56. A Dissenter’s Portrait
During the Civil War the town of Barnstaple supported Parliament rather than the king, in contrast to more rural areas. In 1662, after his restoration to the throne, King Charles II passed the Act of Uniformity, which made it illegal to worship outside of the Church of England. Many people objected to losing their freedom of worship, and continued to hold alternative “dissenting” services away from the parish church, and many clergymen left their churches rather than conform.
At first the Act made it illegal for more than one household to gather together to worship if not at Church – this was punished by imprisonment, with deportation for the third offence – however in 1672 an indulgence was granted and the penal code was suspended, which allowed Dissenters to form churches.
Jonathan Hanmer and Oliver Peard were among the 2,000 clergymen who left the Church of England . They became the founders of the first non-conformist congregation in Barnstaple. At first the Dissenters met in an old malt-house behind Cross Street. They dared not sing hymns in case they were overheard and imprisoned. When the indulgence was granted, two dissenter churches were formed in Barnstaple – one was at the Castle Meeting House, and the other in Cross Street, led by Hanmer and Peard. They were held in high regard in Barnstaple and the congregations prospered, being led by their sons after their death. Jonathan Hanmer was also the grandfather of the poet John Gay.