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Dissenters, English


DISSENTERS, ENGLISH. The dissenters were those English Protestants who refused to conform to the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Church of England as laid down in the 1662 Act of Uniformity. They were persecuted, especially during the reign of Charles II (ruled 16601685), and were legally excluded from full participation in the country's civil and political life until the nineteenth century. Although broadly speaking the dissenters were the heirs of the English Puritans, they were divided into several occasionally antagonistic denominations. Common suffering encouraged them to move toward cooperation, but they had difficulty sustaining even these initiatives in the more tolerant atmosphere that prevailed after the Toleration Act of 1689. In the next century, industrialization and urbanization were to transform dissent and pave the way for its considerable political influence in Victorian and Edwardian Britain. But the roots of the tradition lay in Tudor and Stuart England.


In 1662 the dissenters were a diverse group. English Puritanism had splintered into several denominations and sects during the Civil Wars and Interregnum (16421660). Yet as a consequence of the Uniformity Act and the Clarendon Code, a raft of penal legislation aimed at non-Anglicans, all these factions were classed as "dissenters." Although sectaries, Quakers, Baptists, Independents, and Presbyterians might now all fall into the same legal category, they had little else in common: learned, university-educated, and socially conservative ministers shared nothing with itinerant lay preachers. And they resented being lumped together: "It is a palpable injury to burden us with the various parties with whom we are now herded by our ejection in the general state of Dissenters" (Corbet, p. 27). The author of this complaint saw himself as a "Nonconformist"a subtle but significant distinction. This was the label preferred by those, mainly the Presbyterians, who could not bring themselves to conform to the national church as it now stood, but who hoped it might be further reformed. Prominent in this grouping were the ministers who had lost their parish livings on St Bartholomew's Day, 24 August 1662, and yet still attended the Church of England's services as laymen. They would often hold additional private meetings with godly neighbors for Bible study, prayer, and impromptu preaching. There were many shades of conformity in Restoration England, and some of the laypeople who attended these godly meetings were also conforming Anglicans. Other dissenters, however, were determined to separate entirely from the national church. Congregationalists believed in the principle of autonomous congregations formed by men and women who could offer testimony of their conversion at the hands of God. Quakers and other sects suspected all churches as formalist and domineering institutions.

There were several notable individuals among the dissenters. Eminent preachers and divines like John Owen and Richard Baxter maintained their spiritual leadership through publications, correspondence, and, when political circumstances allowed, the pulpit. Two very different dissenters, the Baptist ex-tinker John Bunyan and the great poet and radical John Milton, used the printing press to give literary voice to the aspirations and experience of the godly. All dissenters, however, shared a Word-centred piety, an introspective concern with the sufferings of the godly, and an acute sensitivity to the dangers posed by hypocrisy, popery, and profanity.


The persecution of dissenters was a sporadic business. It varied from year to year, place to place, and denomination to denomination. Although the Quakers suffered extensive and prolonged persecution, the "sober" Presbyterians might experience little more than minor harassment. Much depended upon the zeal of local magistrates and the perceived political threat posed by dissent. General persecution reached its height in the mid-1660s and again in the early 1680s. Historians now believe that the majority of the English had little appetite for persecution. Their Anglican neighbors may have disparaged dissenters as "fanatics," "enthusiasts," or "sectaries," but they did not relish the activities of professional informers or the jailing of pious fellow Protestants.

The "dissenting interest" was thought to be strongest among the artisan and merchant classes of the towns and cities. There was significant support for dissenters in places like Bristol, Norwich, and the City of London. Inevitably this was translated into political influence. There were Presbyterian and Independent sympathizers among both M.P.s and peers in the Cavalier Parliament (16611679). Yet opportunities to improve dissent's legal position were squandered because dissenters lacked a common goal: some aspired to "comprehension" or reunion with the Church of England, while others were interested only in religious toleration.

Dissent also suffered by its association with radical politics. Tainted by its Cromwellian past, dissent was suspect in the eyes of the government and subject to persecution on grounds of subversion and disloyalty. Radical elements among dissent, including Baptists and Independents, did exploit the Exclusion Crisis to plot the overthrow of Charles II and/or his brother. The conspiracies exposed by the investigation of the supposed Rye House Plot in 1683 and the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685 against James II (ruled 16851688) confirmed this extreme wing within dissent.

In the later 1680s James II courted the dissenters in the hope that they would support a religious toleration for Roman Catholics and Protestants. Once again, dissent was divided over strategy. Was it desirable or even safe to ally with an idolatrous false religion like popery in pursuit of their own religious freedom? While some dissenters offered their thanks for the 1687 Declaration of Indulgence, the majority rallied to the Protestant cause and reaped their reward after the Glorious Revolution of 1688.


The Toleration Act of 1689 confirmed the legal identity of "dissent" by providing freedom of worship for all non-Anglican Protestants. The future of dissenters lay outside the national church. Although national collaborative initiatives like the Common Fund and "Happy Union" failed, other local ventures, between Presbyterians, Congregationalists (as Independents were increasingly known), and Baptists, flourished. But the sharing of meeting halls or costs was only part of the story. Many of the denominations seem to have suffered from growing apathy among their followers. Perhaps like the national church before them, they were succumbing to formality. They were also plagued by theological disputes over fundamental issues such as the Trinity, justification, and predestination. By the early eighteenth century, there were ominous signs that dissenters were no longer the spiritually fervent, evangelical force that they had been in the previous century.

See also Baxter, Richard ; Bunyan, John ; Church of England ; England ; English Civil War and Interregnum ; English Civil War Radicalism ; Exclusion Crisis ; Glorious Revolution (Britain) ; Milton, John ; Persecution ; Quakers ; Toleration .


Corbet, John. An Account Given of the Principles and Practises of Several Nonconformists. London, 1682.

Keeble, N. H. The Literary Culture of Nonconformity in Later Seventeenth-Century England. Leicester, U.K., 1987.

Watts, Michael R. The Dissenters: From the Reformation to the French Revolution. Oxford, 1978.

John Spurr

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