MANCHESTER –– An account of a speech on religious liberty by England's last Catholic king published by a U.S. historian shows that the 17th-century monarch was revolutionary in his thinking on the freedom of conscience.
The significance of the 1687 speech by King James II in Chester, England, reveals that he believed religious liberty was a fundamental right rather than a privilege to be conferred by the government, said Scott Sowerby, assistant professor of history at Northwestern University.
Sowerby published for the first time a diarist's account of the speech in his book, "Making Toleration: The Repealers and the Glorious Revolution."
In the speech, James likened a person's religious convictions to the color of his or her skin.
He argued that just as it would be unreasonable to jail people simply because they were black, it also would be wrong to jail people because of their religious convictions.
James asked his audience to support "tolerationist" candidates during elections the following year so that laws discriminating against Catholics, Protestant dissenters, Quakers and Jews could be repealed.
"Suppose said he there would be a law made that all black men should be imprisoned," said the account by Sir Willoughby Aston, one of the men at the meeting. "Twould be unreasonable and we had as little reason to quarrel with other men for being of different opinions as for being of different complexions, … and he was sure no Englishman could desire to see others persecuted for differences of opinion, and therefore again told us, the way to reconcile all differences was to take of(f) those Lawes which made men uneasie under them and deprived them of theyre Rights."
Sowerby explained that the speech had never been cited in any published review of James' reign other than in his own work.
He said it was the most noteworthy of the king's speeches on the subject of toleration because it revealed for the first time that James had developed a "sophisticated rationale for an expansive liberty of conscience" which he understood as an "indefeasible right."
"In his speech at Chester, James described the underpinnings of his new line of argument, declaring liberty of conscience to be a fundamental right of all English subjects," Sowerby wrote in his book.
After two centuries of religious wars and persecutions that followed the Reformation in the 16th century, religious toleration in the 18th and 19th centuries was hailed as a cornerstone value of the Enlightenment.
In 1963, the beliefs of James also found an echo in "Pacem in Terris," the celebrated encyclical of Blessed Pope John XXIII, who wrote that every person has a right "to worship God in accordance with the right dictates of his own conscience, and to profess his religion both in private and in public."
As Duke of York, James had given his name to New York after seizing the colony from the Dutch. He introduced a policy of toleration that allowed Jews to open their first synagogue there.
He ascended the English throne in 1685 but was overthrown in 1688 by Dutch forces invited into the country by a group of Anglican bishops fearful of what his "tolerationist" reforms might bring. He was replaced by the Dutch Protestant William of Orange who became King William III.
Thomas FitzPatrick, principal secretary of the Royal Stuart Society, a British historical association, said in a statement to Catholic News Service that historians had been unkind to James and that recent research "is possibly going some way to redress the balance."
He said that James had converted to the Catholic faith in 1668 but was forced to step down as Lord High Admiral by the Test Act of 1673 that prohibited Catholics from holding military office.
"James knew personally the effects of religious intolerance, having been adversely affected himself, so had a sympathy for others disadvantaged under the law for their personal beliefs," FitzPatrick wrote.
Sowerby's book was welcomed by Fr. Nicholas Schofield, archivist of the Archdiocese of Westminster.
"James II is often remembered for being one of the 'baddies' of British history, variously described as incompetent, melancholic and bigoted," Fr. Schofield told CNS in an email.
The king's policies of religious freedom were given the most "sinister of interpretations" and were seen as a threat to the Anglican establishment, he explained.
"The discovery of documents such as his speech at Chester lead us to reassess this much-maligned figure," he said. "A failure? Not completely. A saint? According to some. A much misunderstood monarch? Certainly."