A year after the child king, Edward VI, ascended to the British throne, the first Act of Uniformity was enacted in 1549. The Act established the Book of Common Prayer as the sole legal form of worship in England. Subsequent Acts of Uniformity in 1552 and 1559 adopted revisions of the Book of Common Prayer, or reinstated the act after the reign of a Catholic monarch, like Mary I. The Book of Common Prayer, first published in 1549, is the liturgical text of the Church of England. It contains liturgies for both Sunday and daily worship services as well as orders for baptisms, weddings, funerals, confirmation, and words to say over the ill and dying. Readings from the Old and New Testament were included as well as Morning Prayers, Evening Prayers, and Holy Communion rites. In England, a country that had only just recently broken from the Roman Catholic church, it was invaluable to have a liturgy text in the English language.
A century later, after the end of England’s Civil War and the reign of Oliver Cromwell and his son, Richard, the monarchy was reestablished under Charles II in 1661. Another major revision of the Book of Common Prayer was published a year later and a new Act of Uniformity was enacted along with it. This new Act was even more stringent. Not only was the Book of Common Prayer the only legal form of worship throughout England again, but adherence was mandatory for anyone who wished to hold a position in the church or in the government. Furthermore, the requirement for episcopal ordination for all ministers was reintroduced. The Act was met with hostility from a large group of ministers who complained that they could not adhere to a revised, yet-to-be-printed, Book of Common Prayer that they had not yet even seen. However, a deadline to comply with the Act was placed on St. Bartholomew’s Day, August 26, 1662.
What is now known as the Great Ejection took place on that day. It is estimated that about 2,000 to 2,500 ministers were cast out of not only the Church of England, but also from social and academic life. The Clarendon Code, named for the Earl of Clarendon, consisted of the Act of Uniformity and three other acts, passed around the same time. The Code forbade non-conformist ministers from holding university degrees from Cambridge or Oxford and many were forced to move at least five miles away from their former home parishes. Historians and former ministers wrote passionately on the injustice of the Great Ejection. Well-known ministers who became victims of the Great Ejection include John Bunyan, Isaac Watts, Sr., Thomas Doolittle, Matthew Poole, Samuel Clarke, and Richard Baxter. At Special Collections, you can find historian John Corbet’s An Account Given of the Principles & Practices of Several Nonconformists and Edmund Colamy’s The Church and the Dissenters Compar’d as to Persecution.
It would be 150 years before Nonconformists could hold civil or military office. This year, 350 years after the Act of Uniformity of 1662 was enacted, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Dean of Westminster held a Service of Reconciliation at Westminster Abbey in London on February 8th. To mark the occasion, an Act of Penitence and an Act of Recommitment were performed, and selections from various writings of seventeenth century and eighteenth century Nonconformist ministers were read.