Protestant Dissent

What is religious dissent?
Modern dissent dates from the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, and is essentially a consequence of the 1662 Act of Uniformity. The Restoration political settlement was founded on an exclusive episcopalian Church of England. The Act of Uniformity required all those in holy orders, every minister, teacher, lecturer or university fellow, to choose between submission to Anglican authority or the loss of their livelihoods. Before St Bartholomew’s Day (24 August) 1662, they had to declare their ‘unfeigned assent and consent’ to everything in the newly revised Book of Common Prayer, including ceremonies such as kneeling to receive communion and the use of the sign of the cross for baptisms. Clergy were required to have been ordained by a bishop. Although the majority accepted these and other terms and conformed to the Church of England, a significant minority refused to do so. Nearly a thousand (perhaps a sixth of the total) gave up their livings, and in all just over two thousand clergymen and teachers were displaced or silenced in England and Wales between 1660 and 1662, creating what became a permanent division in the religious life of the country. Crucially they had considerable lay support. Most were moderate Puritans or Presbyterians. Baptists, Quakers, and the other separatists were already worshipping outside the national church.

The denominational differences
Dissent is a term used for all those Protestant religious groups and individuals who refused to conform to the Church of England, but who otherwise had very little in common. The term conceals major differences between the different denominations in matters of doctrine, church government, and attitudes to the ministry. The different denominations also underwent major changes during the two centuries after 1660, not least because of the evangelical revival of the mid eighteenth century which led by the end of the century to the transformation of most of the denominations and to the separation of the Methodists from the Church of England. The term nonconformity is often used interchangeably with dissent, and refers in particular to the offence of refusing to conform in the Restoration period, though it was revived in the nineteenth century. From the eighteenth century, dissent (an abbreviated form of Protestant dissent as defined in the 1689 Toleration Act) is the term more commonly used for Protestant groups outside the Church of England.

  • Independents, also known as Congregationalists
    The failure of the Elizabethan Church to purge itself of those elements not sanctioned by Scripture led a small number of radicals in the late sixteenth century to conclude that the church could never be reformed from within. They therefore left the Church of England to set up their own congregations. The term Independent or Congregational describes both the form of church government and the authority these congregations claimed to call their own ministers and to discipline their own members. Many Independent churches were gathered during the period of the Civil War and Interregnum (1642-60). They had already separated from the Church of England before 1660, and as separatists they sought toleration or the freedom to worship in their own churches. After 1689 Congregationalists had little to divide them doctrinally from Presbyterians, and they often met as joint congregations, but differences which had originally involved mainly matters of church government and ministry became increasingly focused on doctrinal issues. Congregationalists were orthodox and Calvinist in matters of doctrine, especially on the Trinity. Among the dissenters they were the main beneficiaries of the evangelical revival. From the late eighteenth century they were to establish a large number of new congregations, notably in the growing industrial areas. The wealthier congregations, especially in the towns, had always sought an educated minister trained at one of the eighteenth-century academies, but the huge growth in congregations was to place new demands, requiring the setting up of many more academies to prepare the large numbers of preachers needed. In 1832 the Congregational Union of England and Wales was formed, which in 1966 became the Congregational Church of England and Wales. In 1972 the greater part was to unite with the Presbyterian Church of England to form the United Reformed Church.
  • Presbyterians
    English Presbyterianism began in the 1570s as a small movement attempting without success to bring the Elizabethan Church to a full reformation. At the beginning of the Civil War the Presbyterians were the largest party on the parliamentary side, but they again failed in their attempts to remodel the Church of England. In 1646 parliament endorsed the recommendation of the Westminster Assembly of Divines that a Presbyterian model of church government should be introduced, but this was never properly established. The Presbyterians supported the royalists in the final stage of the Civil War (1648-49) against the victorious New Model Army and its religious allies, the Independents. Having played a key part in the return of Charles II as king, the Presbyterians were in many ways the main losers after the Restoration, following the triumph of episcopacy and the passing of the Act of Uniformity. They were reluctant nonconformists because of their belief in a national church and their scorn for separation, and until at least the 1690s they sought comprehension (inclusion) within the Church of England, not toleration outside it. Before the late eighteenth century they were the largest and wealthiest body of dissenters. They placed a particular emphasis on an educated ministry and they were among the main patrons of the dissenting academies. At the Restoration the Presbyterians had been the most conservative denomination doctrinally, but during the eighteenth century they adopted avowedly rational religious beliefs and became increasingly heterodox, particularly in their rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity. They were hostile to what they saw as the religious enthusiasm of the evangelical revival. By the early nineteenth century the majority of surviving congregations had adopted Unitarian opinions. The Presbyterian Church of England (now part of the United Reformed Church) was founded in 1876 by Scots Presbyterians and is not linked to English Presbyterianism.
  • Baptists
    Baptists rejected infant baptism, contending that Scripture only allowed a believer’s baptism that involved a confession of faith. Evidence for individual Baptist churches can be found in the early seventeenth century, but they date largely from the 1650s. They were divided between the Particular Baptists, who were Calvinists believing in the salvation of the elect through God’s grace alone, and the General Baptists, who were Arminians believing in the doctrine of general or universal salvation for all. In the second half of the eighteenth century, the General Baptists divided between the New Connexion, converted by the evangelical preaching of Dan Taylor and others, and the so-called Old Connexion, which was unaffected by the evangelical revival and in the early nineteenth century largely adopted Unitarian beliefs. The Particular Baptists were also transformed by the evangelical revival. Traditionally for Baptists a minister’ s calling was more important than his learning, and the emphasis was on faith not scholarship. Although training had been available at Bristol since the early eighteenth century for students intended for the Baptist ministry, only in the nineteenth century did the Baptists make a major effort to establish academies for this purpose.
  • Quakers
    The Society of Friends, or Quakers, originated in the 1650s; they did not have a professional ministry and therefore had no need for academies to prepare students for this role (hence the brevity of this account). A few wealthy lay Friends were educated in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries at Warrington and a small number of other academies.
  • Unitarians
    The majority of the leading Presbyterian congregations who held anti-Trinitarian opinions by the end of the eighteenth century were Arian: that is they insisted on the worship of God the Father alone, regarding the Son as subordinate though still divine. Although Unitarian beliefs developed in the sixteenth century in Italy and Poland, and can be found in England by the mid seventeenth century, the adoption of Unitarian beliefs by rational dissenters in the later eighteenth century was the result of the independent study of the Scriptures. The emergence of a militant Unitarianism (also known as Socinianism after its sixteenth-century leaders Laelius and Faustus Socinus), with its insistence on the absolute unity of God and the humanity of Christ, was due largely to the efforts of Theophilus Lindsey and his friend Joseph Priestley. Few congregations openly adopted Unitarian opinions until the early nineteenth century. Unitarian worship was technically illegal until the 1813 Unitarian Relief Act, though little effort was made to enforce the penalties. A division developed within the Unitarian movement between an attachment to Unitarian ideas, found within the older wealthier congregations, and a new, often aggressive form of Unitarianism adopted by poorer, less educated congregations, and which was the result of dogmatic preaching undertaken by Unitarian missionaries. The two groups had fundamentally different needs in terms of the ministry. The former wanted a highly educated and scholarly minister, the product of a demanding five-year divinity course such as that offered by Manchester College. The poorer congregations sought a popular preaching ministry that was distinctively Unitarian in character, a demand which went largely unanswered until the mid-nineteenth century and the founding of the Unitarian Home Missionary Board.
  • Methodists
    Methodism was in its origins in the 1730s a movement within the Church of England, and almost all its early leaders were Anglican clergy: the organisations they set up were called societies or connexions, and were not dissenting denominations, though dissenters could belong to them. Its two main forms, Arminian and Calvinist, were divided by doctrine but also by organisation. The Arminian Methodists were led by John and Charles Wesley, the Calvinist Methodists in England by George Whitefield, and in Wales by Daniel Rowland and the layman Howel Harris. John Wesley formed an elaborate hierarchically organised system of Societies of the People called Methodists, run by a Conference which he controlled, and serviced by lay preachers selected by him. The question of whether or not these preachers might administer the sacraments was contentious. Wesley moved towards dissent in 1784 by ordaining two preachers to serve in America (beyond his powers as a clergyman). In 1795, a few years after his death, the Methodist Conference effectively separated from the Church of England. A Calvinist Methodist group, the Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion, had already seceded in 1780. Whitefield, who moved freely between the Church and dissent, and England and America, left no system of societies like Wesley’s, and after his death in 1770 many of his followers joined Congregationalist or Baptist churches. The Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Connexion (later known as the Presbyterian Church of Wales) did not leave the church of England until 1811. There were several splits from Wesleyan Methodism (as it became known) at the turn of the century, notably the Methodist New Connexion, the Primitive Methodists, and the Bible Christians. The numbers of Methodists multiplied in the first half of the nineteenth century, until by the middle of the century Wesleyan Methodists constituted the largest dissenting denomination. In Wesley’s day the education of the preachers had been his personal concern, and it then became the responsibility of Conference; although there was increasing demand for a system of formal training, there were also anxieties about its possibly damaging effect, and it was not until the 1830s that the first Wesleyan Methodist institution for training ministers was established. The other Methodist denominations took longer to accept the need, but they too established training colleges later in the century.
  • Evangelicals
    The evangelicals were not a denomination. The evangelical revival of the eighteenth century is a broad label which links among other characteristics a strong emphasis on conversion and irregular practices such as open-air preaching and society meetings. At the end of the eighteenth century there were three main evangelical groups: a small but increasing number of evangelical Calvinist clergy in the Church of England; the Wesleyan Methodists; and the evangelical dissenters, mainly among the Congregationalists and Baptists. There was suspicion among these groups of what was seen as the over-intellectual and formal education provided by the dissenting academies. Two innovative nondenominational evangelical academies were begun by the Countess of Huntingdon at Trevecka in Wales and William Bull at Newport Pagnell that emphasised the Bible and preaching and avoided the systematic study of doctrine.

Isabel Rivers and David L. Wykes