The term was apparently invented to describe churchmen whose principles were the opposite of “high church.” The term “low church” emerged in England in the early eighteenth century. During this period, it was virtually synonymous with “latitudinarian.” Low church teaching minimized the authority of the episcopate and tended to exalt royal supremacy. This loyalty to the throne was not because of the divine right of kings. It reflected a convenient anti-Roman Catholic political arrangement, since the Hanoverians were safely Protestant. The low church party stressed the importance of preaching as moral discourse and tended to assign sacraments to a subordinate place in church life. In this sense, they had a “low” doctrine of the church.
In the nineteenth century the term was used in contrast to the high church position of the Oxford reformers. In this case, “low church” designated the evangelicals. They were followers of the Wesleys who remained in the Church of England. Thus in this period, low church teaching became associated with individualism, personal religious experience, dislike of ritual, conversion by the power of the Holy Spirit, a strong emphasis on the authority of scripture, and evangelistic preaching. The term “low church” continues to carry these connotations in the early twenty-first century. See High Church.
Glossary definitions provided courtesy of Church Publishing Incorporated, New York, NY,(All Rights reserved) from “An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church, A User Friendly Reference for Episcopalians,” Don S. Armentrout and Robert Boak Slocum, editors.