John Gascoigne: The history of English Presbyterianism – a review of David L. Wykes’ Congregational Lecture

John Gascoigne: The history of English Presbyterianism – a review of David L. Wykes’ Congregational Lecture

David L. Wykes: Eighteenth-century English Presbyterianism and Congregationalism Reconsidered. London: The Congregational Memorial Hall Trust Ltd., (1978), 32pp.

The history of English Presbyterianism in the eighteenth century has been told in teleological terms as a passage from evangelical zeal in the period of persecution in the Restoration and grudging toleration under Queen Anne to Unitarianism in the age of the Hanoverian monarchs. Such a view of Presbyterianism is challenged by David Wykes which in short compass surveys a long eighteenth century beginning at 1660 and ending at 1800. It is his contention that viewing eighteenth-century Presbyterianism through the lens of nineteenth century Unitarianism is seriously distorting. Much depends on an understanding of the relationship between Presbyterianism and Congregationalism in this period. The traditional view would have it that a lot of Presbyterian parishes chose to become Congregationalist rather than remain attached to a heretical form of Presbyterianism. Such heresy took the form of the questioning of the doctrine of the Trinity with some ministers espousing Arianism with its subordination of Jesus Christ to God the Father or even in a few cases Socinianism with its questioning of the Divinity of Christ. Such questioning became known as ‘rational Dissent’ and was given further momentum by the strongly Unitarian writings of Joseph Priestley at the end of the eighteenth century.

Yet, Wykes shows, the transformation of Presbyterianism into Congregationalism was usually the result of pragmatic considerations such as financing or creating parishes of viable size rather than doctrinal disputes. The turn from Presbyterianism to Unitarianism at a parish level was barely noticeable in the eighteenth century and only became so in the nineteenth century. Congregationalism benefited from the Evangelical revival in ways that Presbyterianism did not. The accusation that Presbyterians were Arians often arose from suspicion of Arminianism which questioned orthodox Calvinism by following the Dutch theologian, Arminius, in arguing against predestination. Overall, then, Wykes succeeds in presenting this revisionist case with much evidence in a single lecture. Given the formative role of Dissent in the age of the Industrial Revolution and the period of nineteenth century reform such a reinterpretation throws fresh light on the emergence of Britain as ‘the first modern nation’.

Emeritus Professor John Gascoigne
University of New South Wales



Image: Presbyterian Church, Wentworthville – Image attribution: By J Bar – Own work, CC BY 3.0,