Religion in the nineteenth century

The 1829 Catholic Emancipation Act was a major turning point, and showed that Parliament no longer acted exclusively for the Church of England.

Greater religious toleration

Most dissenters had enjoyed a wide measure of toleration since 1689. Provided they fulfilled certain conditions they could hold public office and be elected to Parliament. Groups like the Quakers also greatly influenced Parliament by petitioning against continuation of the slave trade and poor conditions in prisons.

Few doubted their economic and social importance to the state by the early 19th century, but legal barriers against them still remained. 

The most important of these were removed by an Act in 1828 in response to years of campaigning by the United Committee of Dissenting Deputies, a powerful nonconformist pressure group.

Church and state

In 1833 the Irish Church Temporalities Act substantially slimmed down the Church’s organisation in Ireland. This sparked widespread concern that too much parliamentary intervention was forcing the Church into decline.

A group of Oxford theologians – the Oxford Movement – sought to re-invigorate the Church’s spiritual dimension, but further parliamentary reform continued to address the Church’s position within the state, as well as giving increasing attention to the nation’s religious diversity.

Dissenters, Catholics and Jews

In 1846 Parliament passed the Religious Disabilities Act which removed the last restrictions against dissenters and Catholics. 

It also extended to Jews the same rights and freedoms on education, property and the administration of charities. 

In 1858, after a ten-year campaign led by David Salomons, the first Jewish lord mayor of London, the Jewish Relief Act was passed granting full civil and political rights to Jews. The first Jewish MP, Baron Lionel de Rothschild, took his seat the same year. Benjamin Disraeli, who was from a Jewish family, became Prime Minister in 1868.

Other major reforms

Two Acts of 1857 transferred to the state the Church’s ancient jurisdictions over matrimonial matters and the administration of wills.

Other legislation was beginning to lessen the Church’s role in the provision of education. 

In 1869 the Irish Church Disestablishment Act ended the official, but unrealistic, status of the Anglican Church in Ireland where the population was mainly Catholic. 

Atheists

The leading atheist campaigner, Charles Bradlaugh, was elected to Parliament in 1880 but was refused the oath because of his atheism, and was unable to take his seat. 

Despite being re-elected four times, he eventually took the customary oath in 1886 and as an MP campaigned for a change in the law. 

The Oaths Act of 1888 allowed individuals professing no religious belief, or whose religious beliefs did not allow the taking of oaths, to "solemnly affirm" rather than "swear by God".  

From this point on, people of non-Christian background and atheists were able to take up their Parliamentary seats after they were elected.

Biographies

You can access biographies of

David Salomons
Baron Lionel de Rothschild
Benjamin Disraeli
Charles Bradlaugh

from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for free, online, using your local library card number (includes nine out of ten public libraries in the UK) or from within academic library and other subscribing networks.