Occasional Conformity Bill

In 1711, only those who took Anglican Communion could hold public offices in Britain. The Occasional Conformity Bill stipulated that taking Communion once each year was insufficient to qualify for such offices: It was an attempt to prevent those of other faiths from feigning Anglicanism and to ensure that only authentic Anglicans could join the government.

Summary of Event

The practice of “occasional conformity” originated in the response of officeholding Dissenters Dissenters (Protestants) to two statutes from the reign of Charles II (r. 1660-1685). The Corporation Act (1661) Corporation Act, England (1661) mandated that local officeholders take Anglican Communion; failure to do so would result in ejection from office. However, some Dissenters evaded the intent of the law by taking Communion just once a year in an Anglican church and then attending their Dissenting meetinghouse the rest of the year, a practice more prevalent among Presbyterians and Congregationalists than among Baptists and Quakers. The Test Act (1673) Test Act (1673) repeated the requirement that all civil and military officeholders take Anglican Communion, but Dissenters continued to engage in occasional conformity in order to hold office. This angered not only Anglicans but also strict Dissenters, who regarded such behavior as hypocritical. [kw]Occasional Conformity Bill (Dec., 1711)
[kw]Bill, Occasional Conformity (Dec., 1711)
[kw]Conformity Bill, Occasional (Dec., 1711)
Anglican Church;Great Britain
Religious conformity
Communion and public office
Occasional Conformity Bill (1711)
[g]England;Dec., 1711: Occasional Conformity Bill[0330]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Dec., 1711: Occasional Conformity Bill[0330]
[c]Government and politics;Dec., 1711: Occasional Conformity Bill[0330]
[c]Religion and theology;Dec., 1711: Occasional Conformity Bill[0330]
Anne, Queen
Nottingham, second earl of
Bromley, William
Sacheverell, Henry
Godolphin, first earl of
Marlborough, first duke of

The Toleration Act (1689), Toleration Act (1689) passed in the wake of the Glorious Revolution (1688-1689), Glorious Revolution (1688-1689) accorded toleration to all Protestant Dissenters. The act may account for a decline in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries in attendance at Anglican services and a drop in the amount of tithes received by the Church of England. This decline in turn caused the Tory Party Tory Party;and Anglican Church[Anglican Church]
Tory Party;and Protestant Dissenters[Protestant Dissenters] to proclaim that the Church was in danger. An often cited example of occasional conformity was that of Sir Humphry Edwyne, the lord mayor of London, who in 1697 attended his Dissenting meetinghouse preceded by his two sword bearers, the symbols of his office. Not much could be done about such occasional conformity, however, because King William III (r. 1689-1702), a Dutch Calvinist, was sympathetic to Dissenters.

It was only during the reign of Queen Anne that the Tories were able to gain numerical strength in the House of Commons and to introduce the Occasional Conformity Bill in an attempt simultaneously to strengthen the Anglican Church and to weaken Whig electoral strength because Dissenters overwhelmingly supported Whig candidates. The Whigs, Whig Party;and Protestant Dissenters[Protestant Dissenters] more sympathetic toward Dissenters, felt that punishing occasional conformists would be tantamount to religious persecution and would divide Protestants in the face of a possible Catholic threat. The bill was first introduced in the fall of 1702 by William Bromley, a member of the House of Commons representing Oxford University. The bill may have been drafted, however, by one of the leading Tory peers, Daniel Finch, second earl of Nottingham.

The measure called for substantial fines to be levied against officeholders who attended Dissenting meetinghouses after qualifying for office by taking Anglican Communion. Anne gave her support to the bill, which passed by a wide margin in the House of Commons. The queen’s husband, the Danish prince George, duke of Cumberland, voted for it in the House of Lords to support Anne, although he was an occasional conformist himself, attending private Lutheran services in addition to Anglican services. The Whigs’ strength in the House of Lords enabled them to amend the bill to exempt local officeholders. Differences between the Commons’ and Lords’ versions could not be reconciled, so this first attempt to pass the measure failed.

On November 25, 1703, Bromley reintroduced the bill, but the queen’s attitude had changed; she now viewed it as divisive, and her husband, Prince George, was not present at the vote. Aided by the absence of five Tory peers, the Whigs in the House of Lords voted down the bill by twelve votes. Fourteen bishops voted against it, and only nine voted for it.

Feelings were still running high when the bill was introduced yet again but with a new twist: Because the House of Lords could not revise a financial bill but could only accept or reject it, the Tories attempted to attach or “tack” the Occasional Conformity Bill to a land tax bill that was necessary to fund English participation in the War of the Spanish Succession. Although the Tories supported the contents of the amended bill, not all of them could bring themselves to support the controversial tactic, which was an attempt by the Commons to bypass the legitimate power of the Lords. Indeed, the first earl of Godolphin, Anne’s leading minister, voted against this version of the measure for that reason. The attachment to the land tax bill therefore lost in the House of Commons by a 251 to 134 vote, and the House of Lords defeated the Occasional Conformity Bill by itself 71 to 50. The queen had attended the debates in the House of Lords to indicate her opposition to the bill. The “tackers” lost favor with Anne, although many of the 134 who voted for the tactic were reelected in 1705. Nevertheless, they continued to be unsuccessful in getting so-called Church-in-danger motions passed.

Successful passage of the bill finally came in December, 1711. This success resulted partly from the trial of Henry Sacheverell, a High Church clergyman (February-March, 1710). Sacheverall was prosecuted for an inflammatory sermon attacking Dissenters and toleration, and his trial alarmed those with loyalties to the High Church and the Tory Party. These factions were motivated to vote in greater numbers in the next election, and the Tories won a large electoral victory in October, 1710.

The following year, Tories used their newfound strength in Parliament to effect a bargain between Nottingham, Godolphin, and the first duke of Marlborough. Marlborough, one of England’s greatest generals and the commander in chief of the combined British and Dutch armies, wished to continue the war with France. The Tories, however, were tired of the war and wished to bring it to an end. Nottingham and his followers agreed to support continuing the war in Parliament if Godolphin, Marlborough, and the Whigs would vote for the Occasional Conformity Bill in return.

The French had already supported one attempt by the Catholic James Edward, James Edward the “Old Pretender,” to claim the throne of Britain, and the Whigs believed they might try again. The prospect of a Catholic revolution in Britain was deemed serious enough for the Whigs to abandon temporarily their protection of the Dissenters, and they supported the bargain between Marlborough and Nottingham. As a result, in December, 1711, the Occasional Conformity Bill easily passed both houses of Parliament. It mandated that civil and military officials who engaged in occasional conformity be heavily fined and removed from office.


Although the High Church Anglicans and Tories had finally succeeded after nine years of effort in passing the Occasional Conformity Bill, the results they desired from the bill failed to materialize. Many Dissenting officeholders evaded the intent of the law by attending public Anglican services regularly and then conducting private religious services in their homes. The Tories, troubled by these developments, cast a broader net by passing the Schism Act (1714), Schism Act (1714) which attacked Dissenters’ schools indirectly by forbidding any attendee at a Dissenting chapel from teaching in a school. Violators would be subject to three months’ imprisonment. However, Queen Anne’s death on August 1, 1714—the day the Schism Act was to go in effect—rendered it largely a dead letter, because the new monarch, George I, was a German Lutheran. As a Dissenter under English law, he was sympathetic to Dissenters and received their support in the Jacobite Rebellion Jacobite Rebellion (1715-1716) of 1715-1716, which attempted to restore James Edward, realizing the Whigs’ worst fears.

As a result of Dissenters’ support of the Crown, the Riot Act (1715), Riot Act (1715) which was passed to quell popular disturbances, included a provision making it a felony to attack a Dissenting chapel, and the government provided for compensation for the destruction of Dissenting schools and chapels. The Occasional Conformity Act and the Schism Act were both repealed by the Whig-dominated Parliament in 1719. Dissenters were now fairly well tolerated in Britain, and their academies and meetinghouses were largely undisturbed. Throughout the eighteenth century, many Dissenters became involved in reform movements, banking, and industry, and they urged the separation of church and state. It was not until 1828, however, that the Corporation Act and the Test Act were repealed.

Further Reading

  • Flaningam, John. “The Occasional Conformity Controversy: Ideology and Party Politics, 1697-1711.” The Journal of British Studies 17, no. 1 (Autumn, 1977): 38-62. Analyzes the broader ideological aspects of struggle and clearly defines the differences in Tory and Whig positions.
  • Holmes, Geoffrey. The Trial of Doctor Sacheverell. London: Eyre Methuen, 1973. A detailed narrative of the event that helped the Tories gain enough power to pass the Occasional Conformity Bill.
  • Hoppit, Julian. A Land of Liberty? England, 1689-1727. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. A solid survey that places the fight over occasional conformity within a broader religious and political context.
  • Snyder, Henry. “The Defeat of the Occasional Conformity Bill and the Tack.” Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research 41 (1968): 172-192. A detailed treatment of the political and parliamentary maneuvering that produced defeat of the bill in 1704.
  • Watts, Michael R. The Dissenters. 2 vols. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1995. The most comprehensive study of the Nonconformists; places the struggle over occasional conformity and the Dissenters’ attitudes within the religious history of England.

War of the Spanish Succession

Defeat of the “Old Pretender”

Treaty of Utrecht

Jacobite Rising in Scotland

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Queen Anne; George I; First Duke of Marlborough. Anglican Church;Great Britain
Religious conformity
Communion and public office
Occasional Conformity Bill (1711)