Nonconformists and Nonjurors

In this episode, we discuss the political struggles inside and outside the Church of England during the Civil War and the reigns of Charles II and James II.

Episode 18

Hello, I'm Wilson Pruitt, and you are listening to the History of Methodism Podcast.Today’s episode: Non-Conformists and Non-jurors.

When I was a teenager, I didn’t like doing what other people told me. I didn’t like fitting in with the crowd. I felt like I needed to fight for my right to paaaaarty. Some might have called me a non-conformist. While modern usage of this word fits with the character that I had in my teenage years, the original use comes from a very different time and place.

Non-conformist and non-juror are two terms that often function to describe the anti-establishment church in the 17th century. Throughout the tumult of the 17th Century, the English church splintered in innumerable ways and directions. The baptist churches we have today in North America are descended from particular baptist and other anabaptist churches of this time, as are Quaker’s, Unitarians and other radicals. Questions of toleration and establishment festered continually. That is, which churches were legal and which churches were not.

Much of this lies beyond the scope of this podcast, but a deeper understanding of the workings of the nonconformist and nonjuror movements on the political level are necessary for understanding the world in which the Wesley’s grew up and Methodism was formed. Next month, when we discuss English Spirituality, we will go into detail on some of these writers and thinkers and other responses to 17th century struggles, like Anthony Horneck’s religious societies, but for this episode, we are going to give an overview of dissenting churches in England from the time of the Civil War up to the fallout of the Glorious Revolution.

In 1642, counties across England sent theologians to London to decide the future of the Church of England. This body turned into the Westminster Assembly, which met regularly from 1643 until 1653. One of the members was John White of Dorchester, the grandfather of Susanna Wesley.

The most lasting contribution of the Westminster Assembly was the Westminster Confession of Faith and Westminister Catechism of 1647, with the famous first clause:

Q. 1. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him for ever.

1643 also saw the implementation of the Solemn League and Covenant, which allied Scotland with Parliament and reformed the Church of England by eliminating bishops. At this time, the non-Royalist English clergy was mostly divided between Presbyterians and Independents or what we know in the US as congregationalists. Presbyterians were not just the Scottish, but as well, were not very unified in their ecclesiology. Harold Wood divides the factions into Rigid Presbyterians, Parliamentary Presbyterians, and Moderate Episcopals (exemplified by Richard Baxter, a prominent figure in this episode and the next). As the Historian Christopher Hill points out, politically, Presbyterian meant conservative parliamentarian and Independent meant one who favored toleration. Or in another turn at these tricky labels, as a Royalist pamphlet had it, Presbyterians favored aristocracy, independents democracy (Hill, 142).

1648 marked the high-water for the Presbyterians and they passed an ordinance for the suppression of Heresies, prescribing death for Socinians, Anti-Trinitarians and Anti-Scripturalists, and imprisonment for Anabaptists, Arminians, Quakers, and those who denied the Scriptural warrant for presbyterian church government. In less than a year, though, the king was dead, and the direction of the Church was not anymore certain. Cromwell emerged into power as a Tolerationist with more independent leanings. He thought toleration helped morale in the Army and kept the soldiers from fighting each other so that they could fight their common enemy. And so, with the death of the king and the ascendency of Cromwell, the Presbyterians were on the outs in the government.

A central figure of the independents was a preacher named John Owen. Owen is renowned even today among Reformed circles. J.I. Packer called Owen a‘Puritan colossus and perhaps the best theologian England ever produced’. (Cooper, 12). Owen published a book in 1648 titled, The Death of Death in Christ’s Death, that Packer held up as the lasting proof for the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement against Arminian ideas. However, the text is more concerned with what was termed as the Socinian heresy, which was named after an Italian lawyer, Faustus Socinus, who was anti-Trinitarian and read Christianity through the lens of Roman Law. Like the theological disputes in the Netherlands of the early 17th century, English theology in the mid-17th Century was surrounded by the Civil War and how to govern a Godly Kingdom. The Westminster Confession and Catechism are political acts as well as doctrinal ones.

Owen befriended Sir Thomas Fairfax and was a chaplain for Oliver Cromwell on one of his Irish Campaigns. In the early 1650s, Owen joined Thomas Goodwin, a famous Calvinist writer, and others, in offering a proposal for toleration and unity. This came under debate in 1654 when the new Commonwealth constitution debated issues of establishment and church support. Owen was influential in these proceedings and, again, his primary foil was Socinianism. Baxter even responded at point by saying that everything Owen disagrees with is Socinianism. The debates throughout the 1650s took place within a decidedly Reformed framework. Throughout the Islands, new sects were forming and spreading: Baptist’s, quakers, and others were sprouting and in various regions either left alone or suppressed.

After Cromwell’s sudden death in 1658, the leisurely pace of ecclesial debates ended and most knew that things would soon changed. According to some accounts, Owen was responsible for the downfall of Richard Cromwell, but few in the church wanted the king to come back.

Even after the letter to Charles to call him back, the Long Parliament adopted the Westminster Confession and General Moncke, who was in control of London, said that a national church of moderate Presbyterian government would follow the king (Wood 120).

The hardliners, like Owen, saw in the return of the king a heretical disaster. Richard Baxter and other moderates negotiated with Charles in the hopes of maintaining some of gains they felt had been made since the death of Archbishop Laud. The negotiations had mostly to do with the prayer book and the use of vestments in worship.

In October of 1660, the king even presented a Declaration of Ecclesiastical Affairs that would have allowed for a moderate Puritan church and, according to Harold Wood, not have involved the future secession of Methodists. (168) That is, there would be no need for a Methodist movement because the Church of England would already have their values.

The king called the Savoy Conference of 1661 in order to honor the Declaration and a debate took place between Puritans and Bishops who had recently been reappointed by Charles. And yet, while the Conference met, Parliament addressed a bill on bringing back the prayerbook based on the Scottish Prayerbook that started the whole mess back in 1638. The Act of Uniformity would return the Church of England to Laudian ways and compel Clergy not ordained by Bishops to seek such ordination. As well, they had already been asked to forsake the Solemn League and Covenant that brought the English and Scottish churches together in 1643, but the timing was trickier. The new Prayerbook was not ready until the middle of August and clergy had to agree with it by Saint Bartholomew’s Day (August 24) or else they would be expelled from the Church.

Some swiftly did. Those who “had accepted first the Presbyterian and then the Cromwellian State Church” and then agreed with Charles were disparagingly called Latitudarians. (Hill 209). As the Laudians died off, the Latitudarians were ascendent. An example of this is the old satirical song the vicar of bray, about a priest who changed his convictions depending on who ruled the country. Many did not. And this is where we get to the root of the term “non-conformists.”

Over 2,000 clergy did not support the prayer book or had already left because they would not give up on the Solemn League. They did so for many different reasons. One of these nonconformists was The Reverend Samuel Annesley, Susanna Wesley’s father. Annesley had to resign his position at St. Giles, Cripplegate after refusing to support the Act of Uniformity. So instead of leading a formal church, Annesley, he would preach privately, eventually settling in the Spitalfields area of London with 800 often at his meetings.

In 1672, Charles II changed his stance towards non-conformists and passed the Declaration of Indulgence, which allowed for meeting houses to be licensed. So many dissenters came forward that total state control of Religion was off the table for good.

In 1688, many non-conformists were in favor of the coming of William of Orange. William’s Act of Toleration principally returned the Scottish Church to its own governance and withdrew its bishops. The Act also allowed for a broader spectrum of licensed meeting-houses. That is, as long as you pledged support to the King and avowed the Trinity, you could be licensed.

Most non-conformists accepted the Act of Toleration. Those who did not were of an entirely different theological bent. They were termed non-jurors, after the latin word, iuro, which means ‘to swear an oath.’

Five Bishops who had been arrested by James II were the most prominent non-jurors. They had given their vow to one king and refused to give it to another. The hymn-writer, Thomas Ken, who penned the famous English Doxology, Praise God from whom all blessings flow, was one of the more famous non-jurors, as was Theophilus Hastings, the Earl of Huntington, who was the father of another Theophilus, the 9th earl, who married Selina Shirley, the woman who became the Countess of Huntingdon who supported the Methodist movement across the world.

Susanna Wesley, mother of John and Charles Wesley, was the daughter of a non-conformist, the grand-daughter of a Westminster Assembly Member, as well as a personal non-juror. This led to a fight in 1702 between her and her husband. Suzanna refused to say ‘Amen’ at the end of any prayer that Samuel lifted up to the King.

Writing about the matter (which we will cover in detail in a later episode), Suzanna writes:

You advise me to continue with my husband and God knows how gladly I would do it but there, there is my extreme affliction: he will not live with me. "Tis but a little while since he one evening observed in our Family prayers I did not say Amen to his prayer for King William as I usually do to all others; upon which he retired to his study, and calling me to him asked me the reason of my not saying Amen to the Prayer. I was a little surprised at the question and don't well know—what I answered, but too too well I remember what followed: He immediately kneeled down and imprecated the divine Vengeance upon himself and all his posterity if ever he touched me more or came into a bed with me before I had begged God's pardon and his, for not saying Amen to the prayer for the King. (Letter to Lady Yarborough, March 7, 1702, Works, 35).

Suzanna and Samuel were eventually reconciled and less than a year later (we could say about 9 months) John Wesley was born. And yet for us today, what is important to understand about this period is that the complexity of the non-conformist and non-juror movements prepares us to understand the household in which the Wesleys were born and the English church which their father served and they both joined.

The English Civil War brought incredibly devout individuals to incredible positions of authority. After the height of English Presbyterianism in 1648 and especially after the Restoration, Protestants in England no longer sought political transformation above everything else. Instead of trying to convert the country at the tip of the sword, many holy people in England sought to encourage folks back to Jesus through Spiritual writings. In fact, many figures at Westminster, in Cromwell’s government, and in non-conformist circles were included in John Wesley’s A Christian Library, even staunch Calvinists like John Owen and Thomas Goodwin, as well as Samuel Annesley. There were also the so-called new Methodists like Richard Baxter and Daniel Williams, as well as a man who did not impact politics very much but deeply impacted the soul of the nation: Jeremy Taylor. Next time, on the history of Methodism Podcast.


Christopher Hill, The Century of Revolution 1603-1714 (New York: Norton, 1961).

A. Harold Wood, Church Unity Without Uniformity: A Study of Seventeenth-Century English Church Movements and of Richard Baxter's Proposals for a Comprehensive Church (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1997).

Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodist (Nashville: Abingdon, 2013).

Tim Cooper, John Owen, Richard Baxter, and the Formation of Nonconformity (London: Ashgate, 2011).

Susanna Wesley, The Complete Writings, ed. by Charles Wallace Jr. (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1997).