This passage comes from Friends of Religious Equality. Nonconformist Politics in Mid-Victorian England (pp. 253-55), which Professor Larsen has graciously shared with readers of the Victorian Web. [Follow for a review of this book. GPL]

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Illuminated Initial :"C"ontrary to the impression given by historians such as Eugenio Biagini, the political philosophy of these mid-Victorian Dissenters was rooted in their theology (p. 16). The specific principles which they wielded, however, were derived more from the distinctive theology within some of the Nonconformist denominations than from pan-Evangelicalism. R. J. Helmstadter has argued that Dissenting politics in this era was grounded in 'the theology of evangelicalism', focusing particularly on its emphasis on 'the salvation of individual souls' (p. 66). This theory fails to explain why those who were committed most to Evangelicalism were often those most divided on politics. There were not many greater polar opposites in the Commons of this period than, for example, the Tory, Richard Spooner, and the radical, George Hadfield, yet theologically they were both solid Evangelicals. Even if one sets aside the Evangelical Churchmen, one still finds a great political gulf dividing, for example, an influential Wesleyan minister like Dr Jabez Bunting from a prominent Baptist one like Dr F. A. Cox. It is possible, of course, for people to draw from the same principles contradictory conclusions on what course needs to be taken, but there is a more persuasive explanation of this cleavage than this vague observation.

The division between these two groups is quite comprehensible if one examines the various views held by these people of the church of Christ. Nonconformist politics was rooted in theology, but not in the soteriology of Evangelicalism, but rather in the ecclesiology of Congregationalism. Baptists and Congregationalists shared in common both their political views and their ecclesiastical views, but they were not always able to gain the political co-operation of those groups which held a different pattern of church government, notably the Wesleyans and the Unitarians (let alone Churchmen). Congregationalists, as they began to assert themselves in the political arena, had as their heritage of thought their certainty -- continually kept sharp by a need to justify themselves in the face of the rest of Christendom -- regarding their theological distinctives. These distinctives focused on what a true church was, or at least ideally ought to be, namely a local body of believers who have voluntarily gathered together and who are collectively free from all outside human control or interference. The church is God's agent for accomplishing spiritual ends on the earth; particularly it is the carrier of the gospel of Jesus Christ which contains the power to regenerate sinful men and women.

For them, a church establishment was wrong first and foremost not because it was bad politics but because it was bad theology. Even the liberationists, with their pressure group, were not starting with political theory, whether liberalism, laissez-faire or some other doctrine. The very title of their organisation reveals a fundamental motivation of theirs: 'The Society for the Liberation of Religion from State Patronage and Control'. The starting point in their thinking was Congregational ecclesiology: it is wrong for the church to be controlled by outside influences. The reverse of this was also true: it is wrong for the state to attempt to undertake the spiritual task which has been given by Christ to the church. The work of the church, such as bringing the gospel message for the conversion of lost souls to the people, should not be attempted by governmental agency. A state church, therefore, meant that the church which was meant to be free was enslaved by government control and that the work of the gospel, which could be rightly done only by the divinely ordained spiritual agency of the church, was muddled, distorted and therefore ultimately hampered by the inappropriate, worldly agency of the state. Voluntaryism was an ecclesiological concept before it was ever applied by Dissenters to issues of public policy. It meant that the true church consists of those who have freely responded to the gospel and chosen to submit to the discipline of the communal life of the congregation as opposed to any notion of mandatory inclusion and participation established by coercion or by temporal incentives. When John Pye Smith joined with a handful of other Dissenters to found a church in 1804, they entered 'voluntarily' into a 'Church Covenant' which included commitments as specific as promising to have family devotions morning and evening every day (Medway, Pye Smith, pp. 126-27). As to society in general, however, the Baptist minister and theologian John Howard Hinton argued that it was not the state's responsibility to punish 'violations of morality' (such as lying), but only 'offences against society' which might incidentally also be breaches of the moral code (such as theft) (Hinton, Review, pp. 10-11). The true church was one which accomplished its ends by spiritual rather than carnal weapons.


Biagini, Eugenio. Liberty, Retrenchment, and Reform: Popular Liberalism in the Age of Gladstone. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Helmstadter, R. J. "The Nonconformist Conscience," in Gerald Parsons (ed.), Religion in Victorian Britain, IV. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Larsen, Timothy. Friends of Religious Equality. Nonconformist Politics in Mid-Victorian England. Boydell Press, Woodbridge, Suffolk: 1999. ISBN 0 85115 726 2.

Added 23 September 2000