We used to be persecuted

Unitarianism did not become legal until 1813.  Until as recently as 200 years ago, British people were still being prosecuted and severely punished for rejecting the conventional (orthodox) form of Christian beliefs.

The 1698 Legislation - penalising those who could not accept the Established form of Christianity
‘The Blasphemy Act’, 1698, as it refers to Unitarian opinions, states:

“Whereas many persons have of late years openly avowed and published many blasphemous and impious opinions, contrary to the doctrines and principles of Christian religion, greatly tending to the dishonour of Almighty God and may prove destructive to the peace and welfare of this Kingdom,” it is enacted that “if any person … having been educated in, or at any time having made profession of the Christian religion within this realm, shall by writing, printing, teaching or advised speaking, deny, any of the persons in the Holy Trinity to be God, or shall assert and maintain there are more gods than one, or shall deny the Christian religion to be true or the holy scriptures of the old and new testament to be of divine authority” and is convicted thereof he is disabled in law from having or enjoying “any office, … employment … ecclesiastical, civil or military” with further disabilities (penalties) if a second time convicted.

These further penalties for a second conviction included: 
• imprisonment for the space of three years;
• being unable to sue, prosecute, plead or use any action or information in any court of law; and
• to be the guardian or any child or executor or administrator of any person, or capable of any legacy or deed of gift.

The 1813 Legislation – making it legal to hold and declare Unitarian beliefs

On 21 July 1813, a Statute was passed with the title: ‘An Act to relieve persons who impugn the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity from certain Penalties’. This so-called ‘Unitarian Relief Act’ or ‘the 1813 Act of Toleration’ states:

“Whereas in the 19th year of His present Majesty an Act was passed intituled ‘An Act for the further Relief of Protestant Dissenting Ministers and Schoolmasters’; and it is expedient to enact as hereinafter provided: be it … enacted … that so much of an Act passed in the 1st year of King William and Queen Mary, intituled ‘An Act for exempting His Majesty’s Protestant Subjects dissenting from the Church of England, from penalties of certain Laws’, as provides that Act or anything therein contained should not extend or be construed to extend to give any Ease, benefit or Advantage to Persons denying the Trinity as therein mentioned, be and the same is hereby repealed.

"2. That the provisions of another Act passed in the 9th and 10th years of the Reign of King William intituled ‘An Act for the more effectual suppressing Blasphemy and Profaneness’ so far as the same relate to Persons denying as therein mentioned, respecting the Holy Trinity, be and the same are hereby repealed. 

"3. And whereas it is expedient to repeal an Act, passed in the Parliament of Scotland in the First Parliament of King Charles the Second, intituled ‘An Act against the Crime of Blasphemy’; and another Act, passed in the Parliament of Scotland in the First Parliament of King William intituled ‘An Act against Blasphemy’; which Acts respectively ordain the Punishment of Death; Be it therefore enacted, That the said Acts and each of them shall be, and the same are and is hereby repealed”. 

This 1813 Statute was passed after introduction as a Bill by William Smith MP, indeed it was popularly known as “Mr William Smith’s Bill”.   As his biographer, Richard W. Davis, plainly states: “It was his own, and to him goes all the credit. … Nothing that could be done to smooth its passage was left undone”.  Initial opposition in the House of Lords led to the Bill being withdrawn and a new one immediately introduced, which passed quickly through both Houses of Parliament. 

William Smith is now remembered primarily as the grandfather of Florence Nightingale. However, in his day he was the leading Dissenter in parliamentary life.  He was for forty years ‘Chairman to the Deputies of the three Denominations’ (Independents, Presbyterians and Baptist), the body that represented the Dissenting interests.  He was born in 1756 in London and entered Parliament in 1784.   He sat in the House of Commons for 46 years, and always stood for reform.  He worked closely with Wilberforce for the abolition of the trade in slaves and then of slavery itself.  He campaigned for the repeal of the ‘Corporate and Test Acts’ (achieved finally in 1828) and other legal penalties affecting Dissenters.  He supported Catholic Emancipation.  He advocated reform in the representation of the people, which eventually led to reforms of 1830s.  Though he opposed the French Revolutionary War, as did others, he also opposed all interference in the internal affairs or government of foreign nations – a very unpopular stance.  As his obituary in the “Christian Reformer” (1835) states:

“These were times of no small personal danger to any man of any note who dared to profess liberal opinions; but Mr Smith never hesitated or faltered; he confessed his creed, he steadily and fearlessly pursued his courses, and was prepared for all the consequences.” 

The marking in Parliament of the 1813 ‘Act of Toleration’

This address was given by Rev Maud Robinson, a Unitarian minister, at the ‘Time for Reflection’ in the Scottish Parliament on 19 March 2013.

“In years gone by, confessing a Unitarian faith could lead one to a sticky end. In 1697, Thomas Aikenhead, a young Edinburgh medical student, rejected the doctrine of the Trinity, and for this offence was hanged.  It wasn’t until 1813 that the 'Unitarian Relief Act' granted toleration for Unitarian worship.  2013 marks the 200th anniversary of that Act of toleration. 

“With our history of being denied tolerance, there has been a strong strand of Unitarian faith and practice which has always championed toleration of difference, and so I commend to you some thoughts about tolerance. 

“Words evolve and change but they often continue to carry nuances from the past; this is why it’s important to think deeply about the particular words we use.  The root of the word tolerance carries, as one meaning, ‘to experience or undergo as pain or hardship’.  Are these really the terms in which we wish to view our relationships with those who are different from us?  Maybe it’s time to look beyond the word tolerance.  What word could we think of using in its place? 

“There’s compassion, the central virtue of all of the world faiths.  A worthy ideal to aspire to, but does it cover the same ground as tolerance?  Is it so wide that the initial focus, on relations with those who differ from us, is lost?  If we try to approach those of different beliefs with compassion we may treat them with kindness as fellow-human beings, but does it challenge us to truly engage with them, in relation to their differing beliefs and world view?

“What about acceptance?  It certainly doesn’t carry the grudging connotations of tolerance but it can imply an uncritical, wholesale embrace of everything said or done in the name of another cultural or faith tradition.  As thinking people, we cannot accept actions which emanate from a different world view if they are harmful to others.  This can be a difficult line to walk, but blind acceptance is not the answer. 

“Finally I suggest respect.  Respect means to value others.  Tolerance avoids engagement; respect welcomes it.  This vision of moving beyond tolerance toward respect and active engagement with difference seems a better aspiration.  Respect speaks more of thoughtful consideration; it’s more generous than the implications of doing something grudgingly, which can be understood by tolerance; but it is more thoughtful and constructively critical than careless acceptance.  If each one of us could strive to treat those who are different to us with respect, I think we might indeed find ourselves living in a better world.”


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