1871 Universities Tests Act

1871 Universities Tests Act


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At the beginning of the 19th century Oxford University and Cambridge University were closed to all but Anglicans. Religious groups including Roman Catholics, Wesleyan Methodists, Primitive Methodists and the Quakers campaigned for a change in the law. In 1871 Parliament passed the Universities Tests Act which opened both Oxford and Cambridge to members of all religions.


Universities Tests Act 1871

There are currently no known outstanding effects for the Universities Tests Act 1871.

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150 years of the University Tests Act

The Accord Coalition has rejoiced the 150th anniversary this week of the enactment of the University Tests Act 1871 , which largely ended religious discrimination at UK universities. Prior to the Act colleges at Oxford, Cambridge and Durham Universities could require many office holders, teaching staff and students to be practising Anglicans.

The Act simultaneously prevented these universities from religiously discriminating, except regarding theological courses, and stopped them being able to compel office holders, teaching staff and students to engage in worship. It constituted an important advancement for the freedom of religion in Britain and contrasts starkly with how law in the UK continues to treat state funded schools.

Most state funded faith schools can religiously discriminate in pupil admissions and in the recruitment and employment of all their staff. Meanwhile, all state funded schools are required to provide compulsory daily worship of one kind or another.

‘… places of religion and learning, should be rendered freely accessible to the nation:’ (Universities Tests Act 1871, enacted on June 16th that year)

Chair of the Accord Coalition, the Revd Stephen Terry, said ‘The University Tests Act is an important milestone in the history of anti-discrimination legislation in education. To this day many universities in the UK have a religious foundation and receive significant public funds. Yet they do not and cannot discriminate by faith in the recruitment and employment of almost all their staff and in the recruitment and education of their students.’

‘150 years later we are still waiting for similar protections in our state funded school system – this is shaming and disgraceful. While we celebrate the anniversary of this Act, we call on HM Government to give hope and inspiration to those wishing to achieve a similar respect for individual autonomy and freedom in our state funded schools. They need to be levelled up, so that religious discrimination is finally and entirely expunged from all phases of our education system.


Civil Rights Act of 1871

Congress followed the Civil Rights Act of 1870 with an 1871 law “to enforce the Provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States,” which came to be known as the Third Enforcement Act or the Second Ku Klux Klan Act. Like the prior year’s legislation, the act was designed in large part to protect African Americans from Klan violence during Reconstruction, giving those deprived of a constitutional right by someone acting under color of law the right to seek relief in a federal district or circuit court. This part of the legislation was later made a part of the United States Code as 42 U.S.C. §1983 and served as the basis for many federal court lawsuits against state and local officials.

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The Enforcement Act of 1870 (1870-1871)

In the five years following the Civil War, the U.S. Congress passed and the states ratified the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution. These amendments permanently ended slavery and granted African Americans access to civil rights and suffrage as citizens of the United States. Although these changes were designed to assist the formerly enslaved, violent opposition arose from white ex-Confederates who opposed them. That violence led Congress to empower President Ulysses S. Grant to use military force to protect African Americans.

The Enforcement Act was, in fact, three separate laws that Congress passed between 1870 and 1871. These acts were specifically designed to protect African Americans’ right to vote, to hold office, to serve on juries, and to receive equal protection of laws. The three bills passed by Congress were the Enforcement Act of 1870, the Enforcement Act of 1871, and the Ku Klux Klan Act.

In May 1870, Congress enacted the Enforcement Act to restrict the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and other terrorist organizations from harassing and torturing African Americans. The Act prohibited individuals from assembling or disguising themselves with intentions to violate African Americans’ constitutional rights. The Act outlined the penalties for those who chose to interfere with a citizen’s right to vote. In December of 1870, Indiana Republican Senator Oliver H.P.T. Morton introduced a resolution that required the President to convey information in regard to incidents of resistance against the full execution of the United States laws. When Congress enacted adopted Morton’s resolution, President Ulysses Grant was now obligated to report to Congress incidents of anti-black violence in the Southern states.

In response to the first report, a committee of the Senate, chaired by Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, opened an investigation of acts of violence against the freedpeople across the South. The numerous incidents led to the enactment of the second Enforcement act, which passed in February 1871. The second Enforcement Act amended the first Enforcement Act by adding more severe punishments to the revisions. This act was best enforced by the United States Government.

Two months later in April 1871, Congress passed the third and final measure, known as the Ku Klux Klan Act. This Act outlawed terrorist conspiracies by all racist vigilantes including but not limited to the Ku Klux Klan. It allowed the President to suspend the writ of Habeas Corpus in regions prone to terrorist activities.


Test act

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Test act, in England, Scotland, and Ireland, any law that made a person’s eligibility for public office depend upon his profession of the established religion. In Scotland, the principle was adopted immediately after the Reformation, and an act of 1567 made profession of the reformed faith a condition of public office. Such a law was not at first necessary in England, where penal laws against those who failed to conform to the established church were so severe as automatically to exclude such persons from public life. In the more tolerant climate of the late 17th and 18th centuries, Roman Catholics and Protestant dissenters were normally able to practice their religion unmolested but the Anglican majority’s fear of subversion led to their being precluded from officeholding. The form that the test took in England was to make the receiving of Holy Communion according to the rites of the Church of England a condition precedent to the acceptance of office. It was first embodied in legislation in 1661 as a requisite for membership of a town corporation and was extended to cover all public offices by the Test Act of 1673. During the 18th century the tests were, on the whole, less strenuously applied in Scotland, only those engaged in education were required to make profession, while in England some known Protestant dissenters openly practiced “occasional conformity.” Roman Catholics could not do that and, accordingly, were still excluded from office until an act of 1828 removed the test and the Roman Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 abolished other legal disabilities imposed on them. The test acts themselves were formally repealed in the 1860s and ’70s, and religious tests were abolished in the universities except in connection with degrees and professorships in divinity. Scottish tests were abolished in 1889.

In Ireland, the Anglican sacramental test was introduced in 1704, and English legislation on oaths of allegiance and religious declarations became valid there in 1782. All of these provisions were abolished in 1871.


2 Interpretation of terms. U.K.

In the construction of this Act—

The word “ college ” includes the cathedral or house of Christ Church in Oxford, and any hall not being a private hall established under the M1Oxford University Act 1854, nor being a hostel established under the M2Cambridge University Act 1856.

The word “ office ” includes every professorship other than professorships of divinity, every assistant or deputy professorship, public readership, prelectorship, lectureship, headship of a college or hall, fellowship, studentship, tutorship, scholarship, and exhibition, and also any office or emolument not in this section specified, the income of which is payable out of the revenues of any of the said universities, or of any college within the said universities or which is held or enjoyed by any member as such of any of the said universities, or of any college within any of the said universities.


The Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829 Receives Royal Assent

The Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829, the culmination of the process of Catholic emancipation throughout the United Kingdom, receives royal assent on April 13, 1829. In Ireland it repeals the Test Act 1673 and the remaining Penal Laws which had been in force since the passing of the Disenfranchising Act of the Parliament of Ireland of 1728. Its passage follows a vigorous campaign that threatens insurrection led by Irish lawyer Daniel O’Connell. The British leaders, starting with the Prime Minister, Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, and his top aide Robert Peel, although personally opposed, give in to avoid civil strife. Ireland is quiet after the passage.

In 1778, English Catholics are relieved of the restrictions on land inheritance and purchase. A savage reaction to these concessions produces the Gordon Riots of 1780, and the whole history of Catholic Emancipation is one of struggle against great resistance. In 1791 the Roman Catholic Relief Act repeals most of the disabilities in Great Britain, provided Catholics take an oath of loyalty. In 1793 the army, the navy, the universities, and the judiciary are opened to Catholics, although seats in Parliament and some offices are still denied. These reforms are sponsored by William Pitt the Younger, who hopes thereby to split the alliance of Irish Catholics and Protestants. But Pitt’s attempt to secure a general repeal of the Penal Laws is thwarted by George III. Pope Pius VII consents to a royal veto on episcopal nominations if the Penal Laws are repealed, but the move fails. In Ireland the repeal of Poynings’ Law in 1782 is followed by an act (1792) of the Irish Parliament relaxing the marriage and education laws and an act (1793) allowing Catholics to vote and hold most offices.

The Roman Catholic Relief Act 1829 permits members of the Catholic Church to sit in the parliament at Westminster and to hold all but a handful of public offices. O’Connell had won a seat in a by-election for Clare in 1828 against an Anglican. Under the then extant penal law, O’Connell as a Catholic, is forbidden to take his seat in Parliament. Peel, the Home Secretary, until then is called “Orange Peel” because he always supports the Orange (anti-Catholic) position. Peel now concludes, “Though emancipation was a great danger, civil strife was a greater danger.” Fearing a revolution in Ireland, Peel draws up the Catholic Relief Bill and guides it through the House of Commons. To overcome the vehement opposition of both the House of Lords and King George IV, the Duke of Wellington works tirelessly to ensure passage in the House of Lords, and threatens to resign as Prime Minister if the King does not give Royal Assent.

With the Universities Tests Act 1871, which opens the universities to Roman Catholics, Catholic Emancipation in the United Kingdom is virtually complete.


Events in History in 1871

    1st Negro lodge of US Masons approved, New Jersey US income tax repealed Paris surrenders to Prussians Millions of birds fly over western San Francisco, darkening the sky Jefferson Long of Georgia is first African American to make an official speech in US House of Representatives (opposing leniency to former Confederates) Federal fish protection office authorized by US Congress Meeting of Alabama claims commission 2nd Enforcement Act gives federal control of congressional elections in US J Milton Turner named US minister to Liberia US Congress changes Indian tribes status from independent to dependent

Henry Morton Stanley's Expedition to Africa

Mar 21 Journalist Henry Morton Stanley begins his famous expedition to Africa

    Otto von Bismarck elevated to rank of Fürst (Prince) William Holden of North Carolina becomes 1st governor removed by impeachment Municipal elections bring revolutionaries to power in Paris to form Commune government San Francisco Art Association holds open reception at 430 Pine

Event of Interest

Mar 29 Royal Albert Hall opened by Queen Victoria in London

    New Constitution adopted by the German Empire William Hammond Hall's maps & surveys of Golden Gate Park accepted Canada sets denominations of currency as dollars, cents, & mills US 3rd Enforcement Act (President can suspend writ of habeas corpus) All German Jews emancipated after the German Constitution adopted by its last state Bavaria Blossom Rock in San Francisco Bay blown up The Camp Grant Massacre of Apaches in Arizona Territory, perpetrated by white & Mexican adventurers 144 die British-US treaty ends Alabama dispute Peace of Frankfurt-am-Main concluded between France & Germany ends Franco-Prussian war Segregated street cars integrated in Louisville, Kentucky

Event of Interest

May 17 Native American fighter General William T. Sherman escapes from the Comanches in an ambulance

Event of Interest

Jun 3 Jesse James & his gang robs Obocock Bank (Corydon Iowa), of $15,000

    Sinmiyangyo: Captain McLane Tilton leads 109 Marines in naval attack on Han River forts on Kanghwa Island, Korea Hurricane kills 300 in Labrador Phoebe Couzins is 1st woman graduate of a US collegiate law school Ancient Arabic Order of Nobles of Mystic Shrine founded, NYC The University Tests Act allows students to enter the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Durham without religious tests, except for courses in theology Ku Klux Klan trials began in federal court in Oxford, Mississippi Guatemala revolts for agrarian reforms The decimal currency system is made uniform in Canada Jesse James robs a bank of $45,000 in Corydon, Iowa Trial against Kiowa chief Satanta (White Bear) and Big Tree, begins World's first championship cat show Organised by Harrison Weir and held in Crystal Palace, London British Columbia joins the confederation of Canada. Carousel patented by Wilhelm Schneider, Davenport, Iowa Emperor Meiji orders the Abolition of the han system and the establishment of prefectures as local centers of administration. (Traditional Japanese date: July 14, 1871). Bay of Biscay: British warship HMS Captain capsizes, 500 killed Mont Cenis railway tunnel Switzerland opens

Event of Interest

Oct 2 US Mormon leader Brigham Young arrested for bigamy

    16-hour fire injures 30 of Chicago's 185 firefighters Forest fire destroys Peshtigo, Wisconsin, killing between 1,200 and 2,500 people, making it the deadliest wildfire in recorded history Great Fire of Chicago kills 200 people and destroys over 4 square miles (10 square km) of buildings and the original Emancipation Proclamation

Great Chicago Fire

Oct 10 The Great Chicago Fire is finally extinguished after 3 days, leaving approximately 300 dead, 100,000 homeless, and costing $222m in damage

    US President Grant condemns Ku Klux Klan The Delphic Fraternity is founded as the Delphic Society at the State Normal School in Geneseo, New York. Great Britain annexes Griqualand, South Africa

Event of Interest

Oct 17 US President Ulysses S. Grant suspends habeas corpus in parts of South Carolina during prosecutions against Ku Klux Klan

Event of Interest

Oct 27 Democratic leader of Tammany Hall NY, Boss Tweed is arrested after the NY Times exposes his corruption

    Founding of Netherland Protestant Union in Dokkum Cameroon reaches coast of Angola after trip through Africa

'Dr. Livingstone, I presume?'

Nov 10 Henry Morton Stanley encounters David Livingstone at Ujiji, near Lake Tanganyika in Central Africa, with the immortal words 'Dr Livingstone, I presume?'


This paper intends to assess the Universities Tests Act 1871 in the British history of universities and the nation. It is not an historical analysis it is rather a reflection on the Act seen from today's perspective. Naturally, since the year 1871, the universities have made considerable progress and it is reasonable to expect that the ideas from the Act were developed.

The paper addresses two important ideas contained within the Act:
(i) The notion that universities should be 'freely accessible to the nation': and
(ii) The role of religion in universities and colleges (as interpreted from the legislative definition of a 'college.')
Following the analysis of the two ideas above, the paper will undertake a discussion on the significance of the Act for British and other universities.


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