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Does the 'collapse of synthesis' adequately explain the later decline of Nonconformity?

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Introduction

Does the 'collapse of synthesis' adequately explain the later decline of Nonconformity? The 'Nonconformist conscience', a term that came into use during the last part of the nineteenth century is the set of ideologies commonly shared between the various Nonconforming communities during the nineteenth century. Richard Helmstadter's argument in The Nonconformist Conscience1 suggests that the synthesis and success achieved within Victorian Britain by Nonconformists from about 1830, was over by 1880 because of a 'collapse of synthesis'. Helmstadter2 argues that from 1830-1850, Nonconformist political, religious and social positions complimented and supported each other, thus a synthesis and the ideology called the 'Nonconformist conscience' was achieved. His theory provides a logical and orderly approach to the fifty-year success of Nonconformity, which ended, Helmstadter maintains because of cultural, intellectual and political changes within British society after 1880. The areas of concern to Helmstadter are religion, politics, the social-elite and social reform, evangelicalism being the key to theological and religious synthesis, running through every aspect of Victorian Nonconformity. The individualistic approach that developed from evangelicalism influenced almost every Nonconformist branch and advocated the Experiential Dimension3 of religion. ...read more.

Middle

Helmsatder's argument provides a neat explanation for the popularity and subsequent demise of Nonconformity, in the form it took during the Mid-Victorian period but a number of inconsistencies exist. Critics, such as Matthew Arnold, have suggested that the various sub-groups and branches of Nonconformity are evidence of it's narrowness and an inability to agree on a common theology. Others responded by pointing out the inconsistencies within the Anglican Church. R. W Dale5 targeted the divisions within the Church of England: "but multitudes of them become Nonconformists as soon as they write a theological treatises..." Many theologians have sensed that there must be an underlying common denominator running through the different Nonconformist branches, although they had difficulty identifying it. Indeed, James Martineau7 attempted to institute a Free Christian Union in 1869. He argued that despite the religious pluralism that had begun to exist in Britain, denominations could find a multiparty factor, which he called "the common spirit". He maintained that if all denominations could unite in a basic belief in God, a "universal church" would "restore the natural order of religious organization". In theory the idea might have worked but it was not successful. ...read more.

Conclusion

Generally attendance was suffering and it was unfortunate for Nonconformity that it happened at the highest point of their existence. They had achieved liberation from their disabilities, respect, and a successful representation in parliament and had earned the title of "Free Church". Helmstadter's fifty years of synthesis provides one explanation for the popularity and subsequent decline of Nonconformity and gives a fair general over-view of the situation, it certainly doesn't provide all of the answers. The 'synthesis' has a beginning and end, rather than a series of developments and changes, which influenced all denominations. Perhaps the real reason for the decline of Nonconformity after such a huge upsurge of popularity is that it's hey day really was over: the nature of conversion is so dramatic and sudden that it was sure to be discarded once the novelty had worn off. If a clergy member from another denomination was asked why they did not follow the example of the lively services held by the Free Churches, they might say, " Because all of that dramatic, born again stuff is short-lived - it's like a fad that people quickly tire of. ...read more.

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