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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

§ 5. Controversial Literature on Church Polity and Dogma

The controversial literature of dissent on the subjects of church polity and dogma covers the field of a whole series of successive disputes. Although, in these disputes, there is a constant shifting of the ground, yet the driving impulse, at bottom, is only one of freedom. At the outset, this freedom is purely ecclesiastical, the irresponsibility of a congeries of churches now, at last, cut asunder from the establishment. But it was inevitable that, in the end, such ecclesiastical freedom should loosen the bonds of dogmatic authority also, and so pave the way for pure free thought. Although the two paths of development often ran side by side, and crossed and recrossed, yet, historically, the ecclesiastical is the precedent and necessary condition of dogmatic freedom. By ecclesiastical freedom is here meant, not merely that, after the ejection of 1662, dissent was, or was to become, free of the yoke of the episcopal church, but that, within the limits of dissent itself, all bonds of authority had been destroyed. In the seventeenth century, a presbyterian system which had not the sanction of the state behind it was left without any compulsory force at all; and, as a system, it instantly fell to pieces. In addition, dissent had inherited from the commonwealth days the heritage of the curse of Cain—the internecine warfare of independent and presbyterian. In the later days of the commonwealth, feeble attempts had been made to heal that strife, and, when thirty years of later persecution had chastened their mood, the attempts were revived with the passing of the Toleration act. In the so-called “happy union,” which was established in London in 1691 by agreement between the independent and presbyterian bodies, it was fondly hoped that, at last, the foundation had been laid for a church polity of dissent. But the disintegrating force of irresponsibility soon laid low these builded hopes. In London, the association of the two bodies endured only a brief four years, and, although in the country “the heads of the agreement” of this union became somewhat widely adopted, and were worked out into the scheme of county or provincial associations and unions, these lived but a palsied and flickering life, and possess little true organic connection with modern county unions.