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ACT OF TOLERATION is the name commonly given to the act of parliament 1 William and Mary, statute 1, c. 18, confirmed by 10 Anne, c. 2, by which all persons dissenting from the Church of England (except Roman Catholics and persons denying the Trinity) were relieved from such of the acts against nonconformists as prevented their assembling for religious worship according to their own forms, or otherwise restrained their religious liberty, on condition of their taking the oaths of allegiance and supremacy, and subscribing a declaration against transubstantiation; and in the case of dissenting ministers, subscribing also to certain of the Thirty-nine Articles. The clause of this act which excepted persons denying the Trinity from the benefits of its enactments, was repealed by 53 Geo. III. c. 160.

The Protestant dissenters, however, still remained, notwithstanding these provisions, subject to the obligation imposed by the Test and Corporation Acts (q.v.) on all those who were admitted to any office, of taking the sacrament of the Lord's Supper according to the rites of the Church of England; but this disability was at length removed by the 9 Geo. IV. c. 17. And to this list of concessions we are now to add the act of 15 and 16 Vict. c. 36, allowing the dissenters to certify their places of worship to, and register them with, the Registrar-general of Births, Deaths, and Marriages, instead of the Archbishop, Bishop, or Court of Quarter-sessions.

These various Acts of Toleration, however, to the exclusive benefit of Protestant dissenters, and afforded no relief to Roman Catholics. With respect to the latter, the progress of emancipation was slower and more reluctant. By statutes, however, of 18 Geo. III. c. 60, 31 Geo. III. c. 32, and 43 Geo. III. c. 30, most of the severer penalties and disabilities to which they were formally subject, were removed; and by 10 Geo. IV. c. 7, commonly called the Catholic Emancipation Act, Roman Catholics were restored in general to the full enjoyments of all civil rights, being only excluded from holding ecclesiastical offices, and certain high appointments in the state. By another act of the 2 and 3 Will. IV. c. 115, it was provided that Roman Catholics should be subject in this particular to the same laws as were applicable to Protestant dissenters; the effect of which provision is to empower them to acquire and hold property for such purposes. And now, by the acts of 7 and 8 Vic. c 102, 9 and 10 Vic. c. 59, and 21 and 22 Vic. c. 48, Roman Catholics and Jews are relieved from all enactments calculated to oppress them, and are thus practically admitted to all the privileges of the constitution.

In Scotland, toleration in religious matters is secured by various old Scotch statutes passed before the Union with England, particularly by the act 1690, c. 27; and this was followed up after the Union by the British statute 10 Anne, c. 7, s. 5, which declares that 'it shall be free and lawful for all the subjects in that part of Great Britain called Scotland to assemble and meet together for divine service without any disturbance; and to settle their congregations in what forms or places they shall think fit to choose, except parish churches;' an enactment which amounts to a legal recognition of dissenters, if, indeed, it may not be called their charter in Scotland.


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UPDATED: 18 April 2014

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