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A Note on Protestant Dissent and the Dissenters

The following note on Protestant Dissent and the Dissenters in English history is drawn in large part from the first chapter of my M.A. thesis, "An Uneasy Affair: William Godwin and English Radicalism, 1793-1797," (University of Missouri-Columbia, 1984), pp.7-14.

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The origins of eighteenth century English Dissent are to be found in the Puritan theology of the seventeenth century. Fundamental to English Dissent was a willingness to demystify the Christian faith by considering its principles in accordance with human reason alone. As such, Dissent signifies the shift from a reliance upon external authority in moral matters, to the internal authority of the self informed by reason. This shift was in part traditional, and in part inspired by the seventeenth century Newtonian world outlook. For those individuals who followed the tradition laid down by John Locke, the Cambridge Platonists and the later deists, an appeal was made to experience and conscious knowledge of the world of material nature. While the mysteries of Christianity were to be located and expelled, there was a simultaneous effort to preserve the virtues of Christianity while adjusting them to the new rationalistic and scientific temper. As Roland Stromberg has pointed out, "men were willing to submit to ‘reason’ because there was on all hands a sublime confidence that reason and religion were in harmony." (Religious Liberalism in Eighteenth Century England, London, 1954, p.10) The Dissenters felt that their advocacy of the reign of reason was directed by God alone. Hence, to go against the dictates of reason was to violate God’s will.

It was this confidence in reason that forced the Dissenters to distance themselves from the religious controversy within English Protestantism. They no longer believed in the central idea of Christianity -- man as a weak and wretched creature in a doleful world, in dire need of being saved and solaced by the belief in a better world to come. The Dissenters faced a crisis. How could one come to terms with Christian faith in a world become increasingly secularized? This question was part of the broader movement of liberalism within Christian culture which succeeded in eliminating the prophetic, other-worldly element in Christianity and adapting religion to the purposes of an otherwise optimistic secularism.

It was, perhaps, the inevitable consequence of a period when religion and politics, while in fact separating, were still linked in men’ s minds as the Hippocrates’ twins of Clarendon; when new economic and social forces were creating new conflicts and struggles which had nothing to do with theologies, but still bore their imprint. (Stromberg, p.165)

The "Dissenting Interest," with their increasing absorption in purely secular matters such as politics and business, coalesced with other interests--landed, commercial, monied and laboring--to produce "a sort of cross-section of public opinion influencing party politics obliquely and indirectly." (Anthony Lincoln, Some Political and Social Ideas of English Dissent, 1763-1800, Cambridge, 1938, p.12) Nonetheless, the Dissenters did not completely divorce themselves from theological thinking.

For the Dissenter, Christ was the sole head of the Church and Scripture was the only rule of faith and practice. Faith was left to the individual to encounter in his own way and by the power of reason invested in his own private judgment. The Dissenters thus objected to the Creeds as well as the offices of the Church of England. They were, on the whole, utilitarian calculators who made moralistic arguments on the relative merits of the Christian faith. The only true criterion of religion, they found, was its ability to produce virtue, as virtue was necessary for society. Yet this society was not about to accept them upon an equitable basis. The Dissenters were throughout the eighteenth century denied specific civil and political rights as were Roman Catholics and Jews.

Whereas the Anglican Church was comfortable with eighteenth century political stability, the Dissenters protested. "Their philosophy was," according to Anthony Lincoln, "an active preparation for a new age. The Dissenters had hardened their hearts against a state that had rejected them. Deeply and firmly established in the society of England, they formed a great, permanent undercurrent of dissatisfied criticism of the state of England." (Lincoln, p.272) In general, the Dissenters pressed the Church of England for recognition and involvement in the affairs of the country. Their social and political aims can be briefly stated as follows: they requested from the state the toleration to worship God in accordance with their own beliefs; they desired to be considered upon an equal legal basis with Anglicans; they desired equality in marriage, education, the ability to hold office and ultimately to sit in Parliament. They also fought to win toleration for both Roman Catholics and Jews because it was their desire to place all men upon an equal footing.

The Dissenters were imbued with the recent scientific discoveries of Newton as well as a spirit of scientific inquiry. This predisposition to inquiry flowed quite naturally from their desire to demystify Christianity through human reason. They devoted a great deal of time, energy and money to the spread of education amongst all their members. "For if men are to be freed from reliance on external authority they must be educated to be independent in judgment, and if men are to be responsible citizens they must be given knowledge." (Raymond Holt, The Unitarian Contribution to Social Progress in England, London, 1938, p.20) The state was in no way to be allowed to interfere with the education of children; this was to be left to the discretion of the parents, and often their children were sent to one of the many Dissenting academies such as Daventry, Warrington, Hoxton, Hackney or Northampton.

The heterodox views of the Dissenters, and the political radicalism that frequently accompanied them, were nurtured in these Dissenting academies. Being business oriented, energetic and God-fearing yet worldly people, they sought to improve their condition morally as well as intellectually. They held a belief in human progress and were not afraid of social change. They were from the solid middle ranks of English society, usually from the cities and the great towns. According to Isaac Kramnick, "they were the secular prophets, the vanguard, of a new social order and played the decisive role in transforming England into the first bourgeois civilization." (Isaac Kramnick, The Rage of Edmund Burke: Portrait of an Ambivalent Conservative, New York, p.13) The Dissenters’ connections with business and commerce brought them into contact with the elite of the aristocracy, especially in matters of education. The curricula at the Dissenting academies included the study of science, English literature and belles lettres, modern languages, history, political theory and economics. In this manner, they maintained a "cultural unity" at home while they "kept in close touch with the development of knowledge and thought abroad, with the result that much which was neglected at Cambridge, and which never reached Oxford, had a sympathetic reception in the dissenting academies." (Lincoln, p.67) These institutions trained a remarkable generation of significant theologians, scientists and scholars, headed by Joseph Priestley and Richard Price, and who were collectively known as Rational Dissenters.

The efforts of the Rational Dissenters helped to clear the minds of their own followers and aided in efforts to form a habit of political discussion, inquiry and criticism. It was during the reign of George III that the political radicalism of the Dissenters assumed a more active role in the affairs of national politics. Up to 1760 they had, in general, been acquiescent in political affairs. But from then on their increasing awareness of their unequal status became unbearable. (Albert Goodwin, The Friends of Liberty: The English Democratic Movement in the Age of the French Revolution, Cambridge, 1979, pp.71-2.) This was partly due to a changing economic situation in which the Dissenters prospered and a growing alienation from both the Hanoverian dynasty and the system of government of George III. They joined forces in the Wilkite agitation of 1769 and attempted to abolish compulsory subscription to the Articles of Religion in the 1770s. They also championed the cause of the American colonists in their bid for independence. Price and Priestley were also in close contact with Shelburne’s "Bowood Circle" of reformers between 1769 and 1779 where they were brought into close contact with French liberal thought. (Goodwin, pp.101-104) These connections with political radicalism "formed part of the changed climate of opinion in which the Dissenters felt that action to relieve, rather than acquiescence in, their political disabilities would itself become a practical necessity. If toleration had failed, perhaps participation might succeed." (Goodwin, p.74)

The Rational Dissenters’ political radicalism culminated with their efforts to repeal the Test and Corporation Acts on three successive occasions -- March 1787, May 1789, and March 1790. By the Corporation Act of 1661, no one could enter a civic or municipal office unless he had taken the sacrament according to the rites of the Church of England. Under the Test Act of 1673, all who held offices under the Crown were required to take the oaths of allegiance and supremacy, sign a declaration repudiating the doctrine of transubstantiation and to receive the sacrament according to the Church of England. (Goodwin, p.77) Both Acts potentially restricted the activities of the Dissenters, but the more ambitious Dissenters obtained what they had vainly sought through agitation by seceding to the Anglican Church and often achieved success in business and commerce. Others fought for the repeal of the Acts on the grounds of political equality and civic freedom until 1790, when their concerns became decidedly different.

To be sure, the Rational Dissenters became increasingly political by the time the French Revolution broke out in 1789. Richard Price's use of the pulpit at the Old Jewry, on the occasion of the commemorative gathering of the London Revolution Society on November 4, 1789, celebrated not so much the English as the French Revolution. Price even went so far as to send a message of congratulation to the French National Assembly. Price’s sermon, entitled A Discourse on the Love of Our Country, asked that the London Revolution Society disdain "national partialities" and expressed

its particular satisfaction over the glorious example given in FRANCE to encourage other nations to assert the inalienable rights of mankind, and thereby to introduce a general reformation in the governments of EUR0PE, and to make the world free and happy.

The Dissenters, frustrated by their failures to repeal the Test and Corporation Acts and their abortive pleas for civic equality, renewed their support for parliamentary reform and responded to the new challenge of "Church and King" clubs by organizing new radical societies. These societies were open to all working men and their objectives were exclusively political. "In this way," writes Albert Goodwin,

the failure of the campaigns for the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts confirmed the inherent radicalism of Dissent and provided the new working-class reformers with the political leadership and intellectual stamina that enabled them in the years ahead to acquire political credibility and to develop unaccustomed powers of large-scale organization. (Goodwin, p.97)

I suppose that what the foregoing discussion suggests is that late 18th century English radicalism was created by a number of forces, one of the most important of which was rational Dissent. There is no doubt that events in the American colonies in the 1770s as well as developments across the English Channel in the early 1790s played a major role in stimulating the movement for parliamentary reform. What we must keep in mind, is that political discourse in England was conditioned by series of complex forces, rational Dissent being one of the most potent.

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