The Dissenters

The restoration of the monarchy in 1660 limited the freedom of those wishing to worship outside the established church. In five years, a series of Parliamentary Acts exposed these dissenters, as they were known, to dangers and deprivations. They were banned from holding public office: dissenting clergy lost their livings and Quakers were criminalized. Meetings for worship outside the C of E were made illegal and dissenting ministers were unable to preach within five miles of their last parish.  The degree of risk in dissenters meeting can be measured by the fines for those found at illegal meetings, equivalent today to  £650 for a first offence, £1,300 for a second and £13,000 or deportation for a third. However this persecution was of no avail in stopping the dissenter movement and in 1672 the King took the unusual step of issuing a Declaration of Indulgence which allowed non-conformists to hold meetings provided the minister was licensed. This was confirmed and expanded later by Parliament in the Toleration Act of 1689.

Devizes was a hot bed for dissenters. The Baptists were meeting in 1646 and of the Quakers a year later. Avebury Congregational Chapel was built in 1670 in response to the Five Mile Act, this being a central point for dissenters from Marlborough, Calne, Pewsey and Devizes.

The dissenters were quick Avebury Chapelto recognize the importance of having a political base from which they could fight any renewed persecution and Devizes led the way by sending a Baptist to Parliament in 1679 and another in 1706. By 1715 20% of the electorate of Devizes were dissenters: only one other borough, Tiverton, achieved this high level.

Once free from the fear of persecution, the dissenters began to divide into different denominations. Congregations quickly outgrew their early house meetings and, as a  result, the 18th and 19th centuries saw many non-conformist chapels.

In 1702 the Quakers occupied their first Meeting House at 23 High Street. In 1717 the Presbyterians built a chapel behind the houses at the southern end of Long Street; that was quickly replaced by one in the High Street and again in 1791 by one in Sheep Street.  The “Independents” built St Mary’s Chapel in Northgate in 1776 and in 1780 the Baptists built their chapel in Maryport Street.  In 1819 the Methodists opened a chapel in New Park St.

Later, schisms resulted in the building of a number of further churches  In 1837 the minister of the Maryport Baptist Chapel took some of that congregation to found the Salem Chapel in New Park Street and in 1872 a group of Presbyterians and Baptists  built the New Baptist Church in Sheep Street.

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