Non-Conformists – The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge

Originally from here.

NPG D29704,The Farewell Sermons of ...,by Unknown artistNON-CONFORMISTS: A term applied to the 2,000 clergymen who, in 1662, after the Restoration, left the Church of England rather than submit to the Act of Uniformity which required assent to The Book of Common Prayer. Later it came to apply to the Protestant dissenters and in general to those who at any period in English history, since the establishment of Protestantism, have refused to conform to the doctrines and practices of the established church. In the place of Puritanism before the Restoration now came, after the Restoration, political non-conformity, which has its seat principally among the middle or lower-middle classes, the yeomanry of former times. The Act of Uniformity was followed by other repressive measures: in 1664, the Conventicle Act declaring it unlawful to be present at any religious meeting not conducted according to the usages of the Church of England where more than five persons in addition to the family were assembled; in 1665, the Five-Mile Act intended to banish the ministers from their friends; and, in 1673, the Test Act, incapacitating every person from holding any public office who had not publicly taken the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper according to the usages of the Church of England.

In an effort to unite the opposition to the established church, the Roman Catholic King James II suspended, by a Declaration of Liberty of Conscience in 1687, the execution of all penal laws in ecclesiastical matters and all tests and oaths. As a result ministers were released from jails and restored. The Toleration Act of 1689, under William III, secured to Protestant dissenters a legal existence together with freedom of worship and government under the condition of self-support. This act did not repeal the penal statutes, which were, however, no longer enforced. The benefits conferred by it were much curtailed by the Occasional Communion Act, at the accession of Queen Anne, which excluded from civil office those non-conformists who had qualified under the Test Act; and by the Schism Bill, which restricted the work of education to certified churchmen. These restrictions were removed under George III; and the Test Act was repealed in 1743. The non-conformists have since enjoyed religious liberty, but the agitation has continued, having for its end ecclesiastical disestablishment. In 1836, the dissenters were allowed marriage by their own ministers and rites, and the tithes were commuted into rent charges, though in the latter form they are yet a source of bitter offense. Registration of births, deaths, and marriages was transferred from Church to State and a charter given to the free University of London, imposing no religious tests.

Along educational lines, the great universities were thrown open to young non-conformists in 1871, and a system of state schools established which rendered non-conformists independent of the established church for primary education; and their latest agitation was the unsuccessful Education Bill in 1906, providing for optional religious education in all state schools. In 1880 non-conformists secured the enactment of the Burial Laws Amendment by virtue of which dissenting ministers may conduct funerals in churchyards and in the consecrated parts of cemetaries, but the customary fees must still be paid to the clergy of the established church. Though divided by distinctions of sect, yet as a compact, aggressive body, they hold the balance of power, outnumber the adherents of the Church of England, and stand as the representatives of liberality in doctrine as well as in polity. The chief organization through which non-conformity is to work cooperatively for the promotion of dissenters’ rights and religious liberty are the “General Body of Protestant Ministers of the Three Denominations” (Presbyterian, Independent, and Baptist) constituted in 1727 and still meeting annually; the “Liberation Society”; and the “Free Church Council.”

Bibliography. The literature under CONGREGATIONALISTS; PURITANS; and LIBERTY, RELIGIOUS, is pertinent; A. S. Dyer, Sketches of English Nonconformity, London, 1881; T. Price, Hist. of Protestant Nonconformity in England, 2 vols., London, 1836-38; J. A. James, Protestant Nonconformity, ib., 1849; T. Coleman, The 2,000 Confessors of 1662, ib., 1860; idem, The English Confessors after the Reformation to the Days of the Commonwealth, ib., 1862; R. Vaughn, English Nonconformity, ib., 1862; T. Rees, Protestant Nonconformity in Wales, ib., 1883; J. Hammond, English Nonconformity, ib., 1893; C. S. Horne, Nonconformity in the 19th Century, ib., 1905.

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