Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Older Nonconformist sects

The  diversity  of  Nonconformity makes  it  difficult  to generalise  about its development and some consideration of  each of  the  major groupings is necessary[1].  


This had slowly moved away from the doctrine of the Trinity and by 1830, a majority of its members were Unitarian in creed.  Unitarianism had  developed from  the ‘rational theology’ of  the  eighteenth century  but  its association with free thought,  radicalism  in politics  and its  defence of people like Richard  Carlile  made orthodox Dissent suspicious. Increasingly the doctrinal differences between Unitarians and Trinitarians mattered.

In 1816, the minister of the Wolverhampton Unitarian chapel was discovered to be a Trinitarian and his congregation dismissed him. In the ensuing legal case the vice-chancellor held that the chapel  was built when it was illegal to be a Unitarian and  that the  law  could  therefore have upheld no  endowment  to  support Unitarian  worship.   The Wolverhampton case put in jeopardy the chapel and endowment of every Unitarian congregation founded before 1813, when Unitarian opinion ceased to be illegal.  A similar decision in favour of Trinitarians occurred over the fund left by Lady Hewley in 1704 to provide endowments in the six northern English counties. The vice-chancellor’s court confirmed that only  Trinitarians were eligible for endowments  from  the fund  in  1833  and  this judgement was maintained  by  the  Lord Chancellor and   the   House  of  Lords  in   1836 and  1842 respectively. These cases divided English dissenters and in March 1836, a majority of Unitarian congregations in London separated themselves from the Protestant dissenting deputies, splitting the alliance of ‘Old’ dissent.

The legal uncertainty for Unitarians created by the Lady Hewley case was exacerbated by a suit over the richly endowed Eustace Street chapel in Dublin in 1843-4 when Irish Trinitarians sought to acquire the chapels and endowments of Irish Unitarians. The result, that followed the 1836 precedent, meant that every Unitarian chapel might now become the subject of litigation. Peel attempted to resolve the problem by introducing a Dissenters Chapels Bill. This said that where there was no trust deed determining doctrine or usage that the usage of a certain number of years (twenty five was agreed on) should be taken as conclusive evidence of the right of any congregation to possess a chapel and its endowments and that any suits pending should have the benefit of the act. Peel was surprised by the depth of opposition from   Wesleyan and orthodox nonconformists   and   the evangelical clergy of the Church of England.   Its passage was important as a further extension of the 1813 Toleration Act to others besides orthodox Trinitarians.

The   few  surviving  Trinitarian  congregations  looked  to Scotland  for  aid but the established Church of  Scotland  was reluctant  and  in  1839 the General  Assembly  acknowledged  the independence  of the  Presbyterian  Church of England. The Unitarians were not an expanding religious grouping but the Trinitarians, their numbers swelled by Scottish immigration into England, were.   In 1836 the congregations of Lancashire and the north-west agreed to form a synod of two presbyteries and adopted the Westminster confession of faith. The synod expanded during the late 1830s and 1840s:  London and Newcastle were brought in 1839; Berwick in 1840; Northumberland in 1842 and Birmingham in 1848. The changing attitude of the synod was reflected in the change of name: in 1839, it was the ’Presbyterian Church of England in connection with the Church of Scotland’ and in 1849 the ‘Presbyterian Church in England’.   Not until 1876 did it become the Presbyterian Church of England.

The 1851 Religious Census showed that the distribution of Presbyterianism was almost entirely a reflection of Scottish immigration into England.   Half of total number of attendances was recorded in the three northern counties of Northumberland, Durham and Cumberland.   Lancashire and London each accounted for about 20 per cent each and the remaining 10 per cent were made up of isolated congregations in Westmoreland, Yorkshire, Cheshire, Staffordshire, Warwickshire and Worcestershire.


Between 1830 and 1860, the Congregationalists turned from a loose federation into something like a modern denomination. This was a major achievement since a denomination meant some form of central authority and Independents had always held that each chapel was sovereign. The force that moved Independents towards some form of  central  authority  was  the  recognition   that dissenters’  rights over marriage or burial or church rates  were better protected by county associations than by small  sovereign units and the need for central support to support colleges and to make stipends adequate for ministers. An attempted union in 1811 failed but in 1831 a Congregation Union was tentatively established.

During the 1830s, the Union survived uneasily. County associations joined slowly: Oxford and West Berkshire in 1841, Cornwall in 1846 and Hampshire in 1848 were among the latest to join, but they sent no money. The union was saved by the skill of Algernon Wells, secretary from 1837 until his death in 1850. He put the Union on a sound financial and organisational footing with profits from its publications.   After 1845, the Union ran into problems occasioned by the problems within Wesleyan Methodism that brought central government into question.  Many Independents sided with Bunting’s opponents and the death of Algernon Wells in 1850 removed an important force for moderation within the Union.

Though the Union diminished the variety of uses in chapels, the pressure had always been towards free worship and the breadth of Independent doctrine.   Congregational churches were faithful to  Calvinism  but could not observe the advances  of  Methodism without  adopting  some  of  its  devices  and  its   missionary enthusiasm. They   gained from  Sunday  schools  and  village preaching  but  there was a thinning in the  upper  and  educated ranks  of society.   The political disputes between church and dissent in the 1830s and 1840s raised fears that Independents were natural allies of Irish and radicals and this meant that by 1850, Congregational churches had a more broadly lower middle-class composition than they had in 1800, though they housed more worshippers.

The 1851 Religious Census revealed the same basic geographical pattern as was operative at the end of the seventeenth century.  Congregationalism was highest in a line of counties stretching eastward from Devon to Essex and Suffolk. The Census shows that whatever hold Dissent had in the largest urban complexes was due largely to the Wesleyan Methodists.  The exception was London where Congregationalists took the leading role.   But even here the picture was patchy.   There were few congregations in Kensington, Chelsea and Bayswater where Anglicanism was dominant.  The East End also proved poor soil and apart from a number of missions supported by wealthy suburban congregations there were few Congregational chapels.   In  the ordinary  lower middle-class suburbs,  especially south of  the Thames,  the  field  was  left clear for the  Baptists  and  the Methodists.   It was in the prosperous and expanding suburbs like Hampstead, Brixton, Highbury and Clapham that Congregationalism had its real base.


They were Independent congregations that practised the baptism of believers and there was little to distinguish them from Congregationalists. But this outward harmony concealed a considerable diversity. Congregational chapels contained few labourers, while many Baptist chapels were composed of people from the lower levels of society. Baptist congregations had less educated pastors, more illiterate members, held their Calvinism more rigidly, were doctrinally more conservative and held to their notion of independence more vehemently. Congregationalists were  moderate  Calvinists but Baptists were divided  into  three groups:  General  or Arminian Baptists;  Particular Baptists  who were  moderate Calvinists and Strict and Particular Baptists  who were  Calvinist but not moderate.   Most of the General Baptist congregations went back to the seventeenth century and had faded into Unitarian belief but since 1770 a small group, the General Baptists of the New Connexion, preserved the orthodox Arminian faith.

The  nineteenth  century  was marked by a period  of  coming together among Baptists and as early as 1813 a Baptist Union  was created  to  provide a common meeting ground for  Particular  and General Baptists. To create a ‘union’ proved more difficult than among  Congregationalists  even though the same needs  for  union existed  -- a missionary society in need of money  and direction, training of ministers,  stipends for pastors and chapels in debt. The General Baptists were only lukewarm in their support for the 1813 union and, though it was reorganised in 1832, support for it grew more slowly than that for the contemporary Congregational Union.

The 1851 Religious Census showed that about 366,000 Baptists attended services. Particular Baptists had 1,491 chapels in England and 456 in Wales.   New Connexion of General Baptists had 179 chapels in England and three in Wales.   Old General Baptists had 93 chapels.   The Baptists’ main strength lay in the block of counties stretching from the East Midlands to the coast of East Anglia.   Except in Dorset and Methodist Cornwall, Baptists increased in all the southern counties of England after 1800. By contrast, there were few Baptists in the northern counties apart from the West Riding.

The Quakers

The major expansion of the Society of Friends (the Quakers) took place in the eighteenth century and they were numerically strongest in the north (Lancashire, Yorkshire and Westmoreland), in the south-west and in London, Bristol and Norwich. Most Quakers came   from the rural and urban ’petite bourgeoisie’ with correspondingly few among the upper-classes or the lower orders. But this trend was reversed in the first half of the nineteenth century. Contemporaries identified three major causes of this. First, the evangelical revival had the effect of dividing  Quakers into those who adopted an evangelical  approach to  their  belief and those for whom discussion of the  Bible (its reading aloud  at  meetings  did  not  occur  until 1860)   was unthinkable.   The dispute came to a head in 1835-1837 and led to about 300 Friends of Lancashire and Kendal leaving the Society. For a time they maintained a separate denomination as Evangelical Friends  but  soon  found little  to  divide  them  from   other denominations  and  some joined the Church of England and  others the Plymouth Brethren. Secondly, Quaker religious education was extremely poor. It was seen as secondary to simply waiting upon the word and was consequently undeveloped.  Quaker Sunday schools were not begun until the 1840s. Thirdly, marriage discipline was strict and it was broken then the individual was bound to be expelled.  John Bright’s brother and two sisters were expelled for marrying outside the Society.   Perhaps a third of the Friends who married between 1809 and 1859 had, according to one contemporary, been expelled for marrying outside the Society.   The conservatism  of the  Quakers  led to decline and this was not arrested until  the 1860s when marriage discipline became less draconian,  religious education was  improved  and  there was  a  recognition  of  the positive value of evangelism.

The Mormons

During   the nineteenth century a number of religious movements grew up in the United States and that were brought to Britain.   Before 1850, only the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints or the Mormons was of any significance.   Founded in the 1820s, the Mormons claimed to be the only true and valid church and first appeared on the English religious kaleidoscope in 1837 when seven Mormon missionaries landed at Liverpool.  A second mission in 1840, led by the leader Brigham Young, proved equally successful.   Based on Liverpool, Mormon missions were sent round the country and it is small wonder that many of the early converts were the poor for whom the 1840s were a period of intense hardship.   Furthermore the Mormons organised a very efficient emigration system out of Liverpool.   Between 1841 and 1843 nearly 3,000 emigrants left Liverpool and, despite the suspension of all emigration in 1846 and 1847, by 1850 the number of emigrants had risen to nearly 17,000.

In the 1851 Religious Census 16,628 Mormons attended the evening service of Sunday. The 1850s saw Mormonism is decline throughout Britain. In part this was the result of improved conditions for the working population. More important was the announcement by Brigham Young in 1852 that polygamy was God’s will. Outside the Mormon mission house in Soham (Cambridgeshire) 1,200 people watched as village youths enacted a Mormon wedding, to which seven brides rode on donkeys. Polygamy exposed Mormonism to charges of immorality and vice and was fatal to evangelism in Britain.   The number of Mormons sank back slowly to 2,000 by the 1860s.

[1] On   Nonconformity  apart  from  Methodism  see  I. Sellers Nineteenth Century  Nonconformity,  Edward Arnold,  1977  for  a general  survey and D.M. Thompson Nonconformity in the  Nineteenth Century, Routledge, 1972 and J.H.Y. Briggs and I. Sellers Victorian Nonconformity,  Edward  Arnold,  1973  for documentary  studies. R. Jones Congregationalism in England 1662-1962, A.C. Underwood A History of the English Baptists, 1947, C.G. Bolan et al The English Presbyterians, 1968 and E. Isichei Victorian Quakers, OUP, 1970 cover the major groups.

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