‘Protestant Nonconformity in the Twentieth Century’: A Review

Alan P. F. Sell and Anthony R. Cross (eds.), Protestant Nonconformity in the Twentieth Century (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2003). x + 398 pages. ISBN: 978 1 84227 221 3. Review copy courtesy of Paternoster/Authentic Books.

This book, edited by Alan Sell and Anthony Cross, is another worthy addition to what is an excellent series of Studies in Christian History and Thought, a series comprising monographs, revised dissertations, and collections of papers which explore the church’s witness through history. The series includes some important contributions to scholarship, among which is David Wright’s Infant Baptism In Historical Perspective, Byung Ho Moon’s Christ the Mediator of the Law: Calvin’s Christological Understanding of the Law as the Rule of Living and Life-giving, and David Bebbington’s brilliant 1998 Didsbury Lectures, Holiness In Nineteenth-Century England.

Protestant Nonconformity in the Twentieth Century is a collection of papers presented at the second conference of The Association of Denominational Historical Societies and Cognate Libraries, held at Westhill College, Birmingham, in July 2000. The result is twelve papers from scholars representing a number of Nonconformist traditions which invite reflection on Nonconformist contributions to biblical studies, theology, worship, evangelism, spirituality, and ecumenism during the twentieth century.

Sell’s own contribution, ‘The Theological Contribution of Protestant Nonconformists in the Twentieth Century: Some Soundings’, is an embryonic version of his 2006 Didsbury Lectures, published as Nonconformist Theology in the Twentieth Century and reviewed here (I wish I’d noticed this before I was near the end of the chapter, although it was great to read over this material again). He again reminds us that Nonconformists are nothing if not diverse. Employing Dale’s summary on the question of the final fate of the impenitent, Sell writes:

The twentieth century provided Nonconformist theologians with both inner-family and external stimuli to theological endeavour. As the century opened the Wesleyans were earnestly debating the question of eternal life. The particular question at issue was the final fate of the impenitent. Discussion of this topic had been rumbling on at least since the eighteenth century, and R.W. Dale had specified the options in 1877. There are, he said, those who cannot make up their minds on the subject: ‘They cannot warn men against eternal condemnation, because they are not sure that any man will be eternally condemned.’ There are those who hold that the impenitent are to be condemned to suffering, whilst hoping that ‘there may be some transcendent manifestation of the Divine grace in reserve, of which as yet we have no hint.’ There are those who believe that the Christ who came to seek and to save the lost will persist in this effort even though, because of the invincibility of human freedom, it cannot be affirmed that all will in fact be saved. There are those who believe that God’s love cannot finally be thwarted, and hence all will finally be saved; those who hold that the impenitent will nevertheless enjoy an eternal life on a lower plane than the saved; and those who deny that the impenitent can finally be restored. (p. 36)

While all the studies are certainly erudite and deserving of comment, I wish here to identify a few for special mention. Norman Wallwork’s piece, ‘Developments in Liturgy and Worship in Twentieth-Century Protestant Nonconformity’ is a helpful survey of the general issues and particular contributions that concern Nonconformist worship. The contributions of Unitarians, Free Catholics, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, the United Reformed Church, Congregational Federation, Baptists and are all attended too with care, and the Quakers, Methodists, Independent Methodists and Salvation Army are also considered. Wallwork writes:

Of all the Free Churches the Unitarians were the most given to textual revision of the Book of Common Prayer [no surprises here], but their demise included their destruction of the Trinitarian theology which undergirded the Anglican tradition. However, Martineau’s love of good liturgical language passed over into all the Free Churches not least into Congregationalism. The Free Church Catholic and ritualistic revival under Lloyd Thomas and Orchard was short-lived, but the prayers in Orchard’s Divine Service furnished other service books for over fifty years. The movement for liturgical renewal which hit the Free Churches in the 1960’s and created the Joint Liturgical Group produced some fine liturgical texts and created new service books centred on classical eucharistic texts, an increase in the frequency of communion, a shift to morning all-age celebrations, and a much greater emphasis on the Christian year. In the end, only the Methodists and the United Reformed Church would place a eucharistic rite in the hands of their congregations. In all the traditions worship leaders and preachers turned to a variety of available resources, often without the approval of any recognizable magisterium. The memory of revival songs from the Sankey and Moody era helped to secure a place for lively and spontaneous worship revived among the Free Churches, as in Anglicanism, by a new wave of charismatic prayer and praise and the new tradition of heavy ‘biblical teaching’ in Sunday worship. This movement had its strongest support among the Baptists and many of the original ‘Plymouth’ Brethren congregations who now renamed themselves ‘Evangelical Churches’. The influence of the High Genevan school of the English Reformed tradition was still seen in the liturgical texts of the United Reformed Church but much of its worship was dominated by the twin calls to inclusive all-age worship and to be relevant and engaged in issues of local and international justice. Several babies went out with the bath water. (pp. 130-1)

Other essays I particularly valued were David Bebbington’s, ‘Evangelism and Spirituality in Twentieth-Century Protestant Nonconformity’, and ‘Protestant Nonconformist Attitudes towards the First World War’, by Alan Ruston. Ruston, who is editor of the Transactions of the Unitarian Historical Society, surveys how WWI witnessed Nonconformist churches becoming increasingly part of the establishment, particularly in attitude. They became, he writes, ‘an integral element within the political machine in almost the same terms as the established church. But flying into the sun in this way burnt their wings and like Icarus they fell to the sea. They did not drown like Icarus but the weakness engendered by the war remained with them for the rest of the century’ (p. 240). Ruston’s contribution to this volume is a powerful reminder of how voluntaryist assumptions about church, state and society inform Nonconformist contributions to religious, social and political life.

Those who identify themselves with the Nonconformist family, and those with an interest in (particularly early) Twentieth Century theology and history would be well served by reading this book.

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