By Dustin Bruce
Often when considering the English Reformation, we distinguish only between those who remained within the newly formed Church of England and those who dissented from it. In “A Brief Statement of the Principles of Dissent,” Andrew Fuller reminds us that “as all dissent is expressive rather of what is disapproved than of what is embraced, it is natural to suppose that the objects of disapprobation will be different in different persons.”
Fuller goes on to distinguish three classes of dissenters:
- Those who disagree with the theology of the Church of England.
- Those who approve of the theology, but desire further Reformation within the English Church.
- Those who approve of the theology, but reject the establishment of a nation church in principle.
Concerning the first class of dissenters, Fuller speaks of those who abandoned the Church of England due to some unorthodox beliefs or practice. For Fuller, disagreement with the doctrine of these dissenters provides no justification for persecuting them. None who hold respect for private judgment and the authority of Christ “can forbear to regret that the Reformation should at so early a period have been stained with blood.”
The majority of Puritans and Nonconformists form the second class of dissenters. These men did not take issue with the establishment of a national church, but desired a national church with a Presbyterian form of government, which they found “more agreeable with the Scriptures.”
For the third class of dissenters, the primary objection to the Church of England was not one of theology, but of the very existence of a national church. Fuller states,
“The temporal power of bishops, the imposition of ministers, to the exclusion of the free election of the people, the mixture of godly and manifestly ungodly characters at the Lord’s table, the corruption of worship, the total want of discipline, and all other deviations from primitive Christianity, appeared to them to be no more than might be expected, if circumstances admitted it, to grow out of a national establishment. They, therefore, peaceably withdrew from its communion, with the view of forming churches on the plan of the New Testament.”
To this third class of dissenters belongs the Independents and the Baptists. Both holding to a form of congregational church government, the Baptists further dissented from the Independents by rejecting the practice of infant baptism.
Interestingly, Fuller makes two points of application for the third class of dissenters.
- “If the government should even offer to make theirs the established religion, however they might be obliged to them for their kindness, they could not accept it without relinquishing their first principles relative to church government.”
- “Neither can they, without relinquishing the first principles of the system by which they are distinguished from other Christians, persecute any man for his religion, whatever that religion be. They may think and speak of men according to their true character; they may refuse all religious connexion with them; they may expose their principles to just abhorrence; but their hand must not be upon them.”
 Andrew Gunton Fuller, The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller, Volume 3: Expositions—Miscellaneous, ed. Joseph Belcher (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications, 1988), 459.
Dustin Bruce lives in Louisville, KY where he is pursuing a ThM in Church History at Southern Seminary. He is a graduate of Auburn University and Southwestern Seminary. Dustin and his wife, Whitney, originally hail from Alabama.