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NONCONFORMITY IN 1832 AND IN 1862,
To THE EDITOR of THE CHRIsríAN SPECTA To R.
SIR,--THE period represented by the year 1832 forms an important era in the history of Evangelical Nonconformity. To some, this may not perhaps appear very obvious; but it is true notwithstanding. A backward glance cast—however rapidly—at the generation preceding, will best enable us to realize the extent and importance of the change which culminated at the time of which I am about to speak. The experiences of the present writer can scarcely be said to date further back than the year 1815, at which period he became for the first time a recognized member of an Independent church. He has, however, no reason to suppose that the condition of things them was materially different from what it had been at the commencement of the century. Of the actual state and inner working of Nonconformity, whether Baptist or Poedo-baptist, at that date, he has mow as lively a remembrance as he once had an intimate acquaintance. Let him speak first of meeting-houses and of ministers. The meeting-houses in a prosperous provincial town were at that time (1815), as a rule, far more numerous than the churches of the Establishment, numbering frequently three, and in some cases four, to one. They were, indeed, for the most part, very dull buildings, and in obscure situations, but they were nevertheless largely attended by serious persons. The ministers were probably not in general so well educated as they are now, but they were neither ignorant nor vulgar. The writer's impression is, that with less culture they manifested more power than their modern successors. They were, for the most part, older men,_men who had either
• That which we have to say in reply to this paper, so far as it requires reply, will be found at the close.-ED.C. S.
ceturing la class.ome of tund, and in the
been converted in mature life, or who, before entering the ministry, had engaged in business of one kind or other. A year or two at "an academy” commonly embraced the extent of their training ;* but this being generally grafted on good common sense, some expe rience of life, and close personal acquaintance with the Scriptures and Puritan theology, enabled them to preach sermons which, if not remarkable either for their erudition or their eloquence, were yet searching, practical, and devout, adapted to their hearers, and frequently blessed to the building up of a noble character. At this moment forms rise before me of persons in very humble life indeed, -workers in the loom, struggling for daily bread,—who were honoured, and justly, by the cultivated and the wealthy, for their consistent piety, dignified humility, and disinterested services. I doubt not that such are still to be found in many parts of the country; but they strike me as becoming rarer thau they once were. Often, as a mere boy, have I listened with something like awe to their prayers; and I think I can truthfully say that I have never venerated humanity since, as I venerated those men.
In the minor towns,—the little centres of agricultural or manu facturing life on a small scale, the pastors of the churches were cer tainly, as a class, superior to those who are now found in simila situations. Yet some of them kept shops, and others schools ; som farmed a few acres of land, and others were Pluralists-officiating once on the Sunday, and once in the week, to two or even three congregations, receiving probably a small stipend from each.
Under these circumstances the minister was rarely depressed by extreme poverty, and while maintaining a very salutary independeng of his hearers, was regarded by his neighbours as a hard-working and respectable man. Above all, he was, as a rule, happy in hi lot and in his work. He might sometimes be smiled at, as a saint reviled as a Jacobin, or mocked as a Methodist, but nevertheless h was respected; for he was neither intrusive nor thin-skinned neither ambitious, envious, nor intolerant. He was indeed the in variable friend of “civil and religious liberty;" but he was so de fensively rather than aggressively. He maintained stoutly th right of every man to teach and preach when, and where, and wha he thought right; but he had no desire to deprive others of any privileges or emoluments they might possess, however lofty or ex clusive they might be. He was content with the liberty to hold and to teach that the Church of England was a worldly institution and that his own fellowship embodied a high form of spiritual life.
The weak point in the system was to be found in the organiza tion and management of churches. A written experience, to by read publicly, required alike from persons of either sex, and, how
* John Foster was only one year at “ The Academy."
ever young, was regarded as essential to communion ; discipline was not unfrequently harsh and inquisitorial; and high Calvinism, perpetually creeping in under cover of the old divinity, introduced sentiments and tempers anything but heavenly. Remembering, as I do, much that occurred at Church meetings, I cease to wonder that, in that day, so many educated Nonconformists became Unitarians; or that others, like John Foster, adopted, and through life clung to the opinion, that“churches are useless and mischievous institutions, and the sooner they are dissolved the better.”'
In striking contrast with the vulgarity and intolerance which too often marked the churches as centres of discipline, stood a class of social meetings for reading the Scriptures and prayer, which had a Tery different character and influence. In these “ gatherings,” as they would be called in modern phrase, “ Maurice's Social Religion Exemplified ” was the favourite book, the spirit of which they were thought to realize; and, to a great extent, they did so. There, religion always appeared in its most lovely aspect, and there unquestionably Christian character was most effectually built up. f. But a change was at hand. One by one, but in steadily increasing numbers, the clergy of the Church of England adopted evangelical sentiments, and became professedly the friends, but really the rivals, of their “ Dissenting brethren." At Bible Society meetings they were one with Nonconformists ; everywhere else they were antagonistic. And for good reasons. Their great anxiety was to build up an evangelical party in the Church ; and in order to do this, it was necessary on the one hand to maintain their churchmanship intact, on the other to cut off the stream which for many years had been flowing in the direction of Nonconformity. NecesKarily, therefore, they became the ecclesiastical rivals of the Dissenters. Rivalry soon grew into half-concealed hatred, and fellowship in the truth, instead of bringing about fellowship in life, became the immediate cause of distrust and alienation. Here we have the first element of disturbance.
A second appeared in the rapidly-increasing activities of the Christian world. Societies of all kinds now sent deputations into the country, whose work it was to appeal to the popular mind from the platform, the pulpit, and the press, in favour of their respective objects. Action of this character before long proved itself to be as mischievous as it was novel. Religious excitements and bad oratory tanned vanity and demoralized taste. It soon affected the character of ordinary pulpit instruction. Preachers, in accordance with the demand now made, supplied, or rather attempted to supply, more stimulating food to their congregations. The “stars” from the Metropolis, while exciting the crowd, unconsciously and unintentionally, but not the less really kindled discontent with the sober teachings of the old provincial pastors; evening services took the place of the afternoon lecture; and he became the most valued
family quences for gratorial
minister, who, by stage thunder and lightning, could draw togethe the greatest number of admirers, and most vividly impress hi hearers with a sense of oratorial power.
Two consequences followed. Sound often took the place of sense and family religion, hitherto mainly sustained by the domesti services of the Sunday evening, suffered irreparable injury. Anxiet for the conversion of the heathen—a duty long and sinfully neg lected—frequently took the place of home obligations; the bestowa of missionary pence, rather than growth in goodness, sometimes be came the standard of youthful piety; and activity in doing wa not rarely exchanged for anxiety as to being what God wishes us ti be. The onward movement was a good one, but it needed a coun teractive. Its tendency was to go on multiplying itself, acting, an re-acting on neglected populations at home and abroad, until, ab sorbing almost everything else in a whirl of excitement, it fell il with the varied temptations to incessant outward activity whicl were then springing up in connection with the advance of the age and led men to keep out of sight, if not utterly to abandon th contemplative side of the Christian character.
Such was the state of things when the era, of which the yea 1832 was at once the type and the centre, broke upon the world Roman Catholic disabilities were abolished. The Reform Bill ha become law. The Test and Corporation Acts were dovmed. Mu nicipal reform was at hand. Old privileges were every day becom ing less and less regarded. Democracy, apparently about to b triumphant in all lands, was soon to rule the world. Why shoul an Established Church be permitted to exist ? Was it not a socia injustice and a political mistake, -inequitable and unscriptural, hindrance and not a help either to civilization or religion ?
So men thought and reasoned. Measures appropriate to thes convictions were speedily inaugurated. Dissent, hitherto a prin ciple, became at once the flag of a party. A defensive policy wa exchanged for an aggressive one. Liberalism, as understood by the great Whig families, was abandoned for Anti-state Churchism Religious newspapers, so called, one after another sprang into exis tence, and embittered strife ; while confident anticipations of speedy triumph, to be followed by universal charity, silenced the murmur. ings of the few who complained of the breaking up of old ties Even so desponding a person as John Foster habitually was, could write (1830), “ If the progress of (practical) dissent shall continue in the same ratio as during the last twenty years, the Church will, in no very long course of years, be left in such a minority of numbers, and therefore of weight and importance, in the community, that the State will begin to think how far it may be worth supporting.”* He says, “ Practical dissent is progressive in a continu
* “Life and Correspondence," vol. ii. p. 176.
excha became at once the inaugurated. asures appr
ally and rapidly-augmenting ratio." He affirms that now (that is thirty years ago) “a decided unquestionable majority of the people in the kingdom are recognized as Dissenters," and, he adds, “it is inexpressibly gratifying to observe the prominent characteristic of pur times,-a mobility, a tendency to alteration, a shaking, and racking, and breaking up of the old condition of notions and hings."* “What I want,” he says, “is a dissolution of the Church is a national institution, by an abrogation of all peculiar privileges f the clergy, and by a transfer of the temporal property of the hurch to the general service of the nation.”+
Nay, so completely was he mastered by this one idea that as late is the year 1840 he writes, in relation to the Romanizing movement n the Church of Eugland—“I have read very little on the subject. It is but small interest that I feel about the whole affair, excepting in one point of view, its being a schism in the Establishment, tending to confusion and dislocation, an intimation of rot and cracks in the timbers of the old pernicious edifice. On this account it pleases me much ; for while it is too true that it is doing some injury to religion, I hope it will do much more damage to what has een and continues infinitely pernicious to Christianity,—a State stablished hierarchy.” I
Strange indeed, that so short-sighted a judgment, as it has since roved to be, should have been pronounced by perhaps the most rofound thinker of the age. Such is the bewildering effect of tmospheric influence even on the greatest minds.
Mr. Foster but expressed the all-but unanimous opinion of his issenting cotemporaries. Of those who, by their writings, led ad taught in dissenting circles, one man only stood aloof and ttempted to stem the torrent of inconsiderate folly which now tried away even the wisest and the best. Mr. Isaac Taylor alone, this juncture ventured to maintain different views, and in so bing, separated himself for ever from the friends with whom he Ad hitherto acted. “Spiritual Despotism,” published in 1835, ay be regarded as his manifesto. In it he maintained that the ficient causes of the early perversions of the Christian Church were Ht, as was then commonly asserted, the union of the Church and tate under Constantine, and the worldly exaltation of the clergy lising therefrom, since these perversions had both arisen and come i maturity under a purely voluntary system; that congregationalism as but a “ reaction from arrogant prelacy-the inevitable product I evil times, the child of oppression, and the nurseling of perecution ;" that, under various conditions, certain forms of State id might be highly beneficial ; and that the great enemy to be
* " Life and Correspondence," vol. ii. p. 114.
Ibid, p. 381.
† Ibid, p. 252.