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Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to editor@pnreview.co.uk

This article is taken from PN Review 1, Volume 4 Number 1, October - December 1977.

Notes on Nonconformists Donald Davie

I WAS BROUGHT up a Baptist. And I wonder, idly, how many readers of PNR were brought up in that communion or among the Baptists' close cousins, those Congregationalists who in Oliver Cromwell's day and for long after were called 'Independents'. In my experience this is, in educated circles, just about the last thing that one discovers about another person. It is not that we who were bred nonconformists actively conceal the fact, as a shameful secret; but certainly we do not volunteer the information. Let's put it that we seem to encounter very few circumstances in which such information seems relevant. And this is true whether we still describe ourselves as believing Christians, or whether we don't. The cultural conditioning that we get from being raised outside the Established Church-a cultural conditioning, not specifically a religious one-is something that apparently we discount when we are giving an account of ourselves to others or even, it may be, to ourselves.

If this is true of my own generation, born in the 1920s, and of people younger than me, it makes us very different creatures from our ancestors. For the records of our history and our literature show that, through generation after generation from the seventeenth century until well into the twentieth, a Baptist or a Congregationalist or a Quaker was proudly conscious of his heritage, how it defined him and set him apart. At the present day most Roman Catholics and most Jews-all credit to them-take this sort of pride in themselves; but other sorts of nonconformists mostly don't. And yet in this our forebears were not only prouder than we are, but also more reasonable. For, to take an instance not quite at random, it must make a difference to any social worker or social administrator of our day whether he was brought up to believe, as Anglicans do, that Church and State are ideally (though never actually) one and the same; or whether, as a nonconformist, he was trained to think that a Church is on the contrary all that the State, the secular order, never can be. And this must be true however resolutely our social worker declares himself agnostic or atheist. Either man's spiritual as well as his material needs should be looked after by 'society', by the State; or else, for the sake of our liberty, they must on the contrary be provided for quite outside the State machinery altogether. For example, nonconformists who are true to their libertarian heritage ought to be prominent in the fight to keep independent schools, and a large private sector in education; but in fact that has not been the case, and the fight has already been largely lost by their default. Without doubt, according as we believe the one thing or the other about the relation between Church and State, our attitudes will differ towards everything from public education policy to the administration of our prisons and the state of our poetry. (In that last connection, for instance, has the Society of Friends even noticed that the most ambitious poem to come out of England since 1945- Basil Bunting's Brigg Flatts-is named for an ancient Quaker meeting-house, and is among other things a celebration of the Quaker heritage in English culture, the first such celebration in the whole history of our poetry?) If this is true, if the English nonconformist tradition has so much to say of immediate relevance and point in all sectors of the national life, then for us practising or lapsed nonconformists to be coy and silent about how we regard the English Establishment-about whether we are in it and of it, or outside it and against it-is nothing short of irresponsible and (one cannot help thinking) cowardly. Jehovah's Witnesses refuse blood-transfusions, and Quakers refuse to serve in the armed forces. But these are only the spirited exceptions that prove the sorry rule. Our ancestors refused to be bullied by the Crown, when the Crown's representatives were bishop and squire and parson; but we meekly allow ourselves to be bullied nowadays when the Crown's representatives are the bureaucrats of Whitehall and Transport House and City Hall.

At any rate, the gallons of ink which our ancestors spilled on the issue of Church and State do not show how benighted and muddle-headed they were. And our silence about it does not show how enlightened we are, by contrast. It shows on the contrary that, whereas they could and would think things through, we mostly can't or won't.

One Englishman who can and does is C. H. Sisson; which is why we attend to what he writes, whether in verse ,or prose. He writes as an Anglican who has thought through his Anglicanism; and he ought to provoke us non-Anglicans into defining our position against his. He is at his most provoking in his short and shamefully neglected book, The Case of Walter Bagehot (1972). Towards the end of this, he quotes from J. M. Keynes's Two Memoirs of 1949 a passage in which Keynes is explaining the ethos of the so-called 'Bloomsbury Group', that agnostic constellation of the 1920s in which Keynes figured along with Lytton Strachey, Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster. Keynes says, of this group as a whole, 'We entirely repudiated a personal liability on us to obey general rules'. And Sisson reflects tartly that this is 'of course, the logical outcome of that long line of dissent which, having eluded all the authorities which it always asserted were bent on oppressing it, ends by being dissent tout court, or the mere pursuit of a lonely appetite'. By 'dissent' here Sisson means religious Dissent, or what is nowadays called, more commonly but less happily, nonconformity. This is clear from passages elsewhere in his book; for instance:


When Matthew Arnold took up the task of civilizing dissent, from the point of view of an Oxford which by then he regarded as a home of lost causes, it was the manufacturers and their opinionated chapels he had in mind. Arnold was, rather markedly, the son of a public school headmaster . . . and himself an inspector of schools. But his class of savage mill-owners themselves begat inspectors of schools and the like in great numbers and it was finally the war of 1914-18 which split society open and made it clear that the landed aristocracy and gentry . . . would offend by their dignity no more. Dissent, in a wider sense than the démodé business of disagreement with the Thirty-Nine Articles, became the unquestionable Establishment of our society. It has been so, with an ever-widening series of topics if a certain monotony of method, ever since.


Not only Dissenters, but anyone concerned with English culture and the many threads that have been woven to make it, ought to be ready to pick up the gauntlet thus thrown down.

Sisson's contention is sweeping, and it is merely asserted, not argued. Accordingly one may be tempted to write it off as just the latest version of the condescending sneer which self-appointed spokesmen of the Established Church have directed at Dissent in every generation for the last three hundred years-the Matthew Arnold, we might say, of St.Paul and Protestantism, rather than the more judicious and perceptive Arnold who wrote Culture and Anarchy. But this will not do. Sisson's account has more than a grain of truth in it; and it's worthwhile trying to disentangle what is true in it from what isn't.

The first objection should be obvious. As has been pointed out many times, the principal figures of Bloomsbury (E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf and her sister, Lytton Strachey) were the heirs-not metaphorically, but in literal and legal fact-of the Clapham Sect, which flourished around the turn of the eighteenth century into the nineteenth. And the Clapham Sect was predominantly, almost exclusively, Anglican. It was the powerhouse of Evangelicalism. But Evangelicalism (with a capital E, be it noted) was, from its inception by Whitefield and Wesley, principally a movement from within the Established Church. Orthodox Dissent (Baptists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians) for long resisted it, and though in time many Dissenters capitulated to the winning unction of Wesley 01 - the more strident and minatory Evangelicalism of Whitefield and his admirers in Clapham, there were-until well on into the nineteenth century-many Dissenters who did not. Dissent is often blamed for what should be laid at the door of Evangelicalism; and Sisson's contention seems to be a case in point.

What most Dissent and most Evangelicalism have in common is Calvinism. But having said that, one has said little. For there were (and are) many sorts of Calvinism, including at one extreme a sort that precludes and denounces all evangelicalism whatever-since (so the argument runs) evangelizing, preaching to the unconverted, is a presumptuous attempt to effect by human means that 'conversion' which is within the power only of God Himself, being His unconstrained 'election' of His 'saints'. At this extreme the Calvinist characteristically runs the risk of the heresy called 'Antinomian', which is accordingly what more moderate Calvinists are most fearful of and most worried by. As the Calvinist Dissenter Isaac Watts put it, as early as 1702:


Those called Antinomians now-a-days take not so much care in expressing the Calvinistic doctrine, which most of them pretend to own, and so vent dangerous errors under such dangerous expressions as these . . . That God sees no sin in his people, and therefore saints need not ask pardon . . . God loves a man never the better for holiness, nor an elect person the worse for unholiness: Christ is a believer's sanctification, so far that he need not seek it in himself to evidence justification: Faith is not so properly an acceptance of Christ as an assurance that he is ours. (Thomas Milner, Life, Times and Correspondence of Watts, pp. 194-5.)


In other words, the Antinomian believes that the person 'elected' to salvation by God is thereby absolved from the common morality which the rest of mankind is constrained by. And on this showing it is clear that the belief of the Bloomsbury élite- 'We entirely repudiated' a personal liability on us to obey general rules'-is Antinomianism secularized. It is hard to believe that they did not fall into this comfortable heresy without some prompting from the Calvinist tradition that most of them were heir to, and had lapsed from. After all, 'elect' is the same word as élite'. But that tradition could have been mediated to them by Anglican Evangelicalism as much as by Dissent; given the facts of their family inheritances, the first alternative seems overwhelmingly more probable.

What I think leads Sisson astray is the fact that he is dealing with that one of the Bloomsbury group, Keynes, who was from time to time a public administrator-that, and the fact that Bagehot, the subject of Sisson's book, was himself a theorist of administration. This explains the angry reference to 'inspectors of schools and the like'. What he assails as 'dissent, in a wider sense than the démodé business of disagreement with the Thirty-Nine Articles' has less to do with the arrogant hedonism of Bloomsbury than with the equally arrogant 'social service', or the 'planning' de haut en bas, of the Fabian Society, its predecessors and its successors (among whom must be counted of course the members of any British government of the present day, whether Socialist or Conservative). And it is here that his case against Dissent has a disconcerting ring of truth about it. Sisson's point in fact is well taken; but for our different purposes it should be noted that the creation of 'inspectorates', and the invasion of those cadres by Dissenters, came rather earlier in the century than Sisson suggests. The Factory Inspectors came into being in 1834, to be followed by the Prison Inspectors, School Inspectors, Railway Inspectors, Mines Inspectors. And for an early example of a Dissenter joining in effect the Inspectorate, we may cite the case of Southwood Smith, a Unitarian minister who came late to medicine but then 'joining forces with Chadwick ... became, in effect, Medical Adviser to the Poor Law Commission' (G. M. Young, Victorian England, Portrait of an Age, 7th impression, p. 42).

But Southwood Smith, it will be noted, was a Unitarian, as was that banker father of Walter Bagehot whose influence upon his son was - so Sisson argues-paramount. And the Unitarian is a very special sort of Dissenter indeed, though the practice of lumping him in with other, Trinitarian, Dissenters is so time-honoured that one despairs, nowadays when theology is such a specialized discipline, of getting his specialness acknowledged. To the orthodox Dissenter, the Unitarian is guilty of some one of a batch of heresies as heinous as Antinomianism though as it were at the opposite extreme-Arianism, Socinianism, Sabellianism, all of which deny Christ's divinity, or whittle it down to a point where it counts for nothing. Accordingly the orthodox Dissenter cannot accept-though nowadays he seems to be usually so cowed, or so uninstructed, at all events so laxly 'oecumenical' that he does accept it-the almost universal disposition of historians to regard Unitarianism as the most 'progressive' or the most 'liberal' wing of Dissent in general. At all events, the Unitarians' sense of themselves as a privileged intellectual élite-evident as early as the last decades of the eighteenth century, when they contrived to implicate the whole of Dissent in the philosophical Jacobinism that in fact was theirs alone-eminently fitted them for the Inspectorate, for the role of licensed busybodies. (That some of them did good in that capacity, I would not deny; nor, I hope, would Sisson.)

The orthodox Dissenters, however, deserve much of the contempt that Sisson heaps on them. For they continued to let themselves be conned by the Unitarians. It is astonishing and lamentable that the mathematician Olinthus Gregory, along with less distinguished fellow-Baptists like Francis Augustus Cox and Samuel Smedley, should in 1825 have cooperated in the founding of University College London with such 'philosophical radicals' as Joseph Hume M.P., James Mill, and others who were no less clearly the heirs of the Unitarian 'rational dissenters' of a previous generation. The skeleton of Jeremy Bentham, and Bentham's MSS., were the bequests to the infant institution which defined its character; and that character was such as Baptists should have learned by bitter experience to distrust. Unfortunately some who had learned that lesson had sullenly backed away from Unitarian duplicity into sectarian narrowness and aggressive philistinism; and this alienated Baptists like Gregory and Cox who had some sense of the national culture as a whole. This pattern persisted through to the end of the century: in 1887, when the narrow and philistine (and enormously successful) C. H. Spurgeon precipitated in the Baptist Union what was called the 'Down Grade' controversy, the leader of the purportedly liberal Baptists who opposed and defeated him was John Clifford (1836-1923); and it comes as no surprise that Clifford was a founder-member of the Fabian Society.

Accordingly the social and literary historians of the New Left, who have lately attained such a dismaying preponderance in British education at all levels, are frequently tender towards Dissent, applauding it for just those politicizing and rationalizing and class-polarizing propensities which are historically in fact its greatest weakness, so long as it is considered as a religious institution. Thus in that bible of the New Left, E. P. Thompson's Making of the English Working Class (1964), we read that 'If some sect of Old Dissent had set the pace of the evangelical revival-instead of John Wesley-then nineteenth-century Nonconformity might have assumed a more intellectual and democratic form.' And Thompson has reason on his side. For reasons we have just glanced at, the Nonconformist chapels have been for many generations highly effective recruiting stations for the militant left, especially in the industrial towns of the Midlands and the north, as proletarians first awakened to intellectual activity by Dissenting pulpits have moved on to political activism. What is depressing is to see Dissenters apparently gratified by the dusty bouquets that are from time to time bestowed on them by such interested parties, for having helped to produce so many high-minded bureaucrats, trade union organizers and Labour M.P.s.

What nonconformists are told, when they are complimented on these contributions to the national culture, is that they thereby show themselves worthy successors to the Unitarian Jacobins and also, more excitingly, to the Puritan intransigents of the Cromwellian era. The wilder and woollier, the more obscure and millenarian sects of that period-the Ranters, the Fifth Monarchy men, the Muggletonians-'are particularly dear to the New Left. What nonconformists must never remember, if this mythology is to bemuse them as it is meant to do, is precisely that chapter of nonconformist history in which a patriotic Dissenter should take most pride-the early Hanoverian Dissent which produced the great Independents (i.e. Congregationalists), Isaac Watts and Philip Doddridge. It is with a shock of surprise that we realize that Richard Cromwell, Oliver's eldest son who for a few months in 1659 was himself Protector of the realm, survived into the eighteenth century to be acquainted with Isaac Watts. Watts reported 'that he never knew him glance at his former station but once, and then in a very distant manner.' And we can look far and wide before we find this unfortunate individual presented with as much spirit and good sense as by Thomas Milner in 1845 (op. cit. pp. 298-9):

The enemies of the name of Cromwell, have delighted to represent Richard as weak and pusillanimous; but for no better reason, than that he was uninfluenced by the selfish and sanguinary ambition of his father. Nature intended him to occupy and adorn a private station, and he wisely rejected the allurements of the throne, and honourably and usefully sustained the character of an educated and independent private gentleman.

For rejecting 'selfish and sanguinary ambition', for devoting themselves (as Dr Johnson realized in his Life of Watts) to establishing a modus vivendi with the national and secular culture without surrendering an inch of the tribal sub-culture that they spoke for, Watts and Doddridge have been traduced from their own day to ours. But it is they who need to be remembered by all Dissenters of the present day, who are continually badgered into believing that religious Dissent means social and political dissidence. It is not in the least accidental- on the contrary, it is of the essence of the case-that just at this period, as at no other, Dissent, by virtue of the hymns and poems of Isaac Watts, made a permanent contribution to the classic canon of English poetry.

Donald Davie's poems The Shires were published by Routledge in 1975. A collection of his new poems, including 'In the Stopping Train', will be published by Carcanet Press.

This article is taken from PN Review 1, Volume 4 Number 1, October - December 1977.



Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this article to editor@pnreview.co.uk
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