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How the repealers failed the test

17 January 2014

Jeremy Gregory looks at a revisionist view of events in the 1580s

Making Toleration: The repealers and the Glorious Revolution
Scott Sowerby
Harvard University Press £30
Church Times Bookshop £27 (Use code CT261 )

SCOTT SOWERBY's bold and provocative book seeks to put back into history those he regards as a forgotten group of people - "the repealers" - who wanted to repeal the Test Acts, which upheld uniformity to the Church of England, and who supported the Roman Catholic King James II's policy in the second half of the 1680s of advocating religious toleration for all. They included Quakers, Baptists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Familists, and Roman Catholics, as well as some Anglicans.

Previous scholars have characterised these as James's "Whig collaborators", and have usually viewed them as a small group of people, often with dubious reasons for advocating religious liberty. But, where other historians have often distrusted the King's own motives, seeing his support of religious liberty as a veneer for giving freedom only to his co-religionists, Sowerby, with suitable caveats, is much more willing to see him as sincere, and, indeed, regards the repealers and their ideas as precursors to the Enlightenment, with its concern for religious toleration and freedom of conscience.

The undoubted achievement of Sowerby's research is to demonstrate that the repealers' cause was buttressed by a well-thought-out set of religious and political points (and in this it may well be worth taking James's own Declaration for Liberty of Conscience more seriously than has often been the case: even if it was a cynical document, it was arguably far ahead of its time in the scope of its arguments).

He also shows that there was more widespread support for the repealers' case than has usually been assumed, particularly in the textile areas of the south-west and East Anglia (although how far the attractiveness of toleration in these regions owed more to economic pragmatism than to religious principles is not fully discussed).

Sowerby argues that support for the repealers' arguments in certain boroughs could have helped James secure a majority in Parliament, which might well have pushed through his religious policy if it had ever met. In this, he is suggestive of the ways by which James attempted to build up a mass following. Sowerby also maintains, in an interesting final chapter, that the arguments put forward by the repealers had much more weight in preparing the way for, and shaping, the 1689 "Toleration Act" than has previously been recognised. For him, they were far more important in this than John Locke's Letter Concerning Toleration.

Nevertheless, although he provides new archival evidence to indicate the social reach of the repealers' views, it is not clear that what Sowerby describes adds up to a real "movement", with shared values, common aspirations, and a coherent organisation. Whatever the strengths (or weaknesses) of "the repealer movement", Sowerby himself actually gives ample evidence of the massive successes of the anti-repealer campaign, which was able to play on the anti-Catholic fears of the age to telling effect, making way for the Glorious Revolution and James's overthrow.

It is also surely significant, given the title of this book, that notwithstanding James's own concern for his fellow Roman Catholics, they, and anti-Trinitarians, were the religious groups expressly outlawed by the 1689 Act, although Protestant Nonconformists did gain some freedoms.

Roman Catholics had to wait until 1829 for political emancipation, and they suffered social and cultural prejudice in some parts of Britain well into the 20th century. For some of the religious groups backed by the repealers (and surely the prime group who interested James II), toleration was most certainly not made, but was arguably put back at least 140 years, by their activities.

Professor Jeremy Gregory is Head of the School of Arts, Languages and Cultures, at the University of Manchester.

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