English Protestants who refused Anglican uniformity, also called Dissenters. In the 16th century the most important nonconformists were congregationalists and Brownists; in the 17th century, presbyterians and the religious society of friends (Quakers); in the 18th and 19th, methodists. All nonconformist groups before the Civil War (1638–49) were frequently called puritans. Today the term "Free church" is preferred.
Although the name "nonconformist" dates from 1662, actual dissent began when Protestants refused Elizabeth's Act of uniformity in 1559, objecting to bishops and Anglican liturgical usages, and advocating a "pure" (Calvinistic) Christianity. They favored local autonomy in church government, and many wished to limit the powers of the monarchy and even separate Church and State. James I therefore regarded them as a danger to the monarchy and in 1604 deprived 300 Puritan divines. Some, the Pilgrim Fathers, fled to the New World. In the reign of Charles I, Archbishop Laud's attempt to eliminate Puritan usages helped bring about the Civil War, during which nonconformist factions quarreled bitterly among themselves, united only in their opposition to Catholicism and the Anglican Establishment. After the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, the Anglican Cavalier Parliament sought to impose religious uniformity by the Clarendon Code. These harsh measures were enforced by justices of the peace eager for revenge for the oppression they had suffered under Puritans in the Civil War, and some 20 percent of the English clergy came to be deprived. James II sought nonconformist support in 1687–88 by his Declarations of Indulgence, but without success because of nonconformist suspicion of Catholics. James's Calvinist successor, William III, by the Toleration Act of 1689, granted freedom of worship to nonconformists (but not to Roman Catholics or unitarians), though still excluding them from public office. Many nonconformists evaded this exclusion by taking the Anglican sacrament once a year. The restrictive legislation of 1660 to 1689 was not formally repealed, however, until 1828, the year of Catholic emancipation. Nonconformity waned during the heyday of 18th-century deism and might have died out save for the great Methodist rerival.
Most 17th-century nonconformists came from the middle classes. The Whig party, organized in the 1670s, was for 150 years the champion and stronghold of Dissent. Its descendant, the Liberal party, contained most nonconformist groups of the 19th century. After 1850 nonconformists interested themselves in social questions. The rise of British socialism and the Labor party owes more to the nonconformist conscience than to Karl Marx. Among the important nonconformists were O. Cromwell, J. Milton, G. Fox, J. Bunyan, I. Watts, J. Wesley, C. Wesley, G. Whitefield, C. H. Spurgeon, R. W. Dale, and P. Forsyth.
Bibliography: t. price, The History of Protestant Nonconformity in England, 2 v. (London 1836–38). h. s. skeats and c. s. miall, History of the Free Churches of England (London 1894). w. k. jordan, The Development of Religious Toleration in England, 4 v. (London 1932–40). e. routley, English Religious Dissent (Cambridge, Eng. 1960). p. scott, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 1957–65) 2:209. w. f. adeney, j. hastings, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, 13 v. (Edinburgh 1908–27) 9:381–393.
nonconformists, in religion, those who refuse to conform to the requirements (in doctrine or discipline) of an established church. The term is applied especially to Protestant dissenters from the Church of England. Nonconformity in England appeared not long after the Reformation in the secession from the Established Church of such small groups as the Brownists (see Browne, Robert) and, a little later, the Pilgrims. Most of those, however, who objected to the Elizabethan church settlement did not at first intend to secede; their hope was rather to reshape the Established Church (see Puritanism). The conflicts thus engendered within the Church of England were a major factor leading to the English civil war. After the victory of the Puritan party in that war, a Presbyterian church establishment was adopted (1646), but in that period also the separatists, or Independents, gained a stronger foothold. The restoration (1660) of the monarchy also brought the restoration of episcopacy and harsh legislation against the Puritans (see Clarendon Code). The Act of Uniformity (1662) made a distinct split unavoidable, since it required episcopal ordination for all ministers. As a result, nearly 2,000 clergymen left the Established Church. Significant nonconformity dates from that time. The term dissenter similarly came into use, particularly after the Toleration Act (1689), in which reference was made to the
Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, Quakers, Unitarians, and Methodists are among the nonconforming denominations in England. In Scotland, where the established church is Presbyterian, the Anglicans, or Episcopalians, are among the nonconformists. In more recent usage, churches independent of the established or state church in both England and Scotland are often called Free Churches.
See C. Burrage, The Early English Dissenters (1912); H. Davies, The English Free Churches (1952).
non·con·form·ist / ˌnänkənˈfôrmist/ • n. 1. a person whose behavior or views do not conform to prevailing ideas or practices. 2. (Nonconformist) a member of a Protestant church in England that dissents from the established Anglican Church. • adj. 1. of or characterized by behavior or views that do not conform to prevailing ideas or practices. 2. (Nonconformist) of or relating to Nonconformists or their principles and practices. DERIVATIVES: non·con·form·ism / -ˌmizəm/ n.