English Dissenters and Their Beliefs - Living Gospel Daily

English Dissenters and Their Beliefs

ENGLISH DISSENTERS: WHO WERE THEY? From the 16th century on, there were a number of English Dissenters who made names for themselves and their religious beliefs throughout the Colonies. These Protestants had chosen to separate themselves


From the 16th century on, there were a number of English Dissenters who made names for themselves and their religious beliefs throughout the Colonies. These Protestants had chosen to separate themselves from the mighty Church of England, as they were gravely opposed to state interference when it came to matters of religious beliefs. As they founded their own personal churches, based on their own set of beliefs and interpretations of Scripture, they went on to create communities and even schools around those religious beliefs.

The dissenters were a key factor in the great diversity we now see across the United States in terms of denominationalism. However, in 1660, there was a monarchy restoration, followed by the Act of Uniformity in the year 1662. This Act brought the requirement that all clergy be ordained under Anglican ordination.

Here are a few denominations you may have never heard of, but were viable and frequent as our country became established.


The Anabaptists had a particular belief set that completely countered that of the Catholic church, but that also separated them from Protestants as well. The movement actually started in 1525, in Zurich, Switzerland, about the same time the reformation got under way.

One of the things the Anabaptists disagreed with most was baptism of infants. In fact, in 1525, there were specific legal obligations in Switzerland to have infants baptized. To refuse to do so meant stiff fines and persecution. Anabaptists believed in adult baptism only, but that wasn’t the only issue they struggled with. They also believed in non-resistance, which meant they refused to take up arms or serve in the military.

There was both Catholic and Protestant persecution against the Anabaptists in the form of capture, torture and even killing the Anabaptists. Thieleman J. van Braght wrote Martyrs Mirror, which gave accounts of many Christian martyrdoms, including those of Anabaptists. It is a book that is well known in the Amish community and the greatly influences the way they see themselves in today’s world.

Some of the descendants of the Anabaptist movement include Amish, Mennonite, Hutterites and Brethren. Some of these groups are still called Anabaptists today and they still practice baptism of adults only, non-resistance and socially shunning those who have been excommunicated from their societies.


Henry Barrowe began the religious movement known as Barrowist. After hearing a sermon around 1581, Barrowe began to study and meditate and was eventually led to a form of Puritanism that was very strict. Afterwards, he became good friends with a Separatist leader named John Greenwood. He took on this man’s ideologies while in London, where secret meetings of the brethren of the Separation were held.

Barrowe was eventually imprisoned and subjected to many examinations by high commissioners and other. He was formally indicted in May of 1587 for the act of recusancy (a term used to define someone who refused to attend Anglican Church meetings). He continued to be examined before councils, at which times he continued to call himself a separatist. He denounced rituals ordained by the Church, which he called false worship, giving the bishops such titles as “oppressors” and “persecutors”.

Barrowe wrote several pieces to defend separatism and maintain the importance of congregational independency. Some of titles include A True Description of the Visible Congregation of the Saints (1589), A Plain Refutation of Mr. Gifford’s Booke, intituled A Short Treatise Gainst the Donatistes of England (1590-1591) and A Brief Discovery of the False Church (1590).

Barrowists believed that the Church had the right to determine matters of church reform without the necessity of civil power. They believed in complete independence of any given congregation. This was because they saw the order of the established church as being polluted by Roman Catholic relics. Because of this, they insisted that separation from such a power was absolutely necessary for worship and discipline amongst congregations to pure and unadulterated.

In line with the Barrowist theory, it was the elders who ruled the entire congregation. He did not have enough trust in democracy to allow for any other form of rule or order. However, the idea was not considered that these elders might eventually gain excessive amounts of authority. Overall, the system gained a good amount of approval.

Henry Barrowe was, himself, executed in 1593 for nonconformity.


Behmenism was based on the teachings of Jakob Bohme who lived from 1575 until 1624 and was a German shoemaker and mystic. Many knew him as the “Teutonic Theosopher”. While Behmenism wasn’t considered a particular movement, as such, the name was used by opponents of the man and his teachings. In addition to some mystical ways of thinking, Behmenists were influenced by such movements as the Quakers (also known as the Religious Society of Friends), the Gichtelians, the Philadelphians, the Ephrata Cloister and the Harmony Society.

These believers had ideas that ran somewhat consistence to the Lutheran way of thinking, such as fallen humanity, with God’s goal to be the restoration of grace. However, they rejected the idea of justification by only faith. The idea of Behmenism did not necessarily center on any specific religious sect or belief set, but rather it was a term that defined Bohme’s ideas and the way he interpreted Christianity.

Bohme had a vision in 1600, which he believed was God’s revelation to him concerning the world’s spiritual structure and the relationship between God, man, good and evil. He had another vision in 1610, which he believed was an explanation of the unity in the cosmos, taking it as a specific job description from God.

Twelve years later, Bohme started writing a book he titled, Die Morgenroete im Aufgang (The Rising of the Dawn). A friend later called the book Aurora. The book was written only for Bohme himself, and he never actually finished it. A copy was still loaned to Karl von Ender who began to make and circulate copies of the book.

Gregorius Richter, pastor of Gorlitz, said after reading the book, “There are as many blasphemies in this shoemaker’s book as there are lines; it smells of shoemaker’s pitch and filthy blackening. May this insufferable stench be far from us. The Arian poison was not so deadly as this shoemaker’s poison.”

Bohme believed, among other things, that true salvation comes from Jesus Christ, and not Mary, and that’s Mary’s importance came from the fact that she birthed Jesus as a human being.

In his book, Dialogues on the Supersensual Life, Bohme says that fallen Angels are hopelessly divided from Life with God. They are “embodied, hopeless, self-tormenting Desires. They have fallen into the hell within themselves, they cannot but be hating, bitter, envious, proud, wrathful, restless; and therefore tormentors of others. They have lost that which man, however far astray, always possesses, the faculty of return or regeneration through submission to and union with God.”


Robert Browne, who wrote Reformation without Tarrying for Anie in 1583, was responsible for the religious movement of the Brownists. They were obviously separated from the Church of England and chose to elect their own church officers. He made an attempt to set up a new church in Norfolk, England, called the Congregational Church and was arrested for this. However, a relative of his, William Cecil, was able to procure his release on his word.

Many of those who came over to the colonies on the Mayflower in 1620 were actually Brownists. In fact, for some 200 years after, the Pilgrims were known rather as “the Brownist Emigration”.

While at Cambridge University, Browne became influenced by Puritans and their theologies. One such was Thomas Cartwright. Later, Browne assumed the role of Lecturer at St. Mary’s Church in Islington. There, his preaching was considered dissident in nature, as it taught specifically against the doctrines of the Church of England, and it soon garnered a great deal of attention.

Browne eventually returned to both England, and to the Church of England, where he became a parish priest and also a school master.


Diggers were considered radical Protestants in England and are the predecessors of modern day anarchy and socialism. One of the things that helped garner their name was the fact that they attempted farming on common ground. Vegetable and other food prices were, at that time, the highest that they had ever been. They invited others to come and help them in their ventures, assuring them plenty to eat and drink.

Gerrard Winstanley published a tract in 1649, along with fourteen others, in which they named themselves “True Levelers”, in order to separate themselves from another group that took on the name “Levelers”. The moved from pure ideology to putting that ideology into practice, cultivating common ground. It was at this time they were given the name, “Diggers”.

The group saw a real relationship between humanity and nature, stating there were connections that simply could not be broken between people and that which surrounded them. Winstanley stated that there was freedom to be found in the place that man received both his preservation and his nourishment, and that was the use of the very earth itself.

The Diggers were attacked many times, including beatings and having their houses burned down. In court, they were forbidden to speak to their defense and were found to be guilty of being radical Ranters. They were finally forced from the land they inhabited after losing a court case towards the end of 1649.

In 1650, they inhabited another community near Wellingborough and published a declaration that read, in part, “A Declaration of the Grounds and Reasons why we the Poor Inhabitants of the Town of Wellinborrow, in the county of Northampton, have begun and give consent to dig up, manure and sow Corn upon the Common, and waste ground, called Bareshanke belonging to the Inhabitants of Wellinborrow, by those that have Subscribed and hundreds more that give consent…”

There was even a group of San Francisco Diggers, in the 1960’s, who opened stores and gave away all their stock, going on to provide free medical care, food, temporary housing and transportation. They were in operation from 1966 until 1968 as a group of community anarchists that blended freedom and the desire for it into the community they lived in. Their vision of the perfect world included a complete lack of private property, and no form whatsoever of selling or buying.


Many groups of Protestants were, during the 1700’s and 1800’s, labeled “enthusiastic”. In fact, in the years immediately after the Glorious Revolution, it was a term the British used liberally to describe anyone who publicly advocated for specific religious and political causes. They considered it a sin against humanity, as too clearly mimicked the enthusiasm that had prompted the civil war in the century just prior.

Both George Whitefield and John Wesley were both accused of being blindly enthusiastic and called fanatics. This was an actual charge brought against them, from which they defended themselves vehemently. In their defense, they stated that fanaticism was a far different thing from the “religion of the heart” which they obviously had.

Fifth Monarchists

This group was active from about 1649 until 1661, taking the name from the book of Daniel. A prophecy there spoke of four monarchies, known to be Babylon, Persia, Macedonia and Rome, that would come before Jesus returned. They also believed that the coming of the year 1666 had significance to the number of the best mentioned in the Bible. They believed that particular year to be the end of humanity’s ability to rule the earth by carnal measures.

This group believed they were the saints that would be included in the millennium that was sure to come. Some well known Fifth Monarchists included John Carew (a regicide of King Charles I), Christopher Feake (an English Independent minister), John Rogers (Fifth Monarch preacher and physician), and Vavasor Powell (Puritan preacher and writer).

When King Charles I was executed in 1649, the group saw this as the official end of the fourth monarchy, which was spoken of, they believed, in the book of Daniel. At that time, they truly believed that it would be between a few months to two years at the most, that Jesus would return to reign over His Kingdom.

The Fifth Monarchists believed it was their predestined mission to overturn and usurp all forms of carnal government in an effort to bring about the promised Kingdom of Jesus. There was disagreement as to the use of force, but still there were uprisings by the group in both 1657 and 1661. After the last uprising, the group began to decline, finally dying out all together.


This was a group named after its founder, Lodowicke Muggleton. The small protestant sect got started in 1651. It was at this time that two tailors from London, England, made the statement that they were the last prophets that the book of Revelation spoke about. John Reeve, one of those tailors, stated that he had received four statements from God, directly:

  1. I have given thee understanding of my mind in the Scriptures above all men in the world.
  2. Look into thy own body, there thou shalt see the Kingdom of Heaven, and the Kingdom of Hell.
  3. I have chosen thee a last messenger for a great work, unto this bloody and unbelieving world. And I have given thee Lodowick Muggleton to be thy mouth.
  4. I have put the two-edged sword of my spirit into thy mouth, that whoever I pronounce blessed, through thy mouth, is blessed to eternity; and whoever I pronounce cursed through thy mouth is cursed to eternity.

Some other beliefs of the group included a belief that the soul was mortal and that instead of a member of the Trinity, Jesus was in fact, God. They believed that at the point when Jesus died, there was no God present in Heaven and that Moses and Elijah were in charge of looking after Heaven until such time as Jesus was resurrected. Some believe these doctrines to be inspired by the works of William Blake, who was both a poet and an artist.

The group further believed that the only “devil” was that of a human’s unclean reason, that hell will actually be here on earth after the sun, moon and stars are put out and that when the body dies, the soul dies with it, and likewise, will be raised with it.

In direct opposition to the Quaker faith, Muggletonians hated the idea of philosophy, and grew out of the already well known group, the Ranters. In fact, they had a certain hostility towards any reasoning of a philosophical sort.

They also believed that God was not particularly concerned with the events that went on in a day to day fashion on the earth, and that He had no plans to intervene in such goings-on until it became necessary to end the world, as a whole.

There were no communal forms of preaching or worship, and certainly no church government among this group. They only met for short periods of time to discuss particulars and for socialization with other members. The pacifist group also stayed away from any form of evangelizing and made it a priority to publicly curse those who spoke out against their faith.

The Muggletonian movement died out in the 19th century, and one of the last members was said to be Sir Walter Scott.

The Puritans

This group was a very significant one that saw its beginnings in the 16th century, and was actually started inside the Church of England. The very term, “Puritan”, was actually a derogatory term given the movement by those who were against it. They were staunch believers in salvation by grace through faith in Jesus alone.

Puritans were very much against the Catholic Church, believing fully that more reform must be made that would rid all traces of Roman Catholicism. They felt that by getting rid of any and all Catholic influence, they could get back to the faith described in the New Testament, which was truly a simple want. It’s not that the Puritans wanted solely to separate from the Church of England, but rather to reform and change it to move completely away from any Catholic misgivings.

Puritans mastered the Hebrew, Greek and Latin tongues, and they knew a great deal about history and theology. They believed that the discipline of living a Godly life produced both knowledge and practical wisdom. However, as the 1700’s and 1800’s moved on, this group began to drift away from their complete and utter devotion. Some think they were later swallowed up by Unitarianism.

The Quakers

This movement began, formerly called The Religious Society of Friends, in the middle of the seventeenth century in Lancashire, England. The term “Quakers” was given to this group were said to “tremble in the way of the Lord”.  The movement was persecuted greatly, but this didn’t stop the expansion of the group, from England, all the way to the colonies and even into Africa.

It was William Penn who founded the Pennsylvania colony in 1682, so that Quakers would have a safe place to carry out their faith. Quakers were significant in movements such as abolishing slavery, promoting rights for women, as well as promoting higher education and treating prisoners and the mentally ill with humane measures.

Quakers believed that each person could experience, on a personal level, access to the light within, and that God is in every one. Some also believed in the priesthood of each and every believer, as laid out in 1 Peter. To this day, there are a great many professing Quakers, with about half of them living in Africa.

These modern Quakers often practice “waiting worship” where no specific order is set out for the service and is composed primarily of silent prayer. Songs may be sung and sermons may be preached, but none are prepared.

Not to us, O Lord, not to us,
But to Your name be the glory
Because of Your love and your faithfulness!

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