Dissenters: L


Strictly speaking the 17th century Levellers were a political rather than a religious movement per se, but they deserve mention for their influence and their nonconformist connections.

Their nickname – applied by their enemies, possibly even by Charles I himself – came about from their belief in ‘levelling’ all strata of society, and that all men are equal in God’s sight, or possibly through origins in rebel rural hedge levelling.

As well as numerous social reforms, they campaigned for the separation of Church and state.

They began as natural allies of Oliver Cromwell, many of them members of his New Model Army, but a dispute over back pay for soldiers (and a general disaffection with Cromwell’s authoritarianism) led to rebellion – this was quashed when Cromwell executed three Levellers at Burford, Oxfordshire in 1649.

The citizens of Burford remember the event to this day – see www.levellers.org.uk. Pamphleteer John Lilburne was a prominent founder of the movement – he later became a Quaker.

Liberal Catholic Church

The Liberal Catholic Church www.liberalcatholicchurch.org was effectively founded in the 1910s by James Wedgwood of the renowned china-producing family.

He was ordained into the Old Catholic Church, a German group which split off from Roman Catholicism in the 1970s through a rejection of papal infallibility, and later spread to England.

The life of Christ is the guiding principle of Liberal Catholicism, which also holds that Christ practised certain rites of ‘mysteries’ of the East – thus the movement was closely allied to the mystical theosophy movement of Madam Blavatsky and Charles Leadbeater.

Liberal Catholics, who are found worldwide, maintain there is a common unity and purpose to all religions – though this didn’t stop their own schism in 2003 over the ordination of women, and two movements now use the Liberal Catholic Church name.


The Lollards also blurred boundaries between politics and religion, but with a more specific theological underpinning thanks to their founder John Wycliffe (1320s-1384).

Wycliffe was a theologian who criticised the Church for its corruption, disputed the divine authority of Church leaders, and famously laboured to produce the first English vernacular edition of the Bible.

He even questioned transubstantiation. He was a respected Oxford don, after his death his books were burnt, and although Lollardy persisted in pockets into the 16th century, his followers were persecuted.

The etymology of the Lollard name is disputed, possibly meaning ‘mumbler’ or ‘idler’, but the term more generally came to mean ‘heretic’. The Lollards had no central doctrine, but their anticlerical stance was an early herald of the Reformation.

London Missionary Society

The LMS was founded as the Missionary Society in 1795, then renamed in 1818, with a focus on evangelical missions to Africa and the Pacific islands.

It was non-denominational, Congregationalist (see earlier in this series) in tone and supported by evangelical clergy from both Anglican and Nonconformist churches.

Its first voyage was on The Duff, to Tahiti, where its 17 missionaries received a hostile reception; and on a return voyage the society was financially devastated by The Duff’s capture by French privateers.

In the 1830s and 1840s the LMS was more successful, apart from when missionary John Williams was eaten by cannibals in the New Hebrides.

The society disbanded in the 1970s but was absorbed into what is now the Council for World Mission.

Dissenters: G, H & I


(also see Familists)
The Grindletonians were yet another small dissenting group of the mid-17th century, this time named after a place rather than a person, namely Grindleton in what was Yorkshire and is now Lancashire.

They were founded around 1610 and were active in the area until the 1660s. Grindleton is below Pendle Hill, associated with Quaker founder George Fox, who may have been influenced by the Grindletonians’ leading light, Roger Brearley.

His preaching embraced antinomianism (a rather hasty summary of which would be “you’re saved, so you can do what you like”) and the earthly paradise, and he was against the organised Church and its sacraments. Other Grindletonians included John Webster and Robert Towne.


The Inghamites also hailed from Yorkshire and Lancashire. Their founder was Benjamin Ingham (1712-72), an Ossett-born and Oxford-educated preacher who had accompanied the Wesley brothers to the USA in the 1730s.

On his return, he was banned from preaching in churches, and established his own Inghamite Methodists, split off from the Moravian Methodists – within 20 years there were more than 80 congregations, a few fragments of which persist to this day in Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cumbria. Ingham often preached in homes and fields, and emphasised devotion and responsibility to the laity.

When Ingham disagreed with the curate of Ossett, a Rev Godly, he wrote to John Wesley: “I have just been talking to Mr. Godly. You know, I believe he has been misnamed.”

The majority of Inghamite groups broke up from the 1760s, when Ingham himself was influenced by the Sandemanians (see later in this series), and some were absorbed into the Scottish Daleites in the early 19th century.

Various early Inghamite registers are held by The National Archives. A small Inghamite congregation was even founded in Canada and continues today – see www.farringdonchurch.ca.


Edward Irving (1792-1834) was a Scottish minister from Annandale who is regarded by many as the main figure behind the Catholic Apostolic Church – but not by its members themselves, who see him as more of a John the Baptist figure.

Various miracles such as prophecies, healings and speaking in tongues were believed to have taken place during Irving’s ministry in London, and the group focus on such acts of the Holy Spirit through formalised rituals of their own, under the guidance of 12 Apostles who are ‘called’ rather than ordained.

Irving was influenced by some of the poet Coleridge’s more mystical philosophies, and in 1833 was deposed from the Church of Scotland on the grounds of heresy.

The two main Irvingite or Catholic Apostolic congregations surviving in Britain are in Surrey (where Henry Drummond, a more important figure to the group than Irving himself, lived) and London, and there are others in America and across Europe – but no new Apostles have appeared since the last died in 1901.

Dissenters: F


The Familists, or Family of Love, were a mystical sect not actually born in the British Isles, but in the Netherlands.

They were founded by heretical merchant Hendrik Niclaes, who took St Paul’s assertion that a part of God is in everyone to mean we are all part of the Godhead.

Familism comes across as a something like a modern hippy cult, with a quiet community spirit, artistic following, belief in communal property – and accusations of wife-swapping from their enemies.

The movement spread to England in the late 16th century, mainly via Christopher Vitel, a joiner and preacher from Delft who settled in Colchester and Southwark. Familist enclaves were notable in Cambridgeshire and Surrey.

Rumour had it that some of Elizabeth I’s Yeomen of the Guard were Familists, as well as James I’s lion-keeper at the Tower of London, and men at the court of Charles I.

A Rev James Pordage established a Familist community near Reading in the 1640s. There is some evidence many members later influenced and/or became absorbed into the Quakers.

Fifth Monarchists

The Fifth Monarchy Men (referencing Daniel 2:44) were a millenarian group who flourished during Cromwell’s rule from 1649-1660 and planned to reform Parliament to prepare the nation for Christ’s coming, creating a new kingdom (the previous four were those of the Assyrians, Persians, Greeks and Romans).

They saw 1666 as the year of the Antichrist and some believed that Christ himself would return in 1700.

The movement appears to have started among New Model Army members in Norfolk. Leading members, who preached government reform, the end of taxation, care for the poor and… better salaries for the New Model Army, included Christopher Feake, John Rogers, John Simpson, Vavasor Powell and John Canne.

They had much in common with the Levellers, and were among the few groups to criticise Cromwell after that movement was crushed. Later key figures were Major-General Thomas Harrison – who was executed in 1660 for having signed Charles I’s death warrant – and Thomas Venner, who continued opposition against Charles II.

The Great Fire of London in 1666 briefly fuelled their cause, but eventually the flame dwindled in the early 18th century.

Free Christians

Free Christians are self-avowedly open-minded followers of the teachings and example of Christ, but without adhering to any specific creed or doctrine.

They have much in common with Unitarians and there is some cross-over of membership – if the term has any precise meaning – with the Quakers.

Free Christians often find themselves sitting alongside agnostics and even atheists in congregations at places such as Bridport Chapel, Mill Hill Chapel, Stratford Unitarian and Free Christian Church and various Unitarian chapels across Britain. Free Christianity is regarded largely as a philosophy rather than a specific denomination.

Free Church of England

The Free Church of England, otherwise known as the Reformed Episocopal Church, was founded in 1844 when it split off from the Church of England as an evangelical reaction against Anglo-Catholicism.

It holds to the Book of Common Prayer and the 39 Articles of the Church of England, as well as salvation by grace and the Bible as being the inspired word of God.

It maintains an episcopal structure, albeit a small one with two dioceses in England and a church in St Petersburg. It has around a dozen parishes overall.

The FCofE maintains a Low Church approach to worship, and has recently been riven by schisms of its own over how close its links should be with other churches, especially if they are not evangelical in spirit, and whether members should be allowed to be Freemasons or not.

Free-will Men

The Free-Will Men were a small separatist movement focused on individual free will, questioning political and religious conventions and opposed to pre-destination, who flourished between the 1540s and 1560s.

Small congregations existed mainly in Essex and Kent and had beliefs in common with the earlier Lollards. A number of their leaders were imprisoned or executed during the reign of Catholic Queen Mary I, which is when they largely died out – but they continued to influence English liberal religious traditions thereafter.

Dissenters: D & E


Whenever the Diggers are mentioned, it is normally in the phrase ‘Diggers and Levellers’, as the movements were so closely allied.

The Diggers in fact began as the True Levellers in 1649. Both are not strictly religious groups, in that their motivation was political, but their focus on the Bible gives them a place here.

We’ll save the Levellers for ‘L’ in this series, but the groups were united in their belief in ‘levelling’ the social order to a more egalitarian footing.

The Diggers were founded by the Rev William Everard, a radical preacher who encouraged local people to cultivate public land at St George’s Hill in Surrey in order to meet their needs, and his friend Gerrard Winstanley, a formerly wealthy merchant tailor from Lancashire now forced to herd livestock, having lost his trade in the English Civil War. Everard stole away from the movement when trouble later started.

Winstanley quickly became known for his writings on the harmony of men and nature and the birthright of the common people to dig their own land.

His philosophy was essentially a true communist one, asserting the role of small self-sustaining communities without the need for a ruling class.

This was underpinned by the Bible, in particular Acts 4.32: “32: And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common.”

The Diggers were vigorously persecuted by Cromwell’s New Model Army, but continued to dig the land and air their cause, particularly in Surrey, Northamptonshire and Buckinghamshire.

Even at their peak they only comprised a few hundred people, and fizzled out by 1651 – but their legacy has influenced British political dissidence ever since. The Republic of Heaven, a key concept in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, is a phrase from one of Winstanley’s writings.

Elim Pentecostal Church

The Elim Pentecostal Church was founded by George Jeffreys (1889-1962), a Welsh evangelist with a Congregationalist background who had been converted during the Welsh revival of 1904. He founded the church at Monaghan, Northern Ireland, in 1915.

The name (officially, since 1934, the Elim Foursquare Gospel Alliance) came from Exodus 15.27 – “Then they came to Elim, where there were twelve wells of water and seventy palm trees; so they camped there by the waters” – and was intended to convey a sense of spiritual refreshment. Jeffreys became famous for his inspirational mission tours around the UK, something like a Billy Graham of his day.

Jeffreys later spilt away from the main group and founded the Bible-Pattern Church Fellowship in 1939, another Pentecostal church with affinities to the British Israelites.

He was succeeded at Elim by George Kingston, who founded many congregations in Essex in particular. The Elim movement continues today with more than 500 UK congregation, united by beliefs in the divine inspiration of the Bible, the second coming, the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and bodily resurrection.

English Lutherans

Strictly speaking there has never been an ‘English Lutheran’ movement in Britain (though the name was used in America from the 19th century), but various British-born followers of Martin Luther had an important influence on the Reformation in this country.

Most notable was Robert Barnes (1495-1540), who openly sermonised in Cambridge on the gospel, and accused the Church of heresy. He was influential on other reformers such as Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer who like him were later executed.


Episcopalianism is broadly an alternative term for the Anglican Communion, theologically distinct from both Catholicism and Protestantism.

The Episcopal Church in the US was the first Anglican church outside Britain, founded just after American independence and obliged to be separate because of the Church of England’s requirement upon clergy to swear allegiance to the Crown.

The Scottish Episcopal Church is a member of the Anglican Communion and recognises the primacy of the Archbishop of Canterbury. There are many other Episcopal churches worldwide.

Dissenters: C


Dr John Thomas (1805-1871), pictured, was the son of a dissenting minister of the same name, and he grew up in London and Lancashire.

In 1832 he emigrated to America – but the voyage was so rough and the storms so fierce that he had no certainty of arriving alive.

Unsure of what death would mean, he vowed to dedicate his life to religious study if he should survive. He studied the Bible and began to preach, sometimes controversially.

In the 1840s he spread his mission to establish Biblical truth and restore early Christian belief back home in England.

The movement he inspired – the Christadelphians, or Brothers of Christ – only took holder later on, and has never had a central authority. What unites members is the statement beginning: “the book currently known as the Bible, consisting of the Scriptures of Moses, the prophets, and the apostles, is the only source of knowledge concerning God and His purposes at present extant or available in the earth”.

In the First World War, they were known for being conscientious objectors. The movement continues to this day with 50,000 members worldwide, often meeting in small local congregations called ecclesias.

Christian Evidence Society

This is an ecumenical group founded in 1870 focusing on the use of “contemporary methods of communication” including the internet to explain the principles of Christian faith. It began with public addresses at Speakers’ Corner and Tower Hill, then moved through the age of pamphlets to the modern media of today.

Church Army

The Church Army’s modern mission is ‘making Jesus famous’ – a suitable notion for the age of reality television. Its president is Desmond Tutu.

This evangelistic organisation was founded in 1882 by the Rev Wilson Carlisle, known as ‘The Chief’. Something of a child prodigy, he was talented at music and languages, and both ambitious and successful in business.

During a mental breakdown during the economic depression of the 1870s, he was inspired by religious writings and ultimately took holy orders. He founded the Church Army as a home mission arm of the Church of England, with a particular focus on ministering to the slums of Westminster, and using local, working people to spread the word.


Congregationalism is a broad movement dating back to the Brownists of the 16th century.

The guiding principle is that each church congregation should be entitled to organise its own affairs autonomously and without reference to any central authority.

Sometimes congregationalist groups are known as separatists or independents. The United Reformed Church is an combined organisation which came from a merger between the Presbyterian Church and various congregationalist alliances; around 300 other church groups work together under the wing of the Congregational Federation.


In 1895 Scotsman William Irvine (b1863) became a lay evangelist for the Faith Mission, and was sent to work in Ireland. Gradually he adopted a belief in calling people away from their churches to lead a simple life based on the teachings of Jesus, focused on poverty, homelessness and preaching.

One of his early converts was the zealous Irishman Edward Cooney, and members often became known as Cooneyites. Other names include the tramp preachers, the ‘go-preachers’ (from Matthew 10:7, “As ye go, preach”), the Testimony of Jesus, The Church Without a Name, or the Two-by-Two movement from their early habit of travelling out in pairs by bicycle (many other names have been identified).

It is also known as the Church of The Way, and often criticised for its severe strictures on members, with ostracism for anyone who dissents from the group philosophy.

Both Cooney and Irvine were ultimately excommunicated from their own organisation, the latter partly for some odd views relating to preaching to other planets.

The group is strong in Australia, where Cooney travelled, and the UK 2001 census identifies at least 200 members here.

Dissenters: B


The history of Baptism in Britain is a complicated one of division and subdivision – and subsequent union.

The main concept that unites them theologically is a belief in adult baptism, generally through immersion in water.

The movement has its origins in ANABAPTISM, but has long dissociated itself from that term.

Baptism is Britain is generally held to have been founded by John Smyth, a Church of England priest ordained in 1594 whose dissenting views led him to flee to Holland.

There, in around 1609, he issued a declaration of faith stating the two main doctrines of Baptism to be: “to receive all their members by baptism upon the confession of their faith and sins”; and “baptism in no wise appertaineth to infants”.

Early members were champions of religious freedom for all. Smyth died in 1612, but his followed Thomas Helwys returned to England and founded the first General Baptist church in Spitalfields.

The name ‘general’ came from a belief in general atonement, ie salvation being possible for anyone receiving faith in Christ.

This theology led to a split only 20 years after the Baptists were founded, with Particular Baptists founding c1633 and adopting a Calvinist viewpoint of predestination, ie salvation only available to the ‘elect’.

Both groups were persecuted under Charles II, then given freedom to worship under the Toleration Act of 1689. In 1770, the General Baptists split into the New Connexion under Dan Taylor, with the old church moving to a Unitarian theology.

Meanwhile, Particular Baptists split into Strict or Reformed Baptists, though there were some overlaps. The Strict Baptists held to ‘strict’ or closed communion, ie open only to baptised believers (John Bunyan was a Particular Baptist exception to this rule).

The Strict Baptists had no formal structure, but key figures included William Gadsby, John Kershaw and John Warburton, all active in the mid 19th century.

The Reformed Baptists, meanwhile, were of the ‘particular’ persuasion, and held to the First London Baptist Confession of 1644 or the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith.

In 1813, the Baptist Union was founded, bringing most Particular Baptists together under one umbrella. The General Baptists were only united with them in 1891.

The Union has three core principles, namely belief in Jesus, baptism, and evangelism. Needless to say there are still some baptist groups not part of the Union, and a full genealogy of Baptism, if such a thing is possible, would require a very complicated diagram.


Henry Barrow (or Barrows, or Barrowe) lived in the second half of the 16th century, and was an early separatist from the Church of England.

He initially trained as a lawyer, then was profoundly influenced by a sermon he heard c1580 and became a strict Puritan. He joined the congregation of leading separatist John Greenwood, but was imprisoned himself when visiting Greenwood in the Clink in London.

Barrow spent six years in the Fleet Prison, where he wrote religious tracts and denounced the bishops as oppressors. Barrow advocated the end of the Church’s elaborate hierarchy in favour of a simple structure based around elders.

He and Greenwood were executed in 1593. Many of their followers went to the Netherlands, and others became founders of the Congregational Church of New England.


English Behminists were 17th century followers of the German Lutheran mystic Jakob Boehme, who died in 1624 and held that the Fall was a necessary part of history.

Many of them later merged with the Quakers, or had Familist beliefs.

British Israelites

The notion that the British are descended from one or more of the Lost Tribes of Israel is somehow a, well, very British one, perhaps fuelled by a desire to connect this largely Celtic green and pleasant land to the somewhat distant world of the Middle East in a meaningful way.

British Israelism is not a specific sect or organisation so much as an idea that took root probably in the 17th century, then flowered a century or so later – though specific organisations have of course sprung up since.

British Israelites often lay claim to ancient documents that ‘prove’ the Israelite link, and a Dr Abade in Amsterdam asserted clearly in 1723 that if one seeks the lost tribes, one should look in Britain. In the 1790s, Richard Brothers declared he was directly descended from King David, and that most ‘true’ Jews were in fact Europeans.

The man generally regarded as the leading pioneer of these views, though, was the Rev John Wilson, who published Lectures on Our Israelitish Origin in 1840. He found parallels in English and Hebrew language and culture, and through his public lectures the idea gradually spread.

Wilson died in 1871, and Edward Hine and Edward Wheeler Bird took up the mantle, spreading the idea to the United States. Finally, in 1919 the British-Israel World Federation was set up, and it continues to this day.

In the States, the movement found harmony with the American Adventists under Herbert W Armstrong and his Worldwide Church of God, famed for its distribution of the Plain Truth magazine.

British Israelites go to great lengths to establish their heritage, finding signs of ‘Isaac’ in the word ‘Saxon’, making great weight of Joseph of Arimathea’s supposed voyage to Glastonbury, and even telling a legend that St Paul visited Britain. Some have also had some interesting views about the pyramids – but we’ll save those for P.


The Brownists were followers of Robert Browne (c1550-1633) of Rutland, who became a leader of early nonconformist ‘separatists’ seeking a break from the Church of England.

He was influenced by the Cambridge-based neo-Calvinist Thomas Cartwright, then set up there and in London as a dissident preacher. In 1580/1, along with his right-hand man Robert Harrison, Browne attempted to set up a Congregational church in Norwich, with immigrant Dutch wool workers among his target audience.

In 1581 he was arrested for preaching without a licence (he had applied for one then torn it up), and later moved the congregation to Holland itself on the advice of his relative William Cecil.

In 1583 two former members of the Norwich congregation were alas tried and hanged for selling Browne’s writings, and Browne then tried to set up in Edinburgh – where he was again arrested.

Cecil later facilitated Browne’s reconciliation with the Church of England, and Browne recanted, becoming a school headmaster in Southwark and living to a ripe old age. In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare’s Andrew Aguecheek comments: “I would as lief be a Brownist as a politician.”

Bryanites (Bible Christian Church)

The Bible Christian Connection was founded in 1815 in Devon by one William O’Bryan and his 22 converts. O’Bryan was born William Bryant (but was keen to link to his Irish roots) in Cornwall in 1778, and became a keen Wesleyan preacher, spreading the word to wild corners of Devon and Cornwall previously untamed by Methodism.

His ardent and undisciplined approach led to him going it alone, but within a year he had 18 ministers and 1500 members on his side, with teams of both male and female itinerant preachers spreading the word further west to the Isles of Scilly and indeed to America.

In 1829 his despotic approach (including acquiring all church property in his own name) was rejected by them, however, and once again he went off on his own.

The movement itself continued to thrive, and by 1882 there were 300 ministers and 34,000 members, though in the US and Canada they later became absorbed by the United Methodists.

A similar process later occurred in Australia and Britain. O’Bryan continued to spread his message in America, and died in New York in 1868.

Dissenters: A


The original Adamites were early Christian heretics (some accounts say from the 2nd century, others the 4th) who believed that to achieve holiness they should return to the state of Adam and Eve – specifically, naked, unmarried and heedless of laws.

The practice reappeared in the Middle Ages. The Catholic Encyclopedia says that a 14th century group, the Picards in Bohemia, lived on an island and led a life of ‘shameful communism’.

The English Adamites first appeared in the London area – in their birthday suits, presumably – in 1641 (the year when the English episcopal system collapsed), presumably hoping that the Civil War would distract people from their eager naturism and sexual freedom.

Some unconfirmed accounts suggest the group was dominated by women – rather the opposite of modern nudist beaches.

Historian of Tudor sects David Cressy writes that they had “no spokesmen, no martyrs” and have thus been invisible to history’s radar – the only accounts we have of them are from jocular or critical pamphlets of the time.

One such says of them: “they will not hear the word preached nor have the sacrament administered to them but naked, not so much as fig-leaf breeches upon them, thinking thereby to imitate our first parents in their innocency”.

A writer named Bray claimed to have been taken in secret to an Adamite meeting, and wrote that if any of the male, er, members got overexcited, a clerk would “strike down the presumptuous flesh” with a long stick – which perhaps would have enflamed them further.

Cressy, however, believes that Bray made the whole thing up to titillate. Another account purports to relate an Adamite meeting in a park in Marylebone, with a sermon given by one Obadiah Couchman.

With no references at all, other than passing historical jokes, to the Adamites after about 1650, it’s hard to know whether they were hounded out, quietly put their clothes back on, or even didn’t exist at all except as propaganda to discredit other sectarian groups.

See also: GYMNOSOPHISTS (to come later in the series)


Strictly speaking Anabaptists were a European phenomenon, forming small communities in the 16th century Reformation focused on brotherly love, the Word of God, adult rather than infant baptism, and civil disobedience – and opposed to Catholic theology and hierarchy, as well as Calvinistic predestination.

In Britain Anabaptism was often a term used loosely to cover any group adopting radical theology, and many were persecuted under Henry VIII – the Bible translator William Tyndale, burnt at the stake, was accused of Anabaptist sympathies, for example.

Many were weavers or other craftsmen. Prominent Anabaptists of the time included the Essex tanner and preacher Thomas Putto, and Henry Hart and Joan Butcher of Kent.

The latter was sentenced to death by Bishops Ridley and Latimer whose own burning at the stake five years later in 1555 is still commemorated in Oxford.

The last two heresy burnings in England were of Anabaptists Bartholomew Legatt and Edward Wightman in 1612.

Subsequently Anabaptism was known more for its influence on other groups, such as the Baptists, of course, who we’ll meet next time.

See also: FAMILISTS (to come later in the series)

A Dictionary of Dissent (intro)

One of the particularly British jokes in the film Monty Python’s Life of Brian, even if it is dressed up in a toga, is that about the rival groups: the People’s Front of Judea, the Judean People’s Front, the Judean Popular People’s Front – oh, and the rather lonely one-man Popular Front (“Splitter!”).

One of the groups is even clearly presented in the film as being Welsh.

Whether it’s the cold climate leading people to huddle together in small groups – or simply making them grumpy – or some native disposition to question orthodoxy, the history of Christianity in the British Isles (and forgive me for including Ireland in that geographical term) is one of disagreement.

The family tree of UK and Irish faith is riddled with bifurcations, branches, knots and twists – not to mention having a problem with squirrels.

It’s probably not feasible to say exactly how many different divisions of Christian groups there have been in these islands, but in researching this new series I’ve certainly found at least 50, and there are probably many more if one could identify every lonely hillside farmhouse where a charismatic old man with a beard has come up with a new twist on theology.

Down the years various terms have been used to describe the groups which have chosen to deviate from the main path of Anglicanism (we’ll limit ourselves to the era from the 16th century onwards), some more dismissive than others: recusants, dissenters and nonconformists are just three that have been used particularly in England.

Every term one might use is fraught with difficult connotations. Do we call them sects? That should just be a neutral term meaning a subdivision of a larger religious body – but also carries the baggage of being a ‘faction’ that is somehow awkward, unwelcome or… oddball.

Some groups have clearly made the grade to the grander term of ‘denomination’ – but they too have had their own history of ramification. In some cases, notably those of the Baptists and Methodists, old wounds have been largely healed, with General and Particular or Primitive and Wesleyan, for example, joining under one banner.

In others, small groups have split off like bacterial colonies, then dwindled without the oxygen of publicity or membership. Even today, new divisions can also open up: one thinks of Forward in Faith, for example.

In this Dictionary of Dissent, I’ll explore many different flavours of British and Irish Christianity over the last five centuries, from Adamites to Walworth Jumpers.

We’ll explore the history of religious disagreement sometimes with amused affection, but always with respect.

Perhaps that’s the one philosophy in these countries that underpins them all: an understanding that we all have a right to our opinion.

Heads have rolled in the past, but thankfully today it’s only the eyes that roll. I hope you enjoy the journey with me.