Popular Science Monthly/Volume 28/January 1886/Nonconformity

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NOTHING like that which we now call Nonconformity can be traced in societies of simple types. Devoid of the knowledge and the mental tendencies which lead to criticism and scepticism, the savage passively accepts whatever his seniors assert. Custom in the form of established belief, as well as in the form of established usage, is sacred with him: dissent from it is unheard of. And throughout long early stages of social evolution there continues, among results of this trait, the adhesion to inherited religions. It is true that during these stages numerous cults co-exist side by side; but, products as these are of the prevailing ancestor-worship, the resulting polytheism does not show us what we now understand as Nonconformity; since the devotees at the various shrines neither deny one another's gods, nor call in question in pronounced ways the current ideas concerning them. Only in cases like that of Socrates, who enunciated a conception of supernatural agents diverging widely from the popular conception of them, do we see in early societies Nonconformity properly so-called.

What we have here to deal with under this name occurs chiefly in societies which are substantially, if not literally, monotheistic; and in which there exists nominally, if not really, a tolerably uniform creed administered by a consolidated hierarchy.

Even as thus restricted, Nonconformity comprehends phenomena widely unlike in their natures; and that we may understand it, we must exclude much that is allied with it only by outward form and circumstance. Though in most cases a separating sect espouses some unauthorized version of the accepted creed; and though the nature of the espoused version is occasionally not without its significance; yet the thing specially to be noted is the attitude assumed toward ecclesiastical government. Though there is always some exercise of individual judgment; yet in early stages this is shown merely in the choice of one authority as superior to another. Only in late stages does there come an exercise of individual judgment which goes to the extent of denying ecclesiastical authority in general.

The growth of this later attitude we shall see on comparing some of the successive stages.

Ancient forms of dissent habitually stand for the authority of the past over the present; and since tradition usually brings from more barbarous ages accounts of more barbarous modes of propitiation, ancient forms of dissent are habitually revivals of practices more ascetic than those of the current religion. It was shown in § 620, that the primitive monachism originated in this way; and as Christianity, with the higher moral precepts on which it insisted, joined renunciation of ordinary life and its aims (said to be derived from the Essenes), there tended to be thereafter a continual re-genesis of dissenting sects characterized in common by austerities.

Kinds of dissent differing from these and differing from modem kinds of dissent, arose during those times in which the early church was spreading and becoming organized. For before ecclesiastical government had established itself and acquired sacredness, resistance to each new encroachment made by it, naturally led to divisions. Between the time when the authority dwelt in the Christian congregations themselves, and the time when the authority was centred in the pope, there necessarily went successive usurpations of authority, each of which gave occasion for protest. Hence, such sects, arising in the third century and onward to the seventh century, as the Noetians, Novatians, Meletians, Aerians, Donatists, Joannites, Haesitantes, Timotheans, and Athingani. Passing over that period during which ecclesiastical power throughout Europe was rising to its climax, we come, in the twelfth century, to dissenters of more advanced types; who, with or without differences of doctrine, rebelled against the then-existing church government. Such sects as the Arnoldists in Italy, the Petrobrusians, Caputiati and Waldenses in France, and afterward the Stedingers in Germany and the Apostolicals in Italy, are examples; severally characterized by assertion of individual freedom, alike in judgment and action. Ordinarily holding doctrines called heretical, the promulgation of which was itself a tacit denial of ecclesiastical authority (though a denial habitually based on submission to an alleged higher authority), sects of this kind went on increasing in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries' There were the Lollards in England; the Fraticelli in Italy; the Taborites, Bohemian Brethren, Moravians and Hussites, in Bohemia: all setting themselves against church-discipline. And then the rebellious movement of the reformation, as carried forward by the Lutherans in Germany, the Zwinglians and Calvinists in Switzerland, the Huguenots in France, the Anabaptists and Presbyterians in England, exhibited, along with repudiation of various established doctrines, ceremonies, and usages, a more pronounced anti-sacerdotalism. Characterized in common by opposition to Episcopacy, protestant or catholic, we see first of all in the government by presbyters, adopted by sundry of these dissenting bodies, a step toward freedom of judgment and practice in religious matters, accompanied by denial of priestly inspiration. And then in the subsequent rise of the Independents, taking for their distinctive principle the right of each congregation to govern itself, we see a further advance in that anti-sacerdotal movement which reached its extreme in the next century with the Quakers; who, going directly to the fountain head of the creed, and carrying out more consistently than usual the professed right of private judgment, repudiated the entire paraphernalia of ecclesiasticism.

It is true that the histories of these various non-conforming bodies, not excluding even the Society of Friends, show us the re-growth of a coercive rule, allied to that against which there had been rebellion. Of religious revolutions, as of political revolutions, it is true that in the absence of differences of character and culture greater than can be expected in the same society at the same time, they are followed by gradually established forms of rule only in some degree better than those diverged from. In his assumption of infallibility, and his measures for enforcing conformity, Calvin was a pope comparable with any who issued bulls from the Vatican. The discipline of the Scottish Presbyterians was as despotic, as rigorous, and as relentless as any which Catholicism had enforced. The Puritans of New England were as positive in their dogmas, and as severe in their persecutions, as were the ecclesiastics of the church they left behind. Some of these dissenting bodies, indeed, as the Wesleyans, have developed organizations scarcely less priestly, and, in some respects, more coercive, than the organization of the church from which they diverged. Even among the Quakers, notwithstanding the pronounced individuality implied by their theory, there has grown up a definite creed and a body exercising control.

Modern Nonconformity in England has much more decidedly exhibited the essential trait of anti-sacerdotalism. It has done this in various minor ways as well as in a major way.

There is the multiplication of sects, with which by foreign observers England is reproached, but which, philosophically considered, is one of her superior traits. For the rise of every new sect, implying a re-assertion of the right of private judgment, is a collateral result of the nature which makes free institutions possible.

Still more significant do we see this multiplication of sects to be if we consider the assigned causes of division. Take, for instance, the case of the Wesleyans. In 1797 the Methodist New Connexion organized itself on the principle of lay participation in church government. In 1810 the Primitive Methodists left the original body: the cause being a desire to have "lay representatives to the Conference." Again, in 1834, prompted by opposition to priestly power, the Wesleyan Methodist Association was formed: its members claiming more influence for the laity, and resisting central interference with local government. And then in 1849, there was yet another secession from the Methodist body, similarly characterized by resistance to ministerial authority.

Of course, in sects less coercively governed, there have been fewer occasions for rebellions against priestly control; but there are not wanting illustrations, some of them supplied even by the small and free bodies of the Unitarians, of this tendency to divide in pursuance of the right of private judgment. Moreover, in the absence of a dissidence sufficiently great to produce secession, there is everywhere a large amount of express disagreement on minor points among those holding what is supposed to be the same body of beliefs. Perhaps the most curious instance of this is furnished by the established Church. I do not refer simply to its divisions into high, and low, and broad; all implying more or less of the nonconforming spirit within it. I refer more especially to the strange anomaly that the ritualists are men who, while asserting priestly authority, are themselves rebels against priestly authority—defy their ecclesiastical superiors in their determination to assert ecclesiastical supremacy.

But the universally admitted claim to religious freedom shown in these various ways, is shown still more by the growing movement for disestablishment of the Church. This movement, which, besides tacitly denying all sacerdotal authority, denies the power of a government, even though elected by a majority of votes, to prescribe religious belief or practice, is the logical outcome of the Protestant theory. Liberty of thought, long asserted and more and more displayed, is about to be carried to the extent that no man shall be constrained to support another man's creed.

Evidently the arrival at this state completes that social differentiation which began when the primitive chief first deputed his priestly function.

As implied in the last sentence, the changes above sketched out are concomitants of the changes sketched out in the last chapter. The prolonged conflict between Church and State accompanying their differentiation, and ending in the subordination of the Church, has been accompanied by these collateral minor conflicts between the Church and recalcitrant portions of its members, ending in separation of them.

There is a further implication. In common with the subjection of the Church to the State, the spread of Nonconformity is an indirect result of growing industrialism. The moral nature proper to a social organization based on contract instead of status—the moral nature fostered by a social life carried on under voluntary co-operation instead of compulsory co-operation, is one which works out religious independence as it works out political freedom. And this conclusion, manifest a priori, is verified a posteriori in sundry ways. We see that Non-conformity, increasing as industrialism has developed, now characterizes in the greatest degree those nations which are most characterized by development of the industrial type—America and England. And we also see that in England itself, the contrast between urban and rural populations, as well as the contrast between populations in different parts of the kingdom, show that where the industrial type of life and organization predominates, Nonconformity is the most pronounced.

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  1. From "Ecclesiastical Institutions," in the press of D. Appleton & Co.