The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 1. The Historical Evolution of Dissent reflected in its Literature
This main aspect of the historical evolution of dissent will be found mirrored in its literature. But there are two other aspects of that evolution which, also, demand attention, and these are aspects which found relatively much greater expression in that literature. The free churches claim the credit of the assertion of the principle of toleration. Historically, the claim is untenable, for, during its transient triumph under the commonwealth, dissent was intolerant and persecuting, or tried to be. The enunciation of the principle came from laymen, and from those sectaries whom the entrenched and enthroned presbyterian wished to persecute. Dissent was converted to the principle only by itself passing under the fiery sword; and, when, in the eighteenth century, it became the mouthpiece of the demand for toleration, it was such merely as asserting for itself a principle, and claiming for itself the protection and benefit of that principle, which was in the air, and which grew organically with the self-consciousness of the nation. But, in so far as they put forth these claims, the free churches gave birth to a considerable literature, which, though controversial in purpose, is not the less of account in any record of English eighteenth century literature at large.
Secondly—and this is most important of all—the process of disintegration, which, after 1662, overtook all three dissenting bodies—presbyterians, congregationalists and baptists—alike loosened the bands of doctrinal narrowness. One and all, they took the path which led through Arianism to unitarianism. To tell the story of that development is to recount not merely the general history of the three bodies themselves, but, also, the particular history of a very large proportion of the individual congregations nominally composing those bodies. Such a survey would, of course, be out of place here. But the literature which grew out of that development is of the greatest importance on a higher plane, as literature pure and simple, as a contribution to human thought, as well as on the lower plane of mere theological controversy.
Professedly, the three denominations of protestant dissenters are the presbyterians, the congregationalists and the baptists. But, as a matter of fact, after the secession of 1662, these terms—or the churches they profess to designate—are in a state of incessant flux; and it is dangerous to use the names in a general sense as applicable to three bodies with defined boundaries. The presbyterian churches became, perforce, congregational; some of the congregational churches became, of choice, baptist, or vice versa; and all three types took on Arianism as a garb. According to the particular bias or intellectual momentum of a particular pastor, a congregation might pass from one extreme limit to the other. In dealing, therefore, with the mere personal side of dissenting literature, we shall find it unsafe and difficult to employ the ordinary terminology of dissent.