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Protestantism and Non-Christian Religions

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by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

Originally, nonconformity meant refusal to conform to the doctrines, policy, or discipline of the Established Church of England. Thus both Catholics and Protestants were nonconformists. They were variously called recusants, separatists, and dissenters, to emphasize their failure to agree with the teachings and practice of the Anglican Communion. At the present time, however, the term is applied only to Protestants in England and Wales. See Anglicanism.


The history of nonconformism is practically the story of the religious struggles that arose periodically in England from the time of Henry VIII. Henry’s Reformation Parliament in 1534 passed the Act of Supremacy, declaring the King of England “the only supreme head on earth of the Church of England.” The Act of Supremacy was at first directed only at Catholics. Later, however, it affected Presbyterians, Congregationalist, Methodists, Quakers, and Baptists.

Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth I (1558-1603), tried to obtain conformity from all dissenters. In her Act of Uniformity (1559), she ordered the use of the Book of Common Prayer by all English subjects. Those who refused to conform were subject to a heavy fine and six months’ imprisonment for the first offense and confiscation of all property and life imprisonment for disobedience after two convictions. See Uniformity, Acts Of.

In her Act against Puritans in 1593, Elizabeth required all subjects to attend Anglican services regularly. Refusal to do so meant repeated imprisonment and fines “until they shall conform and yield themselves to come to some church . . . and hear divine service according to Her Majesty’s laws and statutes aforesaid.” See Elizabeth I.

Conflict and Compromise

A century of conflict between Calvinist nonconformists and the English crown led to the Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658). Consistent with his theory of liberation for all Protestants, Cromwell permitted numerous religious groups to flourish. Baptists and Quakers were protected and Jews were permitted free entry, but there was no mitigation of the laws against Catholics. See Cromwell, Oliver.

After Charles II was proclaimed king by Parliament in 1660, he promised liberty of conscience to all citizens but he quickly published the Clarendon Code (1661-1665) to achieve religious conformity. Its main proviso required all officeholders to take “the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, according to the rites of the Church of England.”

In 1672, Charles issued a Declaration of Indulgence to remove disabilities against Catholics and Protestant dissenters. Parliament reacted by passing the Test Act of 1673, which required that all officials of the government receive the sacrament in the Anglican Church and repudiate the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. See Charles II; Transubstantiation.

Climax and Solution

The climax in the history of nonconformism was reached under James II, brother of Charles II, who’s Declaration of Indulgence (1688) suspended all penal laws against Catholics and Dissenters. It’s crucial passage declared, “it is our royal will and pleasure that from henceforth the execution of all and all manner of penal laws in matters ecclesiastical, for not coming to church, or not receiving the Sacrament, or for any other nonconformity to the religion established…be immediately suspended.” See James II.

The revolution which followed brought William III and Mary II to the throne, at which time the Bill of Rights was passed (1689). This bill forbade anyone who professed the Catholic faith or who married a Catholic from becoming king or queen of England. See Bill of Rights, English.

Protestant nonconformists with Calvinist sympathies were early guaranteed religious liberty. In 1707, under Queen Anne, the Act of Union was agreed upon. Presbyterian Scotland and Anglican England were combined into the United Kingdom of Great Britain. One flag, the Union Jack, combined the crosses of St. Andrew and St. George to symbolize religious tolerance and political unity.

Disabilities against Catholic dissenters were not removed until the last century when the Gladstone government freed the Irish people from supporting a church of which they were not members. The law, a result of the Disestablishment Act of 1869, took effect in 1871.

Although nonconformity was English in origin, its principles now apply to every movement which seeks to free people from worship and religions profession imposed by civil government. In this sense, the First Amendment to the American Constitution is the Magna Charta of nonconformism. Originally designed to protect the citizens from adherence to an established church, its provisions have become the mainstay of religious liberty in the United States. See Constitution Of The United States.

For further information read Church-State Relations; Freedom.

Catholic Encyclopedia for School and Home
Vol. 7, 1993, p. 656

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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