Original Research - Special Collection: Morality in history

Dissenter Protestantism and moral and social change

Arne Rasmusson
Verbum et Ecclesia | Vol 45, No 1 | a2947 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/ve.v45i1.2947 | © 2024 Arne Rasmusson | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 24 July 2023 | Published: 29 February 2024

About the author(s)

Arne Rasmusson, Department of Literature, History of Ideas, and Religion, University of Gothenburg, Gothenburg, Sweden; and Faculty of Theology, Stellenbosch University, Stellenbosch, South Africa; and Stellenbosch Institute of Advanced Study, Stellenbosch, South Africa


Dissenter Protestantism, Pietist, and revivalist movements have played a crucial but often overlooked role in the emergence and development of democracy, the abolition of slavery and the struggle for women’s rights. The article focuses on the emergence of dissenter Protestantism in 17th century England, its continuation in the USA and similar movements in other parts of Europe. Drawing on theories from sociology, moral psychology and other behavioural sciences, the article argues that the social impact of dissenter Protestantism was the result of a complex combination of theology, practices, institutions and specific historical circumstances. While the theology of these movements was not unique, their emphasis on following Jesus Christ and sanctification was a significant aspect. Other factors contributing to their impact include the role of friendship and strong social networks, a relative egalitarianism, a certain distance and independence from dominant institutions and cultures and the creation of self-organised and relatively autonomous organisations. This combination of theological and social elements created free spaces that facilitated the development of new or different practices. Another crucial aspect was their ability to integrate reasoning and affective powers, uniting theory with metaphor and narrative. Finally, the specific practices and institutions within these movements allowed individuals to grow and enter into communities that shaped their lives.

Intradisciplinary and/or interdisciplinary implications: This article combines theological and historical analysis with theories from sociology, moral psychology and other behavioural sciences. It shows the fruitfulness of using empirical social science for theology and history.


dissenter Protestantism; democracy; abolitionism; women’s rights; feminism

Sustainable Development Goal

Goal 5: Gender equality


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