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On the 10th of February, 1880, Mr. Bright presided at the first of a series of lectures delivered in Union Chapel, Islington, by Mr. R. W. Dale, on The Rise of Evangelical Nonconformity. After referring to the great compliment which the Rev. Dr. Allon had paid him in asking him to preside, Mr. Bright said that he took a strong interest in the subject of the lecture, because he had sprung from the stock of the martyrs of two centuries
He then gave a brief historical retrospect of the past history of Nonconformity, and said that for a long period the Nonconformists of England had been the great advancing and reforming force in our English political life. At the same time they must not forget, and they ought to acknowledge with thankfulness, that there were large numbers of these who were not Nonconformists, who had constantly and honestly co-operated with Nonconformists in all that they had done in favour of greater civil and religious freedom. But for all that they must admit with sorrow that even now the people of this country were set apart in two great divisions. Referring to the bishops, Mr. Bright said he could not for one moment doubt that there were many excellent men among them who grieved in their souls at the evil policy which was adopted at times by the Government; yet so far as he had observed within the last two years, when throughout the whole realm of Nonconformity there had been a united protest against certain transactions, not one bishop had opened his mouth in the House of Lords to condemn one single act that had been committed. This showed to him, not that those men were not good men, but that they were in an unfortunate position for defending what was good. Mr. Bright then eloquently referred to the work achieved by the Nonconformists :
'What has Nonconformity done in England ? Look at the churches and chapels it has reared over the whole country; look at the schools it has built ; look at the ministers it has supported ; look at the Christian work which it has conducted. And we must not forget that this great Nonconformist body does not include the great wealth of the country. Nearly all the land in the United Kingdom, within some very moderate percentage, is in the hands of Churchmen and Conformists. They have also, or had till lately, nearly all the endowments of a religious character. They have now the possession of some millions a year of ancient tithes. But without any of these the Nonconformists have done their great work in this kingdom. (Hear, hear.) And no Churchman will deny--I don't fire how much he may be political—that the Nonconformist population is at least as obedient to the law as any other portion of the people of these kingdoms. If you observe their industry, if you observe their domestic virtues, if you observe their condition as regards morals and religion, I undertake to say, here and everywhere, that they will at least bear comparison in those qualities with Churchmen of every state and rank. If I were a Churchman myself—and I suppose it is very much a matter of accident that I am not-(laughter) — if they had not imprisoned an ancestor of mine for many years in Derby Gaol, for anything I know I might have been a Churchman now-I hope I should at least have had that sense of honour and of justice which would have enabled me to look round and behold all the great works of the great Nonconformist body in England, and to regard them with admiration and honour. (Cheers.) I would ask you—perhaps I need not ask you, but I would ask any who may read anything that I say on this subject, to look round and consider how much of what there is free and good and great, and constantly growing in what is good in this country, which is owing to Nonconformist action, self-denial, and effort ; and, looking upon that, if he cannot himself be a Nonconformist, let him not despise the Nonconformists, but let him say it is a great country and a noble race that can enable a portion of its population to do all this in the unfavourable circumstances in which they have been placed.' (Loud applause.)
On the meeting of the new Parliament at the close of April, 1880, an embarrassing question arose with regard to the Parliamentary oath in the case of Mr. Bradlaugh. This gentleman had been elected for Northampton, and on the third day of the swearingin of members he appeared with a written claim to be allowed to make an affirmation of allegiance instead of taking the oath. There were many who said that the Speaker should have allowed Mr. Bradlaugh to affirm at his own risk, leaving him to be sued in a court of law for the statutory penalties for sitting in the House without the statutory qualification ; but the case was so novel, that the Speaker declined to interfere, and left it to the House to determine the claim. The House was speedily plunged into a series of exciting discussions, in which the religious element lent fuel to the flame; and as a natural consequence legislation was much retarded. On the motion of Lord F. Cavendish, who represented the Government, the chief Ministers not being in the House owing to the new elections consequent on their taking office, a Select Committee was appointed to consider whether Mr. Bradlaugh had a right under the statutes upon which he founded his claim to make an affirmation.
This Committee decided against him by a majority of one; but without waiting to see whether the House endorsed the finding of the Committee, Mr. Bradlaugh presented himself at the table of the House on the 21st of May for the purpose now of taking the oath. Sir H. Drummond Wolff objected to this, on the ground that an atheist was not entitled to take an oath. He asked whether the House would allow that formality to be gone through which the hon. member himself avowed would be a mere formality and nothing more? He moved that Mr. Bradlaugh be not allowed to take the oath, and this was seconded by Mr. Alderman Fowler.
Mr. Gladstone proposed the appointment of a Select Committee to consider and report upon this difficult and delicate question. Was the House, he asked, competent to interfere, and prevent him from fulfilling a duty imposed by statute ? That was really the question to decide. Of course, if he took the oath, he might be open to prosecution; but could the House prevent him from taking the oath if he were willing to do so ? After several other members had spoken, Mr. Bright made an eloquent appeal to the House to discuss the question simply as a question of right and of law, and not with reference to religious views. Was the House, he inquired, by a multitudinous vote to decide that there was no question of law involved, and that it would have no legal opinion, no reference to a Committee of judicious and eminent members, on the point? And after refusing to allow Mr. Bradlaugh to take the oath, what did they propose to do? Would they declare his seat vacant ? The electors of Northampton were cognizant of Mr. Bradlaugh's views when they chose him as their representative, and they would probably elect him again. Mr. Bright referred to the case of John Wilkes as an instance of the inconvenience and trouble of a contest between the House of Commons and a particular constituency; and in conclusion he said: "Would it not be better to follow the wise and statesmanlike advice of the First Minister of the Crown-whose devotion to the Christian faith and desire to support the dignity of the Crown are as great as that of any hon. gentleman opposite, which will give an opportunity for calm deliberation, instead of at once taking a course which would, if adopted, have the effect of shutting the door of the House of Commons irrevocably against the member for Northampton ?'
The debate was adjourned, but in the end Sir H. D. Wolff's resolution was negatived by 289 to 214. The Committee, with somewhat different powers from those originally suggested by Mr. Gladstone, was appointed after many discussions, and began its sittings. Mr. Bradlaugh conducted his own case. At the close of the sittings, the Committee decided by a large majority that Mr. Bradlaugh could not be allowed to take the oath, but appended a recommendation that he should be allowed to make an affirmation at his own risk, subject to the penalties recoverable for taking his seat without the statutory declaration. On the 21st of June the question entered upon a new stage. Mr. Labouchere proposed that Mr. Bradlaugh be allowed to make an affirmation or declaration, and Sir H. Giffard moved as an amendment that he be not allowed to do so.