Religious tests, profligate wretches, and the tricks of memory

Many years ago – indeed in my last summer at Oxford – I formed a high opinion of the pre-WW1 essays of Augustine Birrell.  This opinion was not founded on any great study.  On the contrary: I was going punting, and looking for a book to take with me.  In a shop I found a copy of the Everyman Century of English Essays.  It was very cheap, for its cover was gone, and had been replaced by some careful person with a cover of brown paper.  Anyway it was clearly not valuable, and so ideal for the risky environment of the punt.

The volume contained a couple of essays by Birrell, and this led me to buy some collections of his essays, and then to venture to look at some of the literary works which he discussed.  Notable among these was Boswell’s Life of Johnson.  This I acquired somewhere, in a two-volume Everyman, and had a local bookshop – the Amberstone bookshop in Ipswich, long since vanished alas – cover the battered dustwrappers with plastic.  Consequently Birrell and Boswell have been long allied in my memory.

The reign of Charles II was not a happy one in Britain, and Johnson looks back to it often.  The main consequence of that reign was to exclude by law half of England from any share in the government, if they failed to “conform”; that is, to swear oaths of their allegiance to the Church of England.  The Act of Uniformity, the Test Act, and other detestable pieces of legislation were devised, not to promote national unity, but in order to push the puritans and presbyterians out of the church, thereby allowing the revenues of many valuable benefices to fall to their enemies, and allowing the latter to use the state to harass, imprison, and otherwise abuse those they hated.  This process created “non-conformity”, a parallel state, which continued to exist for more than a century and a half, until the laws were entirely removed in the 19th century.

Many people will perhaps suppose that this was religious persecution, from the language used by the oppressors.  But I learned yesterday that the judge who worded the Act of Uniformity of 1662, John Keeling, was himself an atheist.  The Archbishop of Canterbury, Gilbert Sheldon, who drafted the material and was in the forefront of the persecutions, is recorded by Samuel Pepys a few years later as a wencher.  These were not religious men.

In fact laws that strain mens’ consciences invariably produce governments full of liars and scoundrels.  Honest men say what they mean, and so are at the mercy of wretches who will say anything, and are quite happy to draw up “tests” which will exclude those more honest than themselves.  The Act of Uniformity was of this character; for it involved swearing that the Book of Common Prayer was in full accordance with scripture, when in fact almost no copies had even been made available for examination.

For many years, I was under the impression that Birrell referred to one of the drafters of these nasty pieces of legislation in the following terms: “that the wretch who drafted it boasted that it would damn one half of the country and starve the other half.”  I always wondered who precisely the “wretch” was, and where Birrell found the statement.

This evening I took advantage of the digitisation of Birrell’s works at the Internet Archive to do some searches.  And I found … that the words are not Birrell’s, but are found in the footnotes (by either Boswell himself, or by Malone, an early editor).  The footnote is to a remark about the non-jurors, clergymen who declined to swear to William III in 1688, on the basis that they were already sworn to James II, and so were deprived of their livings.

This was not merely a cursory remark ; for in his Li/e o/ Fenten
he observes, ‘ With many other wise and virtuous men, who at that
time of discord and debate [about the beginning of this century] con-
sulted conscience well or ill informed, more than interest, he doubted
the legality of the government ; and refusing to qualify himself for
public employment by taking the oaths required, left the University
without a degree.’ This conduct Johnson calls ‘ perverseness of

The question concerning the morality of taking oaths of whatever kind, imposed by the prevailing power at the time, rather than to be excluded from all consequence, or even any considerable usefulness in society, has been agitated with all the acuteness of casuistry. It is related that he who devised the oath of abjuration, profligately boasted that he had framed a test which should ‘damn one half of the nation, and starve the other.’ Upon minds not exalted to inflexible rectitude, or minds in which zeal for a party is predominant to excess, taking that oath against conviction may have been palliated under the plea of necessity or ventured upon in heat, as upon the whole producing more good than evil.

At a county election in Scotland many years ago, when there was a warm contest between the friends of the Hanoverian succession and those against it, the oath of abjuration having been demanded, the freeholders upon one side rose to go away. Upon which a very sanguine gentleman, one of their number, ran to the door to stop them, calling out with much earnestness, ‘Stay, stay, my friends, and let us swear the rogues out of it!’ [1]

It is indeed hard not to be cynical about those who draft laws about what opinions may or may not be held or expressed.  They are invariably rogues who seek only their own advantage by turning the natural desire of all men to do what is right into a means to harm those who possess it.

So this relates to a later oath than I had imagined.  But who was the man who “profligately boasted” of the harm he had done his country?

I do not know the answer.  But a search produces more information.

In Thomas Carte’s A full answer, 1742, p.87[2] I find the following:

I am no great Friend to Tests, but all Governments have thought it proper to take such Precautions for their Security. Thus we have seen in our Times seven excellent Bishops, and near 1000 Clergymen of the Church of England, and the whole Body of the Clergy (almost to a Man) of another Kingdom, now united to ours, turned out of their Freeholds, because they could not comply with such Tests, though their former Conduct had been in all Respects irreproachable. There have been some invented, which a Son of one of the Trustees for the Charities to the Bartholomew Divines, has been laid to glory in contriving so, as to damn one half of the Clergy and starve the other.

The “Bartholomew Divines” were the clergy ejected in 1662 by the Act of Uniformity, which took effect on St Bartholomew’s Day – itself cunningly chosen, as Bishop Burnet informs us, just before Michaelmas, when the rents for the year past were due, so that the incoming appointees could enjoy the profits for the year just gone, rather than those who had earned them.  The charities, then, must be funds raised for those clergy.  The reference again is to the Oath of Abjuration (of 1702), and evidently a son of one of those trustees had decided to revenge himself on the (conforming) clergy who had benefitted from those expulsions.

That the culprit was indeed a non-conformist appears also in a pro-conformist tract, written by Samuel Butler, the author of Hudibras, called The assembly-man.  A 1715 3rd edition is here, and on p.109 we find the following description of the non-conformists:

But the Assembler‘s deepest, highest Abomination, is his Solemn League and Covenant, whereby he strives to damn or beggar the whole Kingdom, out doing the Devil, who only persuades, but the Assembler forces to Perjury or Starving. And this (whoever lives to observe it) will one Day sink both him and his Faction : For He and his Oath are so much one,that were he half hang’d and let down again, his first Word would be Covenant! Covenant!

This, of course, is at a time when the times have changed.  The evil men who created conformity were all strong supporters of James II; and after his overthrow, had a test inflicted upon them in turn by the nonconformists, then in favour with the Whig party.

So I find that I am mistaken, and that the phrase in fact refers to the nonconformists’ revenge on the conformists, and not the evil of 1662!  I still can’t put a name to the man, tho.

But so it goes in life.  The wrong that you do to others will one day be done to you, and it will be justified, over your protests, by the precedents that you created.

These events are perhaps forgotten today.  One can’t help wishing that they were better known.

  1. [1]Life, 1775, p.172.
  2. [2]Thomas Carte, A Full Answer to the Letter from a By-stander, &c: Wherein His False Calculations, and Misrepresentations of Facts in the Time of King Charles II are Refuted. And an Historical Account is Given of All the Parliamentary Aids in that Reign, from the Journals of the House of Commons, the Ancient and Modern Power of the Crown, and the Excessive Height to which it is Risen of Late, are Clearly Represented. And Reasons Offered for Restoring to the Freeholders of England Their Ancient Right of Chusing High Sheriffs and Justices of Peace in the County Courts, as a Proper Means Towards Restoring the Ballance of Our Constitution, and Putting a Stop to the Progress of Corruption, 1742.