Toleration Act

The Conventicle Act of 1670 had made it an offence for any group of people numbering more than five to meet for religious worship, except according to the liturgy and practice of the Church of England. The Act applied to meetings in houses, other buildings and the open air. The Toleration Act 1689 exempted 'Protestant Dissenters' if their buildings were registered and preachers licensed and the necessary oaths were taken. John Wesley argued strongly (e.g. in his Farther Appeal to Men of Reason and Religion, 1745) that neither in their field preaching nor their preaching-houses were the Methodists within the penalties of the Conventicle Act; nor were they dissenters who should seek relief under the Toleration Act. But in October 1745 a house in Stockport was registered for Methodist meetings. When three years later the New Room in Bristol was registered, Charles Wesley protested against 'this needless, useless and senseless license'. Because of increasing difficulties with local magistrates Wesley reluctantly agreed to registration. A test case in the Court of King's Bench established in 1766 that magistrates were obliged to grant a licence, though questioning how far Methodists were covered by the Act. Finally, in 1787, Wesley concluded that it was safer to register all chapels and travelling preachers, albeit not as dissenters but as 'preachers of the gospel', under 'that execrable Act'.

After his death there was growing political pressure to introduce more restrictive legislation, because of the perceived dangers of the large numbers of licensed preachers. Lord Sidmouth's Bill of 1811 was opposed by the Committee of Privileges, by the Protestant Dissenting Deputies and by public petition, and was dropped. In 1812 a new Toleration Act (drafted by Thomas Allan) repealed the Conventicle Act and other penal legislation.

See also Licensing of Preachers

  • John S. Simon, 'The Conventicle Act and its relations to the early Methodists', in WHS Proceedings, 11 pp.82-93, 103-108, 130-37
  • W.Reginald Ward, Religion and Society in England 1790-1850 (1972)
  • David Hempton, Methodism and Politics in British Society, 1750-1850 (1984)
  • J.M. Turner, Conflict and Reconciliation: Studies in Methodism and Ecumenism in England 1740-1982 (1985), pp.15-18; 120-126
  • David Hempton, The Religion of the People: Methodism and popular religion c.1750-1900 (1996) pp.110-14