The Oxford History of Protestant Dissenting Traditions, Volume II

The Long Eighteenth Century c. 1689-1828

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Andrew Thompson
The Oxford History of Protestant Dissenting Traditions
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , August
     496 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The Toleration Act, passed by the Parliament of England in 1689, granted freedom of worship to Dissenting Protestants such as Baptists, Congregationalists, and Quakers. In passing the Act, Parliament rejected the idea of a “comprehensive” Church of England, and “confirmed the separation between Church and ‘Dissent’” (xvi). Although the Toleration Act allowed Dissenters “legally protected freedom of worship,” they were still denied political office (xvi). That exclusion ended in 1828 with the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts. These two events ¾ the passage of the Toleration Act and the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts ¾ bookend this examination of Protestant Dissenting traditions in the 18th century.

The Oxford History of Protestant Dissenting Traditions, Volume II: The Long Eighteenth Century is the second in a series of five volumes on the history of Protestant Dissenting traditions. This particular volume, edited by Andrew C. Thompson, is divided into five sections: “Dissenting traditions within England,” “Dissenting traditions outside England,” “Revivalist Movements and Their Impact,” “Dissenters’ Relationship to the British State and the Campaign to Abolish the Slave Trade,” and the “Lived Experience of Dissenters.”

This volume begins with separate chapters on each of the major denominations of Dissent: Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, Quakers, and Methodists. Although the emphasis, at least in this first section, is on individual denominations, the themes discussed in these chapters have relevance for all of the groups under discussion. For example, in his chapter on the Quakers, Richard C. Allen highlights the Quakers’ complex response to the passage of the Toleration Act. The Act was “a welcome, if tokenistic, measure of relief” for Quakers, and for all Dissenters in England. In theory, Quakers could gather for worship without fear of reprisal. Yet, there were limitations: Quakers were still subject to parochial obligations and “still regarded as outsiders” in the wider community (77).

Initially, some Quakers pushed the limits of the Toleration Act, despite instructions from the London Yearly Meeting to give “no offence nor occasions to those in outward government, nor way to any controversies, heats, or distractions of this world” (79). However, as Quakers wrestled with the impact of the Toleration Act, and the importance of their radical past, the Society began to shift. Increasingly, Quakers regulated Friends’ behavior in a variety of areas, including dress, speech, marriage, and business. After 1750, Quakers distanced themselves from the world, and from their radical origins. Among many Quakers, some Friends’ radical past was something to overcome in their quest for greater respectability and acceptance.

The second section considers the development of Dissent outside of England, placing Dissent within a global context. In “Dissent in the American Colonies before the First Amendment,” Catherine A. Brekus argues for the importance of British Protestant Dissenters in the passage of the First Amendment. Presbyterians, Quakers, and Baptists “fought for liberty of conscience,” and “laid the intellectual groundwork for the separation of Church and state after the American Revolution” (184). British Protestant Dissenters who emigrated to the American colonies found that their freedom to worship depended on the colony in which they lived. In Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Maryland, Quakers and Baptists faced the same legal penalties as they had in England. However, in New England, they faced the powerful Congregational Church. Thus, Quakers and Baptists “now had two Established Churches to oppose rather than simply one.” This had significant implications: “Dissenters gradually became less invested in criticizing the Church of England than in protesting against the general principle of religious establishment” (189).

Other chapters explore Dissent within the history of empire and the Atlantic world. Of note, is Carl Lounsbury’s examination of the relationship between Dissent and the physical form of meeting houses, chapels, and churches in England and America. As Lounsbury argues, theology influenced the form and shape of Dissenters’ places of worship. In America, the frontier also impacted the physical form of buildings as Dissenters in new settlements built temporary structures that were later replaced by more substantial structures. By the early 19th century, Dissenters’ meeting houses reflected a greater degree of self-confidence.

G.M. Ditchfield’s chapter on abolitionism and Dissent examines the importance of Dissenters, such as the Quakers, in the fight against the slave trade, and slavery more broadly. Although Ditchfield provides a fairly thorough overview of Dissenters in the abolitionist movement, he misses key individuals: Baptist printers Martha Gurney and William Fox, who were responsible for publishing the most popular antislavery tract of the period, and Quaker Elizabeth Heyrick, who in 1824 was the first to call for the immediate abolition of slavery, are absent from this section..

The Oxford History of Protestant Dissenting Traditions, Volume II: The Long Eighteenth Century provides a broad and important overview of the impact of the Toleration Act on Dissenting Protestants in the long 18th century. By focusing on both the specifics of Dissent and the wider context for religious change, Thompson and the contributors have successfully placed the history of Dissent within the broader history of the British Empire and the Atlantic world.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Julie L. Holcomb is Associate Professor of Museum Studies at Baylor University.

Date of Review: 
September 16, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Andrew C. Thompson is an Official Fellow and Senior College Lecturer in History at Queens' College, Cambridge. His publications include Britain, Hanover, and the Protestant Interest (2006) and George II: King and Elector (2011) as well as a number of articles on eighteenth-century religion, politics, and diplomacy.


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