- Making Toleration: The Repealers and the Glorious Revolution by Scott Sowerby
Most of us learned in college that James II was a fervent Roman Catholic seeking to create an absolute monarchy in England similar to what Louis XIV enjoyed in France. Sowerby’s careful examination of James’ unsuccessful attempt to gain a parliamentary majority for toleration is revisionism at its best. He argues [End Page 42] that James was working within and not attempting to subvert the British constitution. The so-called “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 becomes not an advance for freedom but a “counter revolution” against a movement for enlightenment reform that could have unified the realm, ended religious persecution, fostered economic growth, and changed drastically the relations between Catholic Ireland and Anglican England. James made political mistakes but his campaign lost because of a pervasive anti-Catholicism by a population that did not trust his promises and, after the birth of a prince, feared the rule of a Catholic dynasty. So William Penn’s close association with James should not be seen as a betrayal of liberty, but as his attempt to aid the King in establishing a new Magna Carta enshrining religious toleration for Catholics and other dissenters, even Quakers.
Except for Penn, Quakers played a minor role in the King’s attempt to create a parliament willing to repeal the test and penal acts; that is, to allow freedom of worship and full political rights. Sowerby credits Penn with persuading James that religious liberty should not be a gift bestowed by a monarch relying upon a dispensing power but was a natural right that must be made perpetual through law. In accompanying James on a royal tour in 1687, Penn spoke to large crowds in several towns and wrote four of the eighty pamphlets supporting the King’s efforts. Still, the Quaker community, like other dissenting groups, remained divided on how fully to endorse the political movement for repeal. William Mead turned down a chance to be an alderman in London and Stephen Crisp refused to be a magistrate, although supporting Penn in yearly meeting when George Fox opposed Quaker involvement in politics. Still, several Friends became aldermen in purged boroughs and in many towns Quakers offered strong support for repeal, showing that they were not political quietists.
The Anglican hierarchy did not want toleration, but because the bishops feared Catholics, a few advocated the need to conciliate Protestant dissenters, although probably not Quakers. Some Tories, merchants involved in the wool trade, moderate Presbyterians, and most Baptists supported the King. James sought to ascertain the prevailing sentiment by sending three queries to be answered by those who could vote for or were members of Parliament. When the answers came back against toleration, James used London Baptist ministers to “regulate” or purge opponents from borough councils to obtain an electoral majority.
After William and Mary became monarchs, the 1689 Act of Toleration suspended the penalties for worship by Protestants but not Catholics and continued the test acts to preserve Anglican political power. Toleration came because William had promised and the Anglicans needed the support of the dissenters. Sowerby’s book stops here, but for Quakers toleration came in the 1690s when, after lobbying by the Meeting for Sufferings and King William II’s support, parliament passed an affirmation act and allowed distraints rather than prison for non-payment of tithes.
Sowerby lists 29 pages of manuscript collections from 139 depositories and [End Page 43] there are nearly 60 pages of footnotes of primary and secondary sources. So he has more than sufficient evidence to support his conclusions. Now, the questions should be posed: was James an autocrat except in religion or not an autocrat at all?