What is religious dissent? Modern dissent dates from the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, and is essentially a consequence of the 1662 Act of Uniformity. The Restoration political settlement was founded on an exclusive episcopalian Church of England. The Act of Uniformity required all those in holy orders, every minister, teacher, lecturer or university fellow, to choose between submission to Anglican authority or the loss of their livelihoods. Before St Bartholomew’s Day (24 August) 1662, they had to declare their ‘unfeigned assent and consent’ to everything in the newly revised Book of Common Prayer, including ceremonies such as kneeling to receive communion and the use of the sign of the cross for baptisms. Clergy were required to have been ordained by a bishop. Although the majority accepted these and other terms and conformed to the Church of England, a significant minority refused to do so. Nearly a thousand (perhaps a sixth of the total) gave up their livings, and in all just over two thousand clergymen and teachers were displaced or silenced in England and Wales between 1660 and 1662, creating what became a permanent division in the religious life of the country. Crucially they had considerable lay support. Most were moderate Puritans or Presbyterians. Baptists, Quakers, and the other separatists were already worshipping outside the national church.
The denominational differences Dissent is a term used for all those Protestant religious groups and individuals who refused to conform to the Church of England, but who otherwise had very little in common. The term conceals major differences between the different denominations in matters of doctrine, church government, and attitudes to the ministry. The different denominations also underwent major changes during the two centuries after 1660, not least because of the evangelical revival of the mid eighteenth century which led by the end of the century to the transformation of most of the denominations and to the separation of the Methodists from the Church of England. The term nonconformity is often used interchangeably with dissent, and refers in particular to the offence of refusing to conform in the Restoration period, though it was revived in the nineteenth century. From the eighteenth century, dissent (an abbreviated form of Protestant dissent as defined in the 1689 Toleration Act) is the term more commonly used for Protestant groups outside the Church of England.
Isabel Rivers and David L. Wykes