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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

XVI. The Literature of Dissent

§ 2. The principle of Liberty of Conscience and the struggle for Toleration

Although a theological literature of a certain sort, originating in separation and directed against secular rule in spiritual things, was in existence even before the period under present consideration, it may be safely asserted that the ultimate basis of the conception of toleration rested on the unadulterated Erastianism of the English reformation settlement. Such a literature, on the one side, and, equally, Jeremy Taylor’s Liberty of Prophesying (1646), on the other, alike betray their genesis by their birthtime. Those who were not tolerated pleaded for toleration; and from this necessity sprang the bare assertion of the principle of liberty of conscience. Their advocacy, therefore, has not the value in the history of human thought which the pure and naked assertion of the principle possesses in the mouth of Henry Robinson, merchant and economist, of Hobbes, of Milton or of Locke. But the final achievement of the pure principle of toleration and freedom of conscience came neither from the theologian nor from the philosopher. It came from the social secular sense of the race, and fought its way to victory through the mere mechanism and clash of church and state politics. And, so far as the result achieved is concerned, the only difference between the enforced, if restricted, tolerance established by Cromwell, and the gradually won legislative tolerance of eighteenth and nineteenth century dissent, consists in the fact that, under Cromwell, the executive constrained and led the social sense, while, in later ages, the social sense constrained and led the legislature. With the mere political history of the principle we are, however, not concerned, but only with the expression which that history found in dissenting literature.

Broadly speaking, the literary battle about the principle of toleration passes through two quite distinct phases in the period here under review. If we pass by the earlier toleration controversy in Charles II’s reign, as not possessing any permanent importance either in literature or in ecclesiastical history, its first real phase covers the episodes of the Toleration act of William III’s reign, the Occasional Conformity bill and the Schism act. In this phase, dissent is on the defensive and concerned merely with vindicating its claim to civil and religious rights and freedom. In the second and later phase, it boldly challenges the very principle of an established church, or, as we should say to-day, raises the question of disestablishment.

Naturally enough, the earlier phase of this battle, from the point of view of literature, lacks the high ethical quality that marks the later phase. For, in the various skirmishes concerning the Toleration and Schism acts, the attitude of dissent was paltering and opportunist. In truth, the achievement of the Toleration act of 1689 was rather the work of such exponents of the secular or civil sense of the nation as Burnet, Somers, Maynard and Sir Isaac Newton; and the dissenters, who, because of their hatred of Rome, had refused the indulgences of Charles II and James II, were content to accept meekly the state-given toleration of 1689, while, as a body, supinely looking on at the legislative interment of the comprehension scheme of the same year. Only Baxter and Calamy and Howe could see far enough, and high enough, to deplore the failure of that scheme, remaining, in this respect, true to their unwavering attitude in the comprehension scheme of 1667–8, as well as in the controversy with Stillingfleet of 1680. And, during the interval between the Toleration act and the Schism act, dissent showed its mettle and its conception of the pure principle of toleration, by intolerantly attacking Socinianism, as if all the intervening years, from the Westminster assembly to the Exeter meetings, had gone for nothing.