Act of Toleration

Those who drove the Catholic James II from the English throne in 1688 and invited his Protestant daughter, Mary, and her husband (and first cousin), William of Orange, in his place in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 were convinced that religious strife was a grave threat to the nation. Consequently, in May 1689 Parliament passed the Act of Toleration, which exempted most Protestant dissenters (such as Baptists, Quakers, and Presbyterians) "from the penalties of certain laws." Those who chose not to accept the liturgy of the Church of England gained the right to worship freely and publicly so long as they worshipped in premises licensed by a bishop of the Church. The Toleration Act excluded Catholics and anyone, such as Unitarians, who denied the Trinity. As John Locke wrote at the time, perhaps it was "not perhaps as wide in scope as might be wished for," but it nevertheless "is something to have progressed so far." Public worship according to their own beliefs had been denied dissenters under the harsh Clarendon Code of the 1660s, several restrictive pieces of legislation enacted by the Cavalier Parliament upon the restoration of Charles II to the throne after the English Civil War and the Interregnum.

The Toleration Act did find its way to the American colonies. The first notice taken of it in Virginia occurred in 1699 when the General Assembly passed "An act for the more effectual suppressing of Blasphemy, Searing, Cursing, Drunkenness and Sabbath breaking" that included an exemption for qualified dissenters from the penalties for not attending their parish churches. To become qualified, a dissenter would have to notify their local county court of their dissenting status, declare their intention to attend a meeting house duly licensed by the General Court in Williamsburg, and hear the words of only properly licensed dissenting ministers, approved by the same high court.

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