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Critiques of the Church of England by Protestant “Dissenters” Between 1570 and 1715


Protestant “Dissenters” from 1570 to 1715 offered several critiques of the Church of England based on their disagreements with its doctrines, ceremonies, and governance structures. Dissenters opposed the church’s use of the Book of Common Prayer, bishopric, and refusal to allow religious freedom to nonconformists. Critiques focused on the church’s Catholic customs and lack of Reformed theology. In response, the Church of England attempted to address these criticisms through official statements, legislation, and the persecution of Dissenters, ultimately contributing to a distinct Dissenting movement within English Protestantism.

Lack of Reformation

The dissenter’s main issue with the church of England was that it essentially had not reformed enough and was still too similar to the Roman Catholic Church, with their problems persisting. Specifically believed that vestments were not essential to worship, nor did the Book of common prayer provide a strict structure.

The “dark inventions” of Catholicism, such as the usage of vestments and the Book of Common Prayer, which Dissenters thought were superfluous and even detrimental to authentic worship, were still deeply ingrained in the Church of England.[1] Fox considered these customs only human constructs that concealed God’s power and prohibited followers from having a personal encounter with the divine.[2] Similarly, Bradford attacked the Church of England in his narrative of the Pilgrims’ voyage to the New World for continuing to use various Catholic practices, such as “surplices, crosses, and the like.”[3] He thought the church’s reforms had not gone far enough and that Catholicism’s impure practices still tarnished it.[4]

The Church of England defended vestments and the Book of Common Prayer as crucial components of liturgy and refused to compromise on their usage in response to these critiques. The church further polarized and created religious differences within English society by using legal instruments like the Act of Uniformity and the Test Act to repress dissent and uphold its control. In the opinion of the Protestant Dissenters, the church of England had not gone far enough in its reforms and still had too many ties to the Catholic Church. Thus, the church defended its methods as necessary for worship. However, the opponents opposed it and called for more religious freedom and reform.

Subpoint 2: Attempts to Shame and Bash Dissenters Through Fiery Statements

The establishment of the Church of England attempted to publicly bash and shame the dissenters through aggressive and fiery statements from prominent community members. Many people disagreed with the Church of England at the beginning of the 18th century. They were referred to as rebels and rejected many of the church’s earlier doctrines. The church authorities did not like this, so they used harsh words and penalties to maintain their authority and deter individuals from opposing them. They even requested that prominent members of society mock and ridiculed anyone who did not agree with them. Dr. Henry Sacheverell, on November 5, 1709, delivered a sermon titled “The Perils of False Brethren,” in which he condemned those who rejected the church’s doctrines. His loud tone made people either like or loathe him, depending on how afraid they became and how much trouble he caused in the neighborhood.[5]

Widespread condemnation of Sacheverell’s sermon led to the House of Lords putting him on trial for his divisive statements. Journal of the House of Lords, March 23, 1710, records the procedures by which Sacheverell was found guilty of advocating ideas that were believed to be detrimental to the Church of England.[6] While aggressive rhetoric and public shaming may have helped keep the church in power for a while, they ultimately drove many people away from the institution and fueled anti-establishment feelings. Later, when the Church of England evolved to appreciate its members’ differences, it became more accepting of those who held other beliefs.

Subpoint 3: The Church of England’s Governance Structures

Dissenters were also critical of the Church of England’s governance structures. They believed the church was too hierarchical and gave too much power to bishops and other officials. They also objected to the church’s close relationship with the monarchy.[7] The ideas of the dissidents who opposed the Church of England’s governing institutions are consistent with Milton’s writings. Milton criticized the Church of England’s intimate ties to the monarchy. He believed the church should be independent of government and monarchy. Milton believed the church’s close links to the monarchy corrupted them, prompting them to prioritize the king’s interests over their own. The dissidents who were skeptical of the Church of England’s governing institutions are reflected in John Milton’s “Of Reformation in England” poem. Milton supported a less influenced by the monarchy, more democratic, and independent church. His writings continue to impact England’s history of religious and political ideas.

In “The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution,” Williams contends that the state should not have the authority to compel people to adhere to a specific religion or religious philosophy or that anyone or any group should be forced to follow a certain religion.[8] Williams refers to individuals who opposed the Church of England’s governing systems as Dissenters. According to Williams, concentrated power structures of this nature are inherently oppressive and can result in persecuting people with dissident views.[9] “For just as the civil power has always enforced uniformity and sameness in religious worship and profession, so the ecclesiastical power has always persecuted and destroyed those who have not submitted to their uniformity.” Dissenters also took issue with the church’s tight ties to the Crown.


Bradford, William. Of Plymouth Plantation. The United States? Zweihander Press, 2019.

Cowan, Brian. “Doctor Sacheverell and the Politics of Celebrity in Post-Revolutionary Britain.” Intimacy and Celebrity in Eighteenth-Century Literary Culture, (2018), 111–37.

Fox, George. Truths triumph: In the eternal power over the Darke Inventions of fallen man. Printed for Thomas Simmons, 1982.

Sacheverell, Henry. The perils of false brethren both in Church and State. Farmington Hills, MI: ECCO print editions, 2011.

Williams, Roger. The bloody tenent, of persecution. Vol. 3. Narragansett Club, 1867.

[1] George Fox, Truths Triumph: In the Eternal Power over the Darke Inventions of Fallen Man (Printed for Thomas Simmons, 1982).

[2] Ibid

[3] William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation (United States? Zweihander Press, 2019).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Henry Sacheverell, The Perils of False Brethren Both in Church and State (Farmington Hills, MI: ECCO print editions, 2011).

[6] Ibid.

[7] John Milton’s “Of Reformation in England”

[8] Williams, Roger. The bloody tenant, of persecution. Vol. 3. Narragansett Club, 1867.

[9] Ibid.


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