Making Toleration: The repealers and the Glorious
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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
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
Professor Jeremy Gregory is Head of the School of Arts,
Languages and Cultures, at the University of Manchester.