Lord John Russell, on the 26th of February, 1828, may be said to have practically begun his great career as a Reform leader by bringing forward a motion in the House of Commons, on the subject of what were called the Test and Corporation Acts. These Acts made up a little code of legislation, intended to exclude Dissenters from any manner of State or public office, or from being elected as members of any municipal corporation. The form of exclusion was the imposition of a clumsily jumbled sort of oath, which exacted from the Dissenter, as a condition precedent to his acceptance of office, or his election to a municipal board, that he should renounce all the religious principles in which he believed, and certain religious principles, also, in which he did not believe, because the oath was a kind of double-barrelled weapon, which aimed at once at the Dissenters and the Roman Catholics. Russell's was the first serious and important attack on the whole barrier of religious test as a qualification for admission to public employment or occupation. We have to throw our minds a long way back-in time if we would endeavour to understand the condition of things under which it was seriously thought necessary for the safety of the State that a Dissenter should be cut off from some of the most important rights of citizenship. Indeed, it is very doubtful whether the average mind of the present day could be got without some curious process of transformation to comprehend the meaning and the motives of such a policy. There however the policy was down to the year 1828 - a year which many living men can still remember - and Lord John Russell was thought by most a very bold man, and by some a very wicked man, because he had set his heart on the abolition of so antiquated, so uncivilised, and so unchristian a principle. Lord John Russell pointed out in his speech that the legislation which he condemned had, whether it were bad or good, nothing whatever to do with the actual conditions of the times at which he and his contemporaries had arrived. One can understand how the kings of a former dynasty might fancy that their thrones were made more secure by excluding Dissenters from all practical share in public affairs. That might be a very sound idea; it might be the root of a policy which deserved to be condemned by rational persons, but at least its object could be understood. The House of Hanover, however, had found in the Dissenters some of its most loyal subjects, and one might have thought it would be the business even of a selfish legislature to encourage and support them as much as possible.
Lord John Russell's speech made an undoubted effect upon the House, and was an admirable prelude to other great Reform speeches of his, which we shall have to take account of later on. The Government opposed the motion, and the opposition was led by Mr. Peel, afterwards famous as Sir Robert Peel, and, strange to say, by Mr. Huskisson. Mr. Peel in those days was still an unbending opponent of Reform in most directions; but the only explanation of Mr. Huskisson's position is probably to be found in the fact that he was strongly in favour of relieving the Catholics from their disqualifications; and he feared lest the Dissenters, if separately relieved and in the first instance, might become less earnest and less energetic on the general subject of restrictions imposed on all who did not belong to the Established Church. Despite of all opposition, Russell's motion was carried by a majority of forty-four, in a House where four hundred and thirty Members went into the Division lobbies. Many efforts were made to amend the Bill brought in by Lord John Russell as the result of the passing of his resolution; but they did not make any serious difference in the proposed reform, and the measure was carried through the Commons, and sent up to the House of Lords. Some of the Archbishops and the Bishops in that House were so liberal in the construction of their duties as actually to support the Bill, much to the horror of Lord Eldon, who must surely have thought at the time that the world was coming to an end. Lord Eldon bemoaned the national calamity that such a Bill should have been introduced by the Government; but he added, "what is most calamitous of all, is that the Archbishops and several of the Bishops are also against us. What they can mean," he declared, "they best know, for nobody else can tell; and sooner or later, perhaps in this very year, almost certainly in the next, the concessions to the Dissenters must be followed by the like concessions to the Roman Catholics".
Lord Eldon was quite right. To do him justice, his worst bigotry never utterly dimmed his clearness of vision, and he knew well what some, even of the supporters of the Bill, did not quite know, that it would be impossible to strike the shackles off the limbs of the Dissenters, and composedly leave them for ever on the limbs of the Roman Catholics. There is always something interesting to the living student of history in the spoken and written utterances of Lord Eldon on such a subject. First it is interesting, as a mere matter of curiosity, for a reader of the present clay to be brought into contact with so complete and all-round a bigot as Lord Eldon; and next it is interesting to see how Lord Eldon never failed to understand the uselessness and the futility of his own bigotry. He never lulled himself for a moment, as so many of his contemporary bigots did, into the fond belief that he could stem the tide of liberal reform in religious and political affairs. He performed his duty with the full conviction that the performance would not have the slightest effect in keeping back the movement which he strove to resist. If it were not something too whimsical to compare the tough old Tory with a pretty and winsome maiden, it might be said that Lord Eldon was now performing a part like that of the high-born Scottish damsel, renowned in the history of Scotland, who made of her slender arm a bolt to hold the King's door against the fierce conspirators who were battering from the outside, well knowing that that frail barricade must be splintered and smashed without delaying for half a moment the entrance of the traitors. Yet Lord Eldon might have been comforted if he could only have known that although the Bill was destined to pass, it would, at all events, be made in itself an instrument to maintain for a little longer a system of intolerance which was probably not in Lord Eldon's mind when he was denouncing the admission of Dissenters to civil office, and foretelling, as a consequence, the admission of Roman Catholics. One of the Bishops proposed to add to the new form of oath certain words proclaiming a belief in our common Christianity. Accordingly, after much debate, the words were inserted "on the true faith of a Christian."