BLTC Press Titles

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Further Adventures of an Irish R. M.

Edith Somerville and Martin Ross

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

A. Conan Doyle

The Souls of Black Folk

W. E. B. DuBois

Through the Looking Glass

Lewis Carroll

History of English nonconformity from Wiclif to the close of the nineteenth century

by Henry William Clark


One other point must be set down. The Nonconformist spirit (and in this matter the essential requirements of that spirit and the programmes of concrete Nonconformity have generally, though not quite always, been at one)—the Nonconformist spirit must be adverse to a "State establishment" of religion in the ordinary sense. True, it has been implied, in all that has been said concerning the Nonconformist spirit, that to take adherence to the State Church as the one proof of " Conformity," and aloofness from the State Church as the one characteristic of "Nonconformity," is to adopt a quite mistaken, certainly a far too limited, view. And this may be a convenient place to say that where a State Church exists, the meaning of Nonconformity is specially likely to be misconstrued. Its significance is apt to be taken as exhausted in mere opposition to the idea of the existing State Church. The very fact that one particular Church is "established" tends to make that one particular Church the "standard," quite apart from considerations of a distinctly religious or spiritual kind; and to be outside that Church is, indisputably, and in a very obvious sense, not to "conform." It is certainly to stand aloof from one department of national self-expression— or of what claims to be such. But this usage of the term "Nonconformity" does not, on our reading of its meaning, cover the ground. And in the absence of an "established" Church, the true line of division between "Conformity" and "Nonconformity" would be more clearly perceived: the essence of the matter would be disengaged from its accidents, and the line be drawn where its course ought to run. There might then be recognised, not only one Church, but a group of Churches, wherein the ecclesiasticism which makes life depend largely upon organisation prevails—and these (though the actual name might not be used) would be the Churches built upon the "Conformist" idea. Over against them, making the "Nonconformist" Churches (though, again, the name might have given place to another) would be the group in which organisation is looked upon as having value only as it is the product of life. As things are, the issue is clouded, and one has to be reminded that mere severance from the State Church does not of itself make Nonconformity in the full and 'true sense of the word. The presence of the Establishment it is which causes one element of Nonconformity to be so often mistaken for the whole.

Yet one element it assuredly is. If the significance of Nonconformity is not exhausted in opposition to the idea of a State establishment of religion, it most certainly includes it. For anything like the assumption of State authority over religion—anything like the taking over of religion by the State as one of its departments—anything like the construction of an ecclesiastical system, or the official sanction of a doctrinal system, by the State as such—is, for the Nonconformist spirit, a violation of the idea that life cannot be made by organisation, but that organisation must be produced by life. For such "establishment" begins the whole thing from the outside, not from within. In an establishment of religion, and in the religious arrangements and organisings involved therein, the State can but make an artificial presentation of certain results which (according to the Nonconformist theory) might have value if they were produced at religion's own initiative, but which otherwise have little or none. The carrying out of religious ordinances, the practice of religious worship, the setting up and working of religious and ecclesiastical machinery, on the part of the State, simply mean that the State is acting as if religion were present, but does nothing to ensure that it is. In other words, "establishment" artificially creates the consequences without creating, or being able to create, the one cause from which the consequences can legitimately flow, and takes the initiative out of religion's hands. And whatever may be said by way of partial justification of this, it can scarcely be disputed that the case is so. In all other things, the State discharges functions which are, so to say, natural to itself, the expression of its own inherent and essential idea. The State must have its governmental machineries, its executives, its legal and other departments—for these, with the cognate things, are precisely what the "State" means. When men say the "State," it is just these things they have in mind. These are the natural and inevitable functions of the State as such; and in its control and ordering of these things the State represents the nation, acts on the nation's behalf. The very word "State " carries all these things within it; so that to say that the State does these things is merely, as it were, to say that the organism breathes. But with the religious department this does not hold good. A State is not necessarily religious, for the simple reason that its component members are not necessarily religious. For the State to "establish" religion, therefore, is to begin at the wrong end, to make a shadow when the existence of the substance is not assured, to create some of the external consequences of religion without making certain that the

legitimising cause is there. The Nonconformist spirit would not deny, of course, that the existence of these " externals" may have some actual religious reaction upon individual men. Nor would it deny that there is a possible and proper recognition of religion by the State as such. That recognition may take many forms, and exist in many degrees. The State may, for instance, at many of its public and official gatherings, quite rightly enter upon them with worship and praise and prayer. This is " recognition" in one of its most elementary forms. And far up on the heights may be discerned an ideal condition of things when the State shall be religious through and through—religiously motived, religiously guided, not in one department, but in all, even in those that seem most secular—because all its members are religious men. But this would be a very different thing from "establishment" in the common sense: it would mean, in fact, that religion has become "established" because the Nonconformist spirit was having its unhindered way. It would mean, not that the State had adopted religion, but that religion had captured the State. From the point of view of the Nonconformist principle, the verdict must be that a State establishment of religion, in the ordinary sense, usurps religion's function, makes an imitation religious result, produces something like what religion would produce if it were there. It takes the initiative out of religion's hands, and by so doing contradicts the principle that organisation must be made by life.


In undertaking a study of concrete Nonconformist history, it is not intended, however, to prove or suggest that in this concrete history the Nonconformist spirit comes to perfect self-revelation: indeed, it was said at the outset that in actual Nonconformist history no such perfect revelation of the Nonconformist spirit is given. It is not possible— as a pre-judgment—to rail off the Nonconformist movements recorded on history's page, and to declare of what is contained within the barriers " This is Nonconformity, the whole of Nonconformity, and nothing but Nonconformity," or to claim that Nonconformist reality is the exact image and incarnation of the Nonconformist ideal. The question must at least be taken as open; and in point of fact one of the principal objects in undertaking the historical study is to ascertain to what extent such harmony has been there. What we have to do is to look upon the Nonconformist spirit as a spirit which has always been seeking for embodiment—moving, so to say, round and round the outskirts of the existing religious world and endeavouring to find some point of entrance—making signals now and again to see whether any one will hoist an answering signal and then come forth to follow its leading and to take its vows. And the questions to which we have to address ourselves run thus—Where and when did the Nonconformist spirit find or make an open gate? When it entered, did it, as it took shape in the thoughts and words and deeds of men, maintain itself undeflected and unflawed, or did it become in any wise distorted from its straightness and reduced from its first purity to inferior grade? Did its voice grow muffled or indistinct under the human voices that took up its message? Did those who heard its call hear clearly, and did those who accepted its pledges understand? And, if at first they did, did the stream of their faithfulness flow on unalloyed, or did other waters become mingled with it as time went on? The impartial historian, in facing enquiries like these, will make no antecedent assumption as to the extent to which concrete Nonconformity embodies the Nonconformist spirit: it will be, rather, in order to arrive at some measurement of that extent that he will devote himself to his task.

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