Britain’s Minor Religions
COME with me on a tour through a small English town. Our purpose is a curious one. We want to see how many church notice boards we can find, so that we can ascertain which religious denominations are represented. Here is the first one: “Church of England,” and across the street “The Methodist Church.” Two blocks away we come across “Baptist Chapel,” and right across town “Roman Catholic.” Down by the river stands the “Congregational Church,” with the small “Presbyterian Church of England” on the hill. As we turn into the main square the last name comes into view, “Salvation Army Citadel.”
This pattern repeats itself, with slight variations, throughout the country. In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland the regional name replaces “England,” but the denominations are basically the same. We do not need to search far to find the smaller denominations. There are notice boards with puzzling names, such as Peculiar People, Inghamites, Countess of Huntingdon’s Connexion, United Apostolic Faith Church, Glasites, Christian Israelites, Calvinistic Independents, and many others. All together, more than 110 different denominations can be found in the British Isles, most of them minorities with less than 50,000 members each, some with only a few hundred.
Such variety highlights both confusion and disunity in this part of Christendom. It also prompts many questions. How did all these religions start? What are their distinctive beliefs and practices? Why have they remained so small, though often continuing to exist for hundreds of years? What is their future likely to be? We will pass behind some of these infrequent notice boards and find out for ourselves.
John Glas, a Presbyterian minister at Tealing, near Dundee, Scotland, was deposed in 1728 for holding ideas not in accord with the standards of his church synod. Others shared his ideas, however, and continued under his new independent ministry. Numbers grew, more churches were opened, and Glas’ son-in-law, Robert Sandeman, vigorously spread the new religion into England. But the sect stayed a minority. The 1851 Religious Census (one of very few taken in Britain) revealed a membership of 1,750. Today only two congregations remain, one in Scotland and one in England.
An unusual feature of the Glasites’ belief concerns blood. “The unlawfulness of eating blood and things strangled is maintained. It was forbidden before Moses’ law; and was solemnly decreed to the Gentile converts; so abstaining from these things is insisted on as a necessary condition of communion.”1 Another interesting tenet is the plurality of elders. “There must always be in the Communion ordinance and in acts of discipline two or more Elders present, that the Church come not under the ascendancy of any single man.”2 As the number of Glasites continues to dwindle lack of elders makes it increasingly difficult to conduct church affairs. What will happen when only one elder is left? No one seems to know.
In the county of Essex, to the east of London, we can find another small group, the Peculiar People. James Banyard, from Rochford, near Southend, became a local preacher. On a visit to London he heard new ideas expounded and liked them. But the local Wesleyan Methodists would not accept them, so he started a meeting in his own home, and in 1838 numbers rapidly grew when cases of divine healing were reported. James 5:14, 15 was especially appealed to in a literal sense, and when a member died through the lancet slipping during an operation, it was decided to trust in God alone in the future without the aid of doctors. This produced a severe clash with the authorities, especially when a death occurred that others felt might have been avoided by medical attention. Some were imprisoned, and persecution was fierce, until coroners recognized it as a matter of conscience.
Although Banyard had been elected as the first Bishop, many refused to follow him after he called a doctor to his own sick son, and internal division followed. One group became known as the “Liberty” section, holding that James chapter five did not forbid medical aid for children because minors were not able to have faith themselves. The division following Samuel Harrod, a market gardener, of Thundersley, became known as the “Original Peculiar People” and is now very small. Peculiar People—the name is taken from 1 Peter 2:9, AV—can be found only in Essex, Kent and London.
An early associate of John and Charles Wesley at Oxford was Benjamin Ingham. After being ordained in 1755 he went with the two brothers to America. He later parted from the Methodists and, returning to England, attached himself to the Moravians, now another minority with only 2,842 members in Britain. But he felt their methods were arbitrary, so he left them also. Touring in the northern counties of Yorkshire and Lancashire and preaching wherever he could, he began to form societies. The local clergy “frequently instigated the rabble to abuse, and even to mob them, and such was their violence, that their lives were frequently in . . . danger.”3 The growing sect was soon split by division, and Ingham was left with only thirteen loyal congregations. Although The Encyclopedia Americana describes the Inghamites as “extinct,” some half-dozen churches still flourish, mostly around Colne and Nelson, the early Inghamite strongholds in Lancashire.
Because Ingham objected to the language usually adopted in speaking of distinct persons in the Godhead, the trinity is described in a recent list of doctrines as “The Triune Jehovah, or the Three One God.” He also established the use of the lot. In 1763 Ingham wrote of the Bible: “Men of learning, who have studied the originals, know very well that some places are falsely translated, and others weakly and lamely. It would be well worth the labour of all the learned men in every nation to conspire together to publish an accurate translation.”4
BEGINNINGS AND ENDINGS
Minorities have been produced as much by amalgamation of denominations as by their division. Any change of structure and organization is likely to cause some to disagree. When the Congregational Union of England and Wales was formed in 1831, a minority dissented and continue to this day as the Calvinistic Independents. In 1932 the union of the three main branches of the Methodist Church left a number of congregations outside that continued the old order. So appeared the Primitive Methodist Church Continuing and the Independent Wesleyan Methodists. Two older groups refused to join the new union at all: the Wesleyan Reform Union, with 6,078 members, and the Independent Methodists. The latter body, numbering 8,415, maintain a voluntary and unpaid ministry and do not recognize clerical titles. Members must not only sign a pledge agreeing to abstain from the use of intoxicating liquors, but they may not engage in the sale of them either.
An unusual and awkward situation arose when two Presbyterian groups united in 1900 to form the United Free Church of Scotland. A minority nicknamed the “Wee Frees” refused to enter the union and found themselves possessed by law of all the property (valued at more than £10 million) of the original much larger body. A Royal Commission finally settled matters in 1905 by an equitable distribution. After a further division, the United Free Church of Scotland now numbers only 23,482. The Free Presbyterian Church, with about a thousand members, and the Reformed Presbyterians, numbering some 600-odd, complete the picture of Scottish Presbyterian division, dominated, of course, by the major Church of Scotland. In Ireland, where Protestantism is again represented strongly by the Presbyterians, similar denominations exist.
The Baptist Union of Great Britain, founded in 1813, embraced most groups then existing except for the Strict and Particular Baptists. These continued to be independent because they could not believe in free or open communion. For many years the two parties of Strict Baptists were known as the “Standard” and “Vessel” parties, after their respective magazines the Gospel Standard and the Earthen Vessel. Most Strict Baptists formed the National Federation of Strict and Particular Baptist Churches in 1946, but the Standard party (or Gadsbyites) still remains very much aloof.
Often minorities are formed through a fight for leadership, doctrinal issues, and even completely irrelevant misunderstandings. Years later these divisions may be healed. So in 1952 the International Holiness Mission reunited with the Church of the Nazarene, and in 1955 the Calvary Holiness Church was added. Division had first struck here in 1907 and again in 1934, yet one of their official organs commented, “Both sides admitted that a more understanding attitude could have prevented it.”5
Another reunion, of two large groups of Christadelphians, brought the Birmingham Temperance Hall Ecclesia and the Suffolk Street group together in 1957 after seventy-two years of division. This still leaves other groups outside, such as the Clapham Ecclesia and the Berean Christadelphians. These sections are considered to be “disfellowshiped” or “out of communion” entirely. Such a cut-off situation frequently exists among the various groups of Brethren (sometimes called Plymouth Brethren because it was first in that town that they became well known), where not only will the Exclusives have nothing to do with the Open denomination, but the various parties of Exclusives refuse association with one another. The history of the Brethren in Britain records one division after another. Since 1929 a prominent speaker among the Brethren, James Taylor, has introduced new ideas on the question of the “Eternal Sonship” of Jesus, suggesting that he was not eternally pre-existent. As the Brethren are noted for their stanch Trinitarian stand, this has caused much discussion.
The Old Catholic movement, though very small in Britain, has never produced an episcopal succession to satisfy everyone affected. The valid ordination has been claimed by the Catholic Christian Church, the Old Catholic Church, Orthodox Catholic Church, Old Catholic Orthodox Church, Liberal Catholic Church and the Old Roman Catholic Church. Another group, the Independent Old Roman Catholic Church, claims no succession.
The Pentecostal movement, which had its birth principally in the Welsh Revival of 1904-5, is now represented by six main denominations. The largest of these are the Assemblies of God, organized on a locally autonomous principle; the Elim Foursquare Gospel Alliance, which holds to a foursquare testimony of Christ, the Saviour, Healer, Baptizer in Holy Spirit and Coming King; and the Apostolic Church, the direct descendant of the Welsh Revival, with headquarters still in South Wales. Another group, the Bible Pattern Church Fellowship, was first formed in 1940 after George Jeffreys, founder of Elim, had resigned owing to internal strife. This section, together with the smaller United Apostolic Faith Church, holds to the British-Israel theory. The Full Gospel Testimony Fellowship completes the main Pentecostal bodies, which, combined, have a membership of just under 50,000.
Some minority groups stress one particular aspect to justify their independent existence. The Old Baptist Union and the similar International Old Baptist Union claim to return to the original practice of Baptists set out in seventeenth-century confessions of faith. The Churches of Christ (Old Path) reject instrumental music as a part of worship and condemn the other Churches of Christ body for having digressed “from the original impregnable New Testament position held by the pioneers.”6 The Hutterian Brethren, who believe in a religious community life based upon Acts 2:44, 45, established a “Bruderhof” (a place where brothers live) in the Clee Hills, near the Welsh border, and in 1958 a new community was opened at Gerrards Cross on the outskirts of London.
THE FUTURE FOR MINORITIES
With but few exceptions, minority denominations in Britain continue to dwindle. Many are even now on the verge of extinction. The Christian Israelites have only one congregation left, the Dependents (sometimes called Coglers) have only a few chapels, mostly in Sussex, and the Seventh-day Baptists hold meetings only in London and Hull. Others in a more flourishing condition have still had severe losses of membership. From a peak of 16,596 in 1930 the Churches of Christ (the main body known in America as Disciples of Christ) had dropped to 7,854 by 1959. One group of Exclusive Brethren closed eleven out of 123 meeting places in three years, and the Catholic Apostolic Church has a similar tale to tell. The two Swedenborgian sections (also called the New Church) have lost more than a third of their members since 1943, from 6,700 down to 4,200.
Why do minorities continue to lose ground yet fight extinction? Family tradition plays an important part. Members of minority sects take pride in being different and often they can number descendants of their founder among their own family or relatives. They tell glowing stories of their great-grandfather’s stanch stand for the new faith, and this in itself is sufficient to ensure their own unwavering adherence. Many sincerely believe that the religion of father should be the religion of son, irrespective of whether it is a correct way of worship or not. As members grow old and die numbers are not replaced by new converts and often the leaders themselves complacently watch the dying embers of their spiritual fire, occasionally warming their hands in a brief revival.
True Christianity will always be in the minority in this present world, but it must be vigorous, emulating the early Christians. Comparing Jehovah’s witnesses with Dr. Buchman’s Oxford Group, one writer comments: “Religious conviction takes on many forms, but that of the Jehovah’s Witnesses was so much more strenuous than that of the Groups, that the witness of the latter often seemed to be little more than the pleasures of the long week-end.”7 This past year a peak of 47,126 ministers was reached in the British Isles, compared with 6,861 in 1939. In numbers, therefore, Jehovah’s witnesses have in twenty-one years surpassed some twenty-one other minority denominations including the Quakers, Unitarians, Mormons and Seventh-day Adventists.
Jesus said concerning the need for more teachers and preachers: “The harvest is great, but the workers are few. Therefore, beg the Master of the harvest to send out workers into his harvest.” (Matt. 9:37, 38) How many of the minorities in Britain today show any sign of begging for more workers? Often the existing church members are not found really working in the harvest themselves, not even recognizing the time of harvest. Jehovah’s witnesses call regularly on most homes in Britain and, though still a minority group, they see the fruits of their harvest labors.
No matter what your religion may be, whether a member of a minority group or not, can you see the fruits of progressive Christianity manifesting themselves? Is vigorous growth to maturity evident in your denomination? Are all its members fulfilling Jesus’ command to “go therefore and make disciples of people of all the nations”? If not, your search for the true way of worship is still on.—Matt. 28:19.
1 The Customs of the Churches of Christ, 1908, page 8.
2 A Treatise on the Lord’s Supper, with Biography, by John Glas, Edition of 1883, page 11.
3 Historical Sketches of the Rise of the Scots Old Independent and the Inghamite Churches, 1814 (Copy in the British Museum).
4 A Discourse on the Faith and Hope of the Gospel, by B. Ingham, page 5.
5 The Flame, Vol. 21, No. 4, 1955.
6 The Scripture Standard, Vol. 20, No. 10, October, 1954.
7 Religion in Britain Since 1900, by G. S. Spinks, page 213.