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The Author turned his attention to the subjects discussed in the following Essays scon after the failure of Lord Sidmouth's Bill. He had hoped, from the signal defeat which bigotry and intolerance suffered on that memorable occasion, that religious liberty would not have been soon again assailed; how great then was his surprise to find, that, almost immediately, a new interpretation was given to the Act of Toleration, which reduced it nearly to a cipher. The most singular circumstance was, that every court of quarter sessions in the kingdom, with one or two exceptions, viewed the act in a new light all at once; in consequence of which, all applications for licenses, upon the old terms, were rejected. It appeared very wonderful, that the new interpretation, if the true one, should have eluded the sagacity of magistrates and lawyers for one hundred and twenty years; and that, after the lapse of so long a period, they should be instantaneously illuminated with the knowledge of the truth, as if by immediate inspiration. But this mystery was explained, when it transpired that a circular had been sent to every court of quarter sessions, instructing the justices in the new doctrines. Compare this underhand work with public professions about liberality, the rights of conscience, etc., and some illustrious characters will be illustrated. It was about the same time too, that our places of worship were taxed,-a sacrilege never before practised in the world, by Heathens, Jews, or Mahometans.
These various attempts at persecution, filled the Author with indignation, and gave birth to the present work. Some people will perhaps think, that the new Toleration Act has rendered this little book unnecessary; the writer, however, is of a different opinion, and will proceed to detail his reasons for it. Acts of Parliament are of
consequence, if not supported by public opinion. When the sense of the nation is opposed to them, they will soon grow obsolete, or be repealed. This remark applies particularly to the Act in question, because it is framed solely on the professed principle of expediency. The preamble states, “Whereas it is expedient," etc. But should the public opinion on the subject of religious liberty change, this expediency will no longer exist; it may then be judged expedient to repeal the Act of Toleration, and revive the Act of Uniformity.
It is remarkable, that though the opinions of senators, lawyers, and divines, may be cited in abundance in favour of religious liberty, yet there is no assertion of the rights of conscience, either in the old or in the new Act of Toleration. They both go on the ground of expediency. At the time the old Act was passed, William and Mary were not very firmly seated on the throne. The Catholics were powerful, and it was thought that the Nonconformists might have united with them, and have overturned the infant government, had the old persecuting measures been pursued; it was therefore judged expedient, " to grant some ease to scrupulous consciences.” In the next reign it was deemed expedient to resume the glorious work of persecution; and the Schism Bill was passed, which took the children of dissenters from their parents, and put them under the care of Churchmen, that they might be educated in the principles of the Establishment. A more inhuman act than this, the ingenuity of cruelty could not perhaps devise; but Heaven in judgment took away the Priest-ridden Queen, the very day this iniquitous Act was to have taken place.
How long the present expediency will exist, it is impossible to say. One thing, however, is certain, that so long as the laws do not
recognise the rights of conscience, we have no security for the permanency of our religious liberties, but in the public opinion. It is, therefore, of the utmost importance to support and perpetuate those liberal sentiments, which have been so long, and so generally entertained in this nation.
It is the more necessary to call the attention of the public to the subjects discussed in the following pages, on account of the uncommon pains which have been taken of late years, to revive a spirit of bigotry and intolerance. The secret history of Lord Sidmouth's Bill would be a most curious document. A part of it was published in the Literary Panorama for July, 1811: “It consists with our knowledge, that towards ten years ago, at a meeting of three, or four, or more, of the reverend the bishops, (whether held for the purpose, we do not recollect,) the subject of sectaries and their increase engaged the conversation. We believe that minutes of their lordships' opinions, or suggestions, were recorded. This bill, though called Lord Sidmouth's, we hazard little in affirming, is not his Lordship's composition. The skeleton of it, we presume, may be dated eight or ten years ago; and the finishing of it is, by conjecture, ascribed to a prelate, whose Grammar and Greek have lately received rough usage from sectarian commentators.' When it is considered that Lord Sidmouth's Bill, had it passed, would have nearly annihilated our religious liberties, this conduct of the bishops looks very much like a conspiracy against them.
But how happened it that eight or ten years elapsed before the bill was brought into parliament? To this