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Committee think the same, I should wish the book to be at once quietly withdrawn. Unanimity is particularly desirable at the present juncture; and I should have much to answer for to myself, if I were to divide the society upon any question relating to any thing of mine.
“ I certainly did think that I had contributed by the Selection to the improvement of Unitarian worship, and in this notion have been supported by many much-respected friends and some congregations;* but it is unquestionably for the Gravel-Pit society to determine whether the adoption of the work would be an improvement in their particular case; and if, as I suspect, their decision, or that of any considerable number of them, is against my opinion, I shall bow respectfully to their will ; consoling myself with the reflection, common to disappointed projectors, that I have meant well.
" Having failed in obtaining the best possible, I shall sit down contented with the best practicable, assured, however, that in all your determinations you have the interests of our common society as much at heart as myself, and that you are altogether better judges than I can pretend to be of the fittest means to accomplish our ends."
The result of this exercise of forbearance was the all but unanimous adoption of the Hymn-book by the congregation.
The year 1811 is memorable in the history of English Nonconformity, from the attempted alteration of the 1st of William and Mary, c. 18, commonly called the “ Toleration Act,” and from the united and successful opposition to the attempt made by all classes of Dissenters. Mr. Aspland took a very active share in the proceedings instituted by them to uphold their religious liberty, and a narrative of the circumstances hence becomes a necessary part of this Memoir.
The Prime Minister was Mr. Perceval. The attempt to alter the Toleration Act did not, however, proceed from any member of the Government, but from Viscount Sidmouth, who was at that time out of office. Two years previously, his attention had been drawn to the subject of the licences of Dissenting ministers. Throughout the kingdom, a new class of preachers had arisen, men without education, but influenced by great zeal, who succeeded in carrying away with them large bodies of men as ignorant as themselves. Instead of seeking to remedy this undesirable state of things by the only effectual remedy, the introduction of a general system of education, and by stimulating the educated ministers of religion to greater zeal and the adoption of a more popular method of teaching, he rather directed his thoughts to the best mode of excluding illiterate men from the ministerial office. He consulted the Bishop of Gloucester, who, while he prudently advised him rather to consult in the first instance the principal men among the Dissenters, expressed his wish to see some restriction put on the licensing of Dissenting teachers,t-such as, that they should be of age, that they should be of known and approved character, and that the licences should be for a specific place; and that a minister going
* In acknowledging a presentation-copy of the Hymn-book, Mr. Belsham writes, Sept. 10, "I return you many thanks for the kind present of your Selection of Hymns, the principle of which I highly approve, and which I have no doubt will be, in my estimation, the best Collection extant. I hope you will have no board of soi-disant critics to sit in judgment upon them, and to prevent their being adopted by your congregation."
† See the Life and Correspondence of Lord Sidmouth, recently published, by the Dcan of Norwich, Vol. III. p. 39.
to a new congregation should obtain a new licence. Lord Sidmouth, to prepare the way for legislation, moved in the House of Lords, June 2, 1809, for a return of licences granted to Dissenting ministers in the several dioceses of England and Wales since 1780. The return was ordered from 1760. The returns illustrated strikingly enough the illiteracy of many who had taken out licences.* Lord Sidmouth received from the clergy great encouragement to remedy the abuse by legislation. By some of them it was urged that the abuse of toleration led to other evils beside the dissemination of doctrinal errors; that contempt was instilled into the popular mind, by some who had the protection of the licences, for the religious and civil institutions of the country; that the labours of the regular clergy were defeated by them; that the common people were taught to despise and reject the Church Catechism and Book of Common Prayer. These statements, recently for the first time made public by a panegyrical biographer, are important, as shewing some of the influences under which Lord Sidmouth prepared his celebrated Bill. He contented himself, in 1810, with announcing his purpose to introduce a Bill, and by professing his intention to do nothing hostile to the Dissenters. “ He considered the Toleration Act as the palladium of religious liberty, and had not the slightest intention of proposing any infringement of it.” In the following year he put himself into communication with Dr. Coke, the Wesleyan minister, and believed he had gained not merely his assent, but his " zealous approbation” of the intended measure. On May 5, Lord Sidmouth laid a Bill before the House of Lords, the principal enactments of which were, 1, to limit the benefit of 19th Geo. III. to the ministers of separate and registered congregations; 2, to prescribe, as a preliminary for obtaining a minister's licence, the signing of a certificate of appointment by certain “substantial and reputable householders belonging to the congregation;" 3, to extend the benefits of the Act to persons not ministers of separate congregations, provided they exhibit at the quarter sessions a certificate, signed by reputable and substantial householders, to the effect that they are ministers of their sect or persuasion, that they have been known to them a certain time, and that they are persons of sober life and conversation, and of sufficient ability and fitness to preach and teach; 4, to extend the privileges of the Act to such probationers of the ministry as shall exhibit at the quarter sessions certificates of character, &c., of a certain number of Dissenting ministers; 5, to require
In the county of Middlesex, out of 285 licences taken out at the sessions of the peace, the words, “ Dissenting, Minister, Teacher, Preacher, Gospel,” were misspelt by the applicants who signed the rolls not less than eighteen different ways. † Life of Lord Sidmouth, III, 44, 45.
The Dean of Norwich has published extracts from a very singular letter of Dr. Coke's, in which he states the fear of the Wesleyans that academies for the instruction of their ministers would expose them to the inroads of Unitarianism. After stating that the Wesleyans had no academies, he adds, “ As we believe that the Unitarian sentiments and doctrines were introduced among the Dissenters by their means, and as we have no regular confession of faith (the Thirtynine Articles of the Church of England excepted), we should be in greater danger of fatal errors than the Dissenters, if we had academies like them.' III. 47.
the magistrates to administer the necessary oaths and declarations, and to record the certificates.
This Bill was calculated to awaken the suspicions, if not to rouse the actual fears, of the Dissenters. The speech with which it was introduced, though moderate in its tone, did not quite conceal the influence of a selfish Church-of-Englandism, alarmed at the prospect of having “an Established Church, but a sectarian people.”*
To Unitarians, whose ministers are generally settled with a particular congregation, and are persons of education, Lord Sidmouth’s Bill would have been practically innocuous. Its inconveniences and penalties would have fallen chiefly on the Methodist body. But this consideration had no influence in diminishing their opposition to a Bill which involved a principle inconsistent with religious liberty. Mr. Aspland felt that the Methodist stood upon the same ground of conscience with himself, and that if the follower of Whitfield or Wesley were sacrificed to the bigot one day, the Baptist, the Independent and the Presbyterian, might be demanded to be given up the next.
No existing organization of Dissenters included the numerous bodies of Methodists who had risen up subsequent to the recognition of the “ Three Denominations.” It was therefore deemed prudent to summon a general meeting, to include all Protestant Dissenters and other friends to religious liberty, in order to bring into one unbroken line the whole body of the opponents of Lord Sidmouth's Bill. The meeting was held in London on the 15th of May. The resolutions stated that there were at least two millions of Protestant Dissenters in England and Wales, inferior to none in patriotism and loyalty; that though they considered the right to worship God according to individual judgment, as an inalienable right, yet they had lived satisfied under the Act of Toleration, which they perceived with extreme regret was now attempted to be violated; that the foundation of Lord Sidmouth's Bill was incorrect, and the introduction of it not justified by any necessity, but would be highly injurious to the country if passed into a law; that, disregarding all doctrinal and ritual distinctions, they would co-operate in every legitimate effort to prevent the Bill from passing into a law, and oppose the smallest diminution of the Act of Toleration ; and, encouraged by the declaration of the Prince Regent that he would deliver the constitution unaltered to his Father, they trusted that the proposed innovation would never obtain the sanction of his authority.
At this meeting Mr. Aspland took an active part. He was placed on the Committee to whom the opposition to the Bill was entrusted. With such successful vigour did this Committee act, so “energetic and
* The Bishop of Chichester, in a Charge delivered about this time at Lewes, expressed his fears that, owing to the rapid growth of Dissenters and Sectaries, the religion of the Church of England would cease to be the religion of the majority of the people.
+ See Reflections on Lord Sidmouth's Bill in Mon. Repos. VI. 501. When, more than thirty years after, the Wesleyan Methodists, under an ignorant delusion, imagined that the Dissenters’ Chapels Bill was designed exclusively to benefit the Unitarians, and therefore with much clamour opposed it, Mr. Aspland reminded a friend of the ungrateful return of this body to the Unitarians, than whom none were more earnest in procuring the rejection of Lord Sidmouth's Bill.
unparalleled”* were its exertions, that the floor of the House of Lords was inundated with a flood of hostile petitions. Religious and political organization had not on any previous occasion produced this now not uncommon effect, and both the House and the public were astonished. When the Bill came on for a second reading, Lord Liverpool, on behalf of the Government, declined to support it, remarking that the Toleration laws were matters which the Legislature should not touch, unless under a paramount necessity; and that the great disquietude which the Bill had occasioned rendered it desirable that it should be dropped. Lord Sidmouth made a show of persevering; but after an interesting debate, in which the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lord Chancellor, Lord Holland, Earl Stanhope, Earl Grey and others took part, on a motion of Lord Erskine, the Bill was without a division defeated.
The biographer of Lord Sidmouth pleads that he was deceived throughout the transaction by the impression he had derived from his earlier communications with leading members amongst the Dissenters, believing, on the strength of their representations, that the measure was more palatable to them than was proved by the result to be the case. In a note, the name of Mr. William Smith, M.P., is given; and Dr. Pellew quotes a written memorandum of Lord Sidmouth's as follows : “Mr. Smith repeatedly told me that the Bill was so reasonable in its principle, and so just and moderate in its provisions, that he could not oppose it. The clause relating to probationers was introduced at his suggestion.”—Vol. III. p. 65, note.
That this imputation upon Mr. Smith's honour was not justified by the facts of the case, will be believed by those who knew him well. Prudent and unduly cautious he was sometimes thought to be, but no man doubted his inflexible integrity. That Lord Sidmouth deceived himself as to the extent of Mr. Smith's approbation of the professed objects of the Bill, the statement of some indisputable facts will shew to be more than probable. Mr. Smith occupied the responsible situation of Chairman of the Deputies appointed to protect the Civil Rights of Dissenters. To the Deputies in general, and no doubt to his intimate friend Mr. Smith in particular, Mr. Belsham alluded in the following passage of his Letter to Lord Sidmouth : "I observe in the resolutions of some of the Committee upon this occasion, that an oblique censure has been passed upon certain individuals who communicated with your Lordship upon the subject, and who are supposed to have led your Lordship to conclude that the great body of moderate and respectable Dissenters of all denominations were favourable to your Lordship’s Bill ; and their mission and authority is disavowed. To whom in particular these resolutions point, I am not informed. It is, however, maintained that your Lordship, in your eloquent speech upon introducing the Bill, did express a conviction that the measure you were about to propose would be approved by the body of Dissenters at large. Your Lordship, no doubt, communicated with those from whom it appeared probable that you would derive authentic information. Who the individuals were, I know not. But it has happened to come to my knowledge that, among others, were some of the highest respectability, who I dare say
* Mr. Belsham's Letter to Lord Sidmouth, &c., p. 35, note.
did not represent themselves as delegates of a body which did not then erist,* but who were in fact the proper representatives and delegates of the only body which the Dissenters acknowledge as appointed to watch over their civil concerns, and who consist of Deputies from a large number of the most respectable congregations in London; nor have I yet heard that these delegates have been disavowed by their proper constituents. With these gentlemen I have heard that your Lordship held repeated and confidential communications; and it is probably owing to some mutual misapprehensions that your Lordship was led to conclude that the Dissenters would be favourable to the measure. Indeed, it is peculiarly unfortunate that an abstract of the Bill was not shewn to those gentlemen previously to its being introduced into the House, which was, as I understand, your Lordship’s intention, as it would then have had the benefit of many calm and judicious observations. For in the shape in which it appeared, it could not but create universal alarm."Pp. 34–36.
From this statement, it is clear that the Chairman of the Deputies had not seen even an abstract of the Bill before its introduction into the House of Lords. The proceedings of the Deputies were printed and published in 1813, in a volume entitled “ A Sketch of the History and Proceedings of the Deputies." The proceedings connected with Lord Sidmouth's Bill occupy pp. 83 to 122. They include the account of an interview with Lord Sidmouth as early as May 11th, 1810, when a Sub-committee, appointed for the purpose, detailed to Lord Sidmouth the serious objections entertained by them against the measure as explained by him. When the Bill was actually introduced, in the following year, “the Chairman immediately summoned a meeting of the Committee.”—P. 95. Active measures were taken to oppose the Bill, and when the opposition proved successful, the Deputies recorded their sense of the vigilance and ability of Mr. Smith's proceedings in the following resolution:
“That William Smith, Esq., M.P., the Chairman of this Deputation, is desired to accept our warmest thanks for his vigilant attention to the subject of the late measure ever since it was first announced in Parliament; for his ready and obliging communications with the Committee, in their attempts to dissuade the noble author from actually bringing the same forward; and for his able and active assistance in obtaining its rejection. And that this Deputation entertains a strong and grateful sense of his constant and zealous support of civil and religious liberty, and of the rights of Protestant Dissenters on all occasions.”—P. 116.
These documents prove Mr. Wm. Smith to have been in active opposition to the Bill from its first announcement. It is morally impossible he could have given Lord Sidmouth those private assurances of support now for the first time asserted in print by Dean Pellew.
The only circumstance that gave Mr. Aspland anxiety in opposing Lord Sidmouth's Bill was, that his course was not sanctioned by the judgment of Mr. Belsham, who, much as he disapproved of some things in the Bill, believed it capable of amendment, and thought it contained
* In a note, Mr. Belsham explains his reference to the general meeting of Dissenters which has been described.