We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Reference group
Feathers tavern petitioners (act. 1771–1774) sought relief from the obligation to subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, required upon nomination to a benefice, or upon matriculation at the University of Oxford, or upon graduation at the University of Cambridge.

The origins of the Feathers tavern petition lay in the emergence of latitudinarian thought within the Church of England. With Benjamin Hoadly (1676–1761) as one of its leading protagonists, latitudinarianism emphasized the protestant traditions of the church, upheld the Reformation emphasis upon the authority of scripture over that of creeds and dogmas, and reaffirmed the right of the individual conscience to judge upon matters of doctrine. Its advocates hoped for reconciliation with the dissenters in a comprehensive church establishment and, from the 1690s at least, argued that internal protestant unity in England was a desirable outcome and a defence against perceived threats, both internal and external, from Roman Catholicism. From this conviction arose in the minds of many latitudinarians a conscientious scruple over the requirement to subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles. This unease had two sources. The first was a mistrust of the validity of human formularies and tests when imposed as measurements of orthodoxy. The second was a growing unhappiness with the Trinitarian theology of the Thirty-Nine Articles and with the Athanasian creed. That disquiet led some latitudinarian clergymen, taking their lead from Samuel Clarke, rector of St James, Westminster, and author of The Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity (1712), to move towards the Arian emphasis on the worship of God the Father only.

Early eighteenth-century misgivings over these matters of doctrine found a new articulation in the work of John Jones, vicar of Shephall, Hertfordshire, whose Free and Candid Disquisitions (1749) urged further reformation within the church, including the removal of the dogmas set out in the Athanasian creed. A much more serious intellectual contribution was The Confessional (1766, with a second edition in 1767), by Francis Blackburne, a strong attack on the principle of compulsory subscription to the articles. He argued that it was impossible ‘to require assent to a certain sense of Scripture … without an unwarrantable interference with those rights of private judgment which are manifestly secured to every individual by the scriptural terms of Christian liberty’ (Barlow, 139). Blackburne had been archdeacon of Cleveland, Yorkshire, since 1750 and excluded himself from further advancement in the church by his refusal to subscribe again to the articles. Immediately a pamphlet controversy arose; a particularly effective critic of Blackburne was the Oxford-educated high churchman William Jones, at that time rector of Pluckley in Kent.

One of Blackburne's strongest supporters was his own son-in-law and neighbour Theophilus Lindsey, from 1763 vicar of Catterick. His energy turned Blackburne's ideas into a political campaign. A clerical society—often referred to as the ‘association’—dedicated to the abolition of compulsory subscription to the Thirty-Nine Articles was founded at the Feathers tavern in the Strand, London, in the summer of 1771 and resolved to petition parliament proposing this alteration in the law. During the next few months Lindsey travelled extensively in search of support for this petition, hoping to appeal not only to clergymen but also to laymen whose aspirations towards legal or medical careers could be obstructed by the requirement of subscription at the universities. (The Feathers tavern petition itself is printed in John Debrett's History, Debates and Proceedings of both Houses of Parliament … from the Year 1743 to the Year 1774, 6.168–71.)

Lindsey's quest for support was disappointing. In all he secured approximately 250 signatures to the petition, some 200 from clergymen and the remainder from among the lay professionals (Barlow, 150). He encountered resistance from those who were anxious to avoid giving offence to their ecclesiastical superiors and from those who felt that, despite the requirement of subscription, there was sufficient laxity at parish level to allow much practical freedom in the interpretation of the church's teachings. On 19 November 1771 Lindsey wrote ‘I really never expected success in this our undertaking; and still less, since I have had cause to observe the desertion of many from whom one might have expected better’ (Lindsey to William Turner, Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne, MS 59a). None the less the petition was debated in the House of Commons on 6 February 1772, sponsored by Sir William Meredith and warmly supported by senior MPs such as Sir George Savile and Lord George Germain. Although much of the support for the petition came from members of the opposition groups of Lord Rockingham and of Lord Shelburne, the surviving division list of the minority indicates that it was not purely a party issue. Edmund Burke, by this time a leading adherent of Rockingham, strongly denounced the petition, while several MPs who supported the ministry of Lord North, notably the solicitor-general Alexander Wedderburn, voted in its favour. Perhaps for this reason Lindsey himself, who attended the debate, seems to have regarded the rejection of the petition by 217 votes to 71 as something of a moral victory and a vindication of principle. In one sense he was correct, since the debate in the Commons encouraged the dissenters to launch a petitioning campaign of their own for relief from subscription to the church's doctrinal articles for their ministers and schoolmasters. Although unsuccessful in 1772–3, they obtained an act of parliament granting them a limited measure of relief in 1779 (Ditchfield, ‘Subscription issue’, 61–5). The Feathers tavern petition, however, made no further progress; when it was reintroduced into the House of Commons on 5 May 1774 it was rejected without a division. By that time Lindsey had resigned from the church and founded a Unitarian chapel in Essex Street, off the Strand, in London, not far from the Feathers tavern itself.

The original manuscript of the petition, with the signatures, has not survived. However, the Unitarian Monthly Repository in 1818 (13.15–18) published a list of what it claimed to be 197 of the clergymen who had signed it. Although published forty-six years after the event and containing minor errors, it is consistent with the information about the petitioners that is provided in Lindsey's correspondence. Persons included in the Oxford DNB are well represented in the list. Lindsey claimed that ‘The Master of Queens' college in Cambridge, and every resident Fellow have signed the Petition’ (Lindsey to William Turner, 1 Nov 1771, DWL, MS 12.44 [1]). Seven fellows of Queens', in addition to the college's president, are indeed listed. Among them was Thomas Fyshe Palmer, who subsequently seceded from the Church of England and was minister of a Unitarian congregation in Dundee; his radical activities in the 1790s led to his transportation to Australia. It is clear that the University of Cambridge, with its whig and latitudinarian ethos, provided a substantial body of the petitioners: twenty college fellows are named in the list, including James Lambert, the regius professor of Greek. Other Cambridge graduates who were prominent in the campaign were John Jebb of Peterhouse; John Disney, also of Peterhouse and vicar of Swinderby, Lincolnshire; and the future parliamentary reformer and leader of the Yorkshire Association, Christopher Wyvill. A leading campaigner for the petition in the midlands was William Chambers, a graduate of St John's College, Cambridge, and rector of Achurch, Northamptonshire. Another signatory was Humphry Primatt, a graduate of Clare College and vicar of Higham, Suffolk; in 1774 he resigned from the church and is best remembered as the author of a tract denouncing cruelty to animals.

In stark contrast, only three fellows of Oxford colleges are listed; the high church element at the older university—where subscription to the articles was required on matriculation, not graduation, a potential deterrent to latitudinarians—strongly opposed the petition. One of its MPs, Sir Roger Newdigate, fifth baronet (1719–1806), took the lead in urging its rejection in the Commons. A relatively rare example of an Oxford graduate who gave strong support to the petition was Francis Stone, rector of Cold Norton, Essex.

In addition to the contribution from Cambridge University, a series of other connections, some of them geographical, may be detected in the Monthly Repository's list. In Yorkshire, twenty-three clergymen signed, predominantly from the northern parishes of the county, where Lindsey and Blackburne seem to have exerted particular influence. Lindsey's curate Thomas Simpson was one of the signatories. Other parishes in the archdeaconry of Richmond were well represented. Thirty-one clergy with livings in Essex signed, as did six from Norfolk and thirteen from Suffolk. A particularly interesting example from the latter county was Benjamin Dawson, rector of Burgh. A Glasgow-educated former presbyterian minister who had conformed to the Church of England in 1758, Dawson defended the petition vehemently in Free Thoughts on the Subject of a Farther Reformation of the Church of England (1771). Other counties that were fairly well represented were Lincolnshire (fourteen signatories), Northamptonshire (fourteen signatories), and Kent (eight signatories). It is evident that common factors among the petitioners were a Cambridge education, a latitudinarian perception of the doctrines and disciplines of the church (with a corresponding whig inclination in politics), and livings in Yorkshire, the counties of the east midlands, and East Anglia. Seven of the 197 listed in the Monthly Repository were doctors of divinity. Supporters who are not listed in that journal but who probably signed the petition include Edward Evanson and William Samuel Powell, the master of Lindsey's former college, St John's, Cambridge. Other sympathizers who, for various reasons, did not sign included Edmund Law, bishop of Carlisle, Richard Watson of Trinity College, Cambridge, professor of chemistry in the university and a future bishop of Llandaff, Peter Peckard (bap. 1717, d. 1797) of Magdalene College, Cambridge, and William Paley, fellow of Christ's College. Lindsey regarded Peckard as a careerist and a trimmer.

The presence of a substantial number of the petitioners in the Oxford DNB is testimony to the academic standing which many of them enjoyed. None the less, they were a tiny, albeit articulate, minority within the Church of England. Their campaign seemed to challenge the authority of the church at the very time when threats to authority at home (with the agitation surrounding John Wilkes) and in the colonies (with American protests against the Townshend duties) raised anxieties about threats to order. The most eminent opponents of the petition included Samuel Hallifax of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, a future bishop of Gloucester; Zachary Pearce, bishop of Rochester; Thomas Randolph, president of Corpus Christi College, Oxford; and the hosier and religious writer William Stevens, among others. Hans Stanley, MP for Southampton, opposed the petition so strongly that he wrote to Lindsey in protest against it (Cobbett, Parl. Hist., 17.259).

The aftermath of the Feathers tavern petition was a very limited and gradual withdrawal from the Church of England on the part of a few signatories and their supporters. William Robertson, a former rector of Rathvilly, co. Carlow, had already left the established church in 1764 to become a schoolmaster in Wolverhampton; John Jebb resigned in 1775 and John Disney in 1782. Edward Evanson, vicar of Tewkesbury, facing a prosecution in the church courts for alleged heresy, relinquished his living in 1778. In each case, the motive was a rejection of Trinitarian orthodoxy and the adoption of a Unitarian theology; Disney became Lindsey's ministerial colleague at the Unitarian Essex Street chapel, and the others gave support of various kinds to that enterprise. The vast majority of the petitioners, however, remained within the church. Their motives for so doing were not entirely careerist; Francis Blackburne, for instance, believed strongly that secession weakened the latitudinarian element within the Church of England and lamented the secessions of Lindsey and Disney (who were both his sons-in-law). Others, such as William Chambers, continued to enjoy a considerable degree of practical autonomy in their parishes. But the petition revived interest in fundamental issues concerning authority on the one hand and freedom of conscience on the other. It forced the Church of England into a bout of earnest self-examination, evident in a voluminous pamphlet controversy. It reopened the question of undergraduate subscription at the English universities, and contributed to a small relaxation of the system at Cambridge in 1779. In the slightly longer term, it served to strengthen the existing links between Anglican latitudinarianism and protestant dissenters, to whom compulsory subscription was also a matter of fundamental importance.

G. M. Ditchfield


Cobbett, Parl. hist. · J. Debrett, The history, debates and proceedings of both houses of parliament of Great Britain … from the year 1743 to the year 1774, 7 vols. (1792) · R. B. Barlow, Citizenship and conscience: a study in the theory and practice of religious toleration in England during the eighteenth century (1962) · J. C. D. Clark, English society, 1660–1832: religion, ideology, and politics during the ancien regime, 2nd edn (2000) · G. M. Ditchfield, ‘The subscription issue in British parliamentary politics, 1772–1779’, Parliamentary History, 7 (1988), 45–80 · G. M. Ditchfield, Theophilus Lindsey: from Anglican to Unitarian (1998) · G. M. Ditchfield, ‘“How narrow will the limits of this Toleration appear?”: dissenting petitions to Parliament, 1772–1773’, Parliamentary History, 24 (2005), 91–106 · M. Fitzpatrick, ‘Latitudinarianism at the parting of the ways: a suggestion’, The Church of England, c.1689–c.1833, ed. J. Walsh and others (1993), 209–27 · A. Page, John Jebb and the Enlightenment origins of British radicalism (2003) · J. Stephens, ‘The London ministers and subscription, 1772–1779’, Enlightenment and Dissent, 1 (1982), 43–71 · W. R. Ward, Georgian Oxford: university politics in the eighteenth century (1958) · B. W. Young, Religion and Enlightenment in eighteenth-century England: theological debate from Locke to Burke (1998)