Saturday, 15 October 2011

Nonconformity 1800-1850: Introduction

The metamorphosis within the Established Church was bound to have significant effects on the Dissenting churches after 1830. [1] 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 evolved into ‘Nonconformity’ and ‘dissenters’ to ‘nonconformists.’ [2] The movement towards denominationalism had its origins in the late-eighteenth century. This 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 in the form of missionary activities both abroad and at home and was possible because of the theological shift away from the Calvinist doctrine of the elect 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. 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. [3]  Evangelism came to be seen as a denominational rather than local responsibility. Despite this development, the 1820s saw the first signs of formalism 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 control and discipline. [4] Denominationalism also had expression in an increasingly ‘clerical’ approach. Jabez Bunting and his Wesleyan 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 internal strains 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 and 1857. ‘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 the consolidation and institutionalisation that underpinned  the fragmentation of the Methodist version 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 or undenominational and clerical or denominational.  It seems more likely that the move to denominationalism was occasioned by the need to maintain the constituencies of the different nonconformist groups within an increasingly open religious ‘free-market’. Between 1780 and 1815, Nonconformity was preoccupied with rural society where it challenged the dominance of the Established Church.  Congregationalist County associations and regional Baptist bodies 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 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 as an expression of contemporary concerns for ‘respectability’ and this hastened 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. [5]


[1] Watts, Michael R., The Dissenters, Vol. 1: From the Reformation to the French Revolution, (Oxford University Press), 1978, and The Dissenters, Vol. 2: The expansion of Evangelical Nonconformity 1791-1859, (Oxford University Press), 1995, are the most valuable surveys. See also, Sellers, I., Nineteenth Century  Nonconformity,  (Edward Arnold),  1977,  for  a general survey and Thompson, D. M., Nonconformity in the  Nineteenth Century, (Routledge), 1972, and Briggs, J. H. Y., and Sellers, I., Victorian Nonconformity,  (Edward  Arnold),  1973, for documentary  studies.

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

[3] On itinerancy, Lovegrove, D. W., Established Church, Sectarian People: Itinerancy and the Transformation of Dissent 1780-1830, (Cambridge University Press), 1988, especially pp. 142-165, is valuable.

[4] Brown, K. D., A Social History of the Nonconformist Ministry in England and Wales, 1800-1930, (Oxford University Press), 1988, pp. 19-79.

[5] Johnson, Dale A., The changing shape of English nonconformity, 1825-1925, (Oxford University Press), 1999.

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