What were ‘Dissenting’ Churches?

Pilgrim Fathers boarding the Mayflower, painting by Bernard Gribble.

Pilgrim Fathers boarding the Mayflower, painting by Bernard Gribble.

Thanks to our researcher, David Matthew, for this week’s blog about dissenting or non-conformist churches, with special reference to the Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion, which we were asked about this week:

Background: unity under the Pope

Christianity was widespread in Britain—which was part of the Roman Empire—by the end of the third century AD.
In mainland Europe the western part of the Roman Empire soon came under serious threat from northern invaders and the last Roman legions in Britain left in 410 AD to defend Gaul and Italy from the invaders. With Britain undefended, pagan invaders from northern Germany poured in across the North Sea, destroying the church in eastern England and south-east Scotland. They were the Angles and Saxons.

British Christians fled westwards across the country from the invaders. This led to a situation where a belt of pagans down the eastern side of Britain cut off the British church at the western side—known as the Celtic Church—from the church in mainland Europe, which was centred on Rome and was effectively the Roman Catholic Church.

The two styles of Christianity in Britain developed quite separately, with the Celtic Church being overall simpler and less ritualistic in its approach than the Roman Church. Eventually, the Bishop of Rome, by this time known as the Pope, became unhappy with the Celtic Church’s isolation and in 597 AD sent Augustine to England to bring them into his fold. Augustine established a base in Canterbury and began evangelising the pagan Angles and Saxons, many of whom embraced Christianity.

In due course, as Roman Christianity spread in eastern Britain, the two styles of Christianity came to exist side by side and a confrontation became inevitable. This took place at the Synod of Whitby in 664, chaired by King Oswy of Northumbria. Representatives of both sides presented their cases, and Oswy declared the Roman Church the winner. After that, the Celtic Church faded rapidly and British Christianity in due course became all of the Roman Catholic variety.

The search for truth brings disunity: the Reformation

This state of affairs continued largely unchanged until the 16th century, when the Reformation took place. On the continent Martin Luther (Germany) and John Calvin (France and Switzerland) led many away from what they believed was a Roman Catholic Church too corrupt to change. They formed what soon came to be called Protestant churches—so called because they protested against the Pope’s attempts to dictate their doctrine and lifestyle.

In Britain at this period Henry VIII was on the throne. Piqued by the Pope’s refusal to grant him a divorce, he took the English church away from Rome’s jurisdiction and declared himself head of the church in his realm. Thus was born the Church of England. English Reformers, taking advantage of Henry’s action, quickly influenced the shape of church life in Britain in the direction of greater freshness and vitality. At the same time, Henry dissolved the many monasteries, seeing them as dangerous focus-points of remaining loyalty to Rome. The Church of England became the national church.

Further fragmentation: the Dissenters

All this gave English Christians an intoxicating taste of freedom, and some of them began to feel that the reforms under King Henry has failed to go far enough. Many, for instance, wanted the episcopal system of church government (a bishop over a diocese) replaced by a Presbyterian system (several ‘elders’ in each local church). They believed this to be more in line with the Bible’s teaching.

Others believed that the baptism of babies, practised by both the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England, should be abandoned in favour of the baptism of believers only, that is, those old enough to make a personal commitment to Christ. In these and other desires these people dissented from the teaching of the mainstream, established church.

In the 17th century some of them withdrew completely and set up new churches where they could incorporate their preferred practices without interference. They were called ‘dissenters’, ‘separatists’ or ‘independents’, and many were severely persecuted for their stand, some even executed. Desperate for freedom to worship in line with the dictates of the consciences, without outside interference, some even left Britain for the New World—the Pilgrim Fathers left Plymouth on the Mayflower in 1620. Over the next twenty years some 20,000 followed them to America.

Back in England, two groups managed to establish themselves as sizeable denominations on the basis of their form of church government, which they felt should come from every member having a vote. These were the Congregational Church, who practised infant baptism, and the Baptist Church (formed in 1611), who baptised only believers—and did it by full immersion. Gradually these and other groups became better tolerated and were allowed to exist alongside the Church of England.

As the 17th century drew on, more and more groups split away from the existing denominations to establish new ones emphasising some particular biblical truth or practice that they felt to be more important than unity with the existing churches. One of these was the Society of Friends (the Quakers), started by George Fox.

Revival and more new denominations: 18th century

The 18th century saw widespread spiritual revival in England, with two Anglican ministers as the key figures: George Whitefield and John Wesley. Wesley in particular became convinced that the Church of England was sadly in no condition to nurture the tens of thousands of ordinary Britons who were becoming committed Christians in the revival. Reluctantly, therefore, he established the Methodist Church to do the job.

George Whitefield, who had introduced John Wesley to the novelty of open-air preaching, saw equal success in terms of converts. In his work he enjoyed the support of an influential lady, Selina, Countess of Huntingdon (born 1707). As a member of the Church of England, she used her considerable influence to steer evangelical ministers into many parishes. She also appointed George Whitefield and others as her personal chaplains, a way of providing them with financial support to continue their wider work.

The Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion

As a peer of the realm, the Countess was permitted to open private chapels attached to her various residences, and she used these to the full for the propagation of the gospel. She also opened a college for training young men for the ministry, but the trainees found it increasingly difficult to find posts as ordained ministers in Anglican churches.
Indeed, many Anglican clergy, unhappy with all the Countess was doing, put pressure on her and she eventually left the Church of England. The churches linked with her and her colleagues thus became a separate denomination  called the Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion, and their first ordination service took place in 1783.
The Connexion’s articles of faith kept much in common with those of the Church of England, but also drew elements from other sources, such as the Westminster Confession. Their position was basically Calvinistic and they retained infant baptism. The Countess died in 1791. The denomination still exists today but is quite small—just over twenty congregations. It also has a branch in Sierra Leone.

If you want to see more of David’s writings, do check out his personal website: davidmatthew.org.uk

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