and penetrating than the new adjunct proposed. The adjunct, if read by itself, is feeble, but if read along with the Oath, it takes something from its stringency. It adds nothing of strength to the great purpose my noble Friend has in view; but, if passed, it would add much to public irritation, and give rise to storms of hatred and blasphemy. My Lords, I feel very reluctant to thrust on your Lordships serious and solemn considerations; but your Lordships will bear in mind that there are very many pious and good people in this country who, with the deepest convictions, hold that it is sufficient to announce a good principle, and then a duty to press it without any regard to times or circumstances. They will urge, no doubt, and very conscientiously, that in such an exigency as this there must be no regard to temporal or secondary considerations; that the movement is right, and that we must go forward in spite of all difficulty, and reckless of consequences. But, my Lords, must judgment, experience, and common sense be allowed no part in such discussions as these? Were we to turn this debate into a theological discussion, we might adduce many Scriptural proofs to the contrary; but your Lordships, I am sure, do not need to be convinced, and I will reserve that part of the argument for those who will contend with me out- of-doors. But let us for a moment consider what we are called upon to enact. Here are the words—"I, A B, do solemnly, sincerely, and truly declare and affirm that I believe in an Almighty God." I maintain that this declaration imposes, in fact, little or nothing. It would be utterly ineffective. The indefinite article leaves us with the notion of something ideal. It is a declaration that might be made by Mahomedans, Buddhists, and the followers of Epicurus. I know not how your Lordships would be affected by such an expression; but I confess that though, no doubt, I should obey the law were it passed, I should do so with the greatest reluctance. The definite article, or even the omission of the article, gives a very different meaning. Almighty God, or The Almighty God, means that Great Being, as revealed to us in Holy Scripture, who concerns Himself with the affairs of men, and is the Dispenser of rewards and punishments. The assertion of such a belief without the assertion of an accompanying belief that He exercises a moral government over the world is of no value at all. Some professed Atheists would, I dare say, reject it, and so make capital out of the new test. Many would accept it, for the arch-representative of their opinions has avowed his readiness to take the Oath, which is far stronger, for in the terms "So help me, God" we express the belief that there is a moral Providence, a Rewarder of good, and an Avenger of evil. Now, why should his followers be more scrupulous than himself? And if not so, what, then, should we have gained? My noble Friend limits his form entirely to Atheists. They are formidable, no doubt, but they are few. The pure, simple Atheist who admits nothing but force and matter is a being of rare occurrence. Those, however, who allow the existence of a First Cause, but deny His intervention in the affairs of man, who admit no revelation of a future state or any system of rewards or punishments, may be counted by myriads. In numbers they are more dangerous than all the Materialists put together, and in principles of action they have no more sense of the higher responsibilities than the followers of Hobbes or Epicurus. My noble Friend will not allow that there is anything additional or new in his proposition; it is simply, he asserts, explanation and de- velopment. But this explanation and development have already excited fresh hopes and more extended aspirations. While I was thinking on this point that had occurred to my own mind, I received a letter stating that to operate on the Representatives only was a waste of energy, that the test should be applied to the constituencies, and that every elector, before he was allowed to vote, should make the declaration prescribed in the Bill. Observe the restlessness we should create, and desire of further and stronger measures. My Lords, had we not better remain content with what we have got? It is as effective as anything can be in the present day and in the state of men's minds. In this sense only, and with this view, have I undertaken to move your Lordships to accept the Previous Question. It is more respectful to the noble Earl, whose motives we must, all of us, commend, and more reverential, so to speak, to the proposition before us. We shall thus be spared much public wrath, agitation, and profanity, and avert an increase of that feverish excitement which is disturbing the peace and threatening even the safety of the country itself. I move the Previous Question.

Previous question moved (The Earl of Shaftesbury).


My Lords, I should have been very glad if my noble Friend who has just sat down had concluded by a direct Motion that this Bill be read a second time this day three months. I will vote with him if this Motion is pressed to a division; but I should have voted with greater satisfaction for a direct negative, as it would have shown that there was no desire on the part of the House to avoid or evade for a moment the question that is placed before us. My Lords, I hardly know whether to say that I am very glad or that I am very sorry that my noble Friend has raised this question in this House. I am sorry in so far as it raises a question accompanied by incidents of the most painful nature, and I am glad in so far as it gives an opportunity to Members of this House who have devoted their attention to the subject, and are willing to deal with it fearlessly and logically without reference to sentiment, to say something to guide and direct the public mind and the public conscience upon a ques- tion by which both have been painfully tried. Now, my Lords, my first objection to the Bill of the noble Earl is this—that it distinctly implies that, as the law now stands, there is no legal impediment in the way of an Atheist taking his place in Parliament. My noble Friend did not intend that conclusion to be drawn from his Bill. The measure, however, implies that the existing law makes no provision of that kind, and it is to supply such a provision for the first time. Though I disagree with my noble Friend as to that, I agree with that portion of his speech in which he alluded to the circumstances which occurred in the other House, and said that that House was right to vindicate its honour by refusing to allow an Atheist to take his seat. I agree with my noble Friend on that point; and had I been a Member of the House of Commons I should have voted without a moment's hesitation with the majority in the case of Mr. Bradlaugh, and if a similar case were to come before this House—and my noble Friend has alluded to the fact, which we all know to be the fact, that such a case is quite possible in this House—I should vote against allowing that Peer to take his seat, and I will explain to your Lordships for a moment why I think he ought not to do so. Under the present law, every man who takes his seat in either House of Parliament is bound to take an Oath concluding with the words, "So help me, God." Now, let me put a hypothetical case exactly analagous to the case which has happened in the other House. Supposing that the Crown were to call to the Peerage a man who was a known and avowed Atheist, and supposing that he came to this House and asked the Clerk at the Table to administer to him, not the Oath, but an Affirmation, the Clerk would naturally ask upon what ground he based his refusal to take the Oath, and the answer would very likely be this—"I have been in the course of my life several times before the Courts of Justice in this country as a witness, and under the Evidence Amendment Act of 1869 and 1870 I have asked to affirm, and I have explained to the Judges that, being an Atheist, I could not conscientiously take the Oath, or, in the words of the Statute, that an Oath is not binding upon my conscience. Under these circumstances, the Judges have admitted my right to affirm, and under similar circumstances I ask you to allow me to affirm at this Table." Now, that question has been tried before the Courts of Law, and it has been found by the Judges that a man has no right as a Member of Parliament to make an Affirmation instead of taking the Oath. What, I ask, would a Peer confess who made such a request at the Table of the House? He would confess that in the Courts of Law he had satisfied the Judges that an oath was not binding upon his conscience. Now, supposing that your Lordships refused to allow that Peer to take his seat in the House, and supposing he turned round and said—"Very well, it does not matter to me; I will take the Oath," would the majority of the House in that case allow such a man to take his seat? Certainly not. It has been argued that the House of Commons has been pursuing an illegal course in preventing a man taking the Oath under identical circumstances; but the argument cannot be sustained. The mere repetition of the form of words is not taking the Oath, when repeated avowals have been made that the Oath is not binding upon the conscience. I must say I am astonished that any Member of the House of Commons, or that any Member of this House, could argue that this House should place itself in such a degraded condition as to stand round this Table and deliberately see a Member take the Oath, in the sanction of which he did not believe. There was a trial the other day with regard to the culpability which is involved in men attending and seeing a prize-fight; and the Lord Chief Justice of England, together with a considerable minority of the Judges, argued that any man who stood by and looked on at a prize-fight might be held to be guilty of taking part in a demoralizing spectacle. The majority of the Judges were against that view in the case of the particular individual then tried; but, supposing that a number of men were to make and keep a ring for a prize-fight, I believe that all the Judges would hold them guilty of immorality. But what is the degree of immorality involved in looking at a prize-fight compared with that of seeing a man take an Oath in the sanction of which he does not believe? Yet many Members of Parliament have argued that a ring should be kept to enable an Atheist to take an Oath at the Table of the House of Commons. We have nothing to do with the proceedings in the other House with regard to this question. The House of Commons is the guardian of its own honour. But I think it due to those who have objected to allowing Mr. Bradlaugh to take the Oath to say that we entirely approve the course which they have taken. Now, I pass to the very different question of what is our real position in regard to Atheists. I feel under no compulsion to speak with particular reserve, and perhaps I may speak more freely than those who are trammelled by the cares and responsibilities of Office. I am sorry to hear the noble Earl who moved the Previous Question indicate the opinion that the present Oath is a security, such as it is, which we ought not to evade. The spectacle which we have seen in "another place," and the arguments in favour of allowing Mr. Bradlaugh to take the Oath, have disabused my mind of the superstition—if I ever had it—that the imposition of an Oath is any security whatever against the admission of Atheists into Parliament. The remedy, however, is not in the direction suggested by my noble Friend. The remedy will be found if we take the course of saying that we have no power, even if we had the will, to secure a real and effective test of religious faith at the present moment in this country. But the attempt to impose a new test has been put into words by my noble Friend—perhaps few other men would have attempted it—and as to the effect of the proposed declaration and affirmation that the Member or Peer believes in an Almighty God, it is clear that that declaration might be made by a Mahomedan or a Bhuddist; and I might go further, and say that it might be made by a Red Indian, who believes in the Great Spirit, and by the heathen tribes of Africa, who, it has been discovered almost to a certainty, generally believe in a Supreme Being. It has been said that the Jewish religion is a pure Theism. That is so; but it is not an abstract Theism. The Jews do not believe in "an Almighty God;" they believe in their own Almighty God—the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob; the God whose character and dealings with mankind is to them known or believed—the God of purer eyes than behold iniquity. But for a man to say that he believes merely in the existence of "a" Supreme Being, but knows nothing of His attributes except almighty power—of His goodness, of His wisdom—with no belief in the manner in which He is to be served, or as to the kind of tribute which is to be given to Him—my Lords, we must all feel that that would be absolutely worthless. I say, then, that the only course is to allow every man to undertake the political promise which you may choose to demand from him under that sanction, whatever it may be, which is binding on his conscience. That is the remedy to which, depend upon it, we are coming; and it is better that the religious world, and that men whose feelings are deeply wounded by the recent occurrences, should see that that is the course to which we are driven, and that it is the one most consistent with a sincere worship of Almighty God. Nothing, to my mind, can be more odious than the doctrine preached in "another place" that Members of Parliament are to keep the ring for Atheists when they are willing to take the existing Oath. I have no reason to believe that Mr. Bradlaugh personally is a more dishonourable man than other Atheists; and yet we now see that he has no objection to take the Oath, though he has said that its sanction is no more to him than a set of unmeaning words. I shall vote against the Bill on two grounds—first, because it implies what I think is not true—namely, that under the present law Atheists may legally take the Oath, and that we or the other House, in resisting their so doing, are perpetrating an illegal act; and, secondly, because the test which my noble Friend supplies is a test of no value whatever. I believe the only remedy for the difficulty in which we find ourselves, and the only way to escape such odious and disgusting scenes as have been enacted in the other House of Parliament, is to allow an Affirmation to be made instead of making the Oath compulsory.


said, he should not have taken part in the debate but for what fell from the noble Earl (the Earl of Redesdale) in regard to the election of Representative Peers for Scotland at the commencement of the present Parliament. He was one of those who voted upon the occasion; but he desired, for himself and for some other noble Lords, to say that the reason they voted against the re-election of the noble Lord in question had no connection whatever with any theological opinions which he held, or was supposed to hold. The true reason was that the noble Lord's attendance in that House had not given him the impression that he cared to retain his Membership. He desired to say, also, one word in regard to the remarks of the noble Duke (the Duke of Argyll). The noble Duke said that it was not possible to take any security for the opinions which a Member of Parliament or noble Lord might hold before admitting him to the privileges of Parliament. He thought if that were admitted by both sides it afforded a strong argument against allowing Parliament, so constituted, to legislate on spiritual matters connected with the Church of England. He did not desire to say more than this—that the existence of this admitted fact afforded a strong argument for giving a larger amount of power to regulate its own internal affairs, more especially on spiritual matters, to the Church of England. If the Bill was rejected by a large majority, he thought it would prove conclusively that the time had come when such a proposal as he suggested might be received with favour by both Houses.


said, he rose with great reluctance to offer a few remarks on the Bill before their Lordships; and he desired to say that in what should fall from him he spoke only for himself, and not for the Bench of Bishops, with some of whom he had had no communication. But he thought he spoke the mind of all of them when he said how deeply they honoured the high principle, courage, and sense of duty which had led his noble Friend to bring forward this Bill and discharge a task which could not but be distasteful to him. They would also, he was sure, agree with him that the admission of Atheists to the Legislature would be a national calamity, and might be a national sin. Having said this much, he must frankly add that, while he could not bring himself to vote against the Bill—that would be painful—he could not vote for it. He did not believe that the Bill would keep out those whom the noble Earl wished to exclude; while, on the other hand, it would keep out those whom they hardly wished to exclude. The Bill was one to exclude Atheists from taking part in the Legislature of the country. Well, an Atheist was one who said, "There is no God." Johnson defined him as one who denied the existence of God. He was not prepared to say that every Atheist was necessarily a dishonest man, or one deficient of a sense of veracity; but they must admit that the Atheist had lost some of the strongest motives which operated on most men to perform their duties honourably and honestly. And it was possible to conceive a man smarting under what he might consider the injustice of exclusion by an Act like this, and might think himself justified in claiming his right to an admission to Parliament by making the declaration prescribed. There were others, Pantheists, equivalent to Atheists, who would not have any difficulty in taking this declaration, for they believed in an Almighty God, a Spirit of Nature diffused through all matter, all space, of which they themselves were part. Then there were others who were hardly Atheists, but who could not take the declaration. Blank Atheism was not very prevalent, at least, among those who were likely to obtain admission to Parliament, yet he feared there were many men of keen and able intellects, pure and honest lives, who, though they did not disbelieve in God, would not say that they believed in Him—men who, not being able to find proofs of His existence—such as they were accustomed to require in scientific inquiries—considered the question not capable of demonstration—believed that, in their present state of knowledge, the point was insoluble; that it was beyond the limit put to human powers. They did not disbelieve a God; there might be a God; they hoped there was; but the fact was not demonstrated. Now, these men would be excluded by the Bill of the noble Earl. They could not come forward and say, as honest men—"I do solemnly and sincerely believe in an Almighty God." That was not the class of men whom they desired to exclude. He had another scruple against the Bill. He doubted whether Parliament had the right to impose any measure of this sort. Of course, he must admit that Parliament had power to impose any qualification upon the Members of it; but it was a principle not only of Christian charity, but also of law, to assume that men were what they ought to be, unless some reason to doubt it existed with regard to them. It was desirable that all men should be honest; but they did not require a declaration from a man that he was an honest man. There was something in the proposal against which men's minds would rebel. It was not agreeable to conceive the Affirmation of belief in an Almighty God required of every Peer admitted into this House, and of every Bishop who took his seat on this Bench. A more favourable consideration, no doubt, would be given to the noble Earl if he brought in a Bill enacting that if any man publicly proclaimed by word or writing the opinion that he did not believe in God, he should be disqualified from sitting in Parliament; but he could not support the present Bill, because it would exclude those whom they did not wish to exclude, while it would admit those whom they did not wish to admit. He was therefore glad the noble Earl had moved the Previous Question.


said, he had come down to the House with the intention of supporting the second reading of the Bill; but after the debate, to which he had been listening attentively, he would venture to express the hope that his noble Friend (the Earl of Redesdale) would withdraw his Bill. He was very sorry to find that his noble Friend (the Earl of Redesdale), who moved the second reading of the Bill, had thought it politic to refer to the fact that a representative Scotch Peer was not re-elected on account, he would not say of his religious opinions, but because of his open avowal that he had no religious opinions. He would not, however, have thought it necessary to address their Lordships, had it not been for the words which had fallen from his noble Friend (Lord Bal-four of Burleigh). But, as he himself happened to be one of those present on the occasion referred to at Holyrood, he now boldly avowed, speaking only for himself, that, unlike the noble Lord (Lord Balfour of Burleigh), his reason for not voting for the re-election of the Peer in question was because he had publicly stated his utter want of religious belief.


said, he also was present on the remarkable occasion just referred to; and he expressed an opinion at that time which might have had the result of that noble Lord's non-election. He rose now to ask the noble Earl who had brought in the Bill not to press his Motion to a division, because he felt, as other noble Lords did, that it would place them in an awkward position. If they voted for the Motion and carried the Bill they might be doing that which would be likely to bring about the very object which they desired to counteract. He agreed with every word that had fallen from the noble Duke opposite (the Duke of Argyll), and thought that the only way of proceeding would be to introduce a Bill allowing an Affirmation, as the name of God was dishonoured by the scenes which were enacted in public places. For these reasons he hoped the noble Earl would not press his measure.


said, he thought that the real matter at which the House ought to look was whether the Bill was right or wrong, and not whether it was expedient or the reverse. There might be objections to the declaration as it stood; but half a loaf was better than no bread, and it was better to pass that declaration than none at all. He admitted that it was unfortunate that each Member could not have a form of Oath suited to his own religious views; but it did not, therefore, follow that there should be no Oath at all. The noble Earl (the Earl of Shaftesbury) said that many of the people would dislike the Bill because it contained an authoritative declaration by Parliament touching religion; but he (Lord Oran-more) feared that in these times many were inclined to repudiate all authority, whether Divine or human: but he did not think the House had any sympathy with this feeling, or would be influenced by it, to sanction the belief that they would admit anybody into Parliament who did not acknowledge the existence of the Almighty Being. He thought expediency was carried too far. Was it not a farce that public documents should begin with the statement that the Queen sat "by the Grace of God," and that Parliament should open its proceedings with prayer, while such a declaration as this was rejected? Her Majesty's Government were divided upon the subject, some supporting, others opposing, Mr. Bradlaugh's admission to the House of Commons; but it appeared that the Prime Minister had agreed to support a Bill brought in by Mr. Bradlaugh's Colleague for the purpose of substituting an Affirmation for the Oath. If no other arrangement could be made, the noble Earl might modify his Bill by applying it only to that House. For 25 years their Lordships' House had resisted the attempt to admit Jews to Parliament; and, whether that was right or wrong, it was done in defence of the Christian principles of the country. He thought the present was the time to assert a sense of obligation to the Divine Being, for he believed that the blessings which this country had so long enjoyed were due to the influence of pure Christianity upon the people and Government of the country, and that these blessings would be withdrawn if they forgot the first principles upon which the Government was founded. He was always much impressed by the promise that that God would deny those in the world to come who denied Him here; and he therefore would bear witness, as a humble believer, in favour of the proposed Bill.


said, he agreed with all the observations which had fallen from the noble Earl who moved the Previous Question; but he could not agree with him that moving the Previous Question was the best way of getting rid of the difficulty entailed by a question of this kind. He thought the Bill raised exclusive issues, and that the noble Earl who moved it was entitled to an expression of the opinion of the House upon them. It was to apply, not only to that, but also to the other House of Parliament. Whether or not it was advisable to interfere with the other House was a matter of a very peculiar character, about which he thought their Lordships' opinion should be taken. The noble Earl could see nothing new in the Bill he had introduced. His own view was that it was entirely without precedent in the annals of Parliamentary history. There had been many forms of Oaths and various declarations made by Members of Parliament at different times. They had often been directed against some religious system; but invariably the system had been one supposed to be identical with, and inseparable from, some political faction held to be highly dangerous to the Crown and Commonwealth. Invariably the faction had been struck at through the religion, either because the religion was supposed to necessitate allegiance to some temporal power, other than the Sovereign of the United Kingdom, or because the members of it were thought to form an association of great political danger to the State. The imposition of a declaration or test for purely religious motives, unconnected with any political faction promising imminent peril to the State, was absolutely unknown in their history. It was an innovation, and he believed an innovation entirely contrary to the whole spirit of their laws and to the best instincts of the people. No man, he was confident, could feel more strongly than he did that those who made and those who executed the laws should be animated with a deep conviction of their moral and spiritual responsibility. But he held that that House was not within its rights, and was transgressing its legitimate sphere, in assuming inquisitorial functions. Supposing that this Bill became an Act, and was operative and successful, on what principle was it confined to Members of the two Houses? If that declaration was necessary for those who framed the laws, it was, at least, equally necessary in the case of those who carried out those laws. It must be made by every Judge, by every magistrate, or other functionary, by every executive officer in the country. And if that declaration was a necessary prefix to an Oath of Allegiance to the Sovereign, surely it must also go before the Oaths by which the Sovereign swore allegiance to the Constitution of the country. If the declaration was necessary, it could not be confined to Members of Parliament. The Bill, however, would have no good effect. It would not necessarily exclude any of those persons whom it was designed to exclude. The noble Earl desired that before taking an Oath the individual making it should declare that he believed in an Almighty God. How did the noble Earl propose to guard against falsehood or equivocation, or against the various interpretations which might be placed upon his words? Would he append another declaration to the effect that the person making his declaration was speaking the truth? And, if so, how far back was the chain of declarations to go? Would he leave the words of his declaration undefined? If so, they could be used without difficulty, with the help of mental reservations, by anyone; and the only effect of the Act would be to create the most painful scandal, to throw obloquy upon religion, and to outrage the most sensitive and sacred feelings of human nature. Without an interpretation of the meaning of the words, the Act would be useless, scandalous, and distressing. Would persons making the declaration be liable to have their views challenged, and could some definition of what the words meant to them be demanded? Had their Lordships considered the difficulties of definition? It was an unwise and, he thought, an irreligious thing to introduce these vast and sacred mysteries as a subject for debate in a Legislative Assembly. But the meaning of the words must be discussed, or some authority must be set up to define their meaning. One of two things must happen. Either the Houses of Parliament would be engaged in constant and fruitless discussion on religious and controversial matters, and the Business of the country would be brought to an absolute deadlock and Parliamentary government become impossible, or a tribunal must be instituted to decide such cases. It would open out an unlimited field for the obstruction of Business. It would inevitably require some authoritative—he should, perhaps, say some infallible—tribunal to define the exact meaning of the words contained in it. Such an Act as that could do no good, and might do infinite harm. It would fail in its object. The declaration might be made by anyone, it might be objected to by anyone. It would cause endless discussion, lend itself to Obstruction, and paralyze the Business of the nation. It would be a new thing in the history of our Parliament. It would be contrary to the whole spirit of our laws and customs. It would bring Parliament into disrepute, and cast contempt upon religion; and he hoped their Lordships, on these grounds, would distinctly refuse to give it a second reading.


My Lords, I shall vote on this occasion with the noble Earl who has moved the Previous Question. At the same time, I am not quite clear that I can give a very logical answer to the complaint made by the noble Duke (the Duke of Argyll) and the noble Earl behind me (the Earl of Dunraven) that your Lordships' House has not taken a more decided course to-night in reference to this matter. To the noble Earl the Chairman of our Committees (the Earl of Redesdale) everyone has paid a just and well-merited tribute to his feelings and his object in bringing forward this Bill. The noble Earl made a strong appeal to this House not to allow the question to assume a Party character; and I may say, for myself, that I desire it should be made no Party matter, and no summonses have been issued to the supporters of the Government with regard to this Bill. If I had great doubt as to what the decision of your Lordships would be, although as representing the Government we on this side are aware how far we are in a minority, I should have thought it my duty to have taken more active steps; but we sent out no summonses. One or two Peers consulted me as to the course which they should take; but I declined to give any advice on the subject. The noble Earl (the Earl of Redesdale) could not possibly have expected any support from Her Majesty's Government, or at least from many Members of it, on this subject. Her Majesty's Government, owing to a very deplorable accident, have been called upon to assert in the strongest way what I hold to be two great principles—the non-imposition of religious tests in political matters, and the giving of freedom to all constituencies in the choice of Members they return to Parliament. Advantage has been taken of this policy to try to identify Her Majesty's Government with Mr. Bradlaugh and the principles which he professes. But, my Lords, I do not desire to discuss that question further than to say that I utterly repudiate the construction which has been put upon our policy; and I must say that I regret that one in the position of the noble Marquess (the Marquess of Salisbury) should, in a series of letters the most inconceivable I ever read from one in his high position, and one of the two Leaders of the great Conservative Party, have tried to stimulate this sort of prejudice against Mr. Gladstone and his Colleagues in a matter of this sort. I am very glad to vote for whatever course may appear most convenient to your Lordships' House; but I want to guard myself in one respect, in voting for the Previous Question, from being supposed to agree with some of the reasons put forward in support of this question. Everybody must admire the manner and the tone of the noble Earl (the Earl of Shaftesbury) in bringing forward the Previous Question; but, though I do not agree with the noble Lord on the Cross Benches (Lord Oranmore and Browne), I do agree with him in this matter—that there is a right or wrong in this question; but certainly I do not vote for the Previous Question on the argument which the noble Earl (the Earl of Shaftesbury) put forward—namely, the expediency of not passing this Bill in order to preserve intact the present mode of admitting Members to the Houses of Parliament. My Lords, I think the introduction of this Bill and the debate will be of great use. I lay some weight on the fact that the noble Earl opposite (the Earl of Shaftesbury) has shown that, in his opinion, a declaration is not a bad substitute for an Oath in these matters; and I do say this—that however clear the case of the noble Earl was in favour of the substitution of an Affirmation for the obligatory Oath now required, and however eloquent the noble Duke (the Duke of Argyll) was on this subject, it appears to me that almost every word said by the noble Chairman of Committees in favour of his Motion and of the noble Earl (the Earl of Shaftesbury) against it—and, indeed, of the very liberal speech of the right rev. Prelate (the Bishop of London)—all went to show how strong are the objections to the Oath in its present shape. I do hope that what has taken place may have some good effect in the future. I beg pardon for having trespassed on your Lordships' House for a short time; but I thought it right to explain the manner in which I intend to vote on this Bill.


My Lords, I have no doubt that the noble Earl is quite sincere in saying that he desires to keep this question clear from all Party matter; but, if that was his desire, the manner in which he endeavoured to execute it was not very successful, for he projected into the middle of his speech an indignant protest on behalf of himself and his Colleagues in the House of Commons as to their conduct in the matter of Mr. Brad-laugh, and a severe condemnation of myself, because, in corresponding with some of my political friends, I had taken. an opposite view.


I said that the tone in which the noble Marquess had referred to one of the most eminent statesmen of this country was of a most unprecedented character.


As to the conduct of that most eminent statesman, and of the Government gene-' rally, on the Bradlaugh question, I shall be ready to meet noble Lords opposite on that matter on any fitting occasion, if they think it is desirable that it should form the subject of a debate in this House. But I much demur to the introduction of that question in reference to the Bill now before your Lordships. I have risen not for the purpose of discussing how far the Government was or was not justified in the course which it has actually taken with respect to Mr. Bradlaugh. I have rather risen for the purpose of trying to restrict a debate which, in some respects, as it appeared to me, had shown a tendency to wander from the real issue before the House. I think that the noble Duke himself (the Duke of Argyll), with many of whose remarks I concur, somewhat gave the impression that one of the subjects which we are now assembled to discuss was whether it was or was not expedient to substitute, in a form which the Members of either House of Parliament should subscribe, an Affirmation in the place of an Oath. I merely desire to mention that reference of the noble Duke's in order to indicate that it is not a matter which is raised by the discussion before us; and I must not be held to be expressing any opinion on the question of substituting an Affirmation for an Oath by the vote which I feel it my duty to give on this occasion. Some of my noble Friends behind me seemed to infer from the course of the debate and the decision that is likely to be arrived at that there was something indicating an opinion on the part of the House that it was not expedient to exclude Atheists from Parliament. I wish to guard myself against admitting that any such deduction can be drawn from the vote that we are about to give. My Lords, this Bill of my noble Friend, which I join with all who have spoken to-night in attributing to the lofty motives on which we know that he has acted, has in it peculiar circumstances which, whatever our opinions on the larger question might be, would make it impossible for me to give it my assent, and which certainly would induce me to vote against its being put to the House, however earnestly anxious I might be to keep up the character of the two Houses of Parliament in this respect. The first consideration to which I would ask attention is this—if there is an evil or a difficulty in this case, it has not arisen in the House of Lords. It has arisen altogether within the walls of the House of Commons. If it is desirable that a remedy should be brought forward to that evil, and that that difficulty should be solved, surely it would be more consonant with the practice of Parliament that the House within whose walls it has arisen should itself provide the remedy. Are we not assuming a somewhat ungracious attitude if we go to the House of Commons and say to them—"You are in a great difficulty as to your proceedings, and we have got a remedy that will set everything right for you?" If the House of Commons took any measures towards us of an analogous character, that would not be regarded as consistent with the ordinary courtesy of one House of Parliament towards the other. Again, I am much impressed by the point mentioned by the noble Duke and others—the indefinite character of the belief which Members of Parliament are invited to express. We are called upon to express our belief in "an Almighty God." Supposing our Oath of Allegiance ran in the same form, and we were to promise our allegiance to a "Sovereign," would that be thought a very sufficient or a very loyal form of expression? And if we substitute "an Almighty God," it seems to me that we shall not be doing that which I know is the object of the noble Earl—we shall not be promoting the recognition of Almighty God in this land. Again, two or three noble Lords have told me that they cannot vote on this Bill, and that they could not have taken that Affirmation if it was put into an Act of Parliament, because it would have been a restriction of the belief which they hold. All of us constantly repeat the formula of my noble Friend, "I believe in God," when we repeat the Creed; but we also say a great deal more. If this declaration is to beheld to have a great effect on public opinion, then I say you cannot take one out of the many articles of belief, however momentous and important it is, and give to that separate and exclusive recognition without to some extent, in the popular mind, weakening the importance and reverence which is attached to the other articles of belief. My Lords, these grounds seem to me enough to make me certainly not wish that this Bill should pass into law. I confess I entertain another wish with respect to it, and that is that it should not be the subject of a division. I feel sure that my noble Friend, having heard the course of the debate, and the opinions expressed by noble Lords on all sides of the House, must have come to the conviction that he will not serve the cause he has in view by forcing us to go into the Lobby. If I am compelled to vote, I shall vote with my noble Friend below me (the Earl of Shaftesbury); but I earnestly hope that we may not be called upon to divide.


said, he had listened with great attention to what had fallen from the noble Marquess (the Marquess of Salisbury), and to the speeches which had been made by their Lordships; and he certainly felt from the tone of the debate that he should not advance the cause which he had in view were he to go to a division in opposition to the Motion of the noble Earl behind him. He must, however, express his deep regret that the House had not thought fit to meet the question in a more decided manner, by proposing to provide in some other way the security he desired to give. He denied altogether that he proposed any new test; the Oath already contained the words, "So help me God;" and he only wished to provide a means of showing that a person who used these words really did believe in God. He would not, however, trouble the House to divide.

Previous question put: Whether the said question shall be now put?

Resolved in the negative.

House adjourned at Seven o'clock, till To-morrow, half past Ten o'clock.