Preaching to the people

Preaching to the people

Nonconformism grew as a reaction to the structures of the Church of England and gradually spread across Britain and then the world. Luke Mouland explores its rise and the challenges its adherents face

Luke Mouland, Genealogist, historian and writer

Luke Mouland

Genealogist, historian and writer

Nonconformism is the overarching term used to describe the many Protestant which who did not adhere to the principles or doctrines of the established Church, and instead practiced a wide range of religious beliefs in independent places of worship. Many of us will have reached a point in our research when our ancestors seem to disappear from the parish records without trace, and it is usually then that we will need to consider the possibility that they may have become members of a dissenting sect and investigate further. But how and when did these Nonconformist groups develop, and what was everyday life like for those who joined them?

It should be remembered that, until 1534, when England broke with Rome to establish the Church of England as we know it, the Roman Catholic Church had been the state religion. While the Catholics remained united in the wake of this separation, some members of the Church of England (namely the Protestants – those who protested against the practices of Catholicism) divided and sub-divided into various sects, each with differing beliefs on the way in which the new ecclesiastical system should be organised. While there were those who sought to retain most of the Roman Catholic practices, others pushed for far more radical changes bordering on the purification of the Church and most of its customs. During the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603), this particular strand of dissenters became collectively known as the Puritans.

Bunhill Fields burial ground
Bunhill Fields burial ground in central London is perhaps the most well-known Nonconformist burial ground, home to the graves of John Bunyan, Daniel Defoe, William Blake and many other well-known Nonconformists

By the beginning of the 17th century, some groups had begun to break away from the Church of England altogether – instead, forming their own religious assemblies in accordance with their beliefs, and typically meeting in private houses belonging to members. As suggested, it was this strict refusal to conform to state worship that landed these groups with the label, ‘Nonconformists’, particularly after the 1662 Act of Uniformity and the ‘Great Ejection’ which saw 2000 Puritan ministers breaking away from the Church.

Naturally, Nonconformists were held in contempt by the government, which swiftly attempted to impose severe restrictions on many aspects of their religious and public activities. It was the Conventicles Act (1670) which set the bar for this backlash: imposing a fine of between five and ten shillings on any person who attended a conventicle (any religious assembly outside the Church of England), it was directly intended to prevent and suppress Nonconformism. Any preacher or person who allowed their house to be used for such an assembly could receive a fine of between 20 and 40 shillings, depending on whether it was a first or second offence.

17th century Presbyterian Covenanters
An imagined depiction of a 17th century Presbyterian Covenanters’ conventicle in Scotland

Meanwhile, the latter decades of the 17th century also saw restrictions placed on dissenters in public offices. The Corporation Act (1661) excluded from membership of town corporations those who were not willing to take the sacrament in accordance with the rites of the Church of England, while the Test Act (1673) placed the same qualification upon holders of civil and military office. Admission to English universities also required conformity to the established Church, which forced Nonconformists to privately fund their own ‘dissenting academies’ in a bid to gain a decent education.

Educational injustice was also imposed through the monopoly of Church schools in many parts of England and Wales during the 19th century, which fuelled yet further resentment towards the state. Nonconformists fought a lengthy and arduous battle against Church rates and the exaction of tithes, arguing that they should not be required to contribute to the maintenance of a church to which they did not formally belong. Their right to be buried in public cemeteries and burial grounds was also only won after a persistent struggle and, between 1754 and 1837, all marriages had to be solemnized in the parish church, with only Jews and Quakers being exempt through the detailed nature of their records. Indeed, it was not until the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts in 1828 that the more severe restrictions on dissenters were finally removed and greater toleration prevailed. Other constraints, however, such as the payment of church rates, remained in place well beyond that date.

Rivington Unitarian Chapel
Rivington Unitarian Chapel in Lancashire, founded in 1703

But despite these odds, Nonconformism made remarkable headway during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The Wesleyan Methodists, for example, virtually quadrupled their membership between 1783 and 1813, being particularly prominent in the industrial and mining areas of the northern counties of England and Wales. Meanwhile, the progress of the Baptists and Congregationalists in the southern counties was almost equally impressive, and by the time of the ecclesiastical census of 1851, Nonconformists amounted to almost half of the church-going population. Indeed, in Wales, it is estimated that some 80 per cent of the worshipping population belonged to a dissenting sect.

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Nonconformism was traditionally attractive to the lower and middle ranks of society. While the working classes constituted the larger part of the congregations (particularly so for the Primitive Methodists), the leadership of these groups was predominately recruited from the middle classes, and often comprised a close-knit network of property holders and professional families. The names of local shopkeepers, artisans and independent craftsmen will often be found among the minutes or records of Nonconformist chapels; many were involved in their governance or offered their services as trustees. Intermarriage between these families became increasingly commonplace during the 19th century; not only did it help to extend and reinforce business contacts, but it ultimately gained a form of mutual confidence, which could prove invaluable for conducting trade within the local community.

dissenting groups which proliferated during the English Civil War
A 1647 broadsheet showing some of the many dissenting groups which proliferated during the English Civil War

The second half of the 19th century proved to be particularly successful for Nonconformism. As support for the various denominations continued to soar and they became better established, they found themselves in a more suitable position to push for reform. While the Quakers campaigned for the abolition of slavery and for the introduction of prison reform, the Unitarians called for better working conditions for factory workers, and the women’s suffrage movement received strong backing from the Methodist community. It is perhaps no surprise then that Nonconformism has typically been associated with liberal or radical politics throughout its history; but, put simply, some of the greatest social and political achievements of the late Victorian and early Edwardian periods were due, in part, to the unrelenting efforts of our Nonconformist forebears.

As the Liberal government was swept into power by a landslide victory at the General Election of 1906, so, too, was a resounding triumph made by the Nonconformists. With both support and membership at a heady peak in 1906, the election saw no fewer than 176 Nonconformist members being returned to Parliament – a remarkable achievement in light of the struggles they had faced previously. It was therefore evident that, by the first decade of the 20th century, the Nonconformist movement had truly reached its zenith.

John Wesley preaching
An engraving of John Wesley preaching on his father’s tomb in Epworth churchyard, Lincolnshire – Wesley became famous for his open-air preaching, which he also took to America

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Act of Uniformity: episcopal ordination required for all ministers, resulting in the rejection of almost 2,000 clergymen from the Church of England
Declaration of Indulgence: Charles II attempts to extend religious liberty to dissenters by suspending the execution of penal laws against Nonconformists
Toleration Act: freedom of worship permitted to Nonconformists who pledge to accept certain oaths of allegiance
Schism Act: required anyone who wished to establish a public or private school, or act as a tutor, to conform to the liturgy of the Church of England
Marriage Act: required marriages to be formally solemnized in a parish church according to the rites of the Church of England
Relief Act: concessions on registration of dissenters’ places of worship. Restrictions remain on dissenters in unregistered premises
Test & Corporation Acts repealed. Dissenters’ political disqualifications removed
Marriage Act: dissenting chapels licensed for matrimonial ceremonies for the first time. Civil marriage permitted
Compulsory payment of church rates abolished
Compulsory payment of church rates abolished

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