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"Non-conformists" redirects here. For the 1930s French movement, see Non-conformists of the 1930s.

In English church history, a nonconformist was a Protestant Christian who did not "conform" to the governance and usages of the established Church of England. Broad use of the term was precipitated after the Restoration of the British monarchy in 1660, when the Act of Uniformity 1662 re-established the opponents of reform within the Church of England. By the late 19th-century the term specifically included the Reformed Christians (Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Calvinist sects of the "reformed" tradition), plus the Baptists and Methodists. The English Dissenters such as the Puritans and the Pilgrims, who violated the Act of Uniformity 1559—typically by practising radical, sometimes separatist, dissent—were retrospectively labelled as nonconformists.

By law and social custom, nonconformists were restricted from many spheres of public life—not least, from access to public office, civil service careers, or degrees at university—and were referred to as suffering from civil disabilities.


Title page of a collection of Farewell Sermons preached by non-conformist ministers ejected from their parishes in 1662.

The Act of Uniformity of 1662 required churchmen to use all rites and ceremonies as prescribed in the Book of Common Prayer.[1] It also required episcopal ordination of all ministers of the Church of England—a pronouncement most odious to the Puritans, the faction of the church which had come to dominance during the English Civil War and the Interregnum. Consequently, nearly 2,000 clergymen were "ejected" from the established church for refusing to comply with the provisions of the act, an event referred to as the Great Ejection.[1] The Great Ejection created an abiding public consciousness of non-conformity.

Thereafter, a Nonconformist was any English subject belonging to a non-Anglican church or a non-Christian religion. More broadly, any person who advocated religious liberty was typically called out as Nonconformist.[2] The strict religious tests embodied in of the laws of the Clarendon code and other penal laws excluded a substantial section of English society from public affairs and benefits, including certification of university degrees, for well more than a century and a half. Culturally, in England and Wales, discrimination against Nonconformists endured even longer.

Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, Calvinists, other "reformed" groups and less organized sects were identified as Nonconformists at the time of the 1662 Act of Uniformity. Following the act, other groups, including Methodists, Unitarians, Quakers, Plymouth Brethren, English Moravians, and The Salvation Army were officially labelled as Nonconformists as they became established.[3]

The term dissenter later came into particular use after the Act of Toleration (1689), which exempted those Nonconformists who had taken oaths of allegiance from being penalized for certain acts, such as for non-attendance to Church of England services.[4]

A religious census in 1851 revealed that total attendance of Nonconformists to their own services was very close to that of Anglicans. In the larger manufacturing areas, Nonconformists clearly outnumbered members of the Church of England.[5] In Wales in 1850, Nonconformist chapel attendance significantly outnumbered Anglican church attendance.[6]


Further information: Liberal Party (UK)

Since 1660, nonconformist Protestants have played a major role in English politics. Relatively few MPs were dissenters. However the Dissenters were major voting bloc in many areas, such as East Midlands.[7] They were very well organized and highly motivated and largely won over the Whigs and Liberals to their cause. Down to the 1830s, Dissenters demanded removal of political and civil disabilities that applied to them (especially those in the Test and Corporation Acts). The Anglican establishment strongly resisted until 1828. Numerous reforms of voting rights, especially that of 1832, increased the political power of Dissenters. They demanded an end to compulsory church rates, in which local taxes went only to Anglican churches. They finally achieve the end of religious tests for university degrees in 1905. Gladstone brought the majority of dissenters around to support for Home Rule for Ireland, putting the dissenting Protestants in league with the Irish Roman Catholics in an otherwise unlikely alliance. The dissenters gave significant support to moralistic issues, such as temperance and sabbath enforcement. The nonconformist conscience, as it was called, was repeatedly called upon by Gladstone for support for his moralistic foreign policy.[8] In election after election, Protestant ministers rallied their congregations to the Liberal ticket. In Scotland, the Presbyterians played a similar role to the Nonconformist Methodists, Baptists and other groups in England and Wales [9] The political strength of Dissent faded sharply after 1920 with the secularization of British society in the 20th century. The rise of the Labour Party reduced the Liberal Party strongholds into the nonconformist and remote "Celtic Fringe," where the Pa[clarification needed] survived by an emphasis on localism and historic religious identity, thereby neutralizing much of the class pressure on behalf of the Labour movement.[10] Meanwhile, the Anglican church was a bastion of strength for the Conservative party. On the Irish issue, the Anglicans strongly supported unionism. Increasingly after 1850, the Roman Catholic element in England and Scotland consisted of recent immigrants from Ireland. They voted largely for the Irish Parliamentary Party, until its collapse in 1918. The different Nonconformists campaigned together against the Test and Corporation Acts that had been passed by Parliament in the 17th century.[5] These Acts excluded Nonconformists from holding civil or military office. Attendance at an English university had required conformity to the Church of England before University College London (UCL) was founded, compelling Nonconformists to fund their own Dissenting Academies privately.[11]

The Tories in the House of Commons tended to be in favour of these Acts and so the Nonconformist cause was linked closely to the Whigs, who advocated civil and religious liberty.[5] After the Test and Corporation Acts were repealed in 1828, all the Nonconformists elected to Parliament were Liberals.[5]

Nonconformists were angered by the Education Act 1902, which integrated denominational schools into the state system and provided for their support from taxes. John Clifford formed the National Passive Resistance Committee and by 1906 over 170 Nonconformists had gone to prison for refusing to pay school taxes.[12][13] They included 60 Primitive Methodists, 48 Baptists, 40 Congregationalists, and 15 Wesleyan Methodists.


Today, Protestant churches independent of the Anglican Church of England or the Presbyterian Church of Scotland are often called "free churches", meaning they are free from state control. This term is used interchangeably with "Nonconformist". In Scotland, the Anglican Scottish Episcopal Church is considered Nonconformist (despite its English counterpart's status) and in England, the United Reformed Church, principally a union of Presbyterians and Congregationalists, is in a similar position.

In Wales the strong traditions of Nonconformism can be traced to the Welsh Methodist revival; Wales effectively had become a Nonconformist country by the mid-19th century. The influence of Nonconformism in the early part of the 20th century, boosted by the 1904–1905 Welsh Revival, led to the disestablishment of the Anglican Church in Wales in 1920 and the formation of the Church in Wales.

The steady pace of secularization picked up faster and faster during the 20th century, until only pockets of nonconformist religiosity remained in Britain.[14][15][16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Choudhury 2005, p. 173
  2. ^ Reynolds 2003, p. 267
  3. ^ "Nonconformist (Protestant)". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 30 January 2014. 
  4. ^ Cross 1997, p. 490
  5. ^ a b c d Mitchell 2011, p. 547
  6. ^ "Religion in 19th and 20th century Wales". BBC History. BBC. Retrieved 31 January 2014. 
  7. ^ Henry Pelling, Social Geography of British Elections, 1885-1910 (London, 1967) 89-90, 206,
  8. ^ D. W. Bebbington, The Nonconformist Conscience: Chapel and Politics, 1870-1914 (George Allen & Unwin, 1982)
  9. ^ David L. Wykes, "Introduction: Parliament and Dissent from the Restoration to the Twentieth Century," Parliamentary History (2005) 24#1 pp 1-26
  10. ^ Iain MacAllister et al., "Yellow fever? The political geography of Liberal voting in Great Britain," Political Geography (2002) 21#4 pp 421-47
  11. ^ Iain MacAllister et al., "Yellow fever? The political geography of Liberal voting in Great Britain," Political Geography (2002) 21#4 pp 421-47
  12. ^ Mitchell 2011, p. 66
  13. ^ "Dr. Clifford and Passive Resistance". The Tablet. 20 February 1909. p. 35. 
  14. ^ Steve Bruce, and Tony Glendinning, "When was secularization? Dating the decline of the British churches and locating its cause" British journal of sociology 61#1 (2010): 107-126.
  15. ^ Callum G. Brown, The Death of Christian Britain: Understanding Secularisation, 1800-2000 (2009)
  16. ^ Alan D. Gilbert, The making of post-Christian Britain: a history of the secularization of modern society (Longman, 1980).


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  • Bebbington, David W. "Nonconformity and electoral sociology, 1867–1918." Historical Journal 27#3 (1984): 633-656. online
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  • Davies, Gwyn (2002), A light in the land: Christianity in Wales, 200–2000, Bridgend: Bryntirion Press, ISBN 1-85049-181-X 
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  • Wilson, Linda. Constrained by Zeal: Female Spirituality Amongst Nonconformists, 1825-75 (Paternoster, 2000).