Toleration Act 1688

The Toleration Act 1688 [1]
Long title An Act for Exempting their Majestyes Protestant Subjects dissenting from the Church of England from the Penalties of certaine Lawes.[2]
Citation 1 Will & Mary c 18
Royal assent 24 May 1689
Status: Repealed
Text of statute as originally enacted

The Toleration Act 1688 (1 Will & Mary c 18), also referred to as the Act of Toleration,[3] was an Act of the Parliament of England, which received the royal assent on 24 May 1689.[4][5]

The Act allowed freedom of worship to nonconformists who had pledged to the oaths of Allegiance and Supremacy and rejected transubstantiation, i.e., Protestants who dissented from the Church of England such as Baptists, Congregationalists or English Presbyterians, but not to Roman Catholics. Nonconformists were allowed their own places of worship and their own schoolteachers, so long as they accepted certain oaths of allegiance.

The Act intentionally did not apply to Roman Catholics, nontrinitarians,[6] and atheists.[7] It continued the existing social and political disabilities for dissenters, including their exclusion from holding political offices and also from the universities. Dissenters were required to register their meeting houses and were forbidden from meeting in private homes. Any preachers who dissented had to be licensed.

Between 1772 and 1774, Dr Edward Pickard gathered together dissenting ministers, to campaign for the terms of the Toleration Act for dissenting clergy to be modified. Under his leadership, Parliament twice considered bills to modify the law, but both were unsuccessful and it was not until Pickard and many others had ended their efforts that a new attempt was made in 1779.[8] The Act was amended in 1779 by substituting belief in Scripture for belief in the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Anglican churches, but some penalties on holding property remained. Penalties against Unitarians were finally removed in the Doctrine of the Trinity Act 1813.


William III. giving his royal assent to the Toleration Act.

With fears that the new king, James II, and his son James Francis would establish a Roman Catholic dynasty, the previous violent divisions among the different Anglican and Protestant sects were put aside to focus on their common adversary, the Church of Rome. Political and religious leaders from among this coalition invited William of Orange, Stadholder of the Netherlands, who was married to James's daughter Mary, herself raised in the Church of England, to invade the country and seize the crown. The resulting "Revolution" of 1688 (commonly referred to as the Glorious Revolution) resulted in success for William and Mary, who became joint sovereigns. A series of Acts of parliament assured a new constitutional settlement of this situation; these include the Bill of Rights 1689, the Crown and Parliament Recognition Act 1689, the Mutiny Act 1689, the Toleration Act 1688, and later the Act of Settlement 1701 and the Act of Union 1707.[9]

The historian Kenneth Pearl sees the Act of Toleration as "in many ways a compromise bill. To get nonconformists' (Protestants who were not members of the Church of England) support in the crucial months of 1688".[9] Both the Whig and Tory parties that had rallied around William and Mary had promised nonconformists that such an act would be enacted if the revolution succeeded. James II had himself issued an act of toleration, but the nonconformists believed their future would be more secure if the Sovereign was not a Roman Catholic.[9]

Catholics and Unitarians were not hunted down after the Act was passed but they still had no right to assemble and pray.[9] As there still remained a Test Act, non-Anglicans (including all Protestant non-Conformists, Jews, Catholics, and Unitarians) could not sit in Parliament even following the passage of the Toleration Act 1688.[10] The Toleration Act of 1712, passed following the union between Scotland and England, granted limited toleration, specifically the right to worship for Scottish Episcopalians who prayed for the monarch and used the English Book of Common Prayer.[11] Unitarians were only granted toleration after the Doctrine of the Trinity Act 1813;[10] prior to that time, denying the Trinity was a capital offense in Scotland.[10]

The Test Act remained in force until the nineteenth century.[9]


Historians (such as John J. Patrick) see John Locke's A Letter Concerning Toleration advocating religious toleration (written in 1685 and published in 1689) as "the philosophical foundation for the English Act of Toleration of 1689".[7] While Locke had advocated coexistence between the Church of England (the established church) and dissenting Protestant denominations (including Congregationalists, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Quakers) he had excluded Catholics from toleration – the same policy that the Act of Toleration enacted.[7]

Implementation in the overseas colonies

The terms of the Act of Toleration within the English colonies in America were applied either by charter or by acts by the royal governors.[7] The ideas of toleration as advocated by Locke (which excluded Roman Catholics) became accepted through most of the colonies, even in the Congregational strongholds within New England which had previously punished or excluded dissenters.[7] The colonies of Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Delaware, and New Jersey went further than the Act of Toleration by outlawing the establishment of any church and allowing a greater religious diversity.[7] Within the colonies Roman Catholics were allowed to practise their religion freely only in Pennsylvania and Maryland.[7]


Section 5

This section, from "bee it" to "aforesaid that" was repealed by section 1 of, and Part I of the Schedule to, the Statute Law Revision Act 1888.

In this section, the words "as aforesaid" were repealed by section 1 of, and Schedule 1 to, the Statute Law Revision Act 1948.

Section 8

This section, from "bee it" to "aforesaid that" was repealed by section 1 of, and Part I of the Schedule to, the Statute Law Revision Act 1888.

Section 15

This section, from "bee it" to "aforesaid" was repealed by section 1 of, and Part I of the Schedule to, the Statute Law Revision Act 1888.

In this section, the words "after the tenth day of June" were repealed by section 1 of, and Schedule 1 to, the Statute Law Revision Act 1948.

Section 18

Section 6 of the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act 1860 provided that nothing contained thereinbefore in that Act was to be taken to repeal or alter section 18 of the Toleration Act 1688.


The whole Act, except section 5 and so much of section 8 as specified the service and offices from which certain persons were exempt and section 15, was repealed by section 1 of, and Part II of Schedule 1 to, the Promissory Oaths Act 1871.

The whole Act, so far as unrepealed, was repealed by section 1 of, and Part II of the Schedule to, the Statute Law (Repeals) Act 1969.

Later developments

Toleration of worship was later extended to Protestants who did not believe in Trinitarian doctrine in the Unitarians Relief Act 1813. Roman Catholics ("Papists") were allowed to worship under strict conditions through the Roman Catholic Relief Act 1791. As time went on, oaths and tests that barred non-conformists and Roman Catholics from holding public offices, keeping schools, and owning land were rescinded by laws such as Roman Catholic Relief Act, 1778, the Roman Catholic Charities Act 1832, the Test Abolition Act 1867, the Promissory Oaths Act 1868, the Promissory Oaths Act 1871 and the Oaths Act 1978. The Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829 allowed followers of that religion to be elected to Parliament and to hold most offices under the Crown, while the Jews Relief Act 1858 had a similar effect for adherents of Judaism. The Religious Disabilities Act 1846 ended restrictions on Roman Catholics for education, charities, and owning property, although Oxford, Cambridge, and Durham universities were allowed to continue to exclude Roman Catholics until Universities Tests Act 1871 took effect. By the passage of the Places of Worship Registration Act 1855, an optional system of registration for non-Anglican places of worship was passed which gave certain legal and fiscal advantages for those that registered, and "alternative religion was not only lawful, but was often facilitated by the law."[12]

See also


  1. ^ The citation of this Act by this short title was authorised by section 5 of, and Schedule 2 to, the Statute Law Revision Act 1948. Due to the repeal of those provisions, it is now authorised by section 19(2) of the Interpretation Act 1978.
  2. ^ These words are printed against this Act in the second column of Schedule 2 to the Statute Law Revision Act 1948, which is headed "Title".
  3. ^ Mews, John. The Digest of English Case Law Containing the Reported Decisions of the Superior Courts: And a Selection from Those of the Irish Courts [from 1557] to the End of 1897. Sweet and Maxwell. 1898. Volume 12. Page 101.
  4. ^ House of Lords Journal: 24 May 1689: record of royal assent British History Online
  5. ^ Text of the Act British History Online
  6. ^ Bromley, John Selwyn (1970). The new Cambridge modern history. Cambridge University Press. p. 210. ISBN 0-521-07524-6. OCLC 58643836.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g John J. Patrick, Gerald P. Long (1999). Constitutional Debates on Freedom of Religion: A Documentary History. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.CS1 maint: uses authors parameter (link)
  8. ^ John Stephens, ‘Pickard, Edward (1714–1778)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 accessed 18 February 2010
  9. ^ a b c d e Kenneth Pearl (2011). Cracking the AP European History Exam. Princeton Review, Inc.
  10. ^ a b c Jeremy Black, Eighteenth-Century Britain, 1688-1783 (2nd ed. Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), p. 131.
  11. ^ Stewart J. Brown, "Religion and Society to c. 1900" in The Oxford Handbook of Modern Scottish History (eds. T. M. Devine & Jenny Wormald: Oxford University Press, 2012).
  12. ^ Russell Sandberg (2011). Law and Religion. Cambridge University Press.

Further reading

  • Grell, Ole Peter, and Jonathan Irvine Israel. From persecution to toleration: the Glorious Revolution and religion in England (Oxford UP, 1991).
  • Mullett, Charles F. "The Legal Position of English Protestant Dissenters, 1689–1767." Virginia Law Review (1937): 389–418. in JSTOR
  • Spurr, John. "The Church of England, comprehension and the Toleration Act of 1689." English Historical Review 104.413 (1989): 927–946. in JSTOR
  • Wykes, David L. "Friends, parliament and the toleration act." Journal of Ecclesiastical History 45.01 (1994): 42–63.
  • Zwicker, Laura. "Politics of Toleration: The Establishment Clause and the Act of Toleration Examined, The." Indiana Law Journal 66 (1990): 773+. online