Parliament and religion: the defeat of the first Occasional Conformity Bill, January 1703

After last week’s rulings from the European Court of Human Rights on religious discrimination in the workplace, Dr Charles Littleton discusses the issue of religious discrimination in 18th Century Britain.

Debates about the right to express one’s faith according to one’s conscience are nothing new in British politics. In the days of late January 1703 Parliament was convulsed by debates surrounding the bill to ‘prevent Occasional Conformity’. The Act sought to protect the monopoly on local and national offices held by conforming members of the Church of England, as established by statute in 1662. Protestant Nonconformists could circumvent the restrictions of the Corporation and Test Acts by ‘occasionally’ conforming to the rites of the Church of England while conducting the majority of their worship in Nonconformist chapels and meeting houses. This incensed the High Church branch of the Tories, especially as most of these Nonconformists sided with the Whigs, and their minimal attendance on the Church of England allowed them to hold civic and national office.

The bill against Occasional Conformity, first introduced in the Commons in December 1702, at the very beginning of the rule of Queen Anne, became one of the most controversial measures of that reign. It raised issues both of high principle – how far should dissent and nonconformity in religious practice be allowed in a kingdom with a state church – and low political and partisan calculation – the Whigs benefited from the practice of occasional conformity and thus the Tories were anxious to place limits on its practice and benefits.

The measure passed through the Tory-dominated Commons with some ease at first, but faced stiff opposition in the Lords, where the Whigs had a slight edge. The Whigs in the Lords did not wish to risk a direct vote on the bill and its opponents instead added a series of ‘wrecking’ amendments which they knew would sink the bill when it returned to the Commons. The climactic conference between the two houses took place on 16 Jan. 1703 in the Painted Chamber, which Bishop Burnet tells us ‘was the most crowded upon that occasion that had ever been known’. Following the conference the Lords held a series of very close divisions on whether to adhere to their amendments despite the Commons’ objections. The most offensive to the Commons was passed by only one vote, thus ensuring the bill’s demise in the lower chamber when it was returned there on 1 February.

This was seen as a defeat for the Queen’s Tory ministry, led by the Duke of Marlborough and Baron Godolphin, but they were secretly opposed to the divisive nature of the bill and were privately happy to see it fail. Similarly Prince George of Denmark, who was known to keep his own Lutheran chapel, was ordered by his wife the queen to vote for the bill but was reported to have whispered to the Whig Lord Wharton at the division of the bill, ‘My heart is vid you’. Lord Treasurer Godolphin was later to write that ‘Like an unruly musket [the bill] might serve to frighten those against whom it was presented, but not hurt any but those who give fire to it’. Sure enough, the insistence of the High Church Tories to continue to introduce the bill in successive parliamentary sessions, and some of the desperate and unparliamentary measures taken to try to circumvent its inevitable defeat in the Lords, resulted in the dismissal of the High Church Tory leaders from the ministry in 1704, a Tory rout at the polls in the election of spring 1705, and the Marlborough-Godolphin ministry’s increasing reliance on the Whigs for support.

Thus the Occasional Conformity Bill led to the first major political realignment of Anne’s reign, towards the Whigs. Its consequences were more far-reaching, as the bill’s defeat left intact, for a time at least, the de facto ability of Protestant Nonconformists to participate in basic civic and national life.


You can read more about Religion and Politics, 1690-1715, on our website.

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