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The Test and Corporation Acts

The Test Acts , passed in 1672, are a series of different pieces of legislation that made the holding of public office in Britain conditional on being a practising member of the Church of England. They were passed in England in 1673: the effect was that Catholics, Nonconformists, and non-Christians were excluded from office. In England candidates for public positions had to receive Holy Communion in accordance with Anglican rites; they also had to acknowledge the monarch as head of the Church of England and repudiate the doctrine of transubstantiation.

After 1660, official policy to exclude Roman Catholics and the more extreme Protestant Nonconformists from holding official positions led to the Corporation Act of 1661. This was part of the Clarendon code; the legislation prohibited anyone who would not take the sacrament of Holy Communion according to Anglican rites from being elected to local government office in a city or corporation. It also required office-holders to swear the oaths of allegiance, supremacy, and nonresistance, and to reject the Solemn League and Covenant.

Between 1689 and 1702, the requirement to take the oaths and test was extended to beneficed clergy, members of the universities, lawyers, schoolteachers and preachers. The requirement for men attending or teaching at Oxford and Cambridge Universities was not lifted until the passing of the Universities Test Act in 1871.

However, in the 1820s there was a growing campaign among Dissenters for the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, which were seen as discriminating against Protestants. Concurrently, there was a campaign for the lifting of discriminatory laws against Catholics: in 1823, Daniel O'Connell set up the Catholic Association in order to achieve Catholic Emancipation.

The Dissenters tended to be Whig in their politics and so were supported by more radical Whigs like Lord John Russell. In 1828 in a speech to parliament, he said

The great principle, involved in the numerous petitions before the House ... signed by the whole body of Dissenters, by Roman Catholics, and by many members of the established church ... is, that every man ... should be at liberty to worship God according to the dictates of his conscience, without being subjected to any penalty or disqualification whatsoever... . History will not justify you in maintaining these acts... . The Dissenters of the present day feel nothing but loyalty towards the House of Hanover... . All ground of necessity fails, the acts having been suspended for more than three quarters of a century... . The abrogation of such laws ... will be more consonant to the tone and spirit of the age... (Parliamentary Debates, 2nd Series, vol.18, (1828) cols.678, 692-693)

The Test and Corporation Acts were repealed in 1828, almost without a fight.


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