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Protestant Pluralism

The Reception of the Toleration Act, 1689-1720


Ralph Stevens


Studies in Modern British Religious History, vol. 37

Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2018

Hardcover. xiv + 201 p. ISBN 978-1783273294. £65


Reviewed by John Coffey

University of Leicester




It is often said thatthe Elizabethan Settlement settled nothing, or nothing much. In this fine monograph, based on his Cambridge doctoral thesis, Ralph Stevens demonstrates that the 1689 Toleration Act ‘settled very little about the future relationship between the Church of England and Protestant Dissenters’ [163]. Stevens does not agree with historians who downplay the significance of the Act – it ‘dealt a severe blow to the Protestant confessional state’ [2] and marked the foundation of enduring legal religious pluralism in England’ [1]. Revisionist historians ‘risk obscuring the extent of the paradigm shift’ it signalled [5]. Nonetheless, its significance lies partly in the fact that it instigated a battle over its meaning and application, due in no small part to ‘the sheer ambiguity of the statute’ [9]. This book is the definitive guide to that contest in the generation after 1689.

Basic orientation is provided in a chapter on ‘Religion after the Revolution’, but thereafter the book’s chapters focus on key fields of controversy: Public Office, the Reformation of Manners, Education, Baptism, and Chapels. In each of these, Stevens breaks new ground. He covers Henry Sacheverell and the familiar ‘Tory crusade to exclude Dissenters from the political nation’, but chapter 2 also explores the ‘disenchantment’ of John Sharp, archbishop of York, whose early reputation as a ‘moderate’ did not stop him parting ways with the Williamite bishops and becoming the perceived head of the high church party. Raised in a puritan family, and a protégé of Henry More, Sharp had once supported comprehension, but he came to feel that Dissenters were now ‘very Uppish’, to the extent that they were jeopardising the mission of the established Church. Chapter 3 on ‘The Reformation of Manners’, reveals how the new reformation societies fell under clerical suspicion due to the extent of collaboration they fostered between conformists and Dissenters. Chapter 4 on ‘Education’ re-examines the Tory campaign against Dissenting academies that culminated in the Schism Act of 1714, showing how the Toleration Act fostered dispute by leaving the legal status of Dissenting schools and academies ‘fundamentally uncertain’ [81]. Chapter 5 explains the less familiar controversy over the administration of baptism, which many churchmen felt should be a monopoly of the established clergy. Finally, chapter 6 studies the tug-of-war over chapels, tracing the process whereby Presbyterians were increasingly ousted from ‘usurped’ chapels and so pushed towards becoming a separate denomination. Stevens notes the irony: the churchmen who campaigned against Dissenter use of chapels ‘were in fact helping to usher in the very Protestant plurality which so appalled those attached to old orthodoxies’. Each case was ‘a microcosm of the final sundering of English Protestantism’ [150].

London, where Dissenters represented as much as a fifth of the population, may be at the centre of the book, but Stevens surveys evidence from across the country, and we are taken on eye-opening excursions to many different locales from Nottingham and Chester to Devon and Lancashire. Protestant Pluralism is most illuminating on the Presbyterians, but it does not neglect Congregationalists, Baptists and Quakers. It is also a very good guide to the fierce factionalism within the established Church. The book is a model of clarity and balanced judgment. Based on a wealth of printed sources and on research in a dozen archives, it is impeccably researched. It can be paired with another excellent new volume: Negotiating Toleration : Dissent and the Hanoverian Succession, 1714-1760, edited by Nigel Aston and Benjamin Bankhurst (OUP, 2019). Together, these two works throw a flood of new light on the status of Protestant Nonconformity in the reigns of William III, Queen Anne, and the first two Georges. They show how debates over the Act of Toleration shaped the identities of Church and Dissent.



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