Nonconformist Congregations Yorkshire

Land Introduction

Nonconformity in the Spen Valley, Yorkshire

Frank Peel, a local Yorkshire historian, wrote several books about the West Riding. In Nonconformity in the Spen Valley (on LDS Microfilm 0476993) published in 1891 he deals with the issue of non Church of England congregations in the area.

"Spen Valley has often been called the metropolis of Dissent, and perhaps there is no district in England in which Nonconformity embraces such a large proportion of the population within its fold. Until within the lifetime of the present generation, the Church of England was exceedingly weak in the locality, and though great progress has been made by its adherents of late- especially in Cleckheaton and its neighborhood- it is still in a hopeless minority, and many who muster beneath its banner are it had been noted, people who have migrated into the valley from other places. The true mother church of the natives of Spen Valley is the "congregational" and the adherents of that faith still maintain their ancient predominance amongst the religious bodies."
The first congregational church in the area was established at Topcliffe, near Batley about 1653. This was during the commonwealth when the protestant denominations were in control. The Reverent Marshall, the minister in the adjoining parish church of Woodchurch, "officiated". Marshall spent some time "amongst the Free Churches of New England, during which he was much in the company of the Rev. Mr. Cotton, of Boston". Mr Marshall was a strong Puritan. Other congregations were formed at Heckmondwike, Cleckheaton, and Leeds.

When Charles II (1660-85) ascended the throne the Anglican Church was re-established and the protestant ministers were driven from their churches and the protestant congregations were driven underground. It became a crime to e a nonconformist and many dissenters were jailed for their believes. Although not allowed to preach openly, the nonconformist congregations continued to meet in secret and the movement remained strong in the area. Many nonconformist congregations in the area had their meetings at night with "sentinels posted round, to give warning of the approach of the hostile foot".

The worshippers "dared not indulge in singing for fear of attracting the attention of the spies and informers who were always lurking about".

"At a farm house called "Ye Closes," a short distance form Cleckheaton on the Gomersal side of the stream, there was also preaching certainly as early as 1672, the Rev. John Holdsworth..... It has generally been considered that the church at Cleckheaton was originally Presbyterian."

In 1672, King Charles issues a "Declaration of Indulgence" which allowed the use of meeting houses to licensed ministers of any faith on condition that they did not preach against the Church of England.

The group of Nonconformist that was first called Independents was a political as well as a religious movement. The name Independent was used to designate a large and "vigorous" party in the army during the civil wars who looked to Oliver Cromwell as their leader.

Some of the militant forces who supported Cromwell were members of the Nonconformist Church in Heckmondwike.

Apparently the Congregationalists were apparently fond of long sermons provided they were well delivered. It was not uncommon for services to last five hours. Oliver Heywood wrote that one of his services lasted over six hours and that he "did not feel weary". Peel suggests that the nonconformist did not have frequent opportunities to hear preachers and that when there was an opportunity "they were glad to make the most of him". He also points out that books, other than the bible, were unknown in working class homes of the times and insinuates that preaching was a form of entertainment.

By the 1680s there were still laws in effect against the nonconformists, but the atmosphere of persecutions lessoned.

Informers in the area reported in the 1680s that the Independent Church in Heckmondwike was attended by persons from Gomersal, Batley, Mirfield and Heckmondwike. Around 1725 there were families form Birstall, Field-head (near Birstall), Gomersal, and Batley. None of the families named by Peel were related to the Land family. Peel says that people were accustomed to go long distances to places of worship because the population was sparse and the churches were at a considerable distance form one another.

Greater religious tolerance arrived under King William in 1689. Peel says at the end of the prosecutions Nonconformist represented about a quarter of the population of England.

The early 1700s showed some splintering of the Nonconformist congregations with two main splinter groups being the Congregationalists and the Presbyterians. Nearly all the Congregationalists at that time were very strict Calvinists and Peels says they "had landed in rank fatalism".

When Wesley preached in Birstall "Thousands from all the country round assembled". Wesley preached mostly outdoors in the summer time with his audience sitting on the hill sides. Methodism spread rapidly in Birstall and Liveredge, but did not make much headway in Heckmondwike and Cleckheaton. Methodism had a much more liberal theology than Congregationalism. In 1765 Wesley mad Birstall the head of a circuit and he preached in Birstall frequently.

Interestingly, as Methodism, gained a foothold in the area, the Congregationalists, who had been so severely persecuted in their time, took to harassing the Methodists by disrupting the Methodist meetings.

In Yorkshire as high as one sixth of the population was Methodist. Methodism was basically a working-class religion.

In the 1770s they were people who traveled sixteen or seventeen miles to worship at the church of their choice.

Frank Peel, Nonconformity in Spen Valley on LDS Microfilm 0476993 published in 1891.

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