John Owen, Richard Baxter and the Formation of Nonconformity
(978-0-7546-6361-4) Church Times Bookshop
WITH the decline of Protestant Nonconformity in the 20th century, Anglicans have increasingly forgotten it. Yet, from the 1660s, the newly separated denominations of Baptists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Quakers posed a lasting threat to the Church’s position. Generations of Anglicans strove to rebut this Nonconformist challenge. They arguably succeeded, only for the Church later to disestablish itself from within.
Tim Cooper, in this formidably learned study, examines the prehistory of separated Dissent: the rivalries from the 1630s to the 1650s among reformers over how to remodel a still-unified Church, and the internal conflicts that finally led not just to separation from the restored Church in the 1660s, but to separation from each other.
His study focuses on two leaders within English Puritanism: John Owen (1616-83) and Richard Baxter (1615-91), both hugely productive authors, both high-profile activists. Owen was chaplain to Oliver Cromwell, the intruded Dean of Christ Church, Vice-Chancellor of Oxford, and the most famous Congregationalist of his day; R. A. Beddard called him one of the two “ayatollahs of Independency”. Baxter, who was called by John Coffey “the epitome of moderate Puritanism”, was the leading champion of “comprehension” within a state Church reorganised, as he demanded, on Presbyterian lines.
This is a study of the Puritan revolution that failed, even when backed by military dictatorship. Puritans, argues Cooper, failed to agree on the “fundamentals” of faith which identified the limits of toleration. Why? He points to personal conflicts as keys to the evolution of fluid situations in which party identities were not fixed.
Both Owen and Baxter began as near-antinomian Calvinists, but moved apart. Cooper argues that it was their experience of war, and their personalities, that meant personal tensions between the two; this drove a wedge between their causes, and, by implication, doomed Puritanism to a fragmented exclusion.
Reintroducing personality and contingency into the history of religion is salutary in a subject dominated by historians of theology; as Cooper observes, “those who are closest to each other often have the most violent disputes.” Dissenters made common cause in hating Anglicans; when it came to building their own New Jerusalem, they were no more successful, even in the 1650s. But the theological differences among Puritans were greater than Cooper’s “minute” gap, as his evidence often shows. Not only brothers fight.
Dr Jonathan Clark is Hall Distinguished Professor of British History at the University of Kansas.