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that which is peculiarly ascribed to the Deity of Christ in regard of his sufferings is, their value or virtue. By HIMSELF he purged our sins-The blood of Jesus Christ, HIS SON, cleanseth us from all sin.' Heb. i. 3. 1 John i. 7.
DECLINE OF THE DISSENTING INTEREST.
From an original Manuscript, written in 1797,
And afterwards published in the Protestant Dissenter's Magazine.
ON looking over some of the late numbers of this periodical work, I observed a complaint of the Dissenting Interest being on the decline. It is true, it was not the first time, nor the only place in which I had met with this complaint: I never before however found my thoughts so much engaged by this subject, or my mind equally inclined to make enquiry into it.
That the dissenting interest has declined in many places, I have no doubt; but whether this be the case with the general body, is the question. If it be, it becomes us to make ourselves acquainted with it, and with its causes, that if possible the malady may be lessened, if not entirely healed. Yea, though it should not be the case with the general body, but only with a considerable number of dissenters; yet as one member cannot suffer without the whole body suffering with it,' it is an object well worthy of attention.
The present enquiry is naturally divided into two parts; one respects the fact itself, and the other the reasons of it. The present piece will consist of the first of these enquiries, which will be followed with a second, if it meets with approbation.
Is it then a fact, that the dissenting interest, taken in the whole, has, suppose I say for the last five and twenty years, been upon the decline?
I do not pretend but that the subject has its difficulties, and it is very possible that I may be mistaken. The following observations are however submitted to the consideration of the reader.
1. It cannot be doubted by persons of observation, that the generality of the clergy of this country have of late years lost ground in the estimation of the common people. To say nothing of their ignorance of religion, (the people being equally benighted may prevent their discovering this) the oppressive disposition of great numbers of them in the article of tithes, their imperious carriage, and great inattention to morals, are matters that all men understand. On these accounts they enjoy but a small portion of the esteem of the people; and hence, perhaps, in part, arises a disposition to hear dissenting preaching, in almost every place where it is introduced. Whether it arises however from this cause or not, so far as my observation reaches, it is a fact that there is a far greater disposition to hear dissenting preaching than there formerly was. I have for some time been in the habit of preaching, on the Lord's day evening, in eight or ten villages round my situation, and never met with any interruption in so doing. The people attend with great decorum, from fifty to five hundred in number; and I have no doubt but such congregations might be obtained in a hundred villages as well as ten, provided ministers could be found that would go and preach to them. Popular prejudice, it is true, was kindled against the dissenters a few years ago, by
the disputés concerning the repeal of the Corporation and Test Acts; but this has now very nearly subsided. Men who enter deeply into party prejudices may continue much the same, but the common people think little or nothing about it.
2. That part of the clergy usually termed evangelical, may be said to be more in a state of competition with the dissenters than any other; and the number both of preachers and hearers of this description has of late years much encreased. Instead of considering this circumstance however as a matter of regret, many thinking people have rejoiced in it; and that not only on account of its being favourable to the salvation of sinners, but as that which will ultimately, and which does already in measure, befriend the dissenting interest. They collect large auditories, it is true; but they are very rarely composed of persons who leave our congregations. This is not the case however in the country. Their people are generally, and almost entirely, made up of persons who were always in the habit of going to the established places of worship, excepting some who attended nowhere. So far then we lose nothing by them. On the other hand, considerable numbers have been gained by their instrumentality, however contrary it may have been to their inclinations. As the situation of such clergymen is not determined by the choice of the people, it often falls out that after they have laboured in a place for a series of years, they are removed, and succeeded by others of a very different character. The consequence in almost all such cases is, that the people turn dissenters. There may be some difference as to the operation of these causes, between large cities and country towns and villages. On the removal of an evangelical clergyman from a parish church, situate in the former, the people may not be under the like necessity to become dissenters as in the latter, seeing they can repair to others in the same city: and where this is the case, they may be more likely to form a party, and keep up a kind of competition with the dissen
ters. But this is the case chiefly if not entirely in London, and a few other popular places. In the country, which includes the far greater proportion of dissenters, it is otherwise. I am acquainted with several dissenting churches, some of which have principally been raised, and others greatly encreased, by persons coming from under what is termed evangelical preaching in the Church of England.
Similar observations might be made on the Wesleyan and other Methodists. It is rare that they gather materials at the expense of the dissenters. But as their hearers become truly religious, and begin to read and think for themselves, they are frequently known, either for the sake of better instruction or a purer discipline, to come off from their societies to ours. If I were inclined to act merely on the principles of a partizan, (which God forbid I should) I would neither fret myself at their prosperity, nor use any underhand means of persuasion to bring them There is no need of either: they will come of their own accord, if they are only treated by us as we wish to be treated by them; and the same might be said of the adherents of the evangelical clergy.
3. It may be difficult to ascertain with any tolerable degree of precision, the encrease or decrease of dissenters throughout the nation. I am not competent to decide upon the state of things respecting them, especially in the city of London. Of the country however, that part of it in particular which falls under my own immediate observation, and still more of my own denomination, I think I can form a pretty accurate judgment. In the county where I reside, there are at this time, of one only of the three denominations of dissenters, twenty four congregations. Twenty five years ago, as far as my information extends, there were but seventeen. Three of these have
since become extinct, but they consented to dissolve, and afterwards united with other dissenting congregations in the same towns; they are not lost therefore to the dissenting body. In their place ten new congregations have
risen up. Respecting the other fourteen, I believe that none of them have, upon the whole, decreased, and seven of them have doubled, and some of them much more than doubled their number, during the above period.
I do not mention this as a specimen of the whole kingdom. It may not be so in all places. If it were, the encrease of the dissenting interest would be very considerable; but I do suppose that nearly the same things might be said of several other counties, as well as of that where I reside. I cannot give a minute account of any one of them, but I know of many new and large congregations in some neighbouring counties. A respectable minister, of a different denomination from myself, who resides in one of them, lately assured me that he believed the number of dissenters in their county had within the last nine years encreased a thousand.
4. If any estimate might be taken from the number of places of worship which have been raised within the last five and twenty years, I suppose there must be a considerable encrease. It is true they have not all been new congregations, but a considerable number of them have. It is not by these as it is by an encrease of buildings in general, in large cities and trading places. These may be accounted for without supposing an encreasing population. An encrease of wealth, though there should be no alteration as to the number of the people, will produce an encrease of buildings. Add to this, that the enclosing system, having been carried to a greater extent during the present reign than in any former period, multitudes have been driven from the occupations of husbandry, and other employments dependent upon it, to settle in cities, or large trading and manufacturing towns; by means of which the buildings in those places are of course encreased. I know of no causes which will equally account for the encrease of places of worship, and therefore am inclined to think it implies an encrease of the number of worshippers.