Zion’s People: Profile of English Nonconformity

Protestant Nonconformity, formerly known as Religious Dissent and latterly as the Free Churches, has made a major contribution to all walks of British life, not just the religious. The movement had its origins in the puritans and separatists of Elizabethan England but traces its formal foundations to the Act of Uniformity 1662 and the subsequent ejection from their livings in the Church of England of some 2,000 Presbyterian and other ministers who refused to conform to this legislation.

In England and Wales approximately 4.4% of people were Nonconformists in 1680 and 6.6% in 1720, following the Toleration Act 1689, which introduced qualified religious liberty for Trinitarian Protestant Religious Dissent. There was then a contraction, to 5.2% in 1760 before growth resumed through the Evangelical Revival. By 1800 one in ten persons was a Nonconformist and by 1840 one in five, one-half of them Arminian Methodists.

The heyday of Nonconformity is conventionally seen as the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, although, relative to population, decline had already set in by c. 1880 and absolutely from about 1905. For the traditional Free Churches, such as the Baptists, Congregationalists and Methodists, the twentieth century was characterized by increasingly rapid numerical declension.

During the course of the past three and a half centuries, therefore, tens of millions of people have been Nonconformists. But what do we know of their backgrounds? In a new three-part study which combines original research and synthesis of existing scholarship, Clive Field has sought to answer the question: ‘Zion’s People: Who were the English Nonconformists?’ It is being published in the May, August and November 2010 issues of The Local Historian, with the first part just out (Vol. 40, No. 2, pp. 91-112). This journal is widely available in public and academic libraries.

Field confines his attentions to England and to Baptists, Congregationalists, Quakers and Methodists. He provides a quantitative picture (in text and 40 tables) of gender, age, marital status and ethnicity (in part 1) and occupation (in parts 2 and 3), based upon a range of national and local sources from the seventeenth century to the present day. The latest data derive from a special analysis, run by BRIN at the University of Manchester, of the merged dataset from the British Social Attitudes Surveys, 1983-2008. Wherever possible, three layers of Nonconformist belonging are distinguished: membership, adherence and affiliation.

It is obviously impossible to summarize all the principal findings here. However, it is worth emphasizing that contemporary stereotypes of the Free Churches as mostly comprised of women, the elderly, the single and widowed, white racial groups and the middle class sometimes have deep historical roots. By way of a ‘taster’, here are edited summaries of the conclusions (in part 3) relating to gender and marital status:

‘In terms of gender, Baptist and Congregational membership has consistently displayed a female majority of two-thirds, except for the late eighteenth century. This ratio has been greatly in excess of the wider society. For most of its history the imbalance in Methodism’s membership was generally less pronounced but has also reached two-thirds from the 1960s. Of our four denominations, the Quakers have had the fewest women members, the proportion moving quite slowly from a position of near parity of the sexes during their early years to one where it has only very recently reached three-fifths. Although women have constituted a majority of Free Church attenders throughout the twentieth century, with the figure always surpassing the population norm, before the Second World War the ratio appears to have been better than in the membership and also lower than among churchgoers as a whole. Thereafter, the position has worsened, and, relative to overall church attendance, Nonconformist congregations have become distinctly feminized. Apart from the Baptists, the proportion of women among members and worshippers is now very similar, with Methodists having the most female attenders and the Friends the fewest. Affiliates have traditionally reported a much smaller female majority than members and attenders, suggesting that men gravitate towards the least demanding of the various levels of religious allegiance and commitment, with women seeking the maximum degree of involvement. However, even at the outset Nonconformist affiliates still had somewhat more women than in the population, with the proportion rising over time. Among Baptist, United Reformed and Methodist affiliates there are now almost as many women as among their attenders.’

‘The evidence [for marital status] suggests a strong Free Church commitment to marriage, with about two-thirds of its adherents being married throughout the eighteenth-twentieth centuries, a somewhat higher ratio than in the population as a whole, especially for the most recent decades when marriage has lost ground as a social institution. This is notwithstanding a creeping contemporary incidence of cohabitation, separation and divorce among the Nonconformist faithful. The proportion of single people, typically around one in four, was possibly below the norm during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as it is today (largely because the Free Churches have lost their appeal to the young, who are most likely to be single). But it was thought to be unusually large during much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and especially pronounced among females (it was naturally partly linked to the ‘surplus women’ problem at this time). The number of widowed seems to have been a more normative one in ten until very recent decades when it has climbed above the average, to reach one in five among Methodist and United Reformed worshippers in 2001. This is linked to the progressive ageing of Free Church membership and congregations.’

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