I was going through Ghostly Tales: An Audible Christmas Gift, and a story in there (written by Amelia B. Edwards, 'Was it an Illusion?') used a phrase which was unknown to me. The passage reads (copied from the previous link):

Up to this moment I had not met a living soul of whom to ask my way; it was, therefore, with no little sense of relief that I saw a man emerging from the fog and coming along the path. As we neared each other-I advancing rapidly; he slowly-I observed that he dragged the left foot, limping as he walked. It was, however, so dark and so misty, that not till we were within half a dozen yards of each other could I see that he wore a dark suit and an Anglican felt hat, and looked something like a dissenting minister.

I have highlighted the phrase in question in the above quote. It is one I have never heard before, and I was unsure as to its meaning. Given the period of the author and the writings, the events take place in the mid-19th century.

One potential understanding of this reference is to the English Dissenters who struck out from the Anglican Church and often varied their clothes to highlight their non-belonging. A more modern interpretation would be of a dissenting Cabinet minister, but this clearly does not work due to the period in question. Furthermore, Google Books returns two other results for this phrase, one from Patrick O'Brian:

...while her servant, a tall man in a black coat who looked like a dissenting minister and who expected other servants to call him Mr Briggs, had been employed by a race-horse owner and was very well acquainted with the subject.

And another from Charles Cowden Clarke:

My first suspicion of his being at Ramsgate had arisen from my mother observing that she had heard an elderly gentleman in the public library, who looked like a Dissenting minister, talking as she never heard man talk.

Both of these novels seem to be set in a similar time period.

Hence, this would suggest that the implication is to a Anglican Dissenter. However, I have not been able to find a uniform description of what a Dissenter would look like, and one of the good writings guidelines (I thought phrased by Orwell but surely understood before that time?) was that an idiom is only useful if the reader knows what is meant by it -- and nowhere that I have looked (the above pages) does it say what a Dissenter looks like or what is meant by this phrase (in the characterisation of a person).

So, can someone expand on what this phrase means (how does a Dissenting minister look?) and what is the mental image it is meant to conjure?

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    It definitely refers to a clergyman of one of the Nonconformist churches. Do you know the period in which the story is set? In the 19th and early 20th centuries many Anglicans regarded Dissenters as socially inferior. The man in question would be dressed all in black and perhaps rather shabby. Feb 20, 2018 at 9:06
  • It would have been early 20th, perhaps the '20's, from what it sounded like.
    – gktscrk
    Feb 20, 2018 at 9:15
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    No; I consider this now falls into the realm of [historical] interpretation, which, as @MetaEd says, is off-topic on ELU: 'Interpretation requests [other than definitions of individual words and explanations of idioms and constructions] ... are out of scope and may be removed.' Feb 20, 2018 at 23:19
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    @gktscrk Since this really isn't about the English wording, but rather about the social and historical situation, you might get more traction over at history.stackexchange.com
    – Mitch
    Feb 22, 2018 at 13:53
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    Surely it refers to a minister of a dissenting “church” or congregation, or however one wishes to call the various separatist groups. As @KateBunting has stated, such a minister would be distinguished by his dress, and that would in some way be in distinction to a “minister” or clergyman of a non-dissenting Church (which I take to be the Church of England). The writer expected her readers to catch the drift of the saying. What was common currency in one era (the era of the story) is not necessarily common currency today. Feb 28, 2018 at 22:11

4 Answers 4


According to The Queen Mary Centre for Religion and Literature in English

Dissent is a term used for all those Protestant religious groups and individuals who refused to conform to the Church of England, but who otherwise had very little in common.

A "Dissenting minister", therefore, is a minister (that is a preacher and religious leader) within a dissenting group.

Dissenters were, by definition, Protestant so did not include Roman Catholics or members of the Greek or Russian Orthodox churches. They did, however, include Methodists, Baptists, Christadelphians, Seventh Day Adventists and Congregationalists along with members of many other sects. Dissenters would not have classed themselves as "dissenters" but were lumped together as such by members of the majority Anglican communion and the mainly Anglican establishment. Quakers were considered dissenters but can be ignored in this discussion as they do not have designated ministers.

The passage refers to a man who dresses smartly but soberly, usually in black, in order to maintain his image as an upright god-fearing individual who has the authority to preach to the congregation. As mentioned in another answer he would not wear a 'clerical collar' as he would not be an ordained priest. Also he would, almost certainly, not wear robes when taking a service but would appear in his normal sober clothing.

Many dissenting ministers, particularly in the Methodist church, were, and still are, professional, qualified ministers licenced by their movement but in some of the smaller sects there would have been less insistence on formal qualification.


Anglican Priests wore a clerical collar. A dissenting minister would not. A minister or priest would wear formal clothes, more expensive than a servant or other worker, partly because servants, clerks and agricultural workers were required to not wear class-inappropriate clothes as a condition of employment.

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    Aug 15, 2022 at 4:19

I think the sense is derived from how a dissenting clergyman's appearance would differ from that of the stereotypical Church of England clergyman possessed of a good living. Since the younger sons of the gentry were destined for the Church or army there is also, for me, a definite sense of social class implied.

I would envisage a common fellow, lean if not emaciated, whose attire while not shabby, is clearly the result of inferior tayloring.

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    A supporting source reference or two would make this a better answer. Aug 13, 2022 at 11:00

I would guess the author is describing the dress of the person. I Googled for images using "dissenting minister" and found results like this one:

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