Nonconformist places of worship
Religious identity and dissent in the early modern British Atlantic world
Dr Chris King Funded by
: The British Academy
This research project was funded by a British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellowship held at the University of Leicester from 2007-10, and supported by a Visiting Scholar appointment in the Department of Archaeology at Boston University, USA, in 2009-10
The broad aim of the research was to investigate the cultural and religious identities of Protestant dissenting communities in 17th- and 18th-century cities – those who refused to conform to the established Church of England, and were hence known as ‘nonconformists’ or ‘dissenters’ – through a detailed study of their places of worship. Religious dissent took many forms in post-Reformation England, ranging from ‘Puritans’ who wanted to purify but not separate from the Anglican Church, to many small independent groups who were forced to worship in secret and were often violently persecuted. After the granting of the ‘Act of Toleration’ in 1689, Protestant nonconformists were allowed to worship in their own way and build their own meeting houses, and they grew in number and confidence, although they continued to suffer many social and political restrictions and some persecution into the 19th century.
The British Academy project investigated nonconformist places of worship in a selection of important British provincial cities, where dissenters often included wealthy families who were closely involved in business and civic life despite their religious position. The research considered the architectural form and layout of nonconformist meeting houses from a survey of standing structures and visual evidence of those no longer standing, and used historic map evidence to analyse their placement within the wider urban landscape. Nonconformist meeting houses were designed to be very different from the old medieval parish churches used by the Anglican Church, with symmetrical facades, and internally arranged around a tall pulpit with galleries of pews on three sides. Early meeting houses were often placed in more marginal parts of the city or tucked away behind street-front buildings, although this probably has more to do with the availability of land for building than a fear of persecution.
One of the most distinctive aspects of the project was a comparison between the situation in 17th and 18th-century England with what was happening in Boston in New England, which at that time was the largest city in British colonial America. Such direct comparative research is only rarely undertaken in British ‘post-medieval’ or American ‘historical’ archaeology, despite the fact that at this time both places were linked in a single ‘British Atlantic’ world. In Boston the Puritans who first settled the region became the established Church themselves, and it was the Anglicans who had to insert themselves into a Puritan urban landscape, initially against considerable hostility. The architectural style of Boston’s meeting houses and churches shows the growth of religious diversity and grudging toleration in this major colonial port. In both England and America, religious groups used the architecture of their places of worship to display their distinctive identities and maintain their community cohesion, but the urban landscape was always a site for the interaction of varied political and religious identities and conflicts rather than a fixed and stable backdrop.