Dissenting Academies

What was a dissenting academy?
Dissenting academies had their origins in the period after the Act of Uniformity of 1662. From 1662 until the mid nineteenth century it was not possible to take a degree at either Oxford or Cambridge without a religious test. At Oxford in order to matriculate (i.e. to be registered as a member) it was necessary to subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England and to take the Oath of Supremacy. This had to be repeated on graduation, together with subscription to the three articles in the Thirty-Sixth Canon concerning the doctrine and authority of the Church of England, which involved a declaration acknowledging all and every article to be agreeable to the word of God. At Cambridge no religious test was required at matriculation. On graduation it was necessary to subscribe the three articles in the Thirty-Sixth Canon, though for the BA degree this was replaced in 1772 by a declaration that the individual was a member of the Church of England ‘as by law established’. This change was not significant for dissenters.

Many ministers who left the Church of England as a consequence of the Act of Uniformity took up teaching. With preaching denied to them, teaching was one of the few means of gaining a livelihood allowed by canon law to those in holy orders. A number of nonconformists had been tutors at Oxford and Cambridge, and some not surprisingly continued their tutoring privately, for example Thomas Cole, principal of St Mary’s Hall, Oxford, until 1660, who set up an academy at Nettlebed, Oxfordshire, in the 1660s. There were parents and students for whom the religious tests or the prevailing ethos made studying at Oxford and Cambridge impossible, and who therefore sought out academies or private tutors. Academies differed from private tuition in having enough students to form a class, and from preparatory academies in providing a university rather than a grammar education.

The Restoration period
In the period before the Toleration Act there are examples of major academies with assistants providing a complete course of university learning, such as Richard Frankland’s Academy in Yorkshire and Westmorland, Charles Morton’s Academy at Newington Green, near London, and John Woodhouse’s Academy at Sheriffhales, Shropshire, but many others, such as John Shuttlewood’s Academy at Sulby, Northamptonshire, consisted of a single tutor with a few books, offering a limited range of subjects, and students migrated from one tutor to another in an attempt to complete their studies.

After the Toleration Act
Dissent experienced a period of considerable growth in the decades after toleration, and the academies had a key role in answering the need for trained ministers. Much of this expansion was financed by the Common Fund (run jointly by Presbyterians and Congregationalists), and later by the Presbyterian and Congregational Fund Boards. The period also saw the regional development of academies to serve the main areas of dissent in the north of England, the midlands, the south-west, and London: for example Attercliffe Academy near Sheffield, James Owen’s Academy at Oswestry, the Bridgwater Academy in Somerset, or Isaac Chauncey’s Academy in London.

The eighteenth century
The earliest academies were all privately conducted, usually by a single tutor, though in the case of the bigger institutions, such as Philip Doddridge’s Academy at Northampton, several assistants were employed. After the mid-eighteenth century a number of academies were established on a larger scale, employing several tutors and having their own buildings. They were maintained either by public subscription, as in the case of Warrington Academy, or by a trust as in the case of Daventry and Hoxton Academies. Most of the earlier academies were not restricted to a particular denomination, but this was to change as doctrinal differences between Presbyterians and Congregationalists grew. Candidates for the academies supported by the King’s Head Society, founded in 1730, were required to make a declaration of their orthodoxy when they were admitted, and they were re-examined every three months. The Congregational Fund Board withdrew support from Carmarthen Academy, leaving that institution substantially in the hands of the Presbyterians, and in 1757 opened their own academy at Abergavenny. John Horsey’s Academy at Northampton was closed by the Coward Trustees in 1798 over concerns about the heterodoxy of the students.

Late eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries
The greatest change followed the evangelical revival during the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: a new generation of academies trained large numbers of ministers and played a key role in fuelling the extraordinary expansion in dissent during the nineteenth century. The first evangelical institution, originally designed to train clergy for the Church of England, but which was to prove very influential for evangelical dissent, was the Countess of Huntingdon’s College at Trevecka, founded in 1768. Much of the emphasis was on mission, both at home and abroad. Academies such as the English Evangelic Academy and the Hackney Theological Academy differed from the earlier academies in the emphasis they placed on the practical skills of ministry, especially preaching. Students were often less qualified academically, though a marked feature was the improvement in the academic standards of these academies and their direct successors over time. They illustrate the tensions within dissent, especially between the Presbyterians, who stressed the need for an educated ministry, and others such as the Baptists, for whom traditionally a minister’s calling was more important than his learning. Both were to change. The Baptists, who for much of the eighteenth century had only one academy, Bristol, were to establish a further ten in the nineteenth century. Even the Unitarians attempted to train their ministers to be more popular preachers, and eventually established a home missionary board in 1854. The Wesleyan Methodists established the Wesleyan Theological Institution (purposely not designated college or academy) in London in 1834, divided after 1842 between a northern branch at Didsbury and a southern branch at Richmond. They were funded directly by the Methodist Conference. Other academies continued to be maintained independently by their own body of subscribers, as in the case of Manchester College, or by a major trust, such as the Coward Trust in the case of Wymondley and Coward Colleges.

Nineteenth century
The function of the academies, whose original purpose was to provide a higher education for dissenters similar to that of Oxford and Cambridge, was gradually eroded following the founding of the University of London in Gower Street in 1826 (renamed University College in 1836), though the want of a charter to award degrees before 1836 was a handicap. The ministers of the Three Denominations (Presbyterian, Congregationalist, and Baptist) in London and Westminster petitioned William IV in 1834 about the disadvantages dissenters faced in not being able to obtain a degree except by studying abroad at great expense. Coward College, the successor to Wymondley, opened in Byng Place, London, in 1833, to enable its students to take advantage of the courses offered by the university. Twenty years later Manchester College also moved to London, to make use of the arts and science courses offered by University College, while continuing to teach theology and philosophy. The committee of Manchester College had concluded by the late 1840s that they could no longer teach all the subjects expected of a university course. The process was completed by the establishment of the provincial universities, which were open to dissenters, and by the eventual reform of Oxford and Cambridge in the 1850s. The surviving academies were transformed into denominational training colleges for ministerial candidates who had already received their undergraduate education at a university. Bristol Baptist College is a rare twenty-first century survival of an early dissenting academy.

Isabel Rivers and David L. Wykes