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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

XVI. The Literature of Dissent

§ 1. The Historical Evolution of Dissent reflected in its Literature

THE NARROWNESS of intellectual life and sterility of spiritual life which fell upon the dissenting churches after the exclusion of 1662 were the outcome of a long chain of historical development. When dissent succumbed, yielding itself, body and soul, to the dehumanising genius of Calvin, it entered upon two—indeed, nearer three—centuries of wandering in a stony wilderness. During its birthtime in the middle and latter part of the sixteenth century, during the period of its trial in the early seventeenth century and during the short span of its chequered and flickering triumph under the commonwealth, the main concern and preoccupation of dissent was with the mere question of church membership. The arid discussions on church polity centred in this idea; the still more arid discussions on doctrine were aroused simply by the demand for a standard of the church member’s doctrinal purity, and the chief contention with the state was waged round the demand for a church control of admission to the sacrament—the wielding of the wooden sword of excommunication. The rock upon which this inveterate purpose split was not so much Erastianism as the national consciousness of the English race itself; and when, as the logical result of a century of historical development, dissent was driven out in 1662, it was pitting itself not so much against the church of England as against this English national consciousness. Throughout the remainder of the seventeenth century, and nearly through the whole of the eighteenth century, dissent remained true to the cramped and narrow basis on which it had been reared. If the church of England was sunk in lethargy, dissent was sunk in puny congregational and individual selfishness. Of any true missionary sense, of any conception of humanity as apart from religious system, dissent was even more devoid—because more deliberately devoid—than was the established church. With the one noble exception of Philip Doddridge (and, possibly, a generation earlier, of Richard Davis of Rothwell), it was not until the missionary fervour, the wide and intense humanity, of the methodist movement had revivified the church, that it, also, and in the last instance, revivified dissent. From that moment—towards quite the close of the eighteenth century, and with gathering force in the nineteenth—dissent has deserted its historical basis of dogma and polity, has ceased to war with the national consciousness, and has taken up the burden of Christ.

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.