May 24, 1689 is an important date in the history of religious freedom. It marks the anniversary of the signing of the Toleration Act of 1689, which provided legal religious freedoms to many in Great Britain. I’ve begun to mark this day as ‘Toleration Day,’ and I encourage you to do the same. The following article provides a brief background, and you may enjoy reading it individually or with family members on May 24.
The modern age engulfs us so completely that it is easy to forget past times and places. Today we are so used to freedom that we take it for granted. But journey back to a time, hundreds of years ago, when the government decided how you should worship God.
Today we think of Great Britain as a land of freedom, the birthplace of the Magna Carta, and the native land of Spurgeon, Whitefield, and Martin Lloyd-Jones. Yet five hundred years ago, this land didn’t experience the same freedoms it has today.
The ‘Tender Mercies’ of Rome
In the fourteenth century, as nearly all of Europe was under the authority of the Roman Catholic Church, John Wycliffe took the bold step of translating parts of the Bible into English and contradicting certain teachings of the Pope. While he died a natural death, the church burnt his bones and decreed his teachings as heresy, persecuting those who agreed with him.
As the middle ages concluded, the Reformation suddenly introduced Europe to the idea that we learn about God through the Bible, not through the mediation of popes and priests. William Tyndale carried this message into England, translating Scriptures into the English tongue. He was arrested by the king of England, King Henry VIII, and condemned to death. His final words, spoken with a loud voice, were “Lord! Open the King of England’s eyes.” Then, tied to a stake, he was strangled, and his dead body burnt with fire.
The following queen, Bloody Mary, determined to rid the country of the Protestant doctrines. During her rule, over 800 Christians were forced to flee the kingdom; another 280 were burnt at the stake.
Puritans and Dissenters
Successive monarchs permitted Protestant teaching, but soon a new divide grew in the land. No longer was the conflict between Catholic and Protestant; now the Puritans, who believed in simple conformity to the Word of God, were pitted against the High Church Anglicans, who wanted to retain certain Roman Catholic traditions. During the reign of Charles I, an increasing divide grew between these two groups. Following a period of chaos and the reign of Oliver Cromwell, the English crown was reestablished under the rule of Charles II, who strongly favored the High Church Anglicans.
Under Charles II, The Corporation Act of 1661 required officials to take Anglican communion, and excluded all others from government office; those who refused were known as nonconformists.
In 1662, the English government enacted the Act of Uniformity, dictating the types of prayers and sacraments to be used in the Church of England; many of these practices were directly opposed to the Puritan beliefs. As a result, during the Great Ejection, over 2000 ministers were thrown out of their churches for refusing to accept the legislation.
Further persecutions continued. Under the Conventicle Act of 1664, the government forbade religious gatherings of more than five people outside of one’s family, except in the Church of England; this meant that it was a crime to worship God with others outside of the state church.
Then, in 1665, the Five-Mile Act prohibited nonconformist ministers from approaching within five miles any city or town that they had formerly served in.
The results of these and other persecutions resulted in stories like that of John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim’s Progress, who spent twelve years of life in prison. In Scotland, the situation was even worse; the covenanters resorted to secret religious meetings which were often interrupted by armed government troops who arrested, tortured, and killed the worshippers. Now these martyrs are honored by monuments to their faith, but in those days, many were killed or tortured, and hundreds were kept in prisons until they could be sold to slavers, who transported them across the Atlantic Ocean to work as slaves on the plantations of rich Englishmen on the Caribbean islands.
The crown increasingly moved toward open restoration of Roman Catholicism; eventually this became too much.
The Glorious Revolution
In 1688, a Dutch fleet brought William III to England, overthrowing the previous government. This became known as the Glorious Revolution. Under William and Mary, the English crown finally began to ease its restrictions on worship and usher in a new era of freedom of conscience. While it would take decades for all the previous regulations to be removed, the Toleration Act of 1689 was ratified by King William III on May 24, 1689. It provided freedom of worship to the majority of nonconformists, who were allowed their own places of worship and their own teachers.
The apostle Paul reminds us that ‘all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution’ (2 Timothy 3:12). It would be a mistake to assume that the Toleration Act of 1689 prevented persecution. Even today, Christians still suffer persecution from a world at war with God. At the same time, the Apostle Paul urged us to pray for government leaders, so that we would be able to lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty (1 Timothy 2:2).
The Toleration Act of 1689 provided this, and it is the foundational law that our own American freedom of religion can be traced to. Like the Old Testament prophet Samuel who erected a stone called ‘Ebenezer’ to mark God’s remarkable Providence (1 Samuel 7:12), Christians today should remember this remarkable providence and give thanks to God for the freedom of religion that we enjoy as a result of the Toleration Act of 1689.