Theoretically, twenty-first-century Britain is tolerant; it is a place where diverse opinions can flourish. However, when opinions come into conflict, the appropriate course of action is not always obvious. As last year’s “Gay cake” row highlighted, the line between intolerance and a principled stance can be unclear. At the same time, as the recent resignation of the Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron demonstrates, those who appear willing to put aside their personal belief in the name of promoting the principle of tolerance can find their integrity under scrutiny.
In an altogether different context, these were issues that faced religious minorities in England in the years following the passage of the so-called “Toleration Act” in 1689. Freedom of worship under this Act was limited to Protestants (Catholics could still technically be fined, imprisoned, and even executed for propagating their faith), and did not allow non-members of the Church of England, such as Presbyterians, Baptists, and Quakers to hold political office. Nevertheless, it did mean that for the first time it was legal to practise forms of religion other than that officially established by the state. What it certainly did not tackle, however, was how both religious minorities and members of the Church of England were to balance their personal beliefs against the desire for a peaceful life.
When individuals took a principled stance against their neighbours, they risked social ostracism and, on occasion, actual violence. In the 1690s and 1700s, for instance, a Cheshire Presbyterian Minister, Matthew Henry, undertook a religiously-motivated effort to promote sobriety in his local area. His diary records ‘remarkable Instances…of God’s judgements on Drunkards’, and how he ‘discarded’ a local man ‘out of my house for his obstinate Drunkeness in the even.’ However, his actions alienated some of his neighbours, who contrived a false accusation of drunkenness against him in court, which he ‘confronted…with so many particular witnesses besides general Attestations upon oath of the sobriety of my conversation that the contrary appeared to the full satisfaction of the Court’. Henry could not upon principle allow drunken behaviour to pass him by without attempting to reform the individuals concerned, but he interfered at the expense of harmony with his neighbours.
However, apparent willingness to show compromise over matters of belief did not necessarily earn a warm reception. On 13 February 1715 Matthew Henry’s sister, Sarah Savage, recorded in her diary that when she had on that day gone to the local parish church (she generally attended a Presbyterian meeting) ‘being desirous to bear my testimony to Parish-order and Publick Assemblys’, she found that others present ‘look on us with an evil eye & many can scarse speak Peacably to us’. Savage was clearly trying to promote harmony, but her efforts were met with suspicion.
Protestants who chose to worship outside of the Church of England (Dissenters) claimed to be doing so on principled grounds. As a result, when such Dissenters appeared to compromise on these principles, they might find aspersions being cast on their entire faith. Such was the case for the Lancashire Quaker Peter Partington in 1691. Quakers were forbidden from ‘vain customs’ such as music and dancing, but Partington confessed that when he found himself among company ‘where they had Musick and other Vanities to Spoil away the time with’ he ‘did neither bear testimony against their sports nor yet withdraw my self so soon from their Company as I ought to have done’. His reluctance to create discord by rebuking his neighbours for their behaviour may have been in the immediate interests of sociability, but it did not serve him or other Quakers well, for his actions ‘by my carriage not answering my profession’ gave ‘Occasion to some to speak evill of the people I have assembled with’. Tolerance of the behaviour of others and compromise in the name of neighbourliness could easily be interpreted as hypocrisy.
To some extent, therefore, these minorities in early eighteenth-century England could not win. While their forms of worship were officially tolerated under the law, their social attitudes could jarr with the cultural mainstream. Overt promotion of their principled stances could result in conflict and personal animosity. On the other hand, a willingness to compromise might equally be met with suspicion that an individual lacked integrity. Legal toleration did not mean social inclusion.
In contrast to the early eighteenth century, today we see the value of tolerance as almost unequivocally positive. However, when we promote diversity we still inevitably come up against viewpoints that are hard to accept, particularly if they go against the grain of “liberal” society. The problem of balancing a desire to promote inclusion and harmony with the desire to stick to our principles is one that remains, however tolerant we think we are.
Image: Henry Singleton, The Alehouse Door (1790). [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Henry_Singleton_The_Ale-House_Door_c._1790.jpg