Penal Laws

Penal Laws are statutes enacted for the secular punishment of those who are supposed to be in religious error. Thus the laws against Nonconformists in England were as follows:

"1. An act for well governing and regulating corporations, 13 Car. II, c. 1. By this act all who bore office in any city, corporation, town, or borough were required to take the oaths and subscribe the declaration therein mentioned, and to receive the sacrament of the Lord's Supper according to the rites of the Church of England. This turned the dissenters out of the government of all corporations.

2. The Act of Uniformity, 14 Car. II, c. 4. By it all parsons, vicars, and ministers, who enjoyed any preferment in the Church, were obliged to declare their unfeigned assent and consent to everything contained in the Book of Common Prayer, etc., or be ipso facto deprived; and all schoolmasters and teachers were prohibited from teaching youth without license from the archbishop or bishop, under pain of three months' imprisonment.

3. An act to prevent and suppress seditious conventicles, 16 Car. II, c. 4, in which it was declared unlawful to be present at any meeting for religious worship, except according to the usage of the Church of England, where five besides the family should be assembled. The first and second offenses were made subject to a certain fine, or three months' imprisonment on conviction before a justice of the peace on the oath of a single witness; and the third offense, on conviction at the sessions, or before the justices of assize, was punishable by transportation for seven years.

4. An act for restraining Nonnconformists from inhabiting in corporations, 17 Car. II, c. 2. By it all dissenting ministers who would not take an oath therein specified against the lawfulness of taking up arms against the king on any pretense whatsoever, and that they would never attempt my alteration of government in Church and State, were banished five miles from all corporation towns, and subject to a fine of £40 in case they should preach in any conventicle.

5. Another act to prevent and suppress seditious conventicles, 22 Car. II, c. 5. Any persons who taught in such conventicles were subject to a penalty of £'20 for the first, and £40 for every subsequent offense; and any person who permitted such a conventicle to be held in his house was liable to a fine of £20; and justices of peace were empowered to break open doors where they were informed such conventicles were held, an d take the offenders into custody. 6. An act for preventing dangers which might happen from popish recusants, commonly called the Test Act, whereby every person was incapacitated from holding a place of trust under the government, without taking the sacrament according to the rites of the Church of England." It may be added that in Scotland, about 1568, it was enacted that every examinable girl or stripling must communicate in the parish church or pay a fine. In 1600 and in 1641 fines were imposed on all non-communicants above fifteen years of age. Dr. Lee prints a portion of a session record, in which occurs the following: "Megget, spous to Thomas Clark, in Rosline, and Helen Denholme, spous to James Clerk, yr, for not communicating at this last communion, confess it, and credit them never to omit the said occasion, and payet 10s. Aug. 22. — Two men in Roslin, for not communicating, were penitent, and payed everie ane of them 4s. 6d." Severe laws were enacted against papists or trafficking priests, and again, against all who would not conform to prelacy in the days of the Stuarts. Ministers were banished and forbidden to preach, and torture from the thumbkin and boot in many cases was resorted to. Protestant penal laws against papists are as bad in principle as popish penal laws against Protestants. As late as 1700, in Scotland, a statute was sanctioned by king William to the following effect: It re-enacts a great number of the old acts which make the hearing of mass a capital offense, imposes fines and imprisonment upon every man who should harbor papists, or sell them books, or remove their children out of the country without the authority of the presbytery. It then goes on to state at great length:

1. That every one who shall seize a popish priest in the country shall receive a reward from government: and if the priest shall attempt to conceal his profession, he shall be banished; and if he should return, be put to death.

2. If any person whatever shall be found in a place where there are any of the vestments or images used in popish worship, and refuse to purge himself of popery, he shall be banished, with certificate of death if he should return.

3. That the children of papists shall be taken from them by their Protestant relations.

4. No papist shall purchase land; and should he do so, and the seller come to the knowledge of the fact, he shall retain both the price and the land, and the papist shall have no redress.

5. That no papist, above fifteen years of age, shall inherit any property left to him by another; and when he comes to fifteen years of age, if he does not then become a Protestant, it shall be again taken from him.

6. That it shall not be in the power of any papist to sell and dispone any heritable property whatever.

7. That no money can be left to any Roman Catholic institution.

8. That if any person apostatize from Protestantism to Romanism, he shall forfeit his estate to his next Protestant heir.

9. That no papist can be a curator, a factor, a schoolmaster, a teacher of any kind whatever.

10. That no Protestant shall keep a domestic servant who is a papist.

11. The presbytery of the bounds has power to apply the oath of purgation, which was as solemn and inquisitorial as man could frame it.

When will men learn that the forcible repression of opinion is not the way to change it? When it was proposed to alter some of those last penal laws.

Scotland rose in terrible uproar, and the first attempt had to be abandoned. Those who enjoyed freedom themselves would not allow it to others; those who had smarted under popery made it smart in turn, for they had not learned the lesson of toleration. SEE TOLERATION.

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