Nonconformist conscience

The Nonconformist conscience was the moralistic influence of the Nonconformist churches in British politics in the 19th and early 20th centuries.[1]

Moral outlookEdit

Historians group Methodists together with other Protestant groups as "Nonconformists" or "Dissenters" standing in opposition to the established Church of England. In the 19th century the Dissenters who went to chapel comprised half the people who actually attended services on Sunday. They were based in the fast-growing urban middle class. The "Nonconformist conscience" was their moral sensibility which they tried to implement in British politics.[2] The two categories of Dissenters, or Nonconformists, were in addition to the evangelicals or "Low Church" element in the Church of England. "Old Dissenters," dating from the 16th and 17th centuries, included Baptists, Congregationalists, Quakers, Unitarians, and Presbyterians outside Scotland. "New Dissenters" emerged in the 18th century and were mainly Methodists. The "Nonconformist conscience" of the Old group emphasized religious freedom and equality, pursuit of justice, and opposition to discrimination, compulsion, and coercion. The New Dissenters (and also the Anglican evangelicals) stressed personal morality issues, including sexuality, temperance, family values, and Sabbath-keeping. Both factions were politically active, but until mid-19th century the Old group supported mostly Whigs and Liberals in politics, while the New – like most Anglicans – generally supported Conservatives. In the late 19th the New Dissenters mostly switched to the Liberal Party. The result was a merging of the two groups, strengthening their great weight as a political pressure group. They joined together on new issues especially regarding schools and temperance, with the latter of special interest to Methodists.[3][4] By 1914 the linkage was weakening and by the 1920s it was virtually dead.[5]


The phrase gained wide currency during the campaign by the Welsh Methodist Hugh Price Hughes against the participation in politics of the divorcee Sir Charles Dilke (1886) and the adulterer Charles Stewart Parnell (1890), believing that political leaders should possess high moral integrity.[6] In Britain one strong base of Liberal Party support was Nonconformist Protestantism, such as the Methodists and Presbyterians. The nonconformist conscience rebelled against having an adulterer (Parnell) play a major role in the Liberal Party. The Liberal party leader William Gladstone warned that if Parnell retained his powerful role the leadership, it would mean the loss of the next election, the end of their alliance and also of Home Rule.[7]

The high point of the Nonconformist conscience came with the Nonconformist opposition to the Education Act 1902, in which Nonconformist voluntary schools were taken over by state authorities.[8] Élie Halévy wrote that: "Thoroughout the Nonconformist and Radical ranks frenzied excitement prevailed. To read the Liberal newspapers of the day you would imagine that the Cecils were preparing to revive the policy of Laud if not of Strafford, and that in every village a Nonconformist Hampden was about to rise against their persecution".[9]

By 1914 the Nonconformist conscience was in decline and during the Great War ecumenism gained popularity. By 1938 David Lloyd George remarked that these changes had killed off the influence of the Nonconformist conscience.[10]

In 1943 the United Reformed minister and theologian Harry Francis Lovell Cocks published the book The Nonconformist Conscience in which he declared that "The Nonconformist Conscience is the mark of a spiritual aristocracy, a counterblast to coronets and mitres".[11]


  1. ^ John Ramsden (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century British Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 474.
  2. ^ D.W. Bebbington, The Nonconformist Conscience. Chapel and Politics, 1870–1914 (1982).
  3. ^ Timothy Larsen, "A Nonconformist Conscience? Free Churchmen in Parliament in Nineteenth‐Century England." Parliamentary History 24#1 (2005): 107–119.
  4. ^ Richard Helmstadter, "The Nonconformist Conscience" in Peter Marsh, ed., The Conscience of the Victorian State (1979) pp 135–72.
  5. ^ John F. Glaser, "English Nonconformity and the Decline of Liberalism." American Historical Review 63.2 (1958): 352–363. in JSTOR
  6. ^ s:Hughes, Hugh Price (DNB12)
  7. ^ Christopher Oldstone-Moore, "The Fall of Parnell: Hugh Price Hughes and the Nonconformist Conscience," Eire-Ireland (1996) 30#4 pp 94–110.
  8. ^ Ramsden, p. 474.
  9. ^ Élie Halévy, A History of the English People in the Nineteenth Century. Volume V: Imperialism and the Rise of Labour (London: Ernest Benn, 1951), p. 210.
  10. ^ Ramsden, p. 474.
  11. ^ Harry Francis Lovell Cocks, The Nonconformist Conscience (1943), p. 17.

Further readingEdit

  • D. W. Bebbington, The Nonconformist Conscience: Chapel and Politics 1870–1914 (London, 1982).
  • Raymond G. Cowherd. The Politics of English Dissent: The Religious Aspects of Liberal and Humanitarian Reform Movements from 1815 to 1848 (1956).
  • Richard Helmstadter, "The Nonconformist Conscience" in Peter Marsh, ed., The Conscience of the Victorian State (1979) pp 135–72.
  • J. Kent, ‘Hugh Price Hughes and the nonconformist conscience’, in G. V. Bennett and J. D. Walsh (eds.), Essays in Modern English Church History: in memory of Norman Sykes (1966), pp. 181–205.
  • Stephen Koss, Nonconformity in Modern British Politics (London, 1975).
  • Christopher Oldstone-Moore, "The Fall of Parnell: Hugh Price Hughes and the Nonconformist Conscience," Eire-Ireland (1996) 30#4 pp 94–110.
  • Valentine, Simon Ross, ‘The role of nonconformity in late Victorian politics’, Modern History Review, Vol. 9, (2), (1997), pp. 6-9.

Primary sourcesEdit

  • John H. Y. Briggs and Ian Sellers, eds. Victorian Nonconformity (1973)
  • David M Thompson, ed. Nonconformity in the Nineteenth Century (1972)