Turbulent Beginnings

There is a long tradition of non-conformism in the UK and its followers went through turbulent and difficult times. Religious persecution continued for many years and things came to a head in the mid17th century, after which Nonconformist congregations were finally allowed to worship legally. The Nonconformist name can be applied to any church that is not a member of the Church of England, but in practice usually refers to Protestants including Baptists, Congregationalists, Primitive Methodists, Wesleyan Methodists, Quakers, Unitarians, and the Salvation Army.

At the time of the Reformation both Charles II and the Church of England were anxious to establish their authority and five Acts were Passed in Parliament to control the growth of non-conformism.

1. The Corporation Act of 1661 prohibited any Nonconformist from holding office in any municipal corporation.

2. The Act of Uniformity of 1662 required all ministers to be re-ordained if not already ordained by a bishop, and declare their loyalty to the Book of Common Prayer. This resulted in 2,000, or about one fifth of the ministers being expelled from the church. Many however continued to hold services outside the church.

3. The Conventicle Act of 1664 which forbade any religious meeting to take place that was not in accordance with the practices of the Church of England, at which more than 4 persons were present in addition to the household. Families were still allowed to worship privately within their own home. The penalty for not following the Act ranged from a 5 shilling fine, a great deal of money at the time, to transportation to the colonies. Transportation was a terrible sentence which forced the prisoner to work as a slave, often on sugar plantations in such places as the Barbados or the West Indies. Samuel Pepys mentions some of them in his diaries: "I met some of these worshippers on their way to the inevitable sentence; they go like lambs, without any resistance. I wish to God they would reform, or be more wise and not be caught".

4. The Five Mile Act was Passed in 1665 which forbade all preachers and religious teachers who refused the oaths to come within five miles of any town or place where they had previously practiced. This resulted in ministers preaching secretly in the remoter parts of the country and travelling great distances to do so. They often worshipped in tiny holes or corners chanting the Psalms and observing the ordinance of the Lord's Supper together. The minister would sometimes be in disguise but the singing attracted informers and had to be given up. As a result many Nonconformists were imprisoned.

5. The Test Act of 1673 prohibited Nonconformists from holding any civil or military post unless they had taken communion in a parish church.

The strict laws remained in place until 1689 when the Toleration Act was passed, mainly thanks to the new monarchy.

Wolverhampton's main Catholic Church is St. Peter & St. Paul at Giffard House. Inside the house was a secret chapel that was necessary because the Toleration Act didn't include Catholicism.

Bishop Milner, the occupant for many years, was at the forefront of the fight for Catholic emancipation.

Charles II died in 1685 and his brother James became king. James II attempted to promote Roman Catholicism and appointed loyal Roman Catholic officers in the armed forces and in senior political positions, after dismissing anyone who refused to support the withdrawal of laws penalising religious dissidents. He also attempted to rule without Parliament after dissolving it, and when he became a father it seemed as though a Roman Catholic dynasty would be established. This led to much dissent and eventually to James' downfall.

Due to the unrest and lack of support for James, William of Orange, James's son-in-law, landed at Torbay with an army in November, 1688 to lay claim to the throne. The Protestant Members of Parliament and the armed forces rallied around him, and James panicked and fled the country.

William and Mary came to the throne in 1689 and finally the end was in sight for religious persecution in England. In that year the Bill of Rights Act was passed which prevented the monarch claiming that his or her power came from God, so removing the concept of divine right. It also made kings and queens subject to Acts of Parliament. The Toleration Act was also Passed to promote religious toleration. It gave all nonconformists except Roman Catholics the freedom of worship and rewarded the Protestant dissenters for their refusal to side with James II. Under the terms of the Act, Nonconformist congregations were able to worship freely in their own meeting houses, provided they were registered with either civil or diocesan authorities and within 30 years over 4,000 were in use.

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