Declaration of Liberty of Conscience Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

King James II issued the Declaration of Liberty of Conscience in 1687 and again in 1688 in order to promote toleration for all religions in Protestant England. However, hasty implementation and personal bias by Catholic James II actually intensified British religious conflicts, created deep wounds between the two Christian faiths, and divided Britain.

Summary of Event

James, duke of York and Albany, was the third son of King Charles I Charles I (king of England);beheading of , who was beheaded in 1649, during the English Civil Wars, when James was sixteen years old. After the Restoration of the Anglican (Protestant) monarchy in 1660, Charles II Charles II (king of England) ruled England for twenty-five years with no legitimate offspring. His brother James, a devout Catholic, became King James II James II (king of England) of England and Ireland and King James VII of Scotland on February 6, 1685, at the age of fifty-two. [kw]Declaration of Liberty of Conscience (Apr. 4, 1687, and Apr. 27, 1688) [kw]Liberty of Conscience, Declaration of (Apr. 4, 1687, and Apr. 27, 1688) Laws, acts, and legal history;Apr. 4, 1687, and Apr. 27, 1688: Declaration of Liberty of Conscience[2840] Religion and theology;Apr. 4, 1687, and Apr. 27, 1688: Declaration of Liberty of Conscience[2840] Government and politics;Apr. 4, 1687, and Apr. 27, 1688: Declaration of Liberty of Conscience[2840] England;Apr. 4, 1687, and Apr. 27, 1688: Declaration of Liberty of Conscience[2840] Liberty of Conscience, Declaration of (1687 and 1688)

For 132 years prior to James’s reign, England had been ruled by monarchs and Parliaments who supported Protestantism within the Church of England Church of England , or Anglican Church. Throughout the seventeenth century, the Stuart monarchs, as Supreme Heads of the Church of England, had modified Anglican services to suit their own religious beliefs. Whenever these modifications had seemed to shift the tenor of Anglican services or doctrine in the direction of Catholicism, they had caused the Protestant majority in England to worry and the Catholic minority to rejoice. There was a fear on the part of many that the Catholic James might attempt to make England a Catholic nation once again, and the public supported his accession only when he declared he would uphold Protestantism as the state religion. Nevertheless, four months after James inherited the crown, the duke of Monmouth Monmouth, first duke of launched an unsuccessful anti-Catholic attempt to seize the crown. In reprisal, James sanctioned the execution of many insurrectionists in an episode called the Bloody Assizes Bloody Assizes , which increased the animosity of many Anglicans toward their Catholic monarch. Catholicism;England

At the time, English law promoted and protected the Anglican state religion. The Test Acts of 1673 and 1678 Test Acts (1673-1678) prohibited the appointment of Catholics, Puritans, or other Protestant Dissenters to public office or to leadership positions within the army. The penal laws were imposed if one did not receive Communion from the Church of England. The Catholic James II wanted Parliament to repeal these laws. However, his reign had already been threatened militarily, and his largely Anglican army was growing hostile to him, making such a repeal dangerous. James also realized that, even if it were prudent to repeal the acts, Parliament simply would not agree to do so.

In 1686, therefore, James changed his policy: Rather than take the symbolic and potentially dangerous step of formally repealing the Test Acts, James simply disregarded them. He managed to pack the Court of the King’s Bench with sympathetic judges, and their decisions allowed him to sidestep the Test Acts without incurring the penalties they had prescribed. Over the next two years, James doubled the size of his standing army, put Catholic officers in positions of command, appointed a Catholic as lord deputy of Ireland, and placed Catholic lords on his Privy Council. In 1686, Pope Innocent XI Innocent XI came to London, and James ceremoniously received the Catholic pope and celebrated Mass, which greatly angered many English Protestants, Anglican and Nonconformist alike.

On April 4, 1687, James issued the Declaration of Liberty of Conscience (also called the Declaration of Indulgence) mandating the free exercise of religion in Britain. This decree noted that the attempts of four reigns to establish one religion in England were hindering trade and depopulating England; in addition, James argued that conformity of religion was impossible to achieve given each subject’s innate devotion to the faith of his or her forefathers. The declaration suspended religious penal laws and granted individuals the freedom to practice any religion or none at all. This declaration was largely popular with the people, because it gave equal social and civil rights to everyone.

James’s motives in issuing the Declaration of Liberty of Conscience extended beyond Britain’s borders. His American colonies were teeming with religious discontent, threatening the Crown’s security in the territories. James was fearfully aware that prevailing opinion supported republicanism. James believed he could garner popular support by including all religions in his declaration of tolerance. The declaration was met with some suspicion, however, as many suspected that his primary objective was to entrench Catholicism in England, not to promote any other religion. At home, moreover, there were fears that James might ally himself with the Catholic Louis XIV Louis XIV of France and become powerful enough to dissolve Parliament. Parliament refused to abolish the Test Act, rendering James’s declaration somewhat toothless.

James decided to assert his supreme authority as king: He reissued the full text of his Declaration of Liberty of Conscience on April 27, 1688, and required it to be read on two consecutive Sundays in every church. At the time, the most efficient way for the head of the country to distribute a message to the people was through the nation’s pulpits. The new declaration stated that James would present the declaration to the next meeting of Parliament for its confirmation but that for the interim it must be followed based upon his divine right as king. In response, the archbishop of Canterbury and six other bishops distributed thousands of copies of a petition that they had presented to James asking that the order be withdrawn. They pointed out that in 1662 and 1672, Parliament had ruled that the monarch could not suspend Parliamentary powers in ecclesiastical matters. Countering this petition, others asserted the monarch was the supreme authority and that administrative orders must be followed without question, lest dissent lead to anarchy.

Annoyed by the bishops’ public distribution of the contentious petition, James charged the bishops with seditious libel for refusing to read the Declaration of Liberty of Conscience from the pulpit. When the bishops refused to post bond assuring their appearance for trial, they were committed to the Prison Tower. At the trial, two of the four justices hearing the case ruled that the petition was not maliciously false and did not constitute sedition, because the bishops had sought Parliament’s intervention in an ecclesiastical matter: The judges recommended acquittal to the jury, who complied. The acquittal was praised in London, and it boosted the spirits of those who believed that a king’s power should be limited by Parliament; however, James retaliated by dismissing the justices who had ruled against him.

The birth of James’s son in 1688 created a Catholic heir to the throne and seemed to preclude any hope of succession by James’s Protestant daughter and son-in-law, Mary Mary II (queen of England) and William III William III (king of England) of Orange, leaders of the United Provinces of the Netherlands. The fear of an English Catholic Dynasty led powerful members of Parliament to act. They offered monetary and military support to William and Mary to take control of the country. Early in November, 1688, William landed in England. William’s army was quickly buttressed by deserters from James’s forces. Faced with violent riots in London and overwhelming desertion by even his own daughter and relatives, James fled to France on December 23, 1688. Because there was no military engagement and no loss of life, these events were dubbed the Glorious Revolution Glorious Revolution (1688-1689) .

To ensure that Protestantism would never again be threatened, in 1689 Parliament imposed a series of penal laws that even further limited the rights of Catholics, calling the measures the Bill of Rights Bill of Rights, English (1689) . This so-called Bill of Rights prohibited Catholics from living within ten miles of London and denied them ownership of land and representation in courts and Parliament. In March, 1689, Louis XIV declared war on Britain and sent French troops to help James lead a war in Ireland to regain his throne. The effort was not successful. On July 4, 1690, James returned to France, where he remained until his death in 1701.


Centuries of war in Britain proved the impossibility of peaceful coexistence when one religion is elevated over others by imposing religious oaths and tests as prerequisites to qualify for public office. In the Declaration of the Liberty of Conscience, James II called for Parliament to protect and support all religions, yet his ultimate motive was to increase state support of Catholicism. James’s preference to aid one religion over another, giving special status rather than equal standing to Catholicism, led to much discontent and eventually to his downfall. James’s Declaration of Liberty of Conscience was a missed opportunity to extend religious freedom to all of Britain, and its effects can still be seen in the violence between Catholics and Protestants that is endemic in Northern Ireland today.

Without complete religious toleration, there is often a backlash, as evidenced by the 1689 English Bill of Rights. The framers of the United States Constitution clearly recognized this problem as they hotly debated the topic during the Constitutional Convention of 1789. Article 6 of the Constitution prevents the federal government from requiring a religious test to qualify for a position of public office or trust. Ultimately, the concept of separation of church and state prevailed, and it is embodied in the United States Constitution’s First Amendment, which states that Congress may not establish or prohibit a religion.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Foster, Roy F. Modern Ireland, 1600-1972. New York: Penguin Group, 1990. Examines how the partition of Protestants and Catholics in Ireland in the 1600’s affected the Irish people. Biographical summaries in the book are helpful for understanding individuals who had important roles in Irish history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Maguire, W. A. Kings in Conflict. Belfast, Northern Ireland: Blackstaff, 1990. Features the intrigues as blood-line monarchs vied for power. After Henry VIII overruled the Catholic pope and created the Protestant Church of England, succession wars occurred as religions fought for control.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Murphy, Andrew R., and William Penn. The Political Writings of William Penn. Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 2001. Penn, a seventeenth century political and religious philosopher, supported liberty of conscience and strongly encouraged its practice for developing colonial America. This volume presents complete texts of Penn’s political writings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robbins, Caroline. The Eighteenth-Century Commonwealthman: Studies in the Transmission, Development, and Circumstance of English Liberal Thought from the Restoration of Charles II Until the War with the Thirteen Colonies. Indianapolis, Ind.: Liberty Fund, 2004. The author relates how the essays and arguments concerning liberty of conscience were received in America.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i>

Charles I; Charles II (of England); Oliver Cromwell; Innocent XI; James II; Louis XIV; Mary II; William III. Liberty of Conscience, Declaration of (1687 and 1688)

Categories: History