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A name which, in its most general acceptation, denotes those refusing to conform with the authorized formularies and rites of the Established Church of England. The application of the term has varied somewhat with the successive phases of Anglican history. From the accession of Elizabeth to the middle of the seventeenth century it had not come into use as the name of a religious party, but the word "conform", and the appellatives "conforming" and "nonconforming", were becoming more and more common expressions to designate those members of the Puritan party who, disapproving of certain of the Anglican rites (namely, the use of the surplice, of the sign of the cross at baptism, of the ring in marriage, of the attitude of kneeling at the reception of the sacrament) and of the episcopal order of church government, either resigned themselves to these usages because enjoined, or stood out against them at all costs. However from 1662, when the Fourth Act of Uniformity had the effect of ejecting from the benefices, acquired during the Commonwealth, a large number of ministers of Puritan proclivities, and of constraining them to organize themselves as separatist sects, the term "Nonconformist" crystallized into the technical name for such sects.
The history of this cleavage in the ranks of English Protestantism goes back to the reign of Mary Tudor, when the Protestant leaders who were victorious under Edward VI retired to Frankfort, Zurich, and other Protestant centres on the continent, and quarreled among themselves, some inclining to the more moderate Lutheran or Zwinglian positions, other developing into uncompromising Calvinists. When the accession of Elizabeth attracted them back to England, the Calvinist section, which soon acquired the nickname of Puritans, was the more fiery, the large in numbers and the most in favour with the majority of the Protestant laity. Elizabeth, however, who had very little personal religion, preferred an episcopal to a presbyterian system as more in harmony with monarchism, and besides she had some taste for the ornate in public worship. Accordingly she caused the religious settlement, destined to last into our own times, to be made on the basis of episcopacy, with the retention of the points of ritual above specified; and her favour was bespoken for prelates like, Parker, who were prepared to aid her in carrying out this programme. For those who held Puritan views she had a natural dislike, to which she sometimes gave forcible expression, but on the who she saw the expediency of showing them some consideration, lest she should lose their support in her campaign against Catholicism.
These were the determining factors of the initial situation, out of which the subsequent history of English Protestantism has grown by a natural development. The results during Elizabeth's reign was a state of oscillation between phases of repression and phases of indulgence, in meeting the persistent endeavours of the Puritans to make their own ideas dominant in the national Church. In 1559, the third Act of Uniformity was passed, by which the new edition of the Prayer Book was enjoined under severe penalties on all ministering as clergy in the country. In 1566, feeling that some concession to the strength of the Puritan opposition was necessary, Archbishop Parker, on an understanding with the queen, published certain Advertisements addressed to the clergy, requiring them to conform at least as regards wearing the surplice, kneeling at communion, using the font for baptism, and covering the communion table with a proper cloth. These Advertisements were partially enforced in some diocese, and let to some deprivations, but that their effect was small is clear from the boldness with which the Puritans took up a more advanced position a few years later, and demanded the substitution of a presbyterian regime. This was the demand of Thomas Cartwright, in his First and Second Admonitions, published in 1572, and followed in 1580 by his Book of Discipline, in which he collaborated with Thomas Travers. In this latter book he propounded an ingenious theory of classes, or boards of clergy for each district, to which the episcopal powers should be transferred, to be exercised by them on presbyterian principles, to the bishops being reserved only the purely mechanical ceremony or ordination. So great was the influence of the Puritans in the country that they were able to introduce for a time this strange system in one or two places.
In 1588 the Marprelate tracts were published, and by the violence of their language against the queen and the bishops stirred up the queen to take drastic measures. Perry and Udal, authors of the tracts, were tried and executed, and Cartwright was imprisoned; whilst in 1593 an act was passed inflicting the punishment of imprisonment, to be followed by exile in case of a second offence, on all who refused to attend the parish church, or held separatist meetings. This caused a division in the party; as many, though secretly retaining their beliefs, preferred outward conformity to the loss of their benefices, whilst the extremists of the party left the country and settled in Holland, Here they were for a time called Brownists, after one who had been their leader in separation, but later they took the name of Independents, as indicating their peculiar theory of the governmental independence of each separate congregation. From these Brownists came the "Pilgrim Fathers" who, on 6 December, 1620, sailed from Plymouth in the "Mayflower", and settled in New England.
With the death of Elizabeth the hopes of the Puritans revived. Their system of doctrine and government was dominant in Scotland, and they hoped that the Scottish King James might be induced to extend it to England. So they met him on his way to London with their Millenary Petition, so called though the signatories numbered only about eight hundred. In this document they were prudent enough not to raise the question of episcopal government, but contented themselves for the time with a request that the ritual customs which they disliked might be discontinued in the State Church. James promised them a conference which met the next year at Hampton Court to consider their grievances, and in which they were represented by four of their leaders. These had some sharp encounters with the bishops and chief Anglican divines, but, whilst the Puritans were set more on domination than toleration, the king was wholly on the side of the Anglicans, who in this hour of their triumph were in no mood for concessions. Accordingly the conference proved abortive, and the very same year Archbishop Bancroft, with the king's sanction, carried through Convocation and at once enforced the canons known as those of 1604. The purpose of this campaign was to restore the use of the rites in question, which, in defiance of the existing law, the Puritan incumbents had succeeded in putting down in a great number of parishes. This result was effected to some extent for the time, but a quarter of a century later, when Laud began his campaign for the restoration of decency and order, in other words, for the enforcement of the customs to which the Puritans objected, he was met by opposition so widespread and deep-rooted that, though ultimately it had lasting results, the immediate effect was to bring about his own fall and contribute largely to the outbreak of the Rebellion, the authors of which were approximately co-extensive with the Puritan party.
During the Civil War and the Commonwealth the Puritan mobs wrecked the churches, the bishops were imprisoned and the primate beheaded, the supremacy over the Church was transferred from the Crown to the Parliament, the Solemn League and Covenant was accepted for the whole nation, and the Westminster Assembly, almost entirely composed of Puritans, was appointed as a permanent committee for the reform of the Church. Next the Anglican clergy were turned out of their benefices to make way for Puritans, in whose behalf the Presbyterian form of government was introduced by Parliament. But though this was now the authorized settlement, it was found impossible to check the vagaries of individual opinion. A religious frenzy seized the country, and sects holding the most extravagant doctrines sprang up and built themselves conventicles. There was licence for all, save for popery and prelacy, which were now persecuted with equal severity. When Cromwell attained to power, a struggle set in between the Parliament which was predominantly Presbyterian, and the army which was predominantly Independent. The disgust of all sober minds with the resulting pandemonium had much to do with creating the desire for the Restoration, and when this was accomplished in 1660 measures were at once taken to undo the work of the interregnum. The bishops were restored to their sees, and the vacancies filled. The Savoy Conference was held in accordance with the precedence of Hampton Court Conference of 1604, but proved similarly abortive. The Convocation in 1662 revised the Prayer Book in an anti-Puritan direction, and, the Declaration of Breda notwithstanding, it was at once enforced. All holding benefices in the country were to use this revised Prayer Book on and after the Feast of St. Bartholomew of that year. It was through this crisis that the term Nonconformist obtained it technical meaning. When the feast came round a large number who refused to conform were evicted. It is in dispute between Nonconformist and Anglican writers how many these were, and what were their characters: the Nonconformist writers (see Calamy, "Life of Baxter") maintain that they exceeded 2000, while Kennett and other reduce that number considerably, contending that in the majority of cases the hardship was not so grave. At least it must be acknowledged that the victims were suffering only what they, in the days of their power, had inflicted on their opponents, for many of whom the ejection of the Puritans meant a return to their own. The fact that they organized themselves outside the Established Church under the name of Nonconformists, naturally made them the more offensive to the authorities of Church and State, and, during the remainder of the reign of Charles II, they were the victims of several oppressive measures. In 1661 the Corporation Act incapacitated from holding office in any corporation all who did not first qualify by taking the sacrament according to the Anglican rite; in 1664 the Conventicle Act inflicted the gravest penalties on all who took part in any private religious service at which more than five persons, in addition to the family were present; in 1665 the Five Mile Act made liable to imprisonment any Nonconformist minister who, not having taken an oath of non-resistance, came within five miles of a town without obtaining leave; and in 1673 the scope of the Corporation Act was extended by the Test Act.
In 1672 Charles II attempted to mitigate the lot of the Nonconformists by publishing a Declaration of Indulgence in which he used in their favour the dispensing power, till then recognized as vested in the Crown. But Parliament, meeting the next year, forced him to withdraw this Declaration, and in return passed the Test Act, which extended the scope of the Corporation Act. James II, though despotic and tactless in his methods like all the Stuarts, was, whatever prejudiced historians have said to the contrary, a serious believer in religious toleration for all, and was, in fact, the first who sought to impress that ideal on the legislature of his country by his two Declarations of Indulgence, in 1687-88, he dispensed Nonconformists just as much as Catholics from their religious disabilities, and his act was received by the former with a spontaneous outburst of gratitude. it was not to their credit that shortly after they should have been induced to cast in their lot with the Revolution on the assurance that it would give them all the liberties promised King James without the necessity of sharing them with Catholics. This promise was, however, only imperfectly carried out by the Toleration Act of 1689, which permitted the free exercise of their religion to all Trinitarian Protestants, but did not relieve them of their civil disabilities. Some, accordingly, of their number practiced what was called Occasional Conformity, that is, received the Anglican sacrament just once so as to qualify. This caused much controversy and led eventually in 1710 to the Occasional Conformity Act, which was devised to check it. This Act was repealed in 1718, but many of the Nonconformists themselves disapproved of the practice on conscientious grounds, and, though it was often resorted to and caused grave scandals, those who resorted to it cannot be fairly taken as representatives of their sects. The Test Act was not repealed till 1828, the year before the Catholic Emancipation Act was passed; the Catholics and the Nonconformists combined their forces to obtain both objects.
Although by the passing of the Toleration Act of 1689 the condition of the Nonconformists was so much ameliorated, they lapsed in the second quarter of the eighteenth century into the prevailing religious torpor, and seemed to be on the verge of extinction. They were rescued from this state by the outbreak of the great Methodist movement, which resulted both in arousing the existing Dissenting sects to a new vigour, and in adding another which exceeded them all in number and enthusiasm.