Civil Rights: Dismantling Discrimination
On a gloomy March afternoon in 1829, 2,000 people crammed into the Assembly Hall in Edinburgh. They came in support of granting civil rights to Roman Catholics. But audience attention drifted after a series of tedious speeches by secular politicians. Then a clumsy, heavy-built, middle-aged clergyman rose to speak. The restless crowd was hushed, and within minutes, they were cheering wildly.
The uninspiring figure who produced such a remarkable effect was Thomas Chalmers, professor of divinity at Edinburgh University. Chalmers was no friend to Roman Catholic theology. In England and Scotland, he was a leader among evangelicals who in this age were decidedly anti-Catholic. Nevertheless he was convinced that religious error was no grounds for political disenfranchisement. Intolerance had become an "unseemly associate" of the Reformation, he argued. True Christianity could be spread only through preaching the Word of God, and political coercion was counterproductive.
At the time of Chalmers's speech, Anglicanism was the established religion in England, Ireland, and Wales (Presbyterianism was the established church of Scotland). Consequently, Catholics, Jews, and Nonconformists (Protestants who weren't members of the established church) were disadvantaged. In order to serve in Parliament, for example, Jews and Catholics were required to deny their faith. Nonconformists didn't have as many restrictions against them, but they were still the object of discrimination—they were excluded, for instance, from taking degrees at Oxford and Cambridge.
Speaking with strong feeling, Chalmers appealed to his audience, and through them to the politicians in London:
"Give the Catholics of Ireland their ...