The Church Of England’s Garden of Nonconformist Weeds

The Church of England was designed to orderly control state religion, but its garden soon became full of Nonconformist weeds.

Turbulent Times

The Church of England (CofE) was created in 1534 by Henry VIII (1491 – 1547) who passed the Act of Succession and then the Act of Supremacy in the mid 1530s. These recognised that the King was “the only supreme head of the Church of England called Anglicana Ecclesia.” This resulted in England officially splitting from the Catholic Church and the Pope.

It was the religious Brexit of its day.

Henry VIII wanted to break from the Catholic Church for two main reasons. Firstly, the Pope would not grant the king an annulment for his marriage to the catholic Catherine of Aragon – who had failed to provide Henry with a male heir. Secondly, Henry had been swept up in the ideas of the Reformation and the Protestant faith – which saw the Catholic church as corrupt and needing reform.

Protestantism was ‘established’ as the official religion of England

There were several uprisings in England over such a radical change, where the population was forced to worship the new faith regardless of individual beliefs. For the next 100 years, there was a bitter divide between Catholics and Protestants as the Church of England sought to control the masses.

By the start of the English Civil War Period (1642 – 1651), the Church of England itself was perceived as corrupt and too powerful. Many groups of people, such as the Puritans wanted to purify the church. But those in charge of the CofE’s religious authority weren’t going give up their power without a fight. As the civil war raged on it soon became engulfed in not just a conflict between the monarchy versus parliament – the civil war became a battle for England’s broken soul.

The Garden of Nonconformist Weeds

Several political / religious groups sprang up during this time that dissented from the CofE and chose to worship outside of it, including the Quakers. In 1662 the Act of Uniformity was introduced to reign in all those that had separated themselves from the church. Anyone who continued to worship outside of the church became officially known as a Nonconformist and was subject to punishment in the form of fines and / or imprisonment. The adjoining Quaker Act, also in 1662, specifically banned assembled gatherings of Nonconformists – whether Quaker or other faith.

Despite the state’s increasing pressure to force CofE worship on the English masses, the Nonconformists continued to worship as they saw fit, with the largest group being the Quakers. Purposely having to break the law in order to practice their faith, Quakers were arrested in large numbers and subjected to harsh treatment by the authorities.

However, the Quakers, persisted in holding their meetings and it became clear that they would continue regardless of what punishment was dished out. Other Nonconformists also continued to break the law – many of whom were inspired by the teachings of the Puritan preacher Roger Williams (1603 – 1683). He believed that there should be a clear separation between church and state and that “forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils.” He argued:

“Religion out of the church will not hurt the church, any more than weeds in the wilderness hurt an enclosed garden, or poisons hurt the body when they are not taken, and antidotes are received against them.”

Roger Williams

Being too outspoken, Williams was forced to flee the country and join the Massachusetts Bay Colony where he became embroiled in the Antinomian Controversy. Meanwhile, in England the authorities were still determined to pull up the Nonconformist ‘weeds’ in the church’s garden – of which the Quakers were still the largest number.

Nonconformists were barred from both public office and entering university as well as social stigma labelling them as having ‘civil disabilities’. However, the Nonconformists continued and it wasn’t until the Act of Toleration in 1689 that finally made it legal for them to worship outside of the CofE – although the discrimination would continue for decades afterwards.

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