Monday, 25 August 2008

Nonconformity 1800-1850: The denominational thrust

The metamorphosis within the Established Church was bound to have significant effects on the Dissenting churches after 1830. But  Anglicanism  was  not the only form  of  organised  religion undergoing  fundamental changes  in  the first  half  of the nineteenth century.  There was a shift within Methodist, Congregational and Baptist communities away from the sect-type religious culture of the eighteenth century towards a new and patently denominational orientation to the wider society. Methodism in particular ceased to be a movement and became an organisation. The term ‘Dissent’ was gradually replaced by ‘Nonconformity’ and ‘dissenters’ by ‘nonconformists.’[1]

The movement towards denominationalism among the nonconformist churches had its origins in the late eighteenth century.  It was both organisational and   ‘clerical’. Denominational organisation was the result of the need and desire to pursue new goals.   It arose out of the evangelical revival in the eighteenth century and was not a reaction to it.   The  new goal  was evangelism -- missionary activities both abroad  and at home  --  and was possible because of the theological  shift away from  the Calvinist doctrine of the elect (people are either  born to  go to heaven or not) that would have rendered such  activity pointless. In this situation the church could and should be open to all.   The formation of the Northamptonshire Association in 1764 among Particular (Calvinistic) Baptists marked a turning point.  In 1797, the (Baptist) Home Mission Society was formed in London. County or Area Associations of Churches were formed among the  Independents,  but generally later than  among Baptist,  in Warwickshire  in  1793,  Wiltshire and East  Somerset  in  1797, Hampshire in 1797, Lancashire in 1806 and Hertfordshire in 1810. In due course a (Congregational) Home Missionary Society was formed in 1819 working mainly in those areas where County Associations were weak or non-existent. Village preaching depended on support from elsewhere and united action by a number of churches was an obvious way of doing this.[2] Itinerancy challenged isolationism and undenominationalism and, during the second and third decades of the nineteenth century,   the freedom enjoyed by the early itinerants succumbed to the process of institutionalisation. Evangelism came increasingly to be seen as a denominational rather than a local responsibility.Despite this positive development, the 1820s saw the first signs of formalism and stagnation, forces that later sapped the dynamic strength and recruiting power of English Nonconformity.

It  was  possible  for the central organisations  of  the different  churches to  exert,   if  they  chose, control  and discipline. Denominationalism also had expression in an increasingly ‘clerical’ approach. Jabez Bunting and his colleagues gradually strengthened   the  distinction  between  travelling  and   local preachers,  not  only by developing the doctrine of the ‘pastoral office’ but  also  by  enforcing  the commitment  to  permanent itinerancy   and corporate discipline  among   the   travelling preachers.   Excessive spontaneity -- too much lay initiative -- was seen as a threat to the integrity of Wesleyanism and a theological basis for the differentiation of roles and functions between ministers and laymen was elaborated. This redirection of the  Methodist  movement  under  ministerial  initiative  imposed immense  strains  on it and the result was a prolonged period  of conflict and schism,  beginning with the New Connexion  breakaway in  1797  and ending with the major disruptions and  realignments between 1849-57. ‘Primitive Methodists’, ‘Bible  Christians’, Tent Methodists’ and ‘Wesleyan Reformers’ all contained sectarian overtones  in  their names and were significant in  capturing  an element of protest against consolidation and institutionalisation that underpinned  the fragmentation of the Methodist strain  of evangelical Nonconformity.   Other nonconformists lacked both the will and the machinery to sharpen the clerical-lay distinction in this way.

The movement from undenominationalism to denominationalism, from a ‘unity of experience’ to a ‘unity of organisation’, can be seen as a response to the need for some form of social control. In this view, denominationalism has been seen as a failure of Nonconformity to respond to popular religion and of the anxiety and potential dangers to the country if it got out of control. This view seems to draw too stark a distinction between lay/undenominational and clerical/denominational.  It seems more likely that the move to denominationalism was occasioned by the need to maintain the constituencies of the different nonconformist groups.  Between 1780 and 1815, Nonconformity was marked by its preoccupation with rural society.  County associations among Congregationalists and regional bodies among Baptists devoted their energies to the hinterlands rather than the larger centres of population.   Even national bodies pursued similar aims.   By 1823, the Baptist Western Association numbered 78 member churches, an increase of 44 since 1780. With the spread of urban awareness came recognition of the problems involved in establishing effective contact with urban populations.  Neither the individualism of the pioneering preachers or the rudimentary organisation of the regional societies could cope with the scale of the problem.   The result was a move to national networks of evangelism under the control of denominational bodies that were, alone, capable of integrating planning and direction. Denominationalism was a consequence of the need to mobilise resources effectively to deal with the urban problem.

The impetus for structural definition stemmed from the need for more efficiency and a growing sense of denominational identity accompanied the return to peace after 1815.  There was a increasing  demand for religious accommodation, a  preoccupation displayed  in  most  of  the  surviving  records,  and  with  the attendant  financial problems of their provision and maintenance. By  the 1830s this material interest had combined  with  rising ministerial status  to accentuate  contemporary  concerns   for ‘respectability’   and  to  hasten  the change  from  individual spontaneity  to  a more formal assumption of responsibility  for further expansion. By 1840 the shape of the movement had visibly altered with the old emphasis on free-ranging, outdoor evangelism supplanted by indoor, more controlled, gatherings.


[1]   D.M. Thompson Denominationalism and Dissent 1795-1835: a question of identity, Friends of Dr William’s Library, 1985.

[2] On itinerancy D.W. Lovegrove Established Church, Sectarian People: Itinerancy and the Transformation of Dissent 1780-1830, CUP, 1988, especially pp. 142-165 is valuable.

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