Church Life

Pastors, Congregations, and the Experience of Dissent in Seventeenth Century England

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Michael Davies, Anne Dunan-Page, Joel Halcomb
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , July
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


How can we understand dissenting church life outside of persecution, famous names, or the individual conversion narrative? This is the question that editors Michael Davies, Anne Dunan-Page, and Joel Halcomb ask in Church Life: Pastors, Congregations, and the Experience of Dissent in Seventeenth Century England. Wishing to avoid the usual approach to understanding 17th-century religious dissent, the editors ask contributors to dive deeper into congregational life and structure for evidence of how English Dissenters navigated such concerns as pastoral care, absenteeism, ministerial election, toleration, identity, change and charges of disorder in governance.

In chapter 1, Joel Halcomb looks at how order and disorder were the lenses through which religion and politics were seen in the 1640s. This chapter focuses on Congregationalists who had ties to the established parliamentary order of the day but who also tolerated a wide range of theological and social views. This makes them an ideal study for the navigation of respectability within radicalism. For many observers at the time, the established church represented order while Dissenting congregations, with their blurred lines between clergy and laity, as well as their more democratic mode of governance, were emblematic of moral and political disorder. Holcomb says that this often put Dissenting congregations on the defense, eager to justify their beliefs about church life. However, the daily life of the congregation also forced members to work out the consequences of their more radical social and political ideas. Holcomb is a welcome antidote to stereotypical views of Dissenters as brash and unconcerned with social acceptance, though a little more elaboration on the dissonance between Dissenting views of women versus general early modern English views would have been welcome.

Elliot Vernon in chapter 2 argues that rather than focus on the decline of Godly religion in the 1640s and 1650s, we should recognize that this decline changed the relationship between pastor and parishioner, paradoxically  ensuring its ultimate survival. The dissolution of ecclesiastical courts during this period meant a change in how congregants were disciplined. Vernon explains how this required the minister to project sufficient authority to become the disciplining agent, something that was difficult now that ministers were more beholden to the laity. One way that ministers were able to project authority was in admonishment, which was expected in Dissenting congregations alongside regular preaching and other duties. Still, the laity possessed the bulk of power in that they had the ability to form factions that could change the very theological flavor of their assembly. Vernon does a fantastic job of demonstrating how Dissenting congregations developed lay authority to deal with the power vacuum left by the dissolution of the ecclesiastical court system and how ministers subsequently negotiated their own authority.

Kathleen Lynch next takes us on a tour of “space and place” (63) as it applies to Dissenting congregations. Lynch is strongest when discussing the peripatetic existence of Dissenting congregations in which “everything from fields to alleyways to barns and out-buildings were being infiltrated and repurposed as gathering places for the godly and as centers for Dissenting “church life” (65).  She also raises several intriguing questions: for example, does sacred space exist in an iconoclastic age or for a transient religious population? This perceptive chapter has the potential to be the most fascinating, but its unnecessarily opaque writing style at times makes the author’s arguments difficult to decipher. Still, the material focus on place makes this chapter well worth the read.

Polly Ha gives us the most incisive and philosophical chapter of the volume as she contrasts Puritan separatism and later Interregnum ideas of individual voluntary association which sometimes led further to the possibility of intercommunion between Dissenting groups. Ha acknowledges that a particularly thorny issue surrounding voluntary association is that it opens the door to questions of whether women can belong without their husbands or servants without masters. Like chapter 1, this chapter would have benefited from a more than cursory mention of gender as it would have considerably strengthened her already brilliant analysis.

In the final chapter, Anne Dunan-Page uses records of absenteeism to focus “on the complex positions of those disaffected Dissenters who, while not fully committed to the communal and spiritual experience of 17th-century nonconformity, nevertheless did not regard themselves either as apostates or conformists,”(195). Her astute reading of church records shows that attachment to a nonconformist church was only one marker of Dissenting life, and that lack of attendance was not always an accurate indication of identity.

Church Life provides scholars with a much-needed, deeper, and more nuanced look at the experience of Dissenting church life and is particularly strong when it comes to scholarship about changes in ecclesial structure and authority. However, the volume would be enhanced with more coverage the role of gender in Dissenting church life. Though a few of the chapters made passing reference to gender, none engaged critically with it even when it seemed obvious to do so. Nevertheless, each chapter makes a unique contribution to the overall scholarship of Dissent in 17th-century England.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Autumn Reinhardt-Simpson is a PhD candidate in religious studies at the University of Alberta.

Date of Review: 
August 25, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael Davies, Senior Lecturer in English, University of Liverpool,Anne Dunan-Page, Professor of Early Modern British Studies, Aix-Marseille Universite,Joel Halcomb, Lecturer in Early Modern History, University of East Anglia

Michael Davies is Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Liverpool. Among his publications is Graceful Reading: Theology and Narrative in the Works of John Bunyan (2002). He is co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of John Bunyan (with W. R. Owens; 2018).

Anne Dunan-Page is Professor of Early Modern British Studies at Aix-Marseille Universite, where she directs the Research Centre on the Anglophone World. Her books include Grace Overwhelming: John Bunyan, 'The Pilgrim's Progress' and the Extremes of the Baptist Mind (2006), The Cambridge Companion to Bunyan (2010), and Roger L'Estrange and the Making of Restoration Culture (with Beth Lynch; 2008).

Joel Halcomb is Lecturer in Early Modern History at the University of East Anglia. He was assistant editor for The Minutes and Papers of the Westminster Assembly, 1643-1652 (2012).


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