Bishop Gilbert Burnet and latitudinarian episcopal opposition to the occasional conformity bills, 1702-1704 (1).
The bill passed in the Tory-dominated House of Commons, as did similar bills in 1703 and 1704, but all three were wrecked or rejected by the Whig majority in the House of Lords. At first glance the defeat of the occasional conformity bills between 1702 and 1704 can be seen simply as one event in the long struggle for power between Whigs and Tories in the reign of Queen Anne. This is the view accepted by most contemporary commentators and, indeed, by many historians since then. And it is largely correct. However, one element in the defeat of the bills that is often overlooked is the role played by the bishops, who, after all, held the balance of power in the House of Lords and played a crucial role in speaking and voting against the occasional conformity bills. In 1703, in the only direct vote held on the occasional conformity bill in the House of Lords, 23 of the 26 bishops cast ballots, out of a total of 129 votes cast (the bishops thus made up 17.8 per cent of the total number). Fourteen bishops voted against the bill and nine in favour. If six of those fourteen bishops who voted against it had voted for the bill it would have passed. (2) So why did fourteen bishops oppose the occasional conformity bills? Were these bishops nothing more than party hacks in the service of Whig political goals? This was certainly the opinion of the Tories. And while it is true that the bishops who opposed occasional conformity were the same ones who could usually be counted on to vote in parliament with the Whigs, this fact hardly seems sufficient to explain their behaviour on an issue of such importance to the Church. (3) Indeed, a careful examination of the motives of the bishops who opposed the occasional conformity bills confirms that there was more at stake for them in the controversy than simply party politics.
While to most members of parliament the political ramifications of the bills were of primary concern, to the bishops in the House of Lords the religious implications were of immense importance. Since 1689 two factions had been fighting a protracted and occasionally vicious war for control of the Church of England. On the one hand, the Latitudinarians, who were in a minority amongst the clergy of the Church of England but had gained an ascendancy on the episcopal bench during the reign of William and Mary, were noted for the latitude with which they approached matters of doctrine and worship, and had long been sympathetic towards the Dissenters. On the other hand, the High Church party, who made up the bulk of the lower clergy, were more rigid, or in their view "orthodox," in doctrine and worship, and were fiercely opposed to the Dissenters. So, put into the ecclesiastical context of the first few years of the eighteenth century, the occasional conformity bill can be viewed as yet another episode in the long-running feud between the Latitudinarian and High Church factions of the Church of England. In this sense, the bill to prevent occasional conformity of November 1702 was very much a sequel to earlier battles, such as the Trinitarian controversy of the 1690s and the convocation controversy of 1701.
In the 1690s some High Church divines accused a number of leading Latitudinarian churchmen, including John Tillotson, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Gilbert Burnet, Bishop of Salisbury, of the anti-Trinitarian heresy of Socinianism. In the eyes of their High Church adversaries, attempts by Tillotson, Bumet, and others to explain the doctrine of the Trinity were both unclear in their language and unorthodox in their rejection of traditional patristic learning, and this amply illustrated the dangers of latitudinarianism. (4) In fact, latitudinarianism was so threatening to the church that High Churchmen insisted that a convocation of the ecclesiastical province of Canterbury had to be called and allowed to meet to deal with this band of anti-Trinitarian heretics. This led to the convocation controversy of the late 1690s, which eventually produced a meeting of convocation in late February of 1701. (5) One of the first acts of the lower house of convocation was to appoint a commission, under the chairmanship of the High Church Dean of Christ Church, Dr. William Jane, to examine heretical and scandalous books. The two books that the committee eventually censured were the notorious deist John Toland's Christianity Not Mysterious (1696) and the Latitudinarian Gilbert Burnet's Exposition of the Thirty-nine Articles (1699).
The attack on Toland's book was obvious, but why did the committee choose to go after Burnet's Exposition? It was the leading High Churchman Francis Atterbury, himself a member of the lower house committee on heretical and scandalous books, who insisted that Burner's Exposition was a work of heresy which the committee must consider. (6) In his Letter to a Convocation Man (1696) Atterbury had identified Burnet as a possible target for a heresy hunt because of his views on the Trinity, and in his Rights, Powers and Priviledges of an English Convocation (1700) he assailed Burnet for his thoroughly Erastian interpretation of English church history in his History of the Reformation (vol. I, 1679; vol. II, 1681). (7) And if Burnet's History of the Reformation was an attempt to re-write English Church history from the perspective of a late seventeenth-century Latitudinarian divine, as Atterbury maintained, then his Exposition of the Thirty-nine Articles was its theological counterpart. (8) Its aim was to explain the articles with a latitude and diversity that would help to heal the doctrinal divisions in England between the Church of England and the Dissenters, as well as bring together Anglicans and Continental Protestants. Even more alarming in the eyes of the High Church party, in his preface Burnet made it clear that this work did not simply represent his own personal views: he insisted that he had been encouraged to undertake the work by John Tillotson, and before its publication he received approval of it from such eminent Latitudinarian bishops as Edward Stillingfleet (Worcester), Thomas Tenison (Lincoln, Canterbury), Simon Patrick (Ely), and others (in his autobiography, Burnet later added bishops John Hall of Bristol and John Williams of Chichester to the list). (9) The implication was clear: Burnet viewed his Exposition as a kind of doctrinal "manifesto" which had the imprimatur of prominent members of the Latitudinarian party. As such, Atterbury and the High Church party could hardly ignore it for long. On 6 June 1701 the committee of the lower house presented to the upper house their complaint against the Exposition, denouncing Burnet for introducing a "Latitude and Diversity" of opinions that undermined the doctrinal orthodoxy of the Church of England. However, on 24 June 1701 parliament and convocation were prorogued and remained so until both were dissolved in November of that year. As a result the complaint against Burnet's Exposition proceeded no further, and nothing more was heard of that matter. But, although the High Church faction had lost this particular battle, the war was far from over, for when parliament and convocation reconvened in late 1703 and again in late 1704, the High Church-dominated lower house continued to clash with the Latitudinarian bishops in the upper house. (10)
As we have seen, throughout the 1690s the High Church party had repeatedly accused the Latitudinarians of doctrinal heterodoxy, but what made matters worse in the eyes of High Churchmen was the end to which that heterodoxy was directed. In a more detailed complaint against Burnet's Exposition produced by the lower house's committee on heretical and scandalous books, but never presented to the upper house, the members charged Burnet with deliberately downplaying the doctrinal differences between Anglicans and Dissenters in England with the intention of laying a platform for comprehension with the Dissenters. (11) In other words, one of the key sources of friction between the two factions in the post-1689 era was their attitude towards Protestant dissent. And it was this issue that lay at the heart of the debate over occasional conformity.
This has not gone unnoticed by historians, and some have argued that the Latitudinarian bishops were averse to the occasional conformity bill because they did not wish to discourage the practice of occasional communion, which they regarded as an "occasional act of religious charity" on the part of the Dissenters, and which might eventually lead them back into full communion with the Church of England. (12) This is certainly true. As the Nonconformist minister Edmund Calamy reminded Gilbert Burnet, in a meeting in January of 1703, the practice of occasional communion was nothing new to the Dissenters: it had "been used by some of the most eminent of our ministers ever since 1662, with a design to show their charity towards that Church." (13) This was a point elaborated upon to the House of Lords by Burnet in a speech on 1 December 1703 against the second occasional conformity bill. As far as Burnet was concerned, the most important feature of the long-standing practice of occasional communion by moderate Dissenters was the clear signal that it sent to Anglicans that the moderate Dissenters had not closed their minds to the possibility that the Church of England was a "true" or even "perfect" Church, and that a great number of Dissenters could yet be persuaded to return to the fold of the established Church. Moreover, Burnet argued, their occasional physical presence in a parish church gave Anglicans regular occasions on which to admonish the dissenters on the errors of their ways. (14) There is no question, then, that the Latitudinarian bishops embraced the principle of occasional communion.
What historians have failed to notice is that this position was not exclusive to those who opposed the bills. In reality few High Churchmen were prepared to condemn every act of occasional communion either. For example, John Sharp, the moderately High Church Archbishop of York, spoke and voted in favour of the occasional conformity bill each time it appeared in the House of Lords, yet he had permitted the Dissenter Richard Baxter to come to communion at St Giles-in-the-Fields while he was rector there. He had also encouraged his Nonconformist friend Ralph Thoresby to receive the sacrament monthly at his parish church. In supporting the bills Sharp was not being inconsistent with his earlier behaviour: as his biographer has rightly noted, he remained committed to his long-held belief that the moderate Dissenters could still be persuaded to rejoin the national church, not by concessions, but by argument and example. (15) Sharp and many other High Churchmen did not disapprove of the principle of occasional communion, but that was not the issue involved in the occasional conformity bills. The bills did not prevent occasional communion, they merely prevented those who practised it from holding public office. High Churchmen had sympathy for the Dissenter who came to communion in an Anglican church as an act of religious charity, but they strenuously objected to those who practised occasional conformity as an act of self-interest. As William Nicolson, Bishop of Carlisle, pointed out in a speech he prepared in support of the first bill against occasional conformity, but never delivered owing to lack of time, receiving communion for secular ends and purposes was a ticket to damnation. (16) This is a vitally important point. The irony is that the theological debate surrounding the occasional conformity bills had nothing whatever to do with the principle of occasional communion, because it was an issue on which both sides substantially agreed: no honest and sincere Christian, High Church or Latitudinarian, could countenance the possibility of a Dissenter communicating in an Anglican church solely for the purpose of qualifying for public office. What was at stake was the much larger issue of how the English church and state should deal with the problem of dissent. And some of the veterans of the earlier battles between the Latitudinarian and High Church factions would once again play a prominent role in the occasional conformity controversy.
One of the leading Latitudinarian bishops was Gilbert Burnet, bishop of Salisbury. Burnet was a prolific author, and one of the few British writers who could boast of both a national and international reputation. More importantly, he was unafraid to express his Latitudinarian views in print, and he was thick-skinned enough to take the abuse that the High Churchmen inevitably cast on him for doing so. (17) As we have seen, he was one of the chief targets of the Trinitarian controversy, and he had the distinction of being one of only two authors to be charged with heresy by the lower house of convocation a mere six months before the introduction of the first bill to prevent occasional conformity. It is not surprising, then, that Burnet took on the role of spokesman for the Latitudinarian bishops in the House of Lords during the debates over the occasional conformity bills. He is the only bishop to have been chosen to represent the Lords in a free conference between the House of Commons and the House of Lords that took place in January of 1703 to consider amendments that the Lords had made in an attempt to wreck the first bill. And he is the only bishop who is recorded as having made a major speech against the bills. His speech against the second bill, delivered on 1 December 1703, provides us with the essence of the Latitudinarian case.
As has already been noted, the intent of the acts was to exclude all Dissenters, both Catholic and Protestant, from holding any public office, but as Burnet pointed out, the actual wording of the acts contained an important loophole: "by these Acts, it is very true, that no man might be in any employment, who either had not been, or was not then, in the Communion of the Church. But there is not a Clause, nor a Word in either of these Acts, that import, that he should always continue to be so." (18) The acts themselves were worded such that it was theoretically possible for any Dissenter to qualify himself for office through occasional communion. In practice, however, no Catholic or separatist Dissenter could in good conscience communicate occasionally with the Church of England. But a moderate Dissenter could. In effect, the Corporation and Test Acts offered moderate Dissenters a full toleration in exchange for their occasional attendance at communion in a parish church. To the Latitudinarians this was a fair exchange. Moderate Dissenters must be brought, or coaxed if necessary, into occasional communion with the established church in the hope that they might be persuaded to enter into full communion. This was a principle that Burnet believed had always been applied to the Dissenters:
... from the first beginnings of these Disputes down to the present time, they [the Dissenters] have been always called on to come as near the Church as they could, and to do all that they could do with a Good Conscience: And therefore before the Wars, great difference was made between the Puritans, and the Brownists or Separatists, on this very account. But now all that is reversed, the Separatists are well looked on; whereas those who come much nearer us, are discouraged; tho' we do all see that this is a Step by which many come over entirely to us, and the Children of others do enter into a constant Communion with us. And shall we go to cast a Scandal on this, or discourage it! (19)
The distinction which Burnet drew between the moderate Dissenters (religious descendants of the Puritans) and the separatist Dissenters (in the Brownist tradition) provides us with the key to the Latitudinarians' objection to the bill against occasional conformity. By denying full social and political rights to separatist and moderate Dissenters without distinction, the bill was abandoning what they insisted was a fundamental principle of the policy which the church had traditionally applied to the Dissenters. The occasional conformity bill forced those occasional conformists who held, or aspired to hold, office to choose between the meeting hall and the church. Furthermore, Burnet believed that the occasional conformity bill "cast a scandal" on all moderate Dissenters, even those who occasionally conformed but did not hold office, and put pressure on all of them to make a choice as well. To force as many Dissenters as possible to decide between the meeting hall and the church is precisely what the High Church party wanted, for they believed that by this means large numbers of Dissenters could be brought back into the national church. The High Churchman Samuel Grascome, for instance, pointed to the example of Henry III of France "who desisting from Persecution, brought the Hugonots [sic] by Crowds into the Church of Rome, only by excluding them from Office and Employments." (20) Burnet was not convinced: "In my diocese, those who are Occasional Conformists out of Principle, who come sometimes to Church, and go sometimes to Meetings, are without number; who yet have no Office, and seem to pretend to none. I confess, I do not desire to press it hard upon them, that they may not do both; lest this, instead of keeping them from Meetings, hinder them from coming to Church." (21) Burnet feared that the occasional conformity bill would drive into a total separation those who were willing to communicate with the established church as an act of religious charity, but who could never be persuaded to come entirely over to the church without some concessions first being made. In other words, it might drive away those moderate Dissenters who might otherwise be open to a future comprehension scheme. Furthermore, Burnet was convinced that, by the occasional conformity bills, the High Church party were launching a full-scale assault on the Toleration Act of 1689.
With respect to the Dissenters, the Latitudinarians and the High Church party did agree on one essential point: the Dissenters were guilty of an unjust separation from the "more perfect and regular" Church of England. (22) Where they differed was on the crucial question of how that separation ought to be healed. The comprehension and toleration bills, introduced into the House of Lords in the early months of 1689, were based on the long-held Latitudinarian notion that there were two types of Dissenters--"moderate" in the Puritan tradition and "separatist" in the Brownist tradition--and that two distinct and different policies, comprehension and toleration, ought to be applied to each respectively. The Latitudinarians believed that by offering concessions to appease the scruples of the moderate Dissenters the vast majority would be willing to be comprehended within the bounds of this broadened established Church. As John Ramsbottom, a scholar of Puritan dissent, has noted, this continuing interest in achieving comprehension was not unrealistic. (23) At the same time they acknowledged that there were a small number of separatist Dissenters who for conscience's sake could never agree to the terms of the comprehension. A limited toleration was for them. Under the terms of this limited toleration only freedom of worship was to be conceded; the Corporation and Test Acts barring Dissenters from holding public office were still to remain in effect.
High Churchmen, however, did not share this view. Although Gareth Bennett has stated that "comprehension was always the policy of avowed High Churchmen," the reality is that what they meant by "comprehension" was really the unconditional surrender of the Nonconformists. (24) In fact, the leading figures amongst the High Church party, such as Henry Dodwell, Simon Lowth and John Kettlewell, feared comprehension in the Latitudinarian sense of the word far more than they did toleration. As early as 1679 Henry Dodwell, who would eventually become a Nonjuror, began to develop a highly exclusivist Anglican theology which in turn helped to shape the theology of the High Church party. (25) What concerned Dodwell much more than Protestant unity was ensuring that the Church of England remained a "true" church. A true church was one that possessed the power to dispense the ordinary means of salvation through the administration of the sacraments. (26) It was the apostles who were given the power to make bishops who might then convey this power to succeeding generations. Since the chain of apostolic succession had not been broken in England, the Church of England qualified as a true church. (27) But any tinkering with the true Church of England to allow heretical schismatics to be comprehended into it endangered its validity by clogging its well-established channels of sacramental grace. It is for this reason that the High Church party opposed the comprehension.
In the end, owing to High Church opposition, the comprehension bill was dropped. The toleration, on the other hand, became law. However, instead of applying to only a small number of recalcitrant separatist Dissenters it now applied to all Dissenters. This is not at all what the Latitudinarians had in mind. As a consequence of the loss of the comprehension bill the Dissenters were all to be lumped together and treated in the same manner. Such a solution to the problem of dissent was unacceptable, and after 1689 the Latitudinarians retained the hope that some kind of accommodation could still be reached with the moderate Dissenters. (28) In the meantime the Toleration Act was all there was, but it was inadequate. And the situation for moderate Dissenters was only made worse by the bill to prevent occasional conformity. Burnet commented openly that passage of the bill would amount to persecution.
Such a remark might seem disingenuous, given that in 1687 Burnet had declared the Corporation and Test Acts to be non-persecutory, and that in 1689 he had accepted the fact that they would remain in effect for those covered under the Toleration act. In fact, at no time did Burnet ever advocate the repeal of the Corporation and Test Acts. His staunch defence of the acts in the late 1680s had even earned him the epithet of "Captain of the Test" from John Dryden. (29) It must be remembered, however, that in 1687 he was challenging King James's attempt to suspend these acts in favour of all who dissented from the established church, including Catholics, and that in 1689 he fully expected the toleration to be applied only to the separatist Dissenters. In both cases Burnet was defending the acts only as they applied to Catholics and separatist Dissenters, neither of whom were capable of practising occasional communion. Furthermore, he maintained that the acts were not severe towards Catholics and separatist Dissenters because they did not prevent them from maintaining their religion in private, but only gave them "Leisure and Opportunities to live at home." (30) What made the Corporation and Test Acts persecutory was their application to moderate Dissenters who were willing and able in good conscience to communicate with the established Church.
Such a notion was offensive to the anonymous, though clearly High Church, author of A Letter to My Lords the Bishops, Concerning the Bill for Preventing Occasional Conformity (1704), which was highly critical of those bishops who opposed the bill. In the first place, he could not accept the kind of distinction that Burnet made between moderate and separatist Dissenters. All the Dissenters were the same: they were schismatics who separated from the Church of England with no just cause. (31) Secondly, the Church of England could not possibly be persecutory, because the bishops were the governors of the Church, "and since you do not find your selves disposed to persecution, charity which thinketh no evil, will encline you to believe that none of your Brethren mean it." (32) Thirdly, for all the care that the Latitudinarian bishops spent on the Toleration Act, should they not also reserve concern for the Conformity Act? (33) And finally, in an obvious allusion to the previous controversies between the High Church party and the Latitudinarians, the author of A Letter maintained that those who promoted the bill were "Gentlemen of the fairest Characters," whereas those opposed, he implied, "make open profession of Deism, and Socinianism" and "use their Profane Wit to Ridicule the Venerable Mysteries of Religion." (34)
This is an observation picked up by another High Churchman critical of the conduct of the Latitudinarian bishops in the matter of occasional conformity, and of Burnet in particular. In a rather witty retort to the publication of Burnet's speech to the House of Lords, Burnet's old nemesis in the convocation controversy, Francis Atterbury, attempted to "prove" that the printed speech was in fact spurious. For a wide variety of reasons, including its length and tediousness, Burnet could not possibly have made that speech. And like the anonymous author of the Letter, Atterbury pointed out that "my Lord is not ignorant of the unblemish'd Character of those who promote this bill in both Houses." In particular, he singled out those "learned and pious Prelates who voted for this Bill, [and who] are incapable of any Designs that they are asham'd to own." (35) What this implies about the character and aims of the bishops who voted against the bill is obvious, though unstated. But it is not just the character of the Latitudinarian bishops that Atterbury imputed. He argued that they "aim at Innovation." That innovation was evident in the "Jesuitical Distinction" of Burnet's interpretation of the Corporation and Test Acts. The intent of the acts was obvious, and any attempt to construe it differently was ridiculous: "Will any Historian conclude that the Romans allow'd a Man to kill his Parents, because there was not a Clause or a Word in any Law of theirs to forbid it?" (36) But more than ridiculous, it also hinted at other designs. What those designs were Atterbury did not explicitly say, but hinted at in his admonition to Burnet that "his concern of the Protestant Religion would not suffer him to be particular in his Favours towards these [the Dissenters], except upon the laudable Design of converting and bringing them over to the right side." (37) In other words, the only acceptable method of reconciling Protestants in England was by convincing the Dissenters of the errors of their ways and bringing them into the Church of England as it currently stood. Comprehending the Dissenters into the Church of England by offering them concessions was unacceptable.
Interestingly enough, neither Burnet nor any of the Latitudinarian bishops actually mentioned the word comprehension in any of their public statements on the occasional conformity bill. But this is not surprising, given how roundly Burnet had been condemned by the High Church party in the convocation of 1701 for "ushering a platform laid for Comprehension" in his Exposition of the Thirty-nine Articles. (38) This, however, did not stop Benjamin Hoadly, a future Latitudinarian bishop and defender of the bishops' conduct, from pointing out that those Dissenters who practised occasional communion "are generally such, as some few Amendments and Abatements in things truly indifferent, would bring over entirely to the Church." (39) He also noted that the proponents of the bills confused moderate Dissenters with "the rigid Separatists, by whom they have been always hated as Persons too favourable to our Church, and too near to Conformity." (40) In addition, for reasons of their own there were some Dissenters anxious to promote the possibility of comprehension. The Dissenting minister James Owen, for instance, remarked that, "had that Bill past into a Law, it would have erected a Partition-Wall between the Church and Dissenters, and cut off all Hope of accommodating the Differences Between 'em." Then there would have been "no further Prospect of Comprehension." (41)
For the Nonjuror Charles Leslie, a bitter opponent of Tillotson, Burnet, and other Latitudinarian divines in the Trinitarian controversy, (42) Owen's warning spoke volumes about the religious motives of the episcopal opponents of the bill: "Now it is out! Comprehension is the Business! This is the Bottom of all their Pleas for Occasional Conformity." Such a revelation was no surprise to Leslie, for he had no doubt that comprehension had been "one of their Designs in the last Reign." (43) To be sure, after the failure of the comprehension bill in 1689, those churchmen who were anxious to promote a comprehension had to do so cautiously, for "it was not likely to go down all at once." (44) As such, although King William was acquainted with the project, it was to be advanced under the auspices of Queen Mary "to avoid that Suspicion and Jealousy which might otherwise have Arisen." It was only when "her Sudden and Untimely Death ... broke all those Measures" that, in their disappointment, some churchmen revealed in their orations upon her death "the Noble and Christian Designs she had on foot, for the Greater Glory of Religion, &c." (45) Indeed, both Burner, in his Essay on the Memory of the Late Queen, and William Sherlock, dean of St Paul's, in a sermon at the Temple Church delivered just two days after Queen Mary's death, confirmed Leslie's suspicions by broadly hinting that a comprehension scheme was in fact being discussed under the auspices of the late Queen. And Leslie was not the only one to note the allusions to a comprehension scheme that were made following the deaths of both Queen Mary and Archbishop of Canterbury John Tillotson in late 1694. In Some Discourses upon Dr. Burnet and Dr. Tillotson; occasioned by the late funeral sermon of the former upon the latter (1695) the Nonjuror George Hickes enquired: "What means this new Discovery of Comprehension in so many of the late Funeral Sermons ...?" (46) Only the deaths of the Queen and the Archbishop had averted such a disaster.
But by no means was that the end of the matter. In his book The Wolf Stript of His Shepherd's Cloathing (1704) Leslie insisted that "the design is never to be let fall. For this Book [Burnet's Essay on the Memory of the Late Queen] was Re-Printed, since that time, and they have us'd the utmost Industry, in Pamphlets and Speeches, to draw Men into it, by a Fair Reprehention of the Dissenters, and Branding those that are Averse with the Name and Character of High Church Men, which they have Endeavour'd to render as Odious as Possible." (47) Leslie was dead certain that the Latitudinarians still clung to the hope that at some propitious moment a scheme of comprehension directed towards the moderate dissenters would be introduced. But the success of any such scheme depended upon maintaining the distinction between moderate and separatist Dissenters. Leslie well knew that the bill against occasional conformity, by threatening to drive the moderate Dissenters into the separatist camp, threw into jeopardy any future attempt at comprehension.
That Leslie's speculations hit close to the mark is borne out by the fact that they provoked Burnet in his speech to the Lords to respond by name to that "furiousest Jacobite in England." (48) Yet in his speech Burnet made no effort to defend comprehension; instead he turned the tables on Leslie and lashed out at his own scheme to negotiate an accommodation with the Gallican Church:
I know no High Church but the Church of Rome: And that Author, L--y [Lesly], has in another Book shewed us how near he comes to that Church, when he proposes, That a Treaty may be set on foot between Our Convocation, and the Assembly of the Clergy of France, and that we should abate the Regal Supremacy, and they the Papal, and then he fancies all other Matters would be easily adjusted. (49)
Burnet had now turned the whole controversy on its head. The ones with the secret agenda were not the Latitudinarians but the High Church party, who had introduced the occasional conformity bill in order to advance their own Gallican scheme. Hoadly even implied that supporters of the bills were, knowingly or otherwise, encouraging the popish succession in England. (50)
Burnet also charged that the occasional conformity bill was nothing less than a full-scale assault on the Toleration Act of 1689. For their part High Churchmen like Atterbury insisted that the repeal of the Toleration Act was impossible: the Queen would never allow "this Darling Toleration Act" to be overthrown. (51) Moreover, Samuel Grascome maintained that the occasional conformity bill had nothing whatever to do with the toleration:
What was the intent of the Toleration Act, but to secure to the Dissenters the free Exercise of their Religion; as the Design of the Bill [against occasional conformity] is to enforce the Laws that were made to secure the Church? The Act of Toleration prescribes the Conditions of enjoying Liberty of Conscience, the Bill the Conditions under which Men are admitted to Civil Offices.... They are quite different Persons that are concern'd in the one and the other; and all those for whose sake the Toleration was granted, are not in the least affected by the Bill. (52)
Leslie also pointed out that in the preamble of the first occasional conformity bill there was an express condemnation of the persecution of anyone for religious beliefs held in good conscience. This, he argued, could be "of no other use than to shew that the Commons did not Intend to Invade that Act." (53) In fact, far from wishing to destroy the toleration, the High Church party claimed that they were only trying to enforce the original intent of the act and to remind Dissenters that "there is some Difference betwixt being Establish'd and Tolerated." (54) Yet, despite their constant assurances to the contrary, the Latitudinarians simply did not believe that their High Church enemies had any intention of upholding the toleration. In his History of My Own Time Burnet observed that those "who pleaded for the bill did in words declare for the continuance of the toleration, yet the sharpness with which they treated the dissenters in all their speeches showed as if they designed their extirpation." (55) What confirmed Burnet in his suspicions that the High Church party was taking aim at the Toleration Act was the fact that the preamble in favour of toleration was dropped from the second occasional conformity bill. The missing preamble was seen as proof positive of what was already suspected: "the toleration itself was visibly aimed at, and this was only a step to break in upon it." (56)
So while party politics was the major focus for secular politicians in the controversy surrounding the occasional conformity bills, what was really the crux of the issue for Burnet and the Latitudinarian bishops in the House of Lords was the long-standing problem of what to do with those who, for the sake of conscience, dissented from the Church of England. As such, the debate over occasional conformity was not unlike that which had taken place over the comprehension and toleration bills of 1689. At that time both the Latitudinarians and the High Churchmen had agreed that without good cause the Dissenters had separated from the Church of England. Where they took issue with each other was on the crucial question of the nature of that separation and how it ought to be healed. The Latitudinarians' answer to this question was based on the assumption that there were two types of Dissenters--moderate and separatist--and that two distinctly different policies ought to be applied to each respectively. For the moderate Dissenters, the Latitudinarians advocated a scheme of comprehension. For the separatists they were willing to offer a limited toleration in which only freedom of worship was to be conceded: the Corporation and Test Acts barring Dissenters from holding public office were still to remain in effect.
In the end the High Church party managed to block the comprehension bill, but the toleration did become law. Instead of applying to a small number of recalcitrant Dissenters, however, it now had to apply to all Dissenters. This was a situation that the Latitudinarians could not accept, for it violated the traditional distinction between moderates and separatists that the church had always applied to Dissenters. The bill to prevent occasional conformity only made matters worse, for the Latitudinarians feared that, if passed, it would drive the moderate Dissenters who currently practised occasional conformity as an act of religious charity into a total separation from the church. In addition, the Latitudinarians were also concerned that the High Churchmen, despite their protestations to the contrary, were preparing to take aim at the toleration act itself. They had long suspected that the High Churchmen were enemies of toleration, but now they were convinced, both by the High Church speeches in favour of the occasional conformity bills and by the exclusion in the second bill of a preamble in support of toleration, that the toleration itself was visibly aimed at.
To the Latitudinarians, then, the occasional conformity bills represented an attack on both comprehension and toleration, which together formed the traditional policy of the Church of England towards the Dissenters. And it is for this reason that Burnet could make the extraordinary remark in December 1702 to Bishop Nicolson of Carlisle that "he'd move, and prove, that the Church of England was a persecuting Church." (57)
(1) A shorter version of this paper was delivered at the 31st annual Pacific Coast Conference on British Studies held at the Center for British Studies at the University of California at Berkeley in Mar. 2004. I wish to thank Professors Norma Landau and Molly McClain, as well as those in attendance at the session, for their comments.
(2) Proceedings of Both Houses of Parliament, in the Years 1702, 1703, 1704, Upon the Bill to Prevent Occasional Conformity (London, 1710), pp. 53-55.
(3) Anon, A Letter to my Lords the Bishops, concerning the Bill for preventing Occasional Conformity ([n.p.], 1704), p. 3.
(4) For more on the Trinitarian controversy see Martin Greig, "The Reasonableness of Christianity? Gilbert Burnet and the Trinitarian Controversy of the 1690s," The Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 44 (1993), pp. 631-51.
(5) For more on the convocation controversy see Martin Greig, "Heresy Hunt: Gilbert Burnet and the Convocation Controversy of 1701," The Historical Journal, 37 (1994), pp. 569-92.
(6) G.V. Bennett, The Tory Crisis in Church and State 1688-1730 (Oxford, 1975), p. 58.
(7) Francis Atterbury, Letter to a Convocation Man, Concerning the Rights, Powers and Privileges of that Body (London, 1697), p. 6; Francis Atterbury, The Rights', Powers', and Priviledges of an English Convocation (London, 1700), preface.
(8) Atterbury's interpretation has been endorsed by a modern Anglican scholar: Paul Avis, Anglicanism and the Christian Church (Minneapolis, 1989), pp. 113-14. Burnet himself admitted that the Exposition was a "proper addition" to his History of the Reformation: Gilbert Burnet, A History of My Own Time (London, 1838), p. 658.
(9) Gilbert Burnet, An Exposition of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England (London, 1699), Preface; Gilbert Burnet, "Autobiography," in H.C. Foxcroft (ed.), A Supplement to Burnet's History of My Own Time (Oxford, 1902), p. 507. Tillotson and Stillingfleet were both dead by 1702, but Tenison, Patrick, Hall, and Williams all opposed the occasional conformity bills.
(10) For the continuing controversies in convocation see: T. Lathbury, History of the Convocation of the Church of England (2nd edn, London, 1853), pp. 342-62; Bennett, Tory Crisis, ch. 3.
(11) Complaint of the lower house of convocation against Burnet's exposition of the 39 articles, British Library, Add. MS 4238, f. 58a.
(12) George Every, The High Church Party (London, 1956), p. 110; G.V. Bennett, "Conflict in the Church," in Geoffrey Holmes (ed.), Britain after the Glorious Revolution, 1689-1714 (London, 1969), p. 168; John Flaningham, "The Occasional Conformity Controversy: Ideology and Party Politics, 1697-1711," Journal of British Studies, 17 (1977), p. 53.
(13) Edmund Calamy, An Historical Account of My Own Life (London, 1829), pp. 472-73.
(14) Gilbert Burnet, The Bishop of Salisbury's Speech ... Upon the Bill Against Occasional Conformity (London, 1704), p, 7.
(15) A. Tindal Hart, The Life and Times of John Sharp, Archbishop of York (London, 1949), pp. 321-22.
(16) Clyve Jones and Geoffrey Holmes (eds.), The London Diaries of William Nicolson, Bishop of Carlisle, 1702-1718 (Oxford, 1985), p. 138.
(17) As an example, Bishop Nicolson of Carlisle dined at with Burnet and others at Lambeth Palace on 16 Nov. 1702 and described Burnet as being "in good heart; not valueing the Grins of the Lower House of Convocation." Ibid., p. 127.
(18) Burnet, Speech ... upon the Bill against Occasional Conformity, p. 8.
(19) Ibid., pp. 6-7.
(20) Samuel Grascome, A Postscript, in Answer to the Eleventh Section of D. Davenant's Essays of Peace at Home and War Abroad (London, 1704), pp. 13-14.
(21) Burnet, Speech ... upon the Bill against Occasional Conformity, p. 7.
(22) Ibid., p. 6. The nonjurors Charles Leslie and Samuel Grascome both argued that all Anglicans held the dissenters to be in schism, but Burnet, significantly, prefers to use the term separation. Charles Leslie, The Bishop of Salisbury's Proper Defence from a Speech Cry 'd About the Streets in His Name, and Said to Have Been Spoken by Him in the House of Lords Upon the Bill Against Occasional Conformity (London, 1704), p. 43; Samuel Grascome, Occasional Conformity a Most Unjustifiable Practice (London, 1704), p. 49.
(23) John Ramsbottom, "Presbyterians and 'partial conformity' in the Restoration Church of England," Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 43 (1992), p. 253.
(24) John Spurr, "Schism and the Restoration Church," Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 41 (1990), p. 70.
(25) John Findon, "The Nonjurors and the Church of England, 1679-1716" (D.Phil. diss. University of Oxford, 1978), pp. 159-60.
(26) Henry Dodwell, Separation of Churches from Episcopal Government, as Practised by the Present Non-confomrists, Proved Schismatical (London, 1679), pp. 171, 561-62.
(27) Ibid., pp. v-vi. Dodwell, in a later letter to Gilbert Burnet argued that the episcopal order was "the best security for our Christian religion." Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS. St. Edmund Hall 14, fo. 51, Henry Dodwell to Gilbert Butnet, 5 Mar. 1711.
(28) Martin Greig, "Gilbert Bumet and the Problem of Nonconformity in Restoration Scotland and England," Canadian Journal of History, 32 (1997), pp. 23-24.
(29) John Dryden, "The Hind and the Panther," in The Works of John Dryden (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1956-79), vol. 3, p. 197.
(30) Gilbert Burnet, Reasons Against the Repealing the Acts of Parliament Concerning the Test (London, 1687), p. 6.
(31) [Anon], A Letter to My Lords the Bishops, Concerning the Bill for Preventing Occasional Conformity , p. 3.
(32) Ibid., p. 3.
(33) Ibid., p. 2.
(34) Ibid., p. 4.
(35) [Francis Atterbury], D. F. A.'s Vindication of the Bp. Of Sarum, from being the author of a late printed speech, in a letter to a Friend (London, 1704), p. 13.
(36) Ibid., p. 14.
(37) Ibid., p. 15.
(38) Greig, "Heresy Hunt," passim.
(39) Benjamin Hoadly, A Letter to a Clergyman in the Country Concerning the Votes of the Bishops in the Last Session of Parliament. Upon the Bill Against Occasional Conformity (London, 1704), p. 25.
(41) James Owen, Moderation a Virtue: or; the Occasional Conformist Justify'd from the Imputation of Hypocrisy (London, 1703), p. 30. The nonjuror Charles Leslie accused Owen, with some justification, of having cribbed much of his pamphlet from the arguments of the managers for the lords in their free conference with the House of Commons on 16 Jan. 1703. Compare this passage, for example, with a similar one in An Account of the Proceedings of the Lords, p. 36.
(42) Greig, "The Reasonableness of Christianity?" passim.
(43) Charles Leslie, The Wolf Stript of his Shepherd's Cloathing. In answer to a Late Celebrated Book Entituled Moderation a Vertue (London, 1704), p. 29.
(44) Ibid., p. 38.
(46) George Hickes, Some Discourses Upon Dr Burnet and Dr Tillotson; Occasioned by the Late Funeral Sermon of the Former Upon the Latter (London, 1695), preface.
(47) Leslie, Wolf Stript, p. 47.
(48) Burnet, Speech ... upon the Bill against Occasional Conformity, p. 4.
(50) Hoadly, Letter, p. 9.
(51) Atterbury, D. F. A.'s Vindication, pp. 15-16.
(52) Grascome, A Postscript, p. 8.
(53) Leslie, The Bishop of Salisbury's Proper Defence, p. 30.
(54) Ibid., p. 10.
(55) Gilbert Burnet, History of My Own Time (London, 1838), p. 721.
(57) Clive Jones and Geoffrey Holmes (eds.), The London Diaries of William Nicolson, Bishop of Carlisle, 1702-1718
Dr. Martin Greig earned his PhD from the University of Cambridge and is now an assistant professor at Ryerson University in Toronto. He is currently writing a biography of Gilbert Burnet.
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|Date:||Sep 22, 2006|
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