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Freedom of conscience

Liberty of Conscience bill (1811)

Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/8/236

After the Lords rejected his Bill for the relief of Protestant dissenters, Earl Stanhope offered to present another one for the relief of Quakers—one of the dissenting Protestant sects—but when the Lord Chancellor indicated it would meet the same fate, he replied: “on another occasion I shall teach the noble and learned lord law, as I have this day taught the bench of bishops religion” (Parliamentary Debates, 1789 to 1791, XXVIII, London, col. 116). Later that year, he introduced a Bill to ease the burden of tithes on Quakers.

What were tithes?

Tithes were a form of taxation paid to the Church for the upkeep of the Anglican clergy, but Quakers, who objected to the existence of an official priesthood and believed in the “universal priesthood of all believers” (Ibid, col. 215) refused to pay. Consequently, many of them were excommunicated and imprisoned, sometimes for life. Stanhope described the Church's treatment of Quakers as “instances of ecclesiastical tyranny and oppression and of cold, deliberate and consummate cruelty” (Ibid, col. 216). Nevertheless, the Bill received almost no support and was thrown out.

Stanhope's later years

In the last years of his life, Stanhope continued energetically to champion the cause of religious freedom. In 1811, he tried unsuccessfully to amend the Mutiny Bill to permit soldiers, nearly half of whom dissented from the established Church, “to attend divine worship according to such rites as their consciences suggested, and not be compelled to attend at divine service according to the rites of the Established Church.” He cited the example of two priests who were refused permission to minister to dying Irish Catholic soldiers garrisoned in Sicily. The soldiers were thereby “deprived of that assistance which, under the pressure of sorrow and of sickness, can afford relief and consolation to the human mind.” Later that year, to the same end and again without success, he introduced a Liberty of Conscience Bill. In 1812, he moved another Bill for the relief of Dissenters which, although rejected, drew from the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, a promise to change the law.When Liverpool introduced a Toleration Bill later that year, Stanhope, while regretting its shortcomings, nonetheless gave it his support. He thus lived long enough to witness at least the partial accomplishment of one of his life's ambitions. 

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