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Protestant Dissenters, 1789

Charles Stanhope, third Earl Stanhope's most ambitious attempt to repeal laws against Protestant Dissenters was a Bill that he introduced in 1789 “extending freedom in matters of religion to all persons”, except for Catholics, whom he wanted to include but for political reasons could not. Among the laws he wanted to repeal, which he called “a disgrace to the country”(Parliamentary Debates, 1789 to 1791, XXVIII, London, col. 102.), were those requiring attendance at church every month, those banning the eating of meat on “fish days”, those preventing women and children from leaving the country without a licence from the king or Privy Council, and other laws that disproportionately affected non-Anglicans, even if they were no longer rigorously enforced.

What did Stanhope's 1789 Bill seek to achieve?

The Bill stated that Dissenters “shall have liberty to exercise their religion, and by speaking, writing, printing, and publishing…to investigate religious subjects” (Ibid, col. 113). In response, the Archbishop of Canterbury objected that if “the Atheist were allowed to defend his Atheism by argument, he saw no reason why the thief might not be permitted to reason on behalf of theft, the burglar of burglary, the seducer of seduction, the murderer of murder, the traitor of treason.” He thought it “must necessarily tend to weaken the credit of the Christian religion, to endanger the security of the established church, and to divide and distract the sentiments of mankind, and on which the tranquillity, happiness and the safety of society essentially depended.” (Ibid, col. 117).  The Bill received little support and was promptly thrown out.

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