English Dissenters

English Dissenters


After the threatening opposition in the reign of Anne, which culminated in the Occasional Conformity Bill, and the Schism Act, had spent its force, the Dissenters enjoyed a fair degree of security. Nevertheless, they made but slow progress toward a legal equality with the members of the Establishment. A serious discrimination was maintained against them through the century. It was not till 1828 that their eligibility to public office was formally acknowledged by the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts. Prior to this date the most notable item of legal indulgence which the government granted was the provision in 1779 that Dissenters, instead of being required to subscribe to the Anglican articles as a condition of exercising the office of minister or schoolmaster, should simply make a general declaration of their Christian faith. This provision had at the time no application to the Unitarians. Impugners of the doctrine of the Trinity were under the ban of the law till 1813. In practice, however, the law had been for a long interval little else than a dead letter.


The advance of Roman Catholics to a complete legal standing was nearly parallel with that of Protestant Dissenters. In 1778 some of the severer items recorded against them in the statute book were repealed, and in 1829 the completing act of Roman Catholic emancipation in England was accomplished. The indulgence shown at the former date was followed by a disgraceful episode. A combination of demagogism and anti-Romish animosity precipitated a popular outbreak in London, known as the Gordon riot.


An investigation, conducted by Daniel Neal, in 1715-16, lead to the conclusion that there were at that time eleven hundred and fifty congregations of Protestant Dissenters in England and Wales. In this aggregate,-which, as given, is perhaps somewhat too small, --the Presbyterians were the largest factor. It has been estimated that their congregations were nearly double those of the Independents, as also larger in size, while the congregations of the Baptists, though nearly equal in number to those of the Independents, were inferior in size. The Roman Catholics in England do not appear to have been a numerous body during the eighteenth century. They are said to have reckoned, in 1767, 67,916 adherents; in 1780, 69,376.


The relative superiority of the Presbyterians among English Dissenters was not maintained. Early in the Georgian era they began to decline. Among the principal causes of declension were relaxation of discipline and disintegration of belief. So far was the doctrinal defection carried that before the end of the eighteenth century the Presbyterian name became well-nigh synonymous with Socinian or Unitarian.


The revolt against the Trinitarian teaching, while it specially affected the Presbyterians, did not owe its origin altogether to them. In the closing years of the seventeenth century the enterprising and philanthropic layman, Thomas Firmin, though he remained in the Established Church, was active in spreading Unitarian literature. Whatever effect may have been produced by this kind of agency was supplemented by an ill-managed attempt on the part of several theologians of the Establishment to explicate the mysteries of the Trinity. The attempt ended in mutual accusations of unsoundness. William Sherlock incurred the charge of tritheism, while Wallis and South were accused of Sabellianism. Such charges included no charitable respect for the intent of the writers named. But shortly afterwards an unmistakable departure from the Trinitarian standard was made by William Whiston. According to Macaulay, "Whiston believed everything but the Trinity." Among the fanciful items of his creed was the belief that the work which passed under the name of the "Apostolical Constitutions" was one of the earliest and most authoritative memorials of primitive Christianity, and indeed of equal value with the four Gospels. Whiston called himself a Eusebian; his opponents called him an Arian. The term Eusebian or Semi-Arian may be granted him, since he did not maintain that the Son was made out of nothing. His heterodoxy caused him the loss of the chair of mathematics which he held at Cambridge. He finally became connected with the General Baptists. A more important contribution to the same, or a very similar class of views respecting the Trinity was made by Samuel Clarke, whose "Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity" was published in 1712. This work was challenged. Clarke managed to satisfy the bishops by a qualifying paper, but many of the clergy were not pleased with his escape. Among the writings called out by the agitation, those of Waterland have earned a wide reputation as an able exposition and defence of Trinitarian teaching.


Partly owing to this ferment, and partly in consequence of the rationalizing spirit of the time, a current was started in the direction of Arianism. A token that this current had entered the domain of the English Presbyterians was first discovered in 1717, when two ministers at Exeter, James Pierce and Joseph Hallett, fell under suspicion. After some local stir, the subject was brought before the Dissenting clergy of London and vicinity in the famous meeting of Salter's Hall, in 1719. The meeting ended in a breach between the party which insisted upon subscription to a definite Trinitarian formula, and that which rejected subscription. The non-subscribers, so far as the Presbyterian wing of the assembly was concerned, were largely in the majority. Many of them, probably nearly all of them, were by no means anti-Trinitarians. Their opposition was against the requisition of subscription at all. But their position argued at least an absence of dogmatic zeal which, under the existing circumstances, was favorable to an encroaching liberalism. A few decades later only a remnant of the Presbyterian Church in England still adhered to the old faith.


Until the latter part of the century, opposition to Trinitarianism commonly took the form of Arianism. Nathaniel Lardner, who won honorable distinction in the deistical controversy, is understood to have leaned to Arianism. The same was true of Richard Price. Joseph Priestley, on the other hand, advanced to the doctrine of the simple humanity of Christ, and contributed notably toward the transition to this form of Unitarian belief. Theophilus Lindsey and Thomas Belsham, the former coming from the Established Church, and the latter from the Independents, wrought in the same direction. The humanitarian conception of Christ was thus brought into the ascendant. As appears from the Historical Sketch of Lindsey, there was also a tendency decidedly hostile to the early Socinian view that worship is due to Christ, as the representative of God, and as exalted to practical kingship in the things of grace.


Notwithstanding the large contingent which it received from the Presbyterians, and its accessions from other sources, Unitarianism did not greatly thrive. There was difficulty in retaining ground once acquired. While there were some flourishing congregations, others hardly managed to keep their lease of life. We find Priestley painting the outlook in these discouraging terms: "It is too evident to be denied that the societies of those who are called Rational Dissenters, whether they be properly Unitarian or not, do generally decline, many of them having become actually extinct, and others being in such a condition that they cannot be supported much longer. This is more especially the case in London and in the South of England; but from the same causes it may in time extend to the North."


The Independents, or Congregationalists, adhered more steadily than the Presbyterians to the standards which had been handed down from the preceding generations. In the first half of the century they enjoyed the services of men of such high character, genius, and scholarship as Bradbury, Watts, and Doddridge. Thomas Bradbury was a man of great fearlessness and force, who did not hesitate to take his politics into the pulpit, who felt specially at home on the field of controversy, and who championed orthodoxy with a fiery earnestness. It is scarcely an accident that he came to be spoken of as "bold Bradbury." Isaac Watts was one of the most gifted men of his generation. He was a preacher of more than average eloquence, and an acute, if not eminently profound writer on the topics of theology and philosophy, as well as a possessor of the divine charism of poesy. Through his talent for sacred song he introduced a new era in the history of English hymnology. "His fancy was as chaste as it was lofty, and was ever held in check by a profound and awful reverence for the character of Almighty God. His errors are, for the most part, errors of style and execution. He had not the musical ear or the delicate critical judgment of Addison. His verse is often faulty in its rhythm, and careless and inaccurate in its rhyme. From its mixed vigor and tameness of thought and expression, it is singularly unequal. But, compared with everything of their kind which had gone before, his hymns must have seemed like the addition of a new sense to the Christian worshiper." 1 H.S. Skeats, History of the Free Churches of England from 1688 to 1851, p. 256. Philip Doddridge shared with Watts the honor of sustaining the reputation of Nonconformists for learning and literary ability. His Catholic temper brought him into friendly relations with a great variety of parties. As president of the Academy at Northampton for a score of years, he exercised a widely extended influence. Through his writings, especially the "Family Expositor," and the "Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul," he reached a still larger circle. The latter treatise, though perhaps open to criticism, as presenting a piety that is somewhat too analytic and introspective, has established its claim to high regard by the undeniable fact that it has served as a unique instrument in the conversion of men. While not the equal of Watts in poetic talent, Doddridge wrote hymns whose tenderness and depth of devotional feeling give them a secure title to immortality. In their origin, his hymns were an appendix to his sermons. "They were flung off with happy facility, each one after he had finished the preparation of his sermon, while his mind was still brimming and kindling with the thought. Each hymn, therefore, preserves the leading ideas of some forgotten sermon." 1 Stanford, Life of Philip Doddridge.


The period from 1688 to 1800 is named by a Baptist historian "the quiet period" in the annals of his English brethren, not only as being a time of rest from persecution, but also, for the major part, a time of relative inaction. The Arminian branch, the so-called General Baptists, suffered, much like the Presbyterians, from the inroads of Arianism. In protest against this innovation, the more orthodox withdrew in 1770, and formed the New Connection of General Baptists. The body thus organized was destined to be the representative in later times of the General Baptists, the Arianized churches having passed into the Unitarian communion, or become extinct. In the first quarter of the eighteenth century the Arminian Baptists were favored with a learned adherent in the person of John Gale, who is known from his reply to Wall's "History of Infant Baptism."


The Particular, or Calvinistic Baptists, while they contributed so distinguished a member as Robert Robinson to Socinianism, seem to have suffered, on the whole, rather from narrowness than from laxity in dogma. "To whatever other causes," says Cramp, "the condition of affairs may be ascribed, there can be little doubt that the paralyzing influence of the doctrinal sentiments entertained by many of the ministers, must be regarded as mainly contributing to this result. John Brine and Dr. Gill were chief men in the denomination for nearly half a century. They were supra-lapsarians, holding that God's election was irrespective of the fall of man. They taught eternal justification. Undue prominence was given in their discourses to the teachings of Scripture respecting the divine purposes. Although they themselves inculcated practical godliness, and so were not justly liable to the charge of Antinomianism, there is reason to fear that numbers of those who imbibed their doctrinal views kept out of sight, or but feebly urged, the obligation of believers to personal holiness. And this is certain, that these eminent men and all their followers went far astray from the course marked out by the Lord and His apostles. They were satisfied with stating men's dangers, and assuring them that they were on the high road to perdition. But they did not call them to repent and believe.... and the churches did not, could not, under their instruction, engage in efforts for the conversion of souls. They were so afraid of intruding on God's work that they neglected to do what He had commanded them." 1 Baptist History.


The Methodist revival favorably affected the interests of the Baptists, though they were somewhat slow to manifest the forward impulse. Their annals for the closing part of the century contain two names, Robert Hall and William Carey, which shine as stars of the first magnitude. The former has a well-grounded celebrity as one of the great masters of the pulpit, his sermons being at once remarkable for style and for substance. The latter took a conspicuous part in inaugurating the era of enlarged interest in missionary enterprise. Largely through his influence the Baptist Missionary Society was formed in 1792, and the next year he sailed for India. Among those associated with Carey in establishing the Missionary Society, a foremost place in influence was occupied by Andrew Fuller, who besides was eminent as one of the most cogent and thoughtful among the theological writers of his denomination. From Samuel Stennett the Baptists received the precious legacy of hymns which still are voiced in countless sanctuaries.


One of the questions for debate within the denomination was the propriety of open communion. Through the eighteenth century, a large proportion of Baptist ministers seem to have taken the negative side. This side was vigorously championed by Abraham Booth, and was also supported by Andrew Fuller. On the other hand, John Ryland and Robert Hall argued for open communion. The writings of the latter in particular were influential in spreading the conviction among English Baptists that it is not worth while to sacrifice to mere technical consistency both catholicity and consistency of the deeper and better kind.


By the beginning of the eighteenth century the Quakers in England had already passed the meridian as respects the growth of their sect. From this time their chief distinction lay in their forwardness and zeal in philanthropic enterprises. In 1758 they issued a vigorous protest against the slave trade, and three years later voted to disown any Quakers who might be engaged in the nefarious business. It has been said that by 1780 there was not a single slave in the possession of an acknowledged Quaker. The Quakers also took an honorable part in the work of prison reform. The name of Elizabeth Fry is one of the bright names interwoven with the record of large-hearted and untiring philanthropy in behalf of the wretched prisoner. To be sure, in labors of this kind, she and her co-laborers had been anticipated by John Howard, who began his remarkable tours of prison visitation in 1777; but still an ample held was left for the humanitarian zeal of the Quakers.