Skip to main content

Oath Of Abjuration (Jews) Bill

Volume 117: debated on Monday 23 June 1851

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Order for Committee read.

House in Committee; Mr. Bernal in the Chair.

Clause 1.

said, that entertaining as he did the strongest objections to the principle of this Bill, and feeling much anxiety to arrest its progress, he still thought that he should best consult the interests which he represented, and the convenience of the House, by neither making any lengthened observations on the subject, nor by dividing the Committee. What might be done by those with whom he had the honour to act, on another stage of the Bill, he could not pretend to say; but he was bound to admit that he had no objection to the details of the measure.

said he would follow the course taken by the hon. Baronet the Member for the University of Oxford, and not oppose the Bill in Committee. He did not believe that so monstrous a proposition as the Bill in question had ever been presented to a Parliament before. He looked upon the question in a religious point of view only, and, as such, he was prepared to combat it. Whatever might be the decision of the House of Commons on the remaining stages of the Bill, it was quite clear that the division on the second reading had affixed a stigma to it, which would not be lost sight of in the proper quarter. When the Government were only able to get a majority of 25 out of a House of nearly 400 Members, it was not likely that the House of Lords would sanction the measure. He hoped he was justified in saying that ours was a Christian Legislature, and, if so, we ought always to keep in view the honour and the praise of Him who was the fountain of all religion. He felt as much for the position of the Jew as any man in that House, and perhaps more so, and he would never relax his efforts to bring him to a sense of his condition; but if the Legislature were to pass a Bill of this nature, they would be taking by the hand the very men who, if the tragedy of Mount Calvary were to be again enacted, would play the same part. He earnestly and solemnly protested against legislation of this sort, as he believed it would be fatal to the best interests of a Christian country.

said, that, as the law stood, Roman Catholics were excluded from filling high offices of State, such as those of Lord Chancellor, First Minister of the Crown, or Archbishop of Canterbury. Should the Bill before the House place the Jews in a situation to fill those offices, it would be utterly inconsistent with past legislation on this subject.

expressed his confidence that the Bill would never pass the other House. He should be glad to be informed whether the noble Lord at the head of the Government recognised any distinction between Jews and other Members of that House. Some special arrangements with respect to Saturday sittings and to reading prayers in the House would be necessary. By this Bill, they would obtain a liberty and a license which other Members did not enjoy. He must protest against the whole proceeding. As this Bill came close on the heels of the Ecclesiastical Titles Bill, it was evident the noble Lord did not care one farthing for the religion of the country, or he would not insist on the passing the Bill.

said, he was satisfied, if this Bill, as had been stated by the learned Member for Midhurst, would place Jews in a better position than Roman Catholics, that this inconsistency must have arisen from an oversight, because he was sure the Government, in a measure of what they called justice, could not have intended that it should be more favourable to one class than it was to another.

said, the exclusion of Roman Catholics from certain offices of State did not depend merely on religious grounds, but on grounds that were entirely political; because the course of our legislation at the present time recognised the principle that the mere holding of one set of religious opinions more than another had no effect on the subject's civil privileges. But with respect to Roman Catholics, the Act of Settlement provided securities for the Protestant succession to the Throne, and it was clear that the numerous livings in the Protestant Church the appointment to which was vested in the Lord Chancellor, could not be vested in any Roman Catholic. But all this had arisen from political considerations, and according to the Act of Settlement. These considerations did not at all apply to the Jew, who had all the privileges of a British subject, and was only prevented from enjoying them, as had been repeatedly stated, by an accident. Lord Eldon had decided that a Jew could present to a living. A living in the city of London was elective, and the question arose who had the right to vote; and the decision was that Catholics had no right, but Jews had—every elector to the living being a fractional patron.

considered it a species of persecution to prevent any man from taking a seat in that House on the ground of his religious tenets. The noble Lord at the head of the Government was entitled to much praise for having introduced this Bill, and he hoped that he would press it forward. How absurd and anomalous must that law appear to a foreigner which permitted a Jew to enjoy all the privileges that could be enjoyed by an Englishman, except that of taking a seat in that House, simply through the operation of a few words accidentally introduced into an oath. He maintained that such an exception was never intended by the framers of that law. He hoped the noble Lord would press the measure forward; for a general election was likely to take place very shortly, and several Jews might be returned. He was surprised to hear people express alarm at the idea of one Jew taking a seat in that House. He should not be at all alarmed if there were dozens instead of one Jew sitting as legislators. Did the alarmists I fancy that the Jews had some power of conjuration whereby, if they were but once admitted into Parliament, they could alter the constitution of the country? He should be very happy to see several Jews sitting in that House. The possibility of a Jew becoming Lord High Chancellor of England had been hinted at. Well, that question would remain to be decided by those that followed us. If a Jew should, in the course of time, be elected to that high office, he had no doubt that it would not be degraded by a Jewish occupant. In other countries Jews had filled some of the most important offices with the greatest honour to themselves and their country; and why should they not do the same here? The House would do itself more credit than by anything they had done this Session, by passing this Bill.

had often heard it stated that the exclusion of the Jew from that House turned upon some accidental words in an Act of Parliament. If that were so, he would admit that the exclusion was an absurdity; but the proper inference to be drawn from the insertion in an Act of Parliament of those "accidental words" was, that the Legislature at that time assumed that every Member thereof was a Christian; for according to the common-law principles of the constitution, it was plain that every Member of an assembly having to legislate for a community, the whole of which was overruled by the principles of Christianity and the Word of God, should himself be a Christian. He therefore conceived that no enlightened foreigner could be surprised at the exclusion of a Jew from that Christian Legislature. For months past they had been legislating in vindication of the claim of our earthly Sovereign to earthly supremacy in these realms; and could they at the same time think of denying a supremacy incomparably greater than that of Queen Victoria, namely, that of our Lord and Saviour? He maintained that the only sure guarantee for the peace and prosperity of the empire was the adoption of laws founded upon the Word of God—that was to say, upon Christianity.

I heard not very long ago the hon. and learned Gentleman declare—and I heard it with great pleasure—that we in these days are accustomed to consider not the belief or religious tenets, but the conduct and ability, of the candidate when legislating with respect to admission to public offices. That opinion is, I think, a very just one, and I am sorry to find that the hon. Gentleman is now departing so far from that opinion. With reference to what he has said, and with reference likewise to what was said by the hon. Member for Kent, who spoke at the commencement of this short discussion, I must say that it appears to me that while we are perfectly right in doing everything that we can to promote the Christian religion, and to spread Christianity over the globe, I do not think that Christianity will derive any force from any mode which can in any way be called civil persecution. It does appear to me that to exclude persons from office, or any of the loyal subjects of Her Majesty from the power of legislation, is a species of persecution, and not at all consistent with the principles and spirit of Christianity.

said, this Bill was most objectionable, as giving to the enemies of Christianity the right to fill the highest offices in a Christian community. He put it to the House and to the country, whether it was decent or fit that the selection of clergymen to the cures of this country should be vested in those who rejected Christianity from its very foundation. He considered the measure repugnant to the strong religious feelings of the people of England.

said, it would appear from the observation of some of the hon. Gentlemen who had preceded him, that the people of this country were opposed to the emancipation of the Jews; but he believed that that assertion was not, whilst the contrary thereof he believed was, capable of proof. What were the facts? The immediate object of introducing this Bill was to enable one of the representatives of the city of London to take his seat. That hon. Gentleman had been elected on two occasions—not by a community of Jews, but by a community of Christians, as sincere as the hon. Gentleman who had preceded him could pretend to be. He should be glad to know what evidence these hon. Gentlemen had to justify their assertion that the people of England were opposed to the emancipation of the Jews. Such evidence was certainly not forthcoming in the shape of enormous petitions protesting against the admission of Jews into that House. And if he might be permitted to refer to that country with which he was more immediately connected—Ireland—he might observe that the feeling of Ireland was almost unanimously in favour of the emancipation of the Jews. They had in that House thirty-seven Members of the Catholic persuasion, and upon every occasion on which this subject had boon discussed, the vote of all those Catholic Members (with one exception) was in favour of the emancipation of the Jews. And yet, in the teeth of these facts, hon. Gentlemen got up night after night and asserted that the feeling out of doors was against the emancipation of the Jews. As a lover of civil and religious liberty, he could not but congratulate the Committee upon the noble work in which they were then engaged. They had just been engaged in a work of a very different description, and they had just been forging pains and penalties upon the Roman Catholics of this country. He was happy that the House was about to redeem its character by emancipating the Jew. An observation of the Solicitor General struck him as being peculiarly worthy of attention. That hon. and learned Gentleman had stated, and no doubt most truly, as was ever his wont in such matters, that Lord Eldon had decided that a Jew could appoint a Protestant rector to the cure of souls in a parish, but a Jew could not enter that House. Now, the reverse was the case with respect to the Roman Catholics, for whilst a Roman Catholic could sit in that House, he could not appoint a Protestant minister to the cure of a parish. This was another sample of the sort of laws under which we live in these "enlightened times."

said, the argument from the opposite side of the House amounted to asserting the principle that a majority ought to expel a minority—a principle not as yet universally received and acted on. Had it been asserted on a late occasion, a good deal of trouble might have been saved; but happily it was not. If he had on that occasion differed from the minority alluded to, it was not because his heart was not in the right place on the general question of religious toleration. One other point, he would take the opportunity to note. When the House had gone the length of putting the Old Testament into the hands of a candidate for admission, it was great pity advantage had not been taken of the step so gained, to propose the substitution in the oath, of the words "on the true faith of a believer in the book put into my hand." There was something so inconsequent in putting a book into a man's hand because he believed in it, and then asking him to swear on something else, that he was sure searching questions would be asked about it at the next general election, and the reputation of the House be found concerned.

Clause agreed to, as was the Preamble. House resumed.

Bill reported without Amendment.