Confessional Identities and their Ambiguities: Religious Dissent in England

by Kathleen Lynch, Executive Director, Folger Institute

Diarmaid MacCulloch has called the English Reformation unfinished business, neither sufficiently developed theologically to align itself fully with the European Reformation nor sufficiently detached from ceremonialism to distinguish itself fully from Catholicism. The ambiguity of religious reform in England was further complicated by the radically changing practices and preferences of successive monarchs. How could an individual subject adhere to the state religion, when the doctrinal and ceremonial content of that religion was so variable? Regardless, the state secured adherence by the taking of oaths, and where needed, the coercions of retraction, torture, and even execution. Both Catholics and Protestants found ample sources for extensive martyrologies in the course of the English Reformation.

The confessional division between Catholics and Protestants was often blurred by accommodation in devotional practice and within communities. Still, the state church policed dogma and ceremony alike, exposing fissures and sectarian divisions. The episcopal Church of England was threatened in the 1580s by a nascent presbyterianism. By the 1630s, the newly instituted regulations of Archbishop Laud's regime were themselves seen as divisive. Many scholars today agree with the religious exiles from his regime: Laud's rule was an innovation, a threat to the precariously maintained Calvinist consensus. As one response, the great migration of Puritan exiles gathered force. Whether in New England, or Rotterdam, where they also got a foothold, or even in London and other locales within England, these religious communities began to form gathered churches, or exclusionary associations of those who had become convinced through their own experience that they were members of the Calvinistic Elect.

Some of these churches turned to the delivery of an oral testimony as a requirement of admission, and in the build-up to the execution of Charles I, and especially in the aftermath of it, such testimonies began to be gathered and published as models of church formation. Thus, in the 1650s the conversion narrative or "experience" became a new--and self-authorizing--way to articulate a confessional identity. This mode of narrative reached its fullest expression in the publication of John Bunyan's Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. Describing events of the mid-1650s, but published in 1666, at a time of renewed persecutions of religious dissenters, Grace Abounding was widely received as an authentic expression of perseverance in the face of persecution. Variously read over the succeeding centuries as a record of religious despair or psychological pathology, Grace Abounding is a self-excoriating documentation of the search for assurance of salvation, an unblinking examination--and valorization--of the rigors of the individual conscience.

Despite Charles II's pre-Restoration assurances of "liberty to tender consciences" on matters of religion, a series of laws collectively known as the Clarendon Code imposed increasingly harsh penalties on religious nonconformists. Bunyan was an early target of these laws, and languished in the Bedford County gaol for some twelve years in a standoff with civil authorities--during which time he composed Grace Abounding as well as other doctrinal polemics and exhortatory works. King and Parliament engaged in jurisdictional disputes over the legal right to extend indulgences or exceptions to the penal codes, as well as over the question of to whom such rights were to be extended. Many members of parliament viewed the King's tolerance of Protestant dissenters as only a cover for his preferred indulgence of Catholics. These dark suspicions proved well founded when Charles's brother, a convert to Catholicism, succeeded him as James II, precipitating the Exclusion Crisis of the 1680s. Throughout the Restoration, some churchmen sought for agreeable terms of "comprehension," whereby at least some non-conforming Protestants might be welcomed back into the fold of the state church.

Throughout these years, successive editions of Bunyan's spiritual autobiography cultivated a public image of his conscience-driven dissent and unjust punishment. Bunyan's associates in the book trade also suffered the consequences of religious persecution. The bookseller Francis Smith published a series of pamphlets arguing against the economic price of persecution, culminating in a chronicle of twenty years of harassment, fines, imprisonments, and seizures of books, amounting to his financial loss of nearly £1,400 by 1680. However, despite the arguments of dissenters that they could be good citizens and loyal subjects of the state while yet retaining the right to exercise the religion of their choice, the dissenters were not advocating a principled religious toleration. John Locke's landmark Letter Concerning Toleration (1689) came as close as any text in the period to articulating such principles. By distinguishing matters that were "indifferent" to the state from those germane to the state's interests, Locke sought to limit magisterial authority to the latter. Under the influence of Locke's theory, dissenters' beliefs were increasingly held to be private matters in the eighteenth century. Religious belief in general was relegated to the private sphere. Nevertheless, by appealing to their consciences and standing up to the penal codes, Protestant dissenters from the Church of England had kept questions of religious toleration in the foreground of public discourse in the second half of the seventeenth century. And despite Bunyan's own insistence that his religious principles were of a realm apart from worldly business, he, as much as any of his contemporaries, was a social and a political and an economic being, and it was not easy to disentangle those motivations from his devotional practices.

Primary Sources

  1. John Bunyan, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. Ed. Roger Sharrock. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1962.
  2. John Locke, A Letter on Toleration. Trans. J. W. Gough. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968.
  3. A True and Impartial Narrative of some Illegal and Arbitrary proceedings by certain Justices of the Peace and others, against several innocent and peaceable Nonconformists in and near the Town of Bedford [Francis Smith], 1670
  4. Francis Smith, An Account of the Injurious Proceedings of Sir George Jeffreys, Knight ... Against Francis Smith, Bookseller, 1680.

Suggested Readings

  • Horton, John and Susan Mendus, eds. John Locke, "A Letter Concerning Toleration" in Focus. New York: Routledge, 1991.
  • MacCulloch, Diarmaid. "The Myth of the English Reformation." Journal of British Studies 30 (1991): 1-19.
  • McCoy, Richard C. Alterations of State: Sacred Kingship in the English Reformation. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.
  • McClure, Kirstie M. "Difference, Diversity, and the Limits of Toleration." Political Theory 18 (1990): 361-391.
  • Questier, Michael. Conversion, Politics, and Religion in England, 1580-1625. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
  • Schochet, Gordon J. "The Act of Toleration and the Failure of Comprehension: Persecution, Nonconformity, and Religious Indifference." In The World of William and Mary: Anglo-Dutch Perspectives on the Revolution of 1688-89. Ed. Dale Hoak and Mordechai Feingold. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996.
  • Walsham, Alexandra. Church Papists: Catholicism, Conformity, and Confessional Polemic in Early Modern England. Rochester, NY: Boydell Press, 1993.


  • John Bunyan. Grace abounding. To the chief of sinners: or, A brief aud [sic] faithful relation of the exceeding mercy of God in Christ, to His poor servant John Bunyan.. London, 1680