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Act of Toleration: Definition & History

Instructor: Flint Johnson

Flint has tutored mathematics through precalculus, science, and English and has taught college history. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow

Learn about the Act of Toleration, why it was created, and how it impacted the history of Great Britain. When you are finished, take the quiz to see what you've learned.

Great Britain in 1688

Before we get into the Act of Toleration, it's important to get a little background on what was going on in Great Britain just before it was enacted. In 1685, James II had come to the throne of Britain. He was Catholic and had ties to France, but he didn't cause any trouble for the Anglican church, and the English Civil War of a generation before (1649-1658) was still fresh in people's minds. They accepted him and his rule.

James II, Catholic King of Great Britain
James II

But in 1688, King James had a son, James Francis Edward Stuart, whom he had baptized as Catholic. The British people panicked. A majority of the population was Anglican, with several other Protestant groups living in Britain. They remembered how harsh Catholic rule had been for Protestants, and then knew that Catholic rulers tended to be absolute monarchs, not the limited monarchs who allowed parliament to participate in the government. It didn't matter that James II had been even-handed with them and promised Protestants tolerance, they still worried that a Catholic dynasty would inevitably bring a return to the old ways.

An Alliance

For many years the Anglican church had been the dominant one in England. Anglicans were the only group that could hold an office, and they had used their power to make life difficult for other religious groups by not allowing them to gather or pray. That was why so many Protestants and Catholics had settled in the New World - the Catholics in Pennsylvania, the Puritans in Massachusetts, etc.

But the Anglicans realized that Catholics were a common threat for all Protestant groups. So they approached all the other denominations with a simple deal - support us in a revolution against James II, and we'll change things for you.

They then sent a delegation to Holland, where Mary, the next heir after James Francis, lived with her husband William of Orange. The Anglicans promised her the throne of Great Britain and plenty of support if they would invade the island. The couple agreed to the deal.

So What Happened?

The Glorious Revolution went off without any problems. William and Mary landed in England, and after two minor engagements and one actual battle, James II fled the country. It wasn't bloodless (as it has often been called), but very few people actually died. The invasion left the couple as the rulers of Great Britain. When they were settled they accepted a law that meant to make things better for their non-Anglican allies - The Act of Toleration.

William of Orange as King William of Great Britain
King William

The Act of Toleration

The Act of Toleration was the Anglican offer to the Protestant groups for helping them to overthrow James II. It gave freedom of worship to Nonconformists, or any Christian group that didn't conform to the Anglican Church, believed in the trinity, and were not Catholics. These groups were allowed to have churches.

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