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dissent


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(nonconformity). Though dissenting sects could trace some of their doctrines to well before the Reformation, for example to the lollards, pre‐Reformation heterodoxy is usually termed schism or heresy. The term dissent is reserved for those who did not conform to the Church of England and, though this included catholics, it is usually confined to protestant groups.

The seed time for nonconformity was the Civil War. The confused situation gave dissenting sects the opportunity to establish themselves. The independents or congregationalists dissented from the dissenters, disliking the rigour of presbyterian rule and demanding toleration; the baptists split between the general baptists and the particular baptists, who were closer to Calvinism; George Fox founded the ‘Children of Light’, later known as quakers; Thomas Harrison looked for the imminent establishment of Christ's Fifth Monarchy and the triumph of the saints.

In the declaration of Breda (April 1660) Charles II offered ‘a liberty to tender consciences’ in religious matters. But the Cavalier Parliament, elected in March 1661 to replace the Convention, was much less inclined to forgive and forget, and a new Act of Uniformity (1662) led to some 2,000 puritan clergy leaving their livings. The ‘*Clarendon code’ waged war against the nonconformists, and the Test Act of 1673 barred dissenters, protestant and catholic, from public office, including membership of Parliament. The reigns of Charles II and James II were difficult for the dissenters, fierce bursts of persecution alternating with efforts to woo them. At the crisis of 1688, the majority of protestant dissenters heeded the warning from Halifax that ‘you are to be hugged now only that you may be the better squeezed at another time’.

After the Glorious Revolution, the Toleration Act of 1689 granted freedom of worship, provided that dissenters took a simple oath of allegiance. At the same time a new schism arose when 400 Anglican clergy decided that they could not swear to the new regime and formed the non‐juring church. The acceptance after 1688 of an avowedly presbyterian church order in Scotland, confirmed by the Act of Union in 1707, was proof that the Church of England no longer had an official monopoly in the British Isles.

Under these comparatively relaxed conditions, the dissenting groups might have been expected to flourish. In practice toleration proved more damaging than persecution. Some of the more prosperous dissenters conformed for social or political reasons, but the dissenters also suffered from internal convulsions. The development of the methodist movement from the 1730s onwards led to a vast increase in dissent, though during Wesley's lifetime his followers remained in the Anglican church. By the 1770s the dissenters had arrested their decline and were growing more confident, fortified by the success of nonconformity in America. This led many of them to oppose the American war, bringing them renewed unpopularity. The support of many dissenters for the French Revolution in its early stages kindled fresh bitterness and Priestley's house in Birmingham was burned in 1791 in church and king riots. In 1828, the long wars safely over, repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts went through with surprising ease. Though nonconformists retained substantial grievances, especially over marriage and tithes, they had at least achieved formal civil equality.

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Subjects: British History.


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