The Oxford History of Protestant Dissenting Traditions

Volume III, The Nineteenth Century

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Timothy Larsen, Michael Ledger-Lomas
Oxford History of Protestant Dissenting Traditions
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , July
     576 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Protestant dissenting traditions—also known as non-conformists or free churches and characterized (though not exhaustively defined) by a consistently strong wing of evangelicalism—were an eclectic array of church movements originating in Restoration England. Dissenters had theological roots in the sixteenth century Puritan tradition but strictly trace their origin to the 1662 Act of Uniformity which established use of the Book of Common Prayer as compulsory in Anglican worship and precipitated the Great Ejection ousting of non-conforming clergy from the Church of England. Those who dissented flourished over the following centuries, and by the nineteenth century had changed markedly as a result of government toleration, globalization, and emerging social challenges.

This volume is the third (though first published) in a series of five volumes on the history of Protestant dissenting traditions. Its focus is largely on Britain, Ireland, and North America, with a few of the chapters tracing relevant missionary and colonial histories to dissenting influences more globally. Just over half of the chapters are overviews of individual denominations or movements. The remaining chapters are topical and range from theological reflection to social reform. A chapter devoted to race is conspicuously absent for a century where the politics of race in transatlantic history were central. Many of the chapters discuss American chattel slavery extensively, however, both as a divisive force within denominations and as precipitating evangelical anti-slavery activism.

In contrast to Michael Watts’s posthumously published third volume of The Dissenters (Oxford University Press, 2015) covering the later nineteenth century, this Oxford History offers a broader picture of dissenting Protestantism that is more inclusive of daily piety. Intellectual history is represented, but one does not get the sense that theological disputes were the single dominating factor in the development of dissenting traditions. The current volume is also more positive than Watts in its assessment of the dissenting movements, without ignoring the emerging challenges of liberalism, scientific breakthroughs, and German higher criticism. The view from the nineteenth century is introduced well by Andrew R. Holmes in his chapter on dissenting evangelism: “After stagnating for most of the eighteenth century, political and social convulsions after 1770 provided the context and part of the explanation for an unprecedented growth of voluntary Protestantism....This hopeful and progressive vision would dominate Protestant Dissent for the rest of the century” (389).

This volume admirably presents its multi-faceted subject(s) without anxiety about establishing a perfect taxonomy, which in any case would be impossible to achieve. Michael Ledger-Lomas sketches some key unifying characteristics in the introduction, and otherwise the stories of dissenters and their churches are told so as to weave together a complex narrative. Discussion ranges from Presbyterians-turned-Unitarians-turned-Transcendentalists (262-65) to the conservative Charles Spurgeon shoring up Baptist hellfire preaching against a liberalizing “downgrade” among the clergy (70-71). An adequately comprehensive account of dissenting traditions will include each of these ideological poles, as well as groups like the Shakers who are sometimes barely recognizable as heirs to the original stand against the Church of England. The Oxford History achieves this breadth relatively well. Denominational diversity is presented in a way that conveys changing historical boundaries of orthodoxy and heterodoxy without inventing an artificial “orthodox dissent” from which to judge the margins.

A few chapters stand out because explicit reference to theoretical and methodological considerations are foregrounded. Stephen Shoemaker puts classical social theory and the work of Bryan Wilson on sect development to good use in categorizing Unitarians, Shakers, and Quakers, for instance. This chapter and Douglas Foster’s chapter on North American restorationists and new movements successfully face the biggest challenge of offering a coherent account of quite diverse religious groups. Joanna Cruickshank likewise guides the reader through difficult terrain, and adopts a model of religious globalization characterized by diaspora, transnational movements, and new movements formed within pluralistic cultural contexts (295).

Mark Noll’s chapter on the Bible moves in a different (which is not to say contradictory) direction of trying to unify these groups under a shared biblicism and individualist hermeneutic. Doing so helps to explain non-conformist identity during an era when conformity was not the prominent theologico-political challenge that it was in the two prior centuries. Noll points out that “‘dissent’ as a category for self-identification lost precision the farther Protestants moved away from the establishmentarianism of England,” and a commitment to the authority of the Bible over against creeds and other denominational standards became an increasingly unifying marker of identity (319-20).

Among many wonderfully suggestive proposals about the nature of nineteenth century dissent, one that stands out is Luke Harlow’s assessment that “the United States was, in short, a great experiment in Dissenting Protestant political theology” (432). Without reducing an international tradition to one country’s religious history, Harlow pinpoints a dominating trajectory.

Some gaps are present in the volume. A more extensive treatment of Mormonism, the Salvation Army, and millenarian groups like the Millerites would have been helpful. Robert Ellison’s approach to preaching is fascinating in its consideration of the methodological challenges and prospects of sermon studies, but his choice of sources (primarily the Yale Lectures on Preaching and Spurgeon’s Lectures to My Students) makes the experience of white men who attended seminaries central (a point Ellison himself raises), and limits most of the discussion to the last three decades of the century. None of the above is meant as criticism, but simply recognition that one volume cannot do everything, as well as an identification of where the select bibliographies at the end of each chapter might best complement this impressive work.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Evan Kuehn is Theological Librarian at the Rolfing Library at Trinity International University.

Date of Review: 
January 29, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Timothy Larsen is McManis Professor of Christian Thought, Wheaton College (Illinois), and an Honorary Research Professor at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David. His books include Crisis of Doubt: Honest Faith in Nineteenth-Century England (OUP, 2006), A People of One Book: The Bible and the Victorians (OUP, 2011), and The Slain God: Anthropologists and the Christian Faith (OUP, 2014). He is currently working on John Stuart Mill: A Secular Life, to be published in Oxford University Press's Spiritual Lives series.

Michael Ledger-Lomas is Lecturer in the History of Christianity at King's College, London. He is the co-editor of Dissent and the Bible in Britain, c.1650-1950 (OUP, 2013) and Cities of God: the Bible and Archaeology in Nineteenth-century Britain (Cambridge University Press, 2013).


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