The term appeared in mid-nineteenth century theological discourse to describe an approach to the doctrine and worship of the Church of England which was more tolerant and liberal than the views of the existing low church and high church parties. Thomas Arnold, S. T. Coleridge, F. D. Maurice, A. P. Stanley, and Benjamin Jowett are associated with the early years of the broad church movement.
Some of the features of the broad church attitude were a desire that the church should contribute to the welfare of the life of the English nation, as opposed to the individualism of the low church party and the ecclesiastical emphasis of the high churchmen; an openness to reason as a mediator of religious truth, as opposed to the exclusive reliance on scripture and tradition in the other parties, with particular interest in the new teaching of the German idealist philosophers; and a passion for rigorous morality and social justice. The broad church movement desired the Church of England to be comprehensive rather than exclusive. Those identified with the broad church movement in its early years considered it to be above parties-hence "broad." Within a generation, the impossibility of such a view was commonly discerned. The broad church movement was ranked as a third party, the heir of the Elizabethan settlement and the latitudinarians.