June 16, 1871 – The U.K. Repealed Prohibition on Religious Non-Conformists at Universities

On this day in history, the United Kingdom passed the University Tests Act, repealing a prohibition on non-conformists at the British Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Durham. The University Tests Act stated that persons at these universities would not be required to subscribe in any way to any article or formulary of faith to which they did not subscribe.

Beginning in the 17th Century, Britain had passed a series of laws enforcing adherence to the Church of England upon all persons filling public offices.

For example, The Corporation Act 1661 decreed that all mayors and officials in municipal corporations had to receive the sacrament of Holy Communion in accordance with the rites of the Church of England, inter alia. The Test Act 1673 made all holders of civil and military offices and places of trust under the Crown to take the oaths of allegiance and supremacy and receive the Anglican sacrament. The oath for the Test Act of 1673 was:

I, N, do declare that I do believe that there is not any transubstantiation in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, or in the elements of the bread and wine, at or after the consecration thereof by any person whatsoever.”

The Catholic Relief Act of 1829 repealed the Test Act of 1673, permitting members of the Catholic Church to sit in the parliament at Westminster, but was accompanied by The Parliamentary Elections (Ireland) Act 1829 (10 Geo. IV, c. 8) which disenfranchised the minor landholders of Ireland, and raised fivefold the economic qualifications for voting.

William Gladstone

William Gladstone

The Universities Tests Act, passed during William Gladstone’s first ministry, was intended to win support from the non-conformists, who were a major component of the Liberal Party. In addition, the Act came as a response to the widely publicized case of Numa Edward Hartog, the first Senior Wrangler in the history of Cambridge University. (The Senior Wrangler is the top mathematics undergraduate at Cambridge, a position once regarded as the greatest intellectual achievement attainable in Britain.) Hartog could not accept the fellowship that came with this honor, because he could not pass the religious test. His testimony before the House of Lords helped secure passage of the bill, after the Lords had twice blocked similar legislation in 1869 and 1870. Tragically, Hartog died of smallpox just three days after the act passed.

A student is named as Senior Wrangler in 1842, an accolade 'synonymous with academic supremacy'

A student is named as Senior Wrangler in 1842, an accolade ‘synonymous with academic supremacy’

You can read the text of the University Tests Act here.

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