views updated May 17 2018

dissent (nonconformity). Though dissenting sects could trace some of their doctrines to well before the Reformation, for example to the lollards, pre-Reformation heterodoxy is usually termed schism or heresy. The term dissent is reserved for those who did not conform to the Church of England and, though this included catholics, it is usually confined to protestant groups. Long before the Civil War there were many puritans but most of them remained in the church, hoping to reform it from within. Elizabeth's Act of Uniformity of 1559, augmented by royal injunctions to kneel, bow, and wear surplices, did not produce a mass exodus (apart from Mary's bishops) such as accompanied the Act of Uniformity of 1662 after the Restoration. Thomas Cartwright (1535–1603), described by John Strype as ‘the head and most learned of that sect of dissenters then called puritans’, remained shakily within the church all his days, and ended his life as master of the Leicester hospital at Warwick. Robert Browne (c.1550–c.1633), described as ‘the earliest separatist from the Church of England’ and certainly with no fondness for bishops, nevertheless held an Anglican living for the last 40 years of his life.

The seed time for nonconformity was the Civil War. By 1644 Archbishop Laud was in the Tower, episcopacy abolished, the Solemn League and Covenant imposed, and the Book of Common Prayer declared illegal. Perhaps as many as 3,000 Anglican clergy lost their livings and had the presbyterian form of church government survived, as it ultimately did in Scotland, the Anglicans would have finished up as dissenters. The confused situation gave dissenting sects the opportunity to establish themselves. The independents or congregationalists dissented from the dissenters, disliking the rigour of presbyterian rule and demanding toleration; the baptists, who had broken away from the Brownists in the early 17th cent., split between the general baptists and the particular baptists, who were closer to Calvinism; George Fox felt in 1643 the call which led to the foundation of the ‘Children of Light’, later known as quakers; Ludowick Muggleton, who disliked the quakers, organized his own distinctively negative sect in the 1650s; Thomas Harrison looked for the imminent establishment of Christ's Fifth Monarchy and the triumph of the saints.

In the declaration of Breda (April 1660) Charles II offered ‘a liberty to tender consciences’ in religious matters and the presbyterians at least, powerful in the Convention that had recalled the king, hoped for an acceptable settlement. They were disappointed. The Cavalier Parliament, elected in March 1661 to replace the Convention, was much less inclined to forgive and forget: many of its members had suffered imprisonment and sequestration at the hands of the sectaries. The Savoy conference between twelve bishops and twelve puritans broke down without agreement, and the preface to the revised Anglican Prayer Book condemned ‘men of factious, peevish and perverse spirits’ who would not accept it. A new Act of Uniformity (1662) led to some 1,000 puritan clergy leaving their livings. The ‘Clarendon code’ waged war against the nonconformists, forbidding them civic office, prohibiting religious gatherings or conventicles of more than five persons, and demanding that ejected ministers should not live within 5 miles of their former parishes. The Test Act of 1673 barred dissenters, protestant and catholic, from public office, including membership of Parliament.

The reigns of Charles II and James II were difficult for the dissenters, fierce bursts of persecution alternating with efforts to woo them. The two royal Declarations of Indulgence (1672, 1687), designed to improve the position of the catholics, placed many dissenters in a dilemma—whether to oppose any concessions to the papists, whom they hated, or to make use of the opportunity. Some, like Penn the quaker, who had suffered imprisonment for his views, believed the assurances of James II: the majority heeded the warning from Halifax that ‘you are therefore to be hugged now only that you may be the better squeezed at another time’.

After the Glorious Revolution, the Toleration Act of 1689 was intended to ‘exempt their Majesties’ protestant subjects, dissenting from the Church of England, from the penalty of certain laws'. While not conceding civil or public rights, or waiving the obligation to pay tithes to the Church of England, it granted freedom of worship, provided that dissenters took a simple oath of allegiance. An echo of the days when they had been regarded as fanatics and malignants was clause 6 which forbade them to lock, bolt, or bar the doors of any chapel. Quakers, unwilling on principle to take oaths, were allowed a ‘declaration of fidelity’. At the same time a new schism arose when 400 Anglican clergy decided that they could not swear to the new regime and formed the non-juring church. The dissenting groups settled down at last to a period of consolidation, though the election of a strongly high-church and Tory Parliament in 1710 produced more hostile legislation in the Act against Occasional Conformity (1711) and the Schism Act (1714), both repealed by the subsequent Whig administration. The repeal of the Schism Act allowed the spread of dissenting academies, whose excellence made up for the exclusion of dissenters from Oxford and Cambridge. At the same time, the acceptance after 1688 of an avowedly presbyterian church order in Scotland, confirmed by the Act of Union in 1707, was proof that the Church of England no longer had an official monopoly in the British Isles.

Under these comparatively relaxed conditions, the dissenting groups might have been expected to flourish. In practice toleration proved more damaging than persecution. Though exact figures are scarcely possible there is little doubt that dissenters, who had numbered some 300,000 or 5 per cent of the population of England in 1700, lost members in the next 40 years. Some of the more prosperous dissenters conformed for social or political reasons, but the dissenters also suffered from internal convulsions. The ‘Happy Union’ of congregationalists and baptists formed in 1691 lasted only four years before dissolving amid reciprocal recriminations. A rift in the 1690s among the American quakers spread to Britain when George Keith was expelled for accusing Penn of deistic views, and finished up as an Anglican minister. In 1719 the Salters' Hall controversy revealed the inroads made into presbyterian doctrine by socinian or unitarian beliefs. Isaac Watts, the hymn writer and an independent moving towards unitarianism, was afraid that dissent might be found ‘nowhere but in books’, while Philip Doddridge, a leading presbyterian, feared in 1730 ‘the echo of our own voices’.

The development of the methodist movement from the 1730s onwards led to a vast increase in dissent, though during Wesley's lifetime his followers remained in the Anglican church. By the 1770s the dissenters had arrested their decline and were growing more confident, fortified by the success of nonconformity in America. This led many of them to oppose the American war, bringing them renewed unpopularity. A motion to repeal the Test and Corporation Acts in 1787 received little more support in Parliament than in 1736, and was defeated by 176–98: the prime minister William Pitt observed that ‘there is a natural desire in sectaries to extend the influence of their religion; the dissenters were never backward in this.’ The support of many dissenters for the French Revolution in its early stages kindled fresh bitterness and Priestley's house in Birmingham was burned in 1791 in church and king riots. In 1828, the long wars safely over, repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts went through with surprising ease. Though nonconformists retained substantial grievances, especially over marriage and tithes, they had at least achieved formal civil equality.

It transpired that they had achieved a good deal more. The early years of the 19th cent. witnessed a remarkable upsurge in support for dissent. ‘Old Dissent’, particularly in the form of presbyterianism and quakerism, showed little vitality, but ‘New Dissent’ made many converts. The methodists pointed the way to other sects, and the evangelicalism of the age embraced dissent, with the congregationalists and the baptists to the fore in foreign missions and the quakers in the anti-slavery movement. The Anglicans were comparatively slow to respond to the rapidly developing urban growth and lost ground. At the time of Wesley's death in 1791 the methodists numbered some 56,000: by 1836 there were 360,000 in the different methodist churches. Congregationalist membership increased from some 20,000 in 1760 to 127,000 by 1838, baptists from 11,000 to 100,000. Organization and liaison improved. The baptists formed a union in 1831, the congregationalists, ever jealous of their autonomy, a looser confederation in 1832.

The effect of these changes was a transformation of the religious scene recorded by the religious census of 1851. Despite some imperfections as a statistical record, the general position was clear. Two things amazed the Victorians. First the census showed that 5¾ million people who might have attended church on 30 March—nearly 40 per cent of those eligible—had not done so. This figure, which would have seemed highly satisfactory to churches in the early 21st cent., shocked people in 1851. Secondly, it revealed that Anglican attenders scarcely outnumbered the dissenting sects—3,773,000 against 3,487,000, of whom methodists were 1,463,000, independents 793,000, baptists 587,000, catholics 305,000, unitarians 37,000, and quakers 18,000. Indeed, in the heated exchanges that followed publication of the report, dissenters pointed out that since many of their members attended two or three services, dissenting attendances were higher than Anglican. Dissenters were in a comfortable majority in many northern industrial towns like Sheffield, Leeds, and Bradford, and formed a great majority in Wales.

Anglicans braced themselves for another attack on the established position of the church. Tithes went in 1868; the Irish church was disestablished in 1869; the Welsh church in 1920. But the Church of England held out until the tide of religious belief was clearly ebbing. Meanwhile the influence of dissent was all-pervasive. The Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, which set up elected councils in the large towns, had brought hundreds of dissenters into local government. In Leeds, where the old corporation had been Anglican dominated, the Mercury reported that only 20 of the 51 new councillors were churchmen and in the next twelve years only 2 of the mayors were not dissenters; in Leicester, of 56 aldermen and councillors, 40 were dissenters, 16 Anglicans. The nonconformist conscience, urged on in the 1830s and 1840s by Jabez Bunting, a methodist, in the 1850s and 1860s by Charles Spurgeon, a baptist, and in the 1880s and 1890s by Hugh Price Hughes, another methodist, was a powerful political force, as Charles Dilke and Parnell discovered. The influence of dissent may be seen most clearly in the Liberal Party. The Whigs had always expected to obtain most of the dissenting vote, but the Liberals relied upon it, and many of their leaders appealed directly to it. Bright and W. E. Forster were quakers, Joseph Chamberlain a unitarian, Asquith from a congregationalist family, Lloyd George from a baptist home. The Parliament of 1905, which gave the Liberals their biggest majority ever, contained over 180 protestant dissenters, most of them on the Liberal benches. But both dissent and the Liberal Party were poised for eclipse. The removal of many of their grievances by the Liberals persuaded some dissenters to move to the political right, while the new Labour Party offered alternative accommodation to those who remained radical.

Dissent itself was also in decline. From 1918 onwards there was a marked falling-off in membership of both the Church of England and the dissenting denominations. This seems to have been caused less by the spread of avowed atheism or agnosticism than by competition from other sources of leisure-time activity, together with a growing dislike of authority in any form. Religious bodies held on with some success to existing members but did less well at recruiting from new generations. There was a dramatic decline in attendance at Sunday schools, once a mainstay of recruitment, but by 1990 down to 10 per cent of their 1900 numbers. There was increasing difficulty in recruiting clergy. The Church of England had 20,000 clerics in 1900, 10,000 by 1984; the methodists, with 4,700 ministers in 1950, had 2,500 by 1993. In Scotland, there were 3,600 presbyterian ministers in 1900, less than 1,500 in 1990. At the same time, the general population was continuing to grow. Estimates of church and chapel attendance in 1989 suggested that fewer than 10 per cent of the English population attended on any regular basis. The churches responded in a variety of ways—by merging parishes, by abandoning unwanted churches, by institutional amalgamations, and by ordaining women ministers and priests. In 1972 the presbyterian church of England merged with most of the congregational unions to create the United Reform Church, but the decline in membership was not arrested. There were of course other churches whose membership increased notably in the decades after the Second World War—pentecostal churches, Afro-Caribbean churches, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, and Orthodox churches—but their increase was largely due to immigration and they did not look back to the nonconformity of the 17th and 18th cents. Though religious issues still surfaced in public life, politics was largely secularized. Except in Northern Ireland, there is little positive correlation between religious views and voting behaviour. Many church leaders in the 19th cent., especially in the ranks of dissent, advised their members that it was their duty to take a full part in political questions, but in the early 21st cent. clerics who speak out are likely to be told that religion and politics should not mix.

J. A. Cannon


Bebbington, D. W. , Victorian Nonconformity (Bangor, 1992);
Binfield, C. , So Down to Prayers: Studies in English Nonconformity, 1780–1920 (1977);
Brown, K. D. , A Social History of the Nonconformist Ministry in England and Wales, 1800–1930 (Oxford, 1988);
Davie, D. , Essays in Dissent: Church, Chapel and the Unitarian Conspiracy (Manchester, 1995);
Ward, W. R. , Religion and Society in England, 1799–1850 (New York, 1973);
Watts, M. , The Dissenters (1977).


views updated May 17 2018


An explicit disagreement by one or more judges with the decision of the majority on a case before them.

A dissent is often accompanied by a written dissenting opinion, and the terms dissent and dissenting opinion are used interchangeably.

Dissents have several functions. In some cases, they are a simple declaration of disagreement with the majority. In others, they instruct, prod, scold, or otherwise urge the majority to consider the dissenter's point of view.

Dissents carry no precedential weight and are not relied on as authority in subsequent cases. However, attorneys and judges sometimes consult them to understand the dissenter's analysis of the majority opinion. Attorneys and judges may also cite a dissent if they agree with its reasoning and conclusion and seek support for a change in the law.

Although the majority opinion constitutes the judgment of the court, its legal weight can be diminished if a sufficient number of judges dissent. On issues that divide the courts and the country, there can be sharply divergent opinions on what the law is or should be. During the 1990s, for example, one divisive question before the U.S. Supreme Court was whether affirmative action programs to redress the effects of past discrimination were constitutional. In Miller v. Johnson, 515 U.S. 900, 115 S. Ct. 2475, 132 L. Ed. 2d 762 (1995), the U.S. Supreme Court held that Georgia's congressional redistricting plan, implemented to give minorities a strong voting block, constituted racial gerry-mandering and violated the equal protection clause. However, the case was not an unqualified success for those urging the rejection of affirmative action. Five justices joined in the majority block (plurality) in the case, and four justices filed dissents. With such a large minority, the dissents gained significance. Legal analysts monitor close cases such as Miller because a shift by one justice would signal a change in the law.

Dissents are a relatively recent phenomenon. Chief Justice john marshall, who served on the Supreme Court from 1801 to 1835, urged unanimity on the Court to demonstrate that its opinions were the last word on an issue. Others believed that individual conscience should dictate a justice's opinions, without regard to unanimity. In its early years, most of the Supreme Court's decisions showed little or no dissent. During the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, as the Court became firmly established as the law of the land, more dissents appeared. Yet, even those who dissented during this period often recognized the importance of consensus opinions. For instance, Justice oliver wendell holmes jr., a frequent and famous dissenter, wrote a scathing dissent in lochner v. new york, 198 U.S. 45, 25 S. Ct. 539, 49 L. Ed. 937 (1905), but not before he expressed his reluctance to do so: "I regret sincerely that I am unable to agree with the judgment in this case, and that I think it is my duty to express my dissent. "

By the 1960s and 1970s, dissents were an accepted part of the Court's business, perhaps reflecting the fractious political and social climate of those years. One frequent dissenter during the mid-twentieth century was Justice william o. douglas. During his thirty-six years on the Court, from 1939 to 1975, Douglas wrote 524 opinions of the Court, 154 concurring opinions, and an astounding 486 dissenting opinions. In addition, he dissented without opinion in 309 cases.

Justice benjamin n. cardozo, of the Supreme Court, defended those who disagree with the majority, writing that the dissenter is "the gladiator making a last stand against the lions." A few justices raised their roles as dissenters to an art form. Justices william j. brennan jr. and thurgood marshall displayed particular courage in opposition to the majority. During their long tenure on the Court, Brennan and Marshall were unwavering in their conviction that the death penalty violates the Constitution. By doggedly and relentlessly repeating their dissent, they sought to win others to their view that the law on capital punishment should be changed.

Together as well as separately, Brennan and Marshall wrote scores of dissents in death penalty cases. In so doing, they opposed clear precedent that supported the legality of capital punishment. However, both were convinced that they were justified in their continued opposition. Brennan felt that the intrinsic morality of the eighth amendment superseded any right of individual states to impose capital punishment. He wrote, "It would effectively write the [cruel and unusual punishment] clause out of the bill of rights were we to permit legislatures to police themselves by having the last word on the scope of the protection that the clause is intended to secure against their own overreaching." Marshall's opposition was less philosophical and more practical. He repeatedly pointed out that the application of the death penalty was arbitrary and unfair, and affected minorities disproportionately. He felt a responsibility to continue bringing this issue before the public and believed that most people, if sufficiently informed about all its ramifications, would find capital punishment "shocking, unjust, and unacceptable" (furman v. georgia, 408 U.S. 238, 92 S. Ct. 2726, 33 L. Ed. 2d 346 [1972] [Marshall, J., dissenting]).

Some legal analysts believe that dissents are an important part of the system of checks and balances. Justice charles e. hughes—who served on the Court from 1910 to 1916, left the bench to run for president, and then returned to the Court as chief justice from 1930 to 1941—wrote, "A dissent … is an appeal to the brooding spirit of the law, to the intelligence of a future day, when a later decision may possibly correct the error into which the dissenting judge believes the court to have been betrayed."

further readings

Mello, Michael. 1995."Adhering to Our Views: Justices Brennan and Marshall and the Relentless Dissent to Death as a Punishment." Florida State University Law Review 22 (winter).


Court Opinion.


views updated May 17 2018

dis·sent / diˈsent/ • v. [intr.] hold or express opinions that are at variance with those previously, commonly, or officially expressed: two members dissented from the majority | [as adj.] (dissenting) there were only a couple of dissenting voices. ∎  separate from an established or orthodox church because of doctrinal disagreement.• n. the expression or holding of opinions at variance with those previously, commonly, or officially held: there was no dissent from this view. ∎  (also Dissent) refusal to accept the doctrines of an established or orthodox church; nonconformity.