Members of Old Dissent: an introduction

In the 18th and 19th centuries ‘Old Dissent’ was a term used to describe those congregations who had roots in the 16th and 17th centuries. The following summaries below offers a brief introduction, as a prerequisite to further posts which will incorporate the family/gender dispositions of each group.savoy declaration


The eldest members of English ‘Old Dissent’ are the Congregationalists, who arose as early as the middle of the 16th century at a time when their main Protestant opponents were the Established Church. Congregationalists arose from gathered groups of men and women who chose to separate from the Church.[1] Thus, doctrinally Congregationalism carried with it practices common to the Established Church, such as their practice of baptism, while differing from the Established Church in polity, since Congregationalists practiced an independent church structure. The first official Congregationalist Church has arguably been attributed to the ministry of Robert Browne who asserted for the right to assemble to worship without control by or interference from the Established Church. He set up his chapel in 1581 and was subsequently imprisoned.[2] From this period onwards this group increased, though the Act of Uniformity prevented them from assembling freely. Congregationalists were, unsurprisingly, pivotal to Oliver Cromwell’s army in the 1640s and 50s.

After the Restoration, they were closely associated with Presbyterian churches and, indeed, it was often difficult to differentiate them until later in the 18th century. The crucial difference between these two groups in the late 17th and early 18th century were controversies concerning Arminianism and Calvinism – the Congregationalists moved towards Calvinism while the Presbyterians latched onto Arminian theology.[3] Likewise, as evangelicalism arose in the 18th century, Congregationalists were more readily identified as evangelical while the Presbyterians were aligned with a largely anti-evangelical Rational Dissent.[4] By the Victorian era, Congregationalism was the largest denomination of Old Dissent, and their affections were strongest with the Baptists – especially Particular Baptists. With them they shared passions for religious liberty and independent church polity. This is, perhaps, unsurprising since the Particular Baptists first arose out of Congregationalism in the 17th century. However, this relationship frequently underwent strain in the early 19th century as their positions regarding baptism differed substantially.[5]

18th century BaptistsBaptists

 Baptists, noted for the emphasis on baptism by immersion and only after a profession of faith, first arose in England in the early 17th century. It is important to note that two distinct groups of Baptists arose in this period with different origins, though arguably both ascended from the Congregationalists. The General Baptists were the first Baptists on the scene in England – whose prefix ‘General’ indicates their belief that Christ died for all men, rather than only his elect (which is the belief of the Particular Baptists).[6] The General Baptists first arose from a group of ‘Separatists’ from the Church of England (i.e., Congregationalists) who fled to Holland due to persecution under the Act of Uniformity. Whilst in Amsterdam, this group fell under the influence of Mennonites (with Anabaptist origins) and became persuaded that baptism by immersion was the correct application of this particular sacrament. In 1612 it was decided by some members that their flight to Holland was a mistake and they decided to return to England to set up a church. And so, they did – in 1612 the first Baptist Church was founded outside of the City of London.[7] In the 18th century the General Baptists began to adopt prevailing Socinian views and, as with the Presbyterians, many of their numbers became identified with Unitarianism.[8]

Particular Baptists, who believed in the limited atonement of Christ’s work as being applicable to the elect alone, enjoyed a separate history from the General Baptists. They also arose out of a Congregationalist Church and retained the Calvinistic theology of their ancestors. Underwood attributes their beginnings to a particular congregation in London who began to express Baptist sentiments in the 1630s. However, he notes the exact date is difficult to discern as church records indicate that the leadership in this church was disavowing the practice of infant baptism at the Established Church as early as 1633. It is unclear, however, whether this was due to their own sentiments towards credobaptism[9], or whether these views were still in development. It is clear that this practice was certainly established by 1638 when infant-baptism as a general practice was rejected. Thus, as concluded by Underwood, the first Particular Baptist Church began either in 1633 or 1638 in London.[10]

 Joseph PriestleyThe Unitarians

 The Unitarians are the one group of Old Dissent whose place in this category is potentially dubious. Arguably, their first chapel arose in the 1770s under the ministry of Theophilus Lindsey, a former clergyman of the Established Church who left and formed a chapel in Essex with Unitarian doctrine.[11] However, their claim to Old Dissent is attributed to the claim that Unitarianism is organically related to the Presbyterians of that group. Indeed, by the early 19th century Presbyterianism had largely shifted to Unitarianism – with some chapels choosing to identify as Presbyterians with Unitarian inclinations.[12] This organic argument suggests that Presbyterianism, over the course of the 18th century, progressive drifted towards Arian and Socinian views, finally arriving at largely Unitarian proclivities by the end of the 18th century.[13] According to Short, their inclination to identity as ‘Rational Dissenters’ was a protest against evangelicalism.[14]

Unitarians saw themselves as an organic continuation from the Presbyterians. Indeed, the Unitarians themselves clung to this view, arguing for their Presbyterian heritage multiple times in the 19th century to justify their denominational validity.[15] Richey disputes this argument, however, suggesting that it grossly overlooks the unity between orthodox Dissenters (Presbyterians, Baptists and Congregationalists) throughout the early 18th century; this was especially true for Presbyterians and Congregationalists whose differences were minimal, since the Presbyterian churches were, in essence, Congregational in ecclesiology.[16] Richey suggests that the stark divisions between Congregationalists and Presbyterians arose by the middle of the 18th century as a result of dichotomous ideologies which were proliferating in the 18th century – a move towards orthodoxy and Calvinism by some groups and an alternative move towards liberalism by others. Those who latched onto the former often became identified as Congregationalists and the latter with Presbyterians. As Richey sees it, ‘the denominational labels were being applied to ideological parties, rather than ideology being assumed by denominational parties’.[17] This theory would, indeed, support the evidence which suggests that Unitarianism was populated by members who were formerly General Baptists, Anglicans, and Presbyterians in the 18th century.[18]

Although the first Unitarian chapel may have been founded by a chapel minister named Theophilus Lindsey, the man who is most frequently associated with early Unitarianism is Joseph Priestley; he was seen as their pre-eminent leader. Arguably, he set the stage for the future of Unitarianism doctrinally; the mainstay of his views, and indeed of Unitarians in general, was the belief that ‘the Trinity’ is not mentioned in the Bible, and thus should not be assented to as truth. Alternatively, he argued that Christ was simply a man who was sent by God to remind mankind of sacred truths, and his death was a prophetic foreshadowing of the fate of others who would seek to do the same. Priestley’s Unitarianism was founded upon reason (hence, it being identified as ‘Rational Dissent’), and therefore spiritual authority was to be found not within Church nor even ultimately in the Bible – but personally through reason and  individual conscience.[19]

martineauPriestley remained the most influential figure in Unitarianism through the first quarter of the 19th century, until the advent of Henry Martineau’s adaptation. This new adaptation of Unitarianism may arguably be the first thorough evidence of the impact of evangelicalism upon the Unitarian denomination. Martineau reflected upon Priestley’s Unitarianism and found it to be too reason-centered and lacking in passion. The influence of ‘heart religion’, a central trait of evangelicalism, was coming into the fore for Unitarianism. Martineau suggested that religion ought to be more intuitive and emotive. While accuracy obtained through sound reason was important, it should not hold primacy; this position was reserved for religious emotion. This divergence in beliefs caused a schism in Unitarianism – one group moving towards increased rationality and higher criticism, the other (Martineau’s group) moving towards intuitive religion. Interestingly, the latter group would be the most prominent throughout the latter 19th century.[20]

Quakers Quakers

 The Quakers were the most isolated group of Old Dissent; they were the only radical sect to arise in the late 17th century which continued strong into the 18th century. Unlike the former three denominations, they did not hold close ties with the rest of Dissent but were significantly insular. Their roots can be found in George Fox, who, after scouring the religious plane for spiritual satisfaction, discovered that his spiritual discontentment could only be alleviated by turning inward. From this developed the concept of the ‘inner light’ (i.e., the Holy Spirit) who would advise and instruct. This inner light was seen as direct revelation from God, superior even to the Bible for some groups.[21] Arguably, the Quakers might be most similar in this view to the Unitarians, who also were considered to be outside of orthodoxy due to the supremacy they attributed to an inward guide. However, while this was reason for the Unitarians, this guide was the ‘inner light’ for the Quakers.

Unlike other dissenting denominations, Quakers did not hold pre-ordered services of worship; instead, they would sit in silence as a congregation, awaiting the Holy Spirit to compel someone to preach among them. Avoiding worldliness was paramount to their religious piety, and many practices and hobbies were identified as such. Practices such as swearing oaths, celebrating special days, or serving in the military were all abhorrent worldly practices. Indeed, even other denominations were not recognized as spiritual, since they were outward-facing apostates, bereft of the truth the Quakers had discovered within.[22]

These practices continued throughout the 18th century as ‘Quietism’ became the dominant practice – in which the group became truly solipsistic and endogamous. Quietist Quakers believed that spiritual growth was defined by one’s ability to enter into a total retreat from the world – and they certainly tried. This is demonstrated by their firm resistance to Evangelicalism when it first came into the fore. Alike the Unitarians, the Quakers resisted large-scale penetration from evangelicalism until the early 19th century, when it began to infect the members of their midst. Evangelical views transformed Quakerism into a vibrant and engaged denomination which shared in the evangelical concerns of other dissenters -particularly the primacy of the atonement and the centrality of the bible. Indeed, this became a controversial point since many Quakers still argued that the Bible ought to be superseded by the ‘inner light’ – though this will be discussed more thoroughly below.[23] One of the more well-known Evangelical Quakers was Joseph Gurney, renowned for persuading British and American Quakers to adopt Evangelical principles into their teachings. Indeed, so influential was Gurney in his American journeys, that his name has been attached to a significant schism in Quakerism, some becoming Gurneyites while others became identified as Hicksites.[24]

[1] E. A. Livingstone, ‘Congregationalism’ The Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. (Oxford University Press, 2013), Available:

[2] E. A. Livingstone, ‘Browne, Robert’ The Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. (Oxford University Press, 2013), Available:

[3] Robert Tudor Jones, Congregationalism in England 1662-1962 (London: Independent Press, 1962) 111–119.

[4] H.L. Short, ‘Presbyterians under a New Name’ in The English Presbyterians: From Elizabethan Puritanism to Modern Unitarianism. Ed. Jeremy Goring (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1968) 221.

[5] For more information about controversies within the Baptist denomination, see Robert W. Oliver, History of the English Calvinistic baptists 1771 – 1892: from John Gill to C. H. Spurgeon, vols (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2006). Particularly interesting is the communion controversy which involved a debate about whether church communion ought to be ‘closed’ – only permissible to church members who were baptised as adults by immersion, or ‘open’ – permissible to all church members in orthodox dissent (thus, including those baptised by sprinkling as babies).

[6] Underwood, A History of the English Baptists 122.

[7] Ibid., 47.

[8] Ibid., 127.

[9] Another term for the practice of immersion baptism of believers is ‘credobaptism’. The opposing view is called ‘paedobaptism’ which involves the baptism of a whole household, including babies, as a sign of the covenant, is practiced by Presbyterians and Congregationalists.

[10] Underwood, A History of the English Baptists 58–59.

[11] Short, ‘Presbyterians under a New Name’ 229.

[12] Michael Ledger-Lomas, ‘Unitarians and Presbyterians’ in The Oxford History of Protestant Dissenting Traditions, Volume III: The Nineteenth Century. Ed. Timothy Larsen and Michael Ledger-Lomas, vol. 3, New product edition. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017) 101.

[13] Russell E. Richey, ‘Did the English Presbyterians Become Unitarian?’ Church History. 42.1 (1973): 58.

[14] Short, ‘Presbyterians under a New Name’ 221.

[15] In both 1818 and 1844 such arguments were used to justify their denominational validity when evangelicals challenged their involvement in various Dissenting ventures. Richey, ‘Did the English Presbyterians Become Unitarian?’ 62; Short, ‘Presbyterians under a New Name’ 246.

[16] Richey, ‘Did the English Presbyterians Become Unitarian?’ 62.

[17] Ibid., 66.

[18] Ibid., 71; David Bebbington, Baptists Through the Centuries (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2010) 68; Underwood, A History of the English Baptists 127.

[19] Short, ‘Presbyterians under a New Name’ 230.

[20] Ibid., 253–258.

[21] Pink Dandelion, An Introduction to Quakerism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010) 20–35.

[22] Ibid., 80–81.

[23] Thomas C. Kennedy, ‘Quakers’ in The Oxford History of Protestant Dissenting Traditions, Volume III: The Nineteenth Century. Ed. Timothy Larsen and Michael Ledger-Lomas, vol. 3, New product edition. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2017) 81–82; Dandelion, An Introduction to Quakerism 81.

[24] Kennedy, ‘Quakers’ 82, 98.

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