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Religion Library: Anglican/Episcopalian

Schisms and Sects

Written by: Russell P. Dawn

The history of sects and schisms in Anglicanism begins with the Separatists and Presbyterians, Puritan Calvinist groups that came of age under Queen Elizabeth I.

Unwilling to acquiesce in Elizabeth's Settlement of Religion, individuals of radical Puritan leanings formed illegal congregations independent of the national Church.  These Separatists believed in the autonomy of the individual congregation from rule or oversight by outsiders.  Separatists came to be known as Congregationalists or Independents, and at the time of the English Civil Wars they were prominent in the army of Oliver Cromwell.

Not all Puritans rejected the Church of England; indeed, most sought to reform the Church from within.  Among these were some who actively opposed the Church's institutional (episcopal) polity  and promoted a more egalitarian, presbyterian structure.  The Queen strongly opposed this movement until it all but died in the 1590s.  The impulse, however, did not die, and Presbyterianism came to power in Parliament in the 1640s.

Another group that flourished during the English Civil Wars was the Baptists.  The Baptist movement's roots in England were in the Separatist movement.  Certain Separatist congregations of the early Stuart period began to practice believer-only baptism, rejecting the practice of infant baptism.

The final influential sect from the Civil War period was the Society of Friends, or Friends of the Truth as they then referred to themselves, or Quakers, the epithet by which they were commonly known.  The Friends taught that individuals receive truth by direct revelation from God, and rejected a number of social conventions.  They were persecuted by all quarters both during the Interregnum and after the Restoration.

After the Restoration, by the Act of Uniformity of 1662, all of these groups were excluded from comprehension within the established Church.  They have been distinct from the Anglican Church ever since.

The Restoration era saw the rise of two parties within Anglicanism that would have lasting importance.  The first was the High Church group, which emphasized the historic continuity of the English Church back to the patristic era, episcopacy and monarchy as matters of divine right, and sacramental grace.  The intellectual roots of the group extended back to the avant-garde conformists of the Elizabethan and Jacobean Church.  In 1688, the so-called Glorious Revolution brought the overthrow of the highly unpopular Catholic King of England, James II, by William of Orange and his wife Mary, an Anglican of the Stuart line, without English resistance.  Some of the High Churchmen--most notably Archbishop of Canterbury William Sancroft--viewed this event as an illegitimate usurpation of James II's God-ordained rule, and refused to take the required oaths to the new monarchs.  These so-called Nonjurors steadily lost influence and numbers throughout the 18th century, and none remained by the 19th century .


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