In English church history, a nonconformist was a Protestant who did
not "conform" to the governance and usages of the established Church
of England. Broad use of the term was precipitated after the
Restoration of the British monarchy in 1660, when the Act of
Uniformity 1662 re-established the opponents of reform within the
Church of England. By the late 19th century the term specifically
included the Reformed Christians (Presbyterians, Congregationalists
Calvinist sects), plus the
Baptists and Methodists. The
English Dissenters such as the
Puritans who violated the Act of
Uniformity 1559—typically by practising radical, sometimes
separatist, dissent—were retrospectively labelled as nonconformists.
By law and social custom, nonconformists were restricted from many
spheres of public life—not least, from access to public office,
civil service careers, or degrees at university—and were referred to
as suffering from civil disabilities. In England and
Wales in the late
19th century the new terms "free churchman" and "Free Church" started
to replace "dissenter" or "Nonconformist".
One influential nonconformist minister was Matthew Henry, who
beginning in 1710 published his multi-volume Commentary that is still
used and available in the 21st century.
Isaac Watts is an equally
recognized nonconformist minister whose hymns are still sung by
3.1 Disabilities removed
5 See also
The Act of Uniformity of 1662 required churchmen to use all rites and
ceremonies as prescribed in the Book of Common Prayer. It also
required episcopal ordination of all ministers of the Church of
England—a pronouncement most odious to the Puritans, the faction of
the church which had come to dominance during the English Civil War
and the Interregnum. Consequently, nearly 2,000 clergymen were
"ejected" from the established church for refusing to comply with the
provisions of the act, an event referred to as the Great Ejection.
Great Ejection created an abiding public consciousness of
Nonconformist was any English subject belonging to a
Anglican church or a non-Christian religion. More broadly, any
person who advocated religious liberty was typically called out as
Nonconformist. The strict religious tests embodied in the laws of
Clarendon code and other penal laws excluded a substantial section
of English society from public affairs and benefits, including
certification of university degrees, for well more than a century and
a half. Culturally, in England and Wales, discrimination against
Nonconformists endured even longer.
Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, Calvinists, other
"reformed" groups and less organized sects were identified as
Nonconformists at the time of the 1662 Act of Uniformity. Following
the act, other groups, including Methodists, Unitarians, Quakers,
Plymouth Brethren, and the English Moravians were officially labelled
as Nonconformists as they became established.
The term dissenter later came into particular use after the Act of
Toleration (1689), which exempted those Nonconformists who had taken
oaths of allegiance from being penalized for certain acts, such as for
Church of England
Church of England services.
A religious census in 1851 revealed
Nonconformist comprised about half
that of the people who attended church services on Sundays. In the
larger manufacturing areas, Nonconformists clearly outnumbered members
of the Church of England. In
Wales in 1850,
attendance significantly outnumbered
Anglican church attendance.
They were based in the fast-growing upwardly mobile urban middle
Historians distinguish two categories of Dissenters, or
Nonconformists, in addition to the evangelicals or "Low Church"
element in the Church of England. "Old Dissenters", dating from the
16th and 17th centuries, included Baptists, Congregationalists,
Quakers, Unitarians, and
Presbyterians outside Scotland. "New
Dissenters" emerged in the 18th century and were mainly Methodists.
Nonconformist Conscience" was their moral sensibility which they
tried to implement in British politics. The "Nonconformist
conscience" of the Old group emphasized religious freedom and
equality, pursuit of justice, and opposition to discrimination,
compulsion, and coercion. The New Dissenters (and also the Anglican
evangelicals) stressed personal morality issues, including sexuality,
temperance, family values, and Sabbath-keeping. Both factions were
politically active, but until mid-19th century the Old group supported
mostly Whigs and Liberals in politics, while the New—like most
Anglicans—generally supported Conservatives. In the late 19th the
New Dissenters mostly switched to the Liberal Party. The result was a
merging of the two groups, strengthening their great weight as a
political pressure group. They joined together on new issues
especially regarding schools and temperance. By 1914 the
linkage was weakening and by the 1920s it was virtually dead.
Nonconformists in the 18th and 19th century claimed a devotion to hard
work, temperance, frugality, and upward mobility, with which
historians today largely agree. A major Unitarian magazine, the
Christian Monthly Repository asserted in 1827:
Throughout England a great part of the more active members of society,
who have the most intercourse with the people have the most influence
over them, are Protestant Dissenters. These are manufacturers,
merchants and substantial tradesman, or persons who are in the
enjoyment of a competency realized by trade, commerce and
manufacturers, gentlemen of the professions of law and physic, and
agriculturalists, of that class particularly who live upon their own
freehold. The virtues of temperance, frugality, prudence and integrity
promoted by religious Nonconformity...assist the temporal prosperity
of these descriptions of persons, as they tend also to lift others to
the same rank in society.
Parliament had imposed a series of disabilities on Nonconformists that
prevented them from holding most public offices, that required them to
pay local taxes to the
Anglican church, be married by Anglican
ministers, and be denied attendance at Oxford or degrees at
Cambridge. Dissenters demanded removal of political and civil
disabilities that applied to them (especially those in the Test and
Corporation Acts). The
Anglican establishment strongly resisted until
Test Act of 1673 made it illegal for anyone not
receiving communion in the
Church of England
Church of England to hold office under the
crown. The Corporation Act of 1661 did likewise for offices in
municipal government. In 1732, Nonconformists in the City of London
created an association, the Dissenting Deputies to secure repeal of
the Test and Corporation acts. The Deputies became a sophisticated
pressure group, and worked with liberal Whigs to achieve repeal in
1828. It was a major achievement for an outside group, but the
Dissenters were not finished.
Next on the agenda was the matter of church rates, which were local
taxes at the parish level for the support of the parish church
building in England and Wales. Only buildings of the established
church received the tax money. Civil disobedience was attempted, but
was met with seizure of personal property and even imprisonment. The
compulsory factor was finally abolished in 1868 by William Ewart
Gladstone, and payment was made voluntary. While Gladstone was a
moralistic evangelical inside the Church of England, he had strong
support in the
Nonconformist community. The marriage question
was settled in 1837, by allowing local government registrars to handle
Nonconformist ministers in their own chapels were allowed
to marry couples if a registrar was present. Also in 1836, civil
registration of births, deaths, and marriages was taken from the hands
of local parish officials and given to local government registrars.
Burial of the dead was a more troubling problem, for urban chapels had
no graveyards, and sought to use the traditional graveyards controlled
by the established church. The Burials Act of 1880 finally allowed
Oxford University required students seeking admission to submit to the
39 articles of the Church of England.
Cambridge University required
that for a diploma. The two ancient universities opposed giving a
charter to the new
London University in the 1830s, because it had no
such restriction. London University, nevertheless, was established in
1837, and by the 1850s Oxford dropped its restrictions. In 1871
Gladstone sponsored legislation that provided full access to degrees
and fellowships. The Scottish universities never had restrictions.
Further information: Liberal Party (UK)
Since 1660, nonconformist Protestants have played a major role in
Nonconformist cause was linked closely to the Whigs, who advocated
civil and religious liberty. After the Test and Corporation Acts were
repealed in 1828, all the Nonconformists elected to Parliament were
Relatively few MPs were Dissenters. However the Dissenters were major
voting bloc in many areas, such as East Midlands. They were very
well organized and highly motivated and largely won over the Whigs and
Liberals to their cause. Gladstone brought the majority of dissenters
around to support for Home Rule for Ireland, putting the dissenting
Protestants in league with the Irish Roman Catholics in an otherwise
unlikely alliance. The dissenters gave significant support to
moralistic issues, such as temperance and sabbath enforcement. The
nonconformist conscience, as it was called, was repeatedly called upon
by Gladstone for support for his moralistic foreign policy. In
election after election, Protestant ministers rallied their
congregations to the Liberal ticket. In Scotland, the Presbyterians
played a similar role to the
other groups in England and
Wales  The political strength of
Dissent faded sharply after 1920 with the secularization of British
society in the 20th century. The rise of the Labour Party reduced the
Liberal Party strongholds into the nonconformist and remote "Celtic
Fringe", where it survived by an emphasis on localism and historic
religious identity, thereby neutralizing much of the class pressure on
behalf of the Labour movement. Meanwhile, the
Anglican church was
a bastion of strength for the Conservative party. On the Irish issue,
the Anglicans strongly supported unionism. Increasingly after 1850,
the Roman Catholic element in England and Scotland consisted of recent
immigrants from Ireland. They voted largely for the Irish
Parliamentary Party, until its collapse in 1918.
Nonconformists were angered by the Education Act 1902, which provided
for the support of denominational schools from taxes. The elected
local school boards that they largely controlled were abolished and
replaced by county-level local education authorities (LEAs) that were
usually controlled by Anglicans. Worst of all the hated Anglican
schools would now receive funding from local taxes that everyone had
to pay. One tactic was to refuse to pay local taxes. John Clifford
formed the National Passive Resistance Committee. By 1904 over 37,000
summonses for unpaid school taxes were issued, with thousands having
their property seized and 80 protesters going to prison. It operated
for another decade but had no impact on the school system.
The education issue played a major role in the Liberal victory in the
1906 general election, as
Dissenter Conservatives punished their old
party and voted Liberal. After 1906, a Liberal attempt to modify the
law was blocked by the Conservative-dominated House of Lords; after
1911 when the Lords had been stripped of its veto over legislation,
the issue was no longer of high enough priority to produce Liberal
See also: Nonconformity in Wales
Today, Protestant churches independent of the
Anglican Church of
England or the Presbyterian
Church of Scotland
Church of Scotland are often called "free
churches", meaning they are free from state control. This term is used
interchangeably with "Nonconformist". In Scotland, the Anglican
Scottish Episcopal Church
Scottish Episcopal Church is considered
Nonconformist (despite its
English counterpart's status) and in England, the United Reformed
Church, principally a union of
Presbyterians and Congregationalists,
is in a similar position.
Wales the strong traditions of Nonconformism can be traced to the
Welsh Methodist revival;
Wales effectively had become a Nonconformist
country by the mid-19th century. The influence of Nonconformism in the
early part of the 20th century, boosted by the 1904–1905 Welsh
Revival, led to the disestablishment of the
Anglican Church in Wales
in 1920 and the formation of the Church in Wales.
The steady pace of secularization picked up faster and faster during
the 20th century, until only pockets of nonconformist religiosity
remained in Britain.
Nonconformity to the world
Religion in the United Kingdom
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