Dissenters in the nation's capital

Wednesday, November 20, 1991

By David Roberts

In the early 1980s, the National Library of Australia in Canberra was collecting widely in the areas of British social history, local history and genealogy. Having acquired the excellent Clifford Collection of English Catholic and Recusant literature, the library did the same for nonconformist literature by buying two unnamed collections, mainly pamphlets (about 500 in all), from a commercial source. So what?

Well, this literature is quite important — Fred Nile's a nonconformist, isn't he? And anyway, they make good reading.

Nonconformism shaped the cultural, social and commercial life of late 18th century Britain, and paved the way for acquisition of empire in the 19th. In fact, British nonconformism owes more to the social climate of turn of the (18th) century Europe than it does to any legacy of the 17th century radical Puritanism, which means that these collection must be examined in a context closer to our own time and place than might at first be imagined.

Methodism, Presbyterianism and the lesser sects, eventually modified by Weberian principles, gave the British a sublime confidence in their own right to rule — "manifest destiny" in the eastern hemisphere (see where we fit in now?).

Apart from these wider issues, nonconformism and chapel-centred activities played a large part in cultural, social and intellectual life at village and town level. With the coming of the industrial revolution and the evolution of the Protestant ethic (not to mention the spirit of capitalism), the urban working class tended to turn more and more to religious activity as a means of "belonging". This had two apparently contradictory results.

The first, most obvious, effect was to turn this urban peasantry inwards — to make them accept their lot, and seek salvation in an afterlife rather than in earthly fulfilment. Fate, destiny, preordination — what you will — was paramount in Calvinist-derived Presbyterianism, and was most certainly evident in Methodism and Congregationalism — particularly amongst the primitives. This concept naturally fostered an acceptance of the status quo: the condition of the individual could be changed only through salvation. And salvation could not be sought — it, too, was preordained.

Paradoxically, nonconformism also gave rise to reformist, radical and even revolutionary movements. This happened in two ways.

Firstly, since the Restoration, there had been legal sanctions against nonconformists, who were de facto and de jure enemies of the established church, and therefore enemies of the state which supported and maintained that church. Throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries, nonconformism was evangelical, quasi-underground and working class. It was dissident by its very nature, especially in Ireland, where sanctions against dissenters were scarcely less harsh

The second way in which nonconformism gave rise to organised disaffection was through its methods of evangelism. Wesleyan Methodism in particular proselytised through the mass meeting, and was sustained by small gatherings in private circumstances. The emerging urban proletariat, led to a certain extent by an educated, liberal and even radicalised bourgeoisie, was not slow to adopt the tactics of Methodism. Mass meetings, gatherings in private (and public) houses and corresponding societies were all stocks in trade of the early 19th century radical.

So, if you're in Canberra, why not have a look? The collections comprise mainly parish histories — valuable in their own right as local histories — as well as documents on and of the development of nonconformism. The whole of the British Isles is represented (see where Ian Paisley's coming from) in works ranging from slim pamphlets to weighty monographs.