Recusant (Lat. recusare, to refuse), a term of frequent occurrence in English ecclesiastical history, and used to designate those persons in general who refused or neglected to attend divine service on Sundays or holidays in the established church, or to worship God according to its forms. The use of the word to designate a legal offence is traced to the first year of Queen Elizabeth, when it was enacted that all persons who, without reasonable excuse, failed to attend some usual place of prayer, should be censured and fined for every omission 12 pence. In 23 Elizabeth the fine or forfeiture was made for every month 20 pounds; and in 35 Elizabeth it was enacted that if recusants failed to submit within three months after conviction, they might, upon the requisition of four justices of the peace, be compelled to abjure and renounce the realm; and if they did not depart, or if they returned without license of the crown, they were guilty of felony and should suffer death without benefit of clergy. In the case of recusants who professed the Roman Catholic religion, and who were designated popish recusants, the laws were more severe; in addition to the above general penalties, they were disabled from taking lands, either by descent or purchase, after the age of 18, until they renounced their errors, and were incapacitated in several minor rights of the subject. "Popish recusants convict," as they were called after being convicted, were virtually outlaws.
Protestant dissenters were relieved from the penalties of recusancy at the revolution by the toleration act. This statute contained a proviso depriving of its benefit any papist or popish recusant, or any person who should deny the doctrine of the Trinity; but Roman Catholics were exempted from prosecution by 31 George III. in 1791, and more fully by the Catholic emancipation act of 1829. In 1813, by 53 George III., relief was extended to those who denied the doctrine of the Trinity; but the statutes against recusancy still exist, though they are seldom enforced, against persons who absent themselves from church, being neither Roman Catholics nor Protestant dissenters.