Toleration Act Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

An outgrowth of the constitutional and religious conflicts that culminated in the Glorious Revolution of 1688-1689, the Toleration Act provided a limited degree of religious freedom to Protestant sects, but it did not apply directly to Catholics or Unitarians.

Summary of Event

As in most places in seventeenth century Europe, religious dissidents in England suffered from oppressive laws. Following the restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660, the Anglican Church regained its monopolistic privileges as the established religion of the nation. All persons were required by law to attend its services. The Act of Uniformity Uniformity, Act of (1662) of 1662, which was part of the repressive Clarendon Code Clarendon Code (1661-1665) , required all ministers to be ordained according to Anglican rites and to subscribe to every doctrine in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion. Additional statutes prohibited Dissenters from assembling for religious worship. The Test Act of 1673 Test Acts (1673-1678) excluded from military and political office anyone refusing to take the oaths of supremacy or refusing to receive Communion in the established Church. In the early 1680’, more than two thousand religious dissidents—Catholics, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, Quakers, among others—were sent to prison for disobeying these restrictive penal laws. Persecution, religious;Dissenters in England Church of England [kw]Toleration Act (May 24, 1689) [kw]Act, Toleration (May 24, 1689) Laws, acts, and legal history;May 24, 1689: Toleration Act[2940] Government and politics;May 24, 1689: Toleration Act[2940] Religion and theology;May 24, 1689: Toleration Act[2940] Social issues and reform;May 24, 1689: Toleration Act[2940] England;May 24, 1689: Toleration Act[2940] Toleration Act (1689) Nottingham, Second Earl of William III of Orange Mary II James II Locke, John Burnet, Gilbert

In this context, King James II James II (king of England)[James 02 (king of England)];religion and attempted to utilize religious toleration as a means of restoring Catholicism Catholicism;England as the dominant religion. In March, 1686, he issued a general pardon for imprisoned dissidents, and some twelve hundred Quakers Quakerism;England were released. His Declaration of Liberty of Conscience Liberty of Conscience, Declaration of (1687 and 1688) of 1688 granted broad toleration to both English Catholics and Protestant Dissenters, and he imprisoned seven bishops who petitioned against the reading of the declaration. The resulting conflict was a primary cause of James’s deposition in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. When the Convention Parliament offered the Crown to William William III (king of England)[William 03 (king of England)] and Mary Mary II (queen of England)[Mary 02 (queen of England)] in February, 1689, its leaders recognized the need to seek the united support of Protestants in order to counter the threat from Rome. In addition, the Parliament contained about thirty Dissenters, and William, having come from the relatively tolerant Netherlands, made it clear that he strongly supported an expansion of religious liberty.

On February 28, 1689, the second earl of Nottingham, Finch, Daniel a devout High Anglican with a powerful following, introduced two bills in the Convention Parliament. The first bill would have revised Anglican doctrines in order to make them acceptable to Presbyterians, a proposal called “Comprehension.” The second bill allowed limited toleration for the Protestant sects. Because of strong protests from influential church leaders, the Comprehensive bill was dropped, but on May 24, both houses of Parliament overwhelmingly passed Nottingham’s second bill, which was entitled “An Act for Exempting Their Majesties’ Protestant Subjects Dissenting from the Church of England from the Penalties of Certain Laws.”

The statute contained specific provisions for particular groups. Protestant Dissenters were allowed to meet separately in unlocked meeting houses provided that they took an oath to William and Mary, swore that the pope had no jurisdiction over England, and abjured the Roman Catholic doctrine of Communion, called transubstantiation. Dissenting ministers who subscribed to most of the Thirty-nine Articles of the Anglican Church were exempted from the penalties and limitations of the Clarendon Code. Baptist ministers, moreover, were exempted from Article 27, which mandated support for infant baptism. Quakers, who were opposed to taking oaths, were allowed to substitute affirmations for oaths in civil trials, although not in criminal trials.

The Toleration Act, however, had many important limitations. Its benefits did not extend to Roman Catholics, atheists, or any person who denied the doctrine of the Trinity. Dissenters continued to be required to pay tithes to the Anglican Church, and persons not attending services of a Dissenting group were required to attend Anglican services. Another limitation was that Dissenting churches had to petition local officials for permission to hold meetings, a requirement that gave Anglican officials a veto over which groups would be recognized. The Test Acts, moreover, continued to be binding, which meant that Protestant Dissenters were still not allowed to hold political or military office. Although King William urged Parliament to repeal the Test Acts, the majority in the Parliament refused to follow his suggestion.

As a result of the Toleration Act, more than twenty-five hundred Dissenting places of worship were licensed by 1710. Although conservative Anglicans feared that the law would encourage the growth of Dissent, the number of Dissenters in the country actually declined. Whereas they constituted about 5 percent of the population in 1670, their numbers declined to about 2 percent by 1710.

In passing the Toleration Act, Parliament was cautiously moving in the direction of liberal policies that were increasingly common among English aristocrats. Gilbert Burnet Burnet, Gilbert and other Anglican Latitudinarians, for example, favored doctrinal flexibility, condemned intolerance, and emphasized the benevolent morality of Christianity. In 1689, philosopher John Locke Locke, John published his Epistola de Tolerantia (1689; A Letter Concerning Toleration Letter Concerning Toleration, A (Locke) , 1689), which advocated considerably more freedom than the statute allowed, but even Locke approved of legislation against Catholicism and atheism, both of which he considered harmful to the public interest. There is no evidence that his essay had any direct influence on either the framing or the passage of the statute, although it is entirely possible that some members of Parliament were familiar with its content.


The Toleration Act, the first statute to give legal recognition to Protestant Dissenters in England, has often been called the Great Charter of religious liberty. By allowing orthodox Dissenters the freedom to worship in their own way, the statute was a great milestone in the gradual evolution of religious liberty. Although the act did not directly extend to Catholics, it nevertheless meant that church attendance could no longer be made compulsory, which allowed Catholics to establish discreet meeting places for private worship. By taking away the Anglican Church’s monopoly over the religious life of the nation, the act made it difficult for Anglicans to enforce ecclesiastical discipline. Although the Church of England continued to be established by law, it was no longer the only lawful church in the country.

The limitations of the statute should be well recognized, however. The intention of the act was not to create full religious equality for Dissenting Protestants, and the act did not give them any political rights. Like other European countries, England remained committed to the policy of maintaining the special status of the established church. Only with passage of the Indemnity Act of 1727 were Nonconformists finally permitted to hold public office, and the Test Act officially remained on the books until 1828.

In North America North America;Toleration Act and , the Toleration Act had considerable influence, except in Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and New Jersey—three colonies that already guaranteed more religious liberty than the act required. In Massachusetts, where the Congregational Church was established, a new charter of 1691 granted “liberty of conscience” to all Christians except Roman Catholics. In Virginia, the legislature recognized the application of the Toleration Act to the colony in 1699, and the legislatures of Maryland and Connecticut grudgingly allowed Dissenting sects to hold religious services in 1700 and 1702.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Burnet, Gilbert. History of His Own Time. Rutland, Vt.: Charles Tuttle, 1992. Memoirs of William III’s chaplain, who encouraged passage of the Toleration Act.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coffey, John. Persecution and Toleration in Protestant England, 1558-1689. New York: Longman, 2000. Scholarly account of how diverse voices of the Puritan Revolution combined with liberal intellectuals to promote the idea of toleration. Highly recommended.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Crait, Gerald. Puritanism in the Period of the Great Persecution, 1660-1688. New York: Russell & Russell, 1971. Chapter 9, entitled “On the Threshold of Toleration,” provides a good discussion of the background to the law.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Henriques, Ursula. Religious Toleration in England, 1787-1833. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961. A standard account of the growth of religious freedom from James II’s first Declaration of Indulgence until the beginning of the Oxford Movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Macaulay, Thomas. History of England from the Accession of James II. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1958. This classic work by a famous nineteenth century Whig historian includes a detailed discussion of the act and its background.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Murphy, Andrew. Conscience and Community: Revisiting Toleration and Religious Dissent in Early Modern England and America. University Park: Pennsylvania University Press, 2001. A non-Whig interpretation that emphasizes the ambiguities and limitations of toleration in the seventeenth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schochet, Gordon. “The Act of Toleration and the Failure of Comprehension.” In The World of William and Mary, edited by Dale Hoak and Mordechai Feingold. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1996. An anti-Whig and one-sided argument that the creators of the act intended to perpetuate the disabilities of Nonconformists.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vernon, Richard. The Career of Toleration: John Locke, Jonas Proust, and After. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 1997. A study of two important writers of the time who had radically different ideas about religious liberty.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Watts, Michael. The Dissenters: From the Reformation to the French Revolution. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1978. An excellent history of dissident groups, demonstrating that the Toleration Act did indeed benefit Protestant Dissenters.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Zagorin, Perez. How the Idea of Toleration Came to the West. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003. Historical account that celebrates how religious toleration gradually developed as a result of liberal writers, religious conflicts, and growing diversity.

Gunpowder Plot

First Bishops’ War

English Civil Wars

Solemn League and Covenant

Restoration of Charles II

Clarendon Code

England’s Act of Uniformity

Test Acts

The Popish Plot

Rye House Plot

Declaration of Liberty of Conscience

Reign of William and Mary

The Glorious Revolution

Declaration of Rights

Related articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Seventeenth Century</i>

James II; John Locke; Mary II; William III. Toleration Act (1689)

Categories: History