Those who refuse to join the established church. Nonconformists in England may be considered of three sorts.
1. Such as absent themselves from divine worship in the established church through total irreligion, and attend the service of no other persuasion.
2. Such as absent themselves on the plea of conscience; as Presbyterians, Independents, Baptists, &c.
3. Internal Nonconformists, or unprincipled clergymen, who applaud and propagate doctrines quite inconsistent with several of those articles they promised on oath to defend. The word is generally used in reference to those ministers who were ejected from their livings by the act of Uniformity, in 1662. The number of these was about two thousand. However some affect to treat these men with indifference, and suppose that their consciences were more tender than they need be, it must be remembered, that they were men of as extensive learning, great abilities, and pious conduct as ever appeared. Mr. Locke, if his opinion have any weight, calls them "worthy, learned, pious, orthodox divines, who did not throw themselves out of service, but were forcibly ejected." Mr. Bogue thus draws their character: "As to their public ministration, " he says, "they were orthodox, experimental, serious, affectionate, regular, faithful, able, and popular preachers.
As to their moral qualities, they were devout and holy; faithful to Christ and the souls of men; wise and prudent; of great liberality and kindness; and strenuous advocates for liberty, civil and religious. As to their intellectual qualities, they were learned, eminent, and laborious." These men were driven from their houses, from the society of their friends, and exposed to the greatest difficulties. Their burdens were greatly increased by the Conventical act, whereby they were prohibited from meeting for any exercise of religion (above five in number) in any other manner than allowed by the liturgy or practice of the Church of England. For the first offence the penalty was three months imprisonment, or pay five pounds; for the second offence, six months imprisonment, or ten pounds; and for the third offence, to be banished to some of the American plantations for seven years, or pay one hundred pounds; and in case they returned, to suffer death without benefit of clergy. By virtue of this act, the gaols were quickly filled with dissenting Protestants, and the trade of an informer was very gainful. So great was the severity of these times, says Neale, that they were afraid to pray in their families, if above four of their acquaintance, who came only to visit them, were present: some families scrupled asking a blessing on their meat if five strangers were at table. But this was not all (to say nothing of the Test act:) in 1665, an act was brought into the House to banish them from their friends, commonly called the Oxford Five Mile Act, by which all dissenting ministers, on the penalty of forty pounds, who would not take an oath (that it was not lawful, upon any pretence whatever, to take arms against the king, &c) were prohibited from coming within five miles of any city, town corporate, or borough, or any place where they had exercised their ministry, and from teaching any school.
Some few took the oath; others could not, consequently suffered the penalty. In 1673, "the mouths of the high church pulpiteers, were encouraged to open as loud as possible. One, in his sermon before the House of Commons, told them, that the Nonconformists ought not to be tolerated, but to be cured by vengeance. He urged them to set fire to the faggot, and to teach them by scourges or scorpions, and open their eyes with gall." Such were the dreadful consequences of this intolerant spirit, that it is supposed near eight thousand died in prison in the reign of Charles II. It is said, that Mr. Jeremiah White had carefully collected a list of those who had suffered between Charles II. and the revolution, which amounted to sixty thousand. The same persecutions were carried on in Scotland; and there, as well as in England, many, to avoid persecution, fled from their country. But, notwithstanding all these dreadful and furious attacks upon the Dissenters, they were not extirpated. Their very persecution was in their favour. The infamous characters of their informers and persecutors; their piety, zeal, and fortitude, no doubt, had influence on considerate minds; and, indeed, they had additions from the established church, which "several clergymen in this reign deserted as a persecuting church, and took their lot among them. In addition to this, king James suddenly altered his measures, granted a universal toleration, and preferred Dissenters to places of trust and profit, though it was evidently with a view to restore popery. King William coming to the throne, the famous Toleration Act passed, by which they were exempted from suffering the penalties above-mentioned, and permission given them to worship God, according to the dictates of their own consciences. In the latter end of Queen Anne's reign they began to be a little alarmed.
An act of parliament passed, called the Occasional Conformity Bill, which prevented any person in office under the government entering into a meeting-house. Another, called the Schism Bill, had actually obtained the royal assent, which suffered no Dissenters to educate their own children, but required them to be put into the hands of Conformists; and which forbade all tutors and schoolmasters being present at any conventicle, or dissenting place of worship; but the very day this iniquitous act was to have taken place, the Queen died (August 1, 1714.) But his majesty king George I. being fully satisfied that these hardships were brought upon the Dissenters for their steady adherence to the Protestant succession in his illustrious house against a tory and jacobite ministry, who were paving the way for a popish pretender, procured the repeal of them in the fifth year of his reign; though a clause was left that forbade the mayor or other magistrate to go into any meeting for religious worship with the ensigns of his office.
See Bogue's Charge at Mr. Knight's Ordination; Neale's History of the Puritans; De Laune's Plea for the Nonconformists; Palmer's Nonconformists; Mem. Martin's Letters on Nonconformity; Robinson's Lectures; Cornish's History of Nonconformity; Dr. Calamy's Life of Baxter; Pierce's Vindication of the Dissenters; Bogue and Bennet's History of the Dissenters.