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 The restrictive legislation of 1660 to 1689 was not formally repealed, however, until 1828, the year of Catholic emancipation.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.
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.