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A Covenanters' conventicle. The Covenanters' Preaching, painting by George Harvey

A conventicle is a small, unofficial and unofficiated religious meeting of laypeople.


In England there were three acts of parliament passed to coerce people to attend Church of England services and to prohibit unofficiated meeting of laypeople:

The Conventicle Act of 1593 lasted for just one parliament and allowed for the imprisonment without bail of those over the age of sixteen who failed to attend Church; who persuaded others to do the same; who denied Her Majesty's authority in matters ecclesiastical; and who attended unlawful religious conventicles.[1]

The Conventicle Act 1664 forbade conventicles (religious assemblies of more than five people outside the auspices of the Church of England). This law was part of the Clarendon Code, named after Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon, which aimed to discourage nonconformism and to strengthen the position of the Established Church.

The Conventicles Act 1670 imposed a fine on any person who attended a conventicle (any religious assembly other than the Church of England) of five shillings for the first offence and ten shillings for a second offence. Any preacher or person who allowed their house to be used as a meeting house for such an assembly could be fined 20 shillings and 40 shillings for a second offence.[2][3]

Many Calvinists, however, held that the only "true" church was a voluntary gathering of believers and that, therefore, it was the official parish churches of the Church of England - which offered the sacraments even to sinners and "Papists" - that were the false churches while an officially illegal conventicle could be a true church.


Imaginary depiction of a conventicle in progress, from H. E. Marshall's Scotland's Story (1906)

Conventicles of believers in Reform were held in Scotland in the 1500's and are considered to have been instrumental in the movement that drove the French regent Mary of Guise from power. In 1600s Scotland conventicles were usually held by Covenanters opposed to the bishops of the official Scottish Episcopal Church. Radical defrocked preachers such as John Blackadder conducted religious ceremonies at conventicles.


In Finland the conventicle has remained the base activity especially in the Finnish Awakening revivalist movement. Today, the cell groups used in some churches are similar.


Philipp Jakob Spener called for such associations in his Pia Desideria, and they were the foundation of the German Evangelical Lutheran Pietist movement. Due to concern over possibly mixed-gender meetings, sexual impropriety, and subversive sectarianism conventicles were condemned first by mainstream Lutheranism and then by the Pietists within decades of their inception.


  1. ^ Elton 1982, pp. 458-61.
  2. ^ Raithby 1819, pp. 648-651.
  3. ^ Noorthouck 1773, pp. 230-255.