Nonconformist is the name given to Protestants who are not members of the Church of England. This included Wesleyan Methodists, Primitive Methodists, Quakers, Baptists, Unitarians, Congregationalists, and members of the Salvation Army.

The different Nonconformists campaigned together against the Test and Corporation Acts that had been passed by Parliament in the 17th century. These acts excluded Nonconformists from holding civil or military office. Nonconformists were also prevented from being awarded degrees by the universities of Cambridge and Oxford.

The Tories in the House of Commons tended to be in favour of these acts and so the Nonconformists mainly supported the Liberal Party who advocated civil and religious liberty. After the Test and Corporation Acts were repealed in 1828, all the Nonconformists elected to Parliament were Liberals.

The religious census of 1851 revealed that total Nonconformist attendance was very close to to that of Anglicans. In most of the chief manufacturing areas and in Wales, Nonconformists clearly outnumbered members of the Church of England.

Nonconformists campaigned against having to pay the church rate (a small local property tax for the upkeep of Anglican parish churches). This was abolished in 1868 but many Nonconformists regarded the Liberal government's decision to pass the 1870 Education Act, with its support for denominational schools, as a betrayal.

Nonconformists were further angered by the 1902 Education Act which integrated denominational schools into the state system and provided for their support from taxes. Since the Anglicans had the great majority of church schools, Nonconformists argued that they would have to pay for religious education they believed was false. John Clifford formed the National Passive Resistance Committee and by 1906 over 170 Nonconformists had gone to prison for refusing to pay their school taxes. This included 60 Primitive Methodists, 48 Baptists, 40 Congregationalists and 15 Wesleyan Methodists.

Primary Sources

(1) In his book, Father Figures, Kingsley Martin, the son of a Unitarian minister, explained the role of Nonconformists in the history of social reform.

Social revolt in Britain had sprung from dissent. The leaders of Chartism learnt their eloquence in dissenting chapels and the Anti-Corn agitation was led by Quakers and other nonconformists. Dissenters became the backbone of the working-class party, and the ILP was composed of dissenting moralists who would not accept the usual political compromises. They readily responded to the oratory of lay preachers like Philip Snowden and Arthur Henderson, and it is no accident that so many of the leaders of the Labour Party have been Christians who believed they were inaugurating a moral and social revolution. Morality and politics were one.

(2) East Sussex News (4th September, 1903)

Another stage in the 'Passive Resistance Movement' at East Grinstead was reached on Monday when nine ratepayers were summoned at the Petty Sessions for refusing to pay the poor rate, which includes a small portion devoted to educational purposes.

Joseph Rice, assessed at £2 2s 6d, sent a cheque for £1 15s - deducted 7s 6d for educational rate. Rice said "I object to Rev. Crawfurd and Mr. Stenning on the bench. Mr. Stenning is an interested party, being a manager and part-owner of a so-called Voluntary School." He added that "this was essentially a fight between the Church of England and the Free Church." Joseph Rice had to be taken from the court by force.

(3) Joseph Rice, speech at the East Grinstead Urban Council on 14th April, 1904)

For over twenty years East Grinstead had a School Board in the town and Churchman and Nonconformists were fairly represented on it. Now gentlemen from Lewes, who know nothing about the circumstances of East Grinstead have appointed Robert Whitehead. The Committee, as chosen by the County Council, consisted of five Churchmen and one Free Churchman, one-sixth only of the representation for Nonconformists, though 450 of the 800 children in the Board Schools had Nonconformist parents.

(4) The East Grinstead Observer reported on 28th May, 1904, that Edward Steer had been sent to Lewes Prison for refusing to pay the education rate.

At Mr. Steer's home, when the seizure of goods was to be made, it was declared that the whole of the goods were the property of his wife. Mr. Steer was informed that the alternative to paying the amount owing in the event of their being no goods would be two days' imprisonment. Mr. Steer declared his intention of going to prison.

(5) Kingsley Martin, Father Figures (1966)

My father was involved in the passive resisters' fight against Balfour's Education Act of 1902. Each year father and the other resisters all over the country refused to pay their rates for the upkeep of Church Schools. The passive resistors thought the issue of principle paramount and annually surrendered their goods instead of paying their rates. I well remember how each year one or two of our chairs and a silver teapot and jug were put out on the hall table for the local officers to take away. They were auctioned in the Market Place and brought back to us.

Mother and I were taken for our first motor ride to one of these village auctions where father would explain the nature of passive resistance before the sale began. We drove to a village some fifteen miles away, sometimes travelling at the frightening speed of twenty miles an hour. In those days roads were deep in dust, and you could tell if a car had passed because the hedges were white. I remember three small boys running behind each other pretending to be a motor. The first said he was the driver, the second a car, and the third the smell.