Excerpts from Earl Morse Wilbur, Our Unitarian Heritage: An Introduction to the History of the Unitarian Movement (Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 1925)


DIVISION V.  UNITARIANISM IN ENGLAND

CHAPTER XXVII

The Pioneers of Unitarianism in England, to 1644

 

Thus far the path of our history has never been long or far out of sight of the stake, the block, or the prison; and the impression that remains most vivid with us out of the story of Unitarianism on the Continent is that of the persecutions it had to suffer. It will be a relief, therefore, to enter upon a further stage of our journey from which persecution is largely absent. In England, it is true, as we shall soon see, a few in the first century of the Reformation were put to death, and more were imprisoned, for denying the doctrine of the Trinity; but long before Unitarianism began to be an organized movement there, capital punishment, or even imprisonment, for heresy had ceased in England, and by comparison with what their brethren on the continent had suffered, the civil oppressions that English Unitarians had to endure can be called hardly more than inconveniences.

The permanent history of Christianity in England began when Augustine, "the Apostle of the Anglo-Saxons," was sent from Rome at the end of the sixth century as missionary. The English were for centuries devotedly faithful to the Church of Rome, and perhaps nowhere had it had a more splendid history than there, as its glorious cathedrals, and the monasteries and abbeys still beautiful in their ruins, bear witness. Long before the Reformation, however, English kings had become more or less restive under the exactions of the Pope, and his claims of authority over England; while at the same time the people at large were growing impatient of the great wealth and increasing corruption of the monks and priests, and hungry for pure religion. In the fourteenth century, in the time of John Wyclif, one of the "Reformers before the Reformation," an earnest effort was made to get the abuses of the Church reformed; and the Bible was translated into English and circulated in manuscript, so that those that were able to do so might read it for themselves, instead of having to depend for their religious teaching wholly upon the priests. For the time nothing permanent seemed to come of it; but a century and a half later, when Henry VIII, for reasons of his own, threw off his allegiance to the Pope, and had himself made the head of the Church of England, he found large support from his people.

The English Reformation thus begun was mostly a political affair, and for some time no important changes were made in the doctrines or ceremonies of the Church. On the contrary, those that held the doctrines of Luther were severely persecuted. The Bible and the three ancient creeds were taken as authority; and the king authorized the publication of the English Bible, which was ordered to be set up in all the parish churches, so that all might have a chance to read it. A hundred thousand copies of it were in circulation within about twenty years, and the reading of it not only helped on the Reformation among the people, but eventually, as we shall see, paved the way for further reform of doctrine. Reformation of the Catholic doctrines went slowly on under the leadership of the clergy, until at length, under Edward VI, who was a convinced Protestant, a new Prayer Book was adopted, and new Articles of Religion, and so the Church of England became definitely established in its own ways. Queen Mary tried her best to restore the Catholic religion, and to this end put many Protestants to death, while many more fled to Geneva, where they came under the influence of Calvin; but her reign was short. Upon her death the Protestants returned in full force, and under Elizabeth the Reformation was fully organized, with a doctrine which was a compromise between Calvin and Luther, and a form of worship and ceremonies which were a compromise between Catholic and Protestant.

Many of the Protestants, however, thought that the Reformation ought to be carried much further, so as to purify the Church of all traces of Romanism in doctrines, government, ceremonies, and forms of worship. These came to be known as the Puritans, and for a century or more they formed the most vital element in English religious life. In Elizabeth's time they developed in two different directions. The one of these was taken by those who despaired of any satisfactory reform in the Church of England, and therefore withdrew from it entirely. These became known as Separatists. Some of them remained in England, and, despite persecution, multiplied and at length became powerful; others fled to Holland, and thence in 1620 to New England, as the Pilgrim Fathers. The other party, the Puritans proper, although they disapproved of many things in the Church of England, tried to stay within it, hoping to be able to bring about the reforms they desired. They objected to government of the Church by a superior order of bishops, preferring a Presbyterian form of government; and they so much disapproved of liturgy that they would not use it in worship. Hence when Elizabeth, in order to secure uniform worship in all the English churches, tried to enforce an Act of Uniformity (1559), the Puritans began to worship in separate meetings of their own, and eventually to form their own separate organizations.

Many were the attempts to hold the Protestants of England together by force in one national Church, with one government and one form of worship. Elizabeth, James I, and Charles I severely persecuted those who refused to conform. Then came a reaction: the Puritans gained control of Parliament, and for a short time the established religion of England was Presbyterian. Then, under Cromwell, control passed into the hands of the Independents, until at length under Charles II the Episcopal Church was again established, and, in 1662 was passed the Act of Uniformity, requiring that all congregations conform to the prescribed form of worship, and that all ministers be ordained by bishops. This was the beginning of that deep division of English Protestantism into Anglicans and Nonconformists which has continued to this day; for out of the 9,000 clergy in the Church of England, some 2,500 refused to conform, and were therefore compelled to leave their pulpits and give up their livings. They were for the most part the ablest and most earnest of the whole clergy. Additional acts of Parliament were soon passed to oppress the Nonconformists yet more severely, and their lot was a most unhappy one until 1689, when the passage of the Toleration Act permitted them again on certain conditions to meet together for public worship under their own forms. During all this period since the rise of the Puritans, questions of doctrine had been little attended to; but while the Puritans still remained strict Calvinists, the Church of England had softened down its Calvinism toward that Arminianism which we have already met 1 among the Remonstrants in Holland. Not heresy in points of doctrine, but nonconformity in service of worship, was regarded as the great offense, and was most often punished under the laws.

It was out of such conditions in the religious life of England, disturbed not only by the hostility between Protestants and Catholics, but by controversies scarcely less bitter among the Protestants themselves over the forms of worship or of church organization and government, that English Unitarians arose. The movement began, as in other countries, with its little army of martyrs, for the act for the burning of heretics was enforced until 1612. 2  Even after that Unitarianism was liable to legal prosecution during many generations; for deniers of the Trinity, as well as Catholics, were expressly excluded from the benefits of the Toleration Act; while the Blasphemy Act of 1698 was especially aimed at Antitrinitarians, punishing their offense with civil disability and, if repeated, with imprisonment. They were not relieved of this until 1813. In a country where the Established Church controls nearly all the social prestige, and where dissent is widely regarded as almost a badge of social inferiority, Unitarians have throughout had to bear not only their share of the burdens that fall to all Dissenters, but the additional one of being excluded by both Anglicans and Dissenters as heretics. Their oppressions and burdens are of course not for a moment to be compared with those suffered by their brethren of like faith in Poland and Transylvania; yet they have been no light thing, and the bearing of them has developed devotion and heroism of a fine and sturdy type.

The Unitarian movement in England did not spring from any single source. We may discover at least four fairly distinct streams of influence that flowed together in it before the end of the seventeenth century. These are: first, the influence of the Bible itself; second, the influence of Italians and other foreign thinkers at the Strangers' Church in London; third, Anabaptist influences; and fourth, the influence of Socinianism. Let us examine each of these in turn.

Wyclif's manuscript translations of the Bible had been widely circulated from about 1380 on, and it is said that some of his followers were tinged with Antitrinitarianism; but this Bible had to be read in secret, as did Tyndale's first printed New Testament of 1525, for fear of the law. In 1535, however, the English Bible began to be accessible to all, and many were reading it for the first time. First and last the influence of this book, when read in comparison with the creeds, has underlain all others leading men to reject the doctrine of the Trinity. Some of the most notable of the early English Unitarians declared they had never read nor heard the Unitarian doctrine, but had come to it solely through reading their Bibles. This influence was likely to be the more powerful, since the Articles of Religion of the Church of England themselves expressly declared that the Scriptures contain all things necessary for salvation, and that one need not believe anything not supported by them.

The second influence was found in the Strangers' Church. In the first generation of the Reformation many Protestants from Catholic countries on the continent fled to Protestant England for freedom of worship and safety from persecution. There were Italians, Spaniards, Dutch, French, and others. Since they could not understand or speak English, they could neither worship in the English churches nor be overseen by the English bishops. Hence a Church of the Strangers (i. e., foreigners) was chartered in London in 1550 to be under the oversight of a superintendent of its own, subject to the Bishop of London It had at one time 5,000 members, and branches in eleven provincial towns. Since these churches received free spirits from all quarters, and since on account of their foreign tongues they could not be closely watched, they might easily become infested with heresy. To the church in London came Ochino, 3 not yet an Antitrinitarian, but headed in that direction; Giacomo Aconzio,4 who was denied the communion on account of his alleged Arianism; Cassiodora de Reyna, a professed follower of Servetus, and minister to a Spanish congregation of the church for five years; Lelius Socinus,5 and doubtless others less known to fame. Discussion of doctrines during the first generation of Protestant thinking may very well have been as free here as it was in the similar Italian church at Geneva6 at about the same time; and though it does not seem very likely that this church of foreigners had wide influence upon the beliefs of Englishmen, it is known that several of those that were punished for some form of Antitrinitarianism had been connected with it.

A more important influence was that of the Anabaptists, whose connection with antitrinitarian thought we have often noted in earlier chapters. 7  In 1535 many of them fled to England to escape a severe persecution which had broken out against them in Holland, in which one of their number had been cruelly put to death. They were received with tolerance, and soon spread through the kingdom, especially in the eastern counties, actively spreading their peculiar doctrines as they went. Their theology was not settled, but they took only the Bible for their authority; and upon this some of them built extravagant and fantastic doctrines, while some of them revived old heresies as to the Trinity or the person of Christ, or invented new ones of their own. Before many years their teachings began to attract the attention of the authorities, and for being Anabaptists twenty-eight of them were burnt under Henry VIII, and many more under Edward VI. Just what their heresies were does not clearly appear, for they were more or less vague and confused in their thinking, and their doctrines have doubtless been misunderstood or misrepresented by their persecutors who tell us of them; but there was probably more or less Arianism or Antitrinitarianism mixed up with them, for we know that Arian and Anabaptist were often used as synonymous terms in the sixteenth century. Seeing that they were of a humble class of people, and that there was much about them to create prejudice in the public mind, it does not seem likely that they had a very important influence in preparing the ground for Unitarianism in the quarters in which it finally took permanent root.

Some of these humble Christians, though we know little of them beyond their martyrdom, deserve to be mentioned and remembered by us for what they suffered as the first rude pioneers of our faith in England. Passing by the Rev. John Assheton of Lincolnshire, who was the first English Protestant known to have been called to account for denying the Trinity and the deity of Christ, but who in order to escape the stake confessed his crime and recanted his "errors, heresies, and damned opinions" in 1548, we find our first actual martyr in England in 1551, at a time when there was much alarm in church circles over the rapid spread of "Arianism," and strict measures seemed necessary to repress it. Dr. George van Parris, a surgeon who had come from Mainz to London to practice his profession among the Dutch there, and was highly praised for his godly life, was excommunicated from the Dutch branch of the Strangers' Church for declaring that Christ was not very God, and was burnt at Smithfield in 1551. He was apparently an Arian. In Queen Mary's time, while a number accused of Antitrinitarianism saved their lives by recanting, one Patrick Rockingham, a dealer in hides, was burnt at Uxbridge in 1555, and others were imprisoned. Even in prison our heretics could not refrain from discussing the disputed doctrines with their orthodox fellow prisoners; and when reason fell short, other forms of argument were used, as appears from the quaint and impassioned Apology of John Philpot: written for spittyng on an Arian, by a reverend Archdeacon of Winchester, whom Mary had imprisoned for his Protestantism, and later sent to the stake.

When Elizabeth came to the throne, the law for burning heretics was abolished, and she was so much inclined to broad toleration in religious beliefs that she accepted Aconzio's dedication to her of a book which urged that the necessary beliefs should be reduced to the fewest and simplest.8 But the Anabaptists kept coming into the country too fast, and heresy gained ground so rapidly that the fires had to be lighted again. In 1575 a whole little congregation of Flemish Anabaptists while holding a secret meeting in London were arrested and imprisoned for a heresy with regard to the birth of Christ, and were threatened with death. Most were banished, a few recanted, and one died in prison, while Jan Peters and Hendrik Terwoort were burnt at Smithfield. In 1579 Matthew Hamont, a ploughwright, was burned at Norwich for denying the deity of Christ; as were also John Lewes in 1583, Peter Cole, a tanner, in 1587, and the Rev. Francis Ket in 1589. James I, indeed, deemed it better policy to let heretics silently waste away in prison than to give them public execution, and no doubt many came to their end thus whose names remain unknown. It deserves mention, however, that the last two persons put to death in England for heresy were Antitrinitarians, Bartholomew Legate burnt at Smithfield (his brother Thomas also died in prison), and Edward Wightman burnt at Lichfield, both under King James in 1612. When already at the stake Legate was offered pardon if he would recant, but he remained stedfast. Wightman, feeling the pain of the fire, recanted and was set free, but later refused to confirm his act and was burnt. The law under which these things were done remained nominally in force until 1676; and in Scotland as late as 1697 a young student of eighteen, Thomas Aikenhead, was hanged at Edinburgh charged with denying the Trinity. But one more victim may be mentioned, a nameless Spanish "Arian," who was condemned to death at about this time, but wasted away in prison at Newgate.

Thus even in England at least ten Protestants were put to death for some form of Unitarianism, and there is no telling how many more died in prison. All or nearly all of these got their heresy from Anabaptist sources; and many others who suffered on the general charge of being Anabaptists may have held similar views. Of course, it is not to be supposed that these martyrs held what is known as Unitarianism today; for many of their views would no doubt seem to us very extraordinary. The noteworthy thing is that they were all reaching out after some views of the nature of God, and the nature and work of Christ, which should satisfy them better than the teachings of the creeds. They were therefore true pioneers of Unitarianism. But they were for the most part isolated from one another, they formed no concerted movement, and they were so mercilessly persecuted out of existence that they do not seem to have left behind them any great influence upon the Unitarian movement that later established itself in England.

Beyond doubt the widest and deepest influence, therefore, of the four that were mentioned above, was that of Socinianism, which became active in England from early in the seventeenth century. It is likely that this was first introduced into England through Socinian books, many of which had by this time been published in Holland; but both before and after their exile from Poland occasional Socinian scholars kept coming to England and making the acquaintance of scholars and churchmen there. At a later time also these influences were reinforced by many Englishmen who went to Dutch universities to study, and there came into contact either with Socinians or with Socinian thought among the Remonstrants. In these ways Socinianism kept exercising a steady influence upon English religious thought until well into the eighteenth century, by which time English Unitarians had long been exerting an independent influence of their own. This influence was shown in particular in three different ways: the acceptance of the Socinian spirit of tolerance of difference in belief (which led to the Latitudinarian movement in the Church of England), the application of the Socinian test of reason to religious doctrines, and the adoption of Socinian doctrines as to God, Christ, or the atonement. The name Socinian was loosely applied to all three of these tendencies, so that many were called Socinians for one or other of the first two reasons who never accepted the Socinian system of doctrine.

Wide public attention in England was first drawn to Socinianism (as had perhaps been intended) by the dedication of the first Latin edition of the Racovian Catechism 9(1609) to King James. His majesty evidently did not much appreciate the compliment, for the work was burnt by royal command five years later. It may indeed have tended to rouse his anger against Legate and Wightman. James was a Scotch Calvinist born and bred, and deemed himself no mean theologian; for when Vorst's book On God and His Attributes was being imported from Holland, he not only had it burnt at the two universities and at London in 1611 (the same year in which the "King James Version" of the Bible was published), but be wrote a book himself to confute it, calling Vorst a monster and a blasphemer and using his influence to get Vorst dismissed from his chair at the university.10 The flames, however, were unable to keep Socinian books from coming into the country more and more; for before the middle of the century Socinian commentaries, catechisms, and doctrinal and controversial writings in Latin for the use of scholars, were being printed in great numbers in Holland, and a few were printed even in England. A synod of the Church of England finally took notice of all this, and in 1640 adopted measures to check "the damnable and cursed heresy of Socinianism," prohibiting all but the higher clergy and students in divinity from having or reading Socinian books (implying that they had already come into common circulation), yet thus at the same time leaving the door as wide open as any reasonable Socinian could have asked. Nevertheless it was still declared in 1672 that one could buy Socinian books as readily as the Bible.

A few Socinians also came in person. Adam Franck was discovered by Archbishop Laud in 1639 when, doubtless as a Socinian missionary, he was trying to make converts among the students at Cambridge. Wiszowaty11 came to England as a traveling missionary early in life, and met several distinguished men. At least four members of the distinguished Socinian family Crellius12 visited England, of whom Paul studied at Cambridge, while Samuel in repeated visits formed an intimate friendship with the Earl of Shaftesbury, and with Archbishop Tillotson, who publicly spoke in high appreciation of the Socinians, and was unfairly charged with being one himself. Several Unitarians also came from Transylvania, while Paul Best, who had traveled from England thither and to Poland, had debated with the Unitarians in Transylvania and been converted to their views, had studied Unitarian theology in Germany for some years, and had finally returned to England full of missionary spirit, was condemned to death by Parliament in 1645 for denying the Trinity, though the sentence was never executed and he was released after being two or three years in prison.

Many more examples might be given to show how wide and deep the spread of Socinian influence in England was coming to be. At the time of which we speak it was not yet an organized movement the laws stood in the way of that; but it was a ferment everywhere present. The orthodox writers realized this and wrote book after book full of warning. One writer enumerated 180 different flagrant heresies that had come from independent study of the Scriptures without the restraint of the creeds, and among these the Socinian teachings are most prominent. Another says Socinianism is corrupting the very vitals of church and state, which are much endangered by it. A third wrote three volumes to describe the gangrene that was infecting the nation. A fourth writes, "There is not a city, a town, scarce a village in England where some of this poison is not poured forth." By such warnings as these Parliament was finally spurred up to pass in 1648 a "Draconic ordinance" against blasphemies and heresies, which made denial of the Trinity or the deity of Christ a felony, punishable by death, without benefit of clergy. Within a few months, however, the government changed, so that the law was never carried into effect, and the heresy kept on spreading. In the next chapter we shall see how this widespread movement came to a head in a man who by his voice and his pen gave it personal leadership, and thus became "the father of the English Unitarians," John Bidle.

 




CHAPTER XXVIII

John Bidle and His Successors, 1644-1697

 

The pioneers of Unitarianism in England whose influence we traced in the last chapter were isolated and widely separated individuals. They had no separate congregations where they might spread Unitarianism by preaching, they wrote no books to spread it among those who might read, and they made no effort to work together and organize a movement. "These all died in faith, not having received the promises," and they left no descendants to continue their work. In contrast to these we turn now to another pioneer who was, with one possible exception, the first Englishman to gather and preach to a Unitarian congregation, and the first one to publish Unitarian books, a man who spent a large part of his adult life in prison for his faith, but left behind him friends and followers who continued his work, so that the movement he started has continued to this day. He is therefore deservedly called "the father of the English Unitarians."

John Bidle1 was born in 1615/6 at Wotton-under-Edge, Gloucestershire, the son of a dealer in woolen cloth. Before he was ten years old he showed such promise at school that a neighboring nobleman was led to make a handsome annual contribution toward his education. In due time he proceeded to the University of Oxford, and was admitted to study at Magdalen Hall, where he graduated in 1638 with high reputation as a scholar, became a tutor, and at length received the Master's degree. His reputation now brought him an appointment as master of the Crypt School at Gloucester, where his teaching gave great satisfaction.

At the university he had already shown an independent mind, and now, rather than blindly to accept what others declared were the doctrines of the Bible, he set himself while teaching to studying it for himself. He came to know the New Testament so well that he had it all by heart except the last few chapters, in both English and Greek. Though he had never read any Socinian writing, he became convinced from the Bible alone that it does not teach the common doctrine about the Trinity, and he also felt that the doctrine was not reasonable in itself. He frankly told his thoughts to others, but they complained of him to the authorities, and he was held to answer the charge of heresy. The authorities were not satisfied with his confession of faith in one God in but one person, and in Christ as truly God; but after a few days, having considered that perhaps the words might be variously understood, he consented to express belief in the three persons.

Bidle now continued to study the Bible more earnestly than ever, and at length drew up his conclusions in the shape of XII Arguments drawn out of the Scripture; wherein the commonly received Opinion, touching the Deity of the Holy Spirit, is clearly and fully refuted. These arguments were formally stated like propositions in logic, and were supported by Scripture texts and comments upon them. This paper he showed to some friends, one of whom forthwith again reported him as a heretic; and the result was that, although he was dangerously ill, he was at once thrown into jail, to be held until Parliament could act on his case. The larger part of the remaining seventeen years of his life he spent in prison or exile for his religious faith. An influential friend soon procured his release on bail, until six months later he was summoned to Westminster for trial. Here he made no secret of his not believing in the deity of the Holy Spirit unless he should be convinced otherwise from Scripture, but he refused to commit himself as to the deity of Christ, which had been made no part of the charge against him. The case dragged on, and for many months he was held in custody. He at length appealed to Sir Henry Vane to get his case determined; but although he was often called up for further examination before the Assembly of Divines at Westminster, nothing resulted, and he was kept in confinement for the next five years.

He now resolved to appeal to the public, and managed to get his XII Arguments published (1647). It was only a little pamphlet, hardly more than a tract, of less than fifty pages of very small size, and altogether it contained no more matter than the short gospel of Mark; but it created a tremendous sensation. Bidle when called into court did not deny responsibility for it, whereupon he was sent back to prison, and it was ordered that his blasphemous pamphlet be called in and burnt by the hangman. This only increased its reputation, and a second edition was sold before the end of the year. Its arguments were so convincing, and its influence was so much feared, that two large books were written the next year, and a third later, to confute it. It was also carried to the Continent, and in Holland it was so much read that a famous Dutch theologian thought it necessary four years later to print a large volume against it.

The next year Bidle proceeded to publish over his own name his second work, A Confession of Faith touching the Holy Trinity, according to the Scripture (1648). It was about as long as the gospel of Matthew, yet still not more than a little pamphlet; but it created an even greater stir than the former tract. In this writing Bidle did not deny the doctrine of the Trinity, but simply tried to purify it of the corruptions that the Catholic Church had brought into it, and to bring it back into harmony with Scripture. Like Servetus,2 he objected to the philosophical terms that were used to express it, and argued that the doctrine as then taught gave us three Gods instead of one, stood in the way of pure religion, and prevented many from accepting Christianity. He therefore set forth his own belief as to the Trinity in six plain articles, each supported by Bible texts and arguments upon them. Like Servetus, he held that though Christ had only a human nature, yet he was Son of God, and was also God. This tract was soon followed by a third, but little longer, in which he brought together in support of his views quotations from the early Fathers of the Church. These tracts made so great a stir that to deter Bidle from repeating his offense, or anyone else from following his example, Parliament passed a "Draconic Ordinance"3 decreeing the death penalty against any one denying the Trinity or the deity of Christ or of the Holy Spirit.

Fortunately for Bidle, this ordinance remained a dead letter for several years, during which the temper of Parliament somewhat softened, and he was at length released on bail. He was allowed to go to Staffordshire, where the gentleman who had procured his release employed him as his chaplain, and appointed him preacher in one of the parish churches. It was not long, however, before he was ordered returned to prison, and although his friend dying soon after left him a small legacy, his scanty means were soon used up, so that he could not have obtained the ordinary comforts of life, had not another friend who knew of his fine scholarship secured employment for him in correcting the proofs of a new edition of the Septuagint. He was not only deserted by people in general, but only one clergyman visited him in all the six years. Finally in 1652 Parliament passed a general Act of Oblivion, under which Bidle was released, and his broken imprisonment of more than six years was at an end. His little Confession of Faith and its sequel continued to have their influence, and as many as eight years after their publication a large book was published to refute them.

Bidle's long imprisonment had attracted much attention to him, and as soon as he was released he took advantage of the more tolerant policy of the government, which now favored religious liberty, and began holding meetings in London. Here he gathered together for religious worship every Sunday many friends whom his little tracts had converted to his views, and he explained the Scriptures and preached to them. They organized an independent congregation which ere long began to attract the attention of strangers. Its members came to be known as Bidellians, and also as Socinians, though they themselves preferred to be called "mere Christians." Although there are rumors of one or two similar congregations in England before this, they were obscure and short-lived, so that this congregation of Bidle's may fairly enough be called the first Unitarian church in England. It continued its meetings, with some interruptions, at least as long as Bidle lived. Orthodox ministers sometimes attended the meetings and entered into disputes with Bidle on points of doctrine, but they always found him ready to give reason for the faith that was in him.

In 1651/2 Latin edition of the Racovian Catechism was published in London, and when it was brought to the attention of Parliament the next month its teachings were declared to be "blasphemous, erroneous, and scandalous," and all copies that could be found were seized and burnt.4  Yet the following year an English translation was brought out.5  At about the same time Bidle reprinted his earlier tracts and published an English translation of a life of Socinus and of two little Socinian tracts. These, however, were soon quite overshadowed by a new work of his own, A Twofold Catechism6 (1654), the second part being a brief Catechism for children.  Bidle was by now well acquainted with the works of Socinus, but although he took many questions and answers from the Racovian Catechism, he was not wholly satisfied with it. In this book, therefore, he aimed to restore the pure teaching of Christianity by giving answers entirely in the very words of Scripture, whose divine authority he accepted. This little book covered not only the doctrine of the Trinity as his first tracts had done, but all the doctrines of Christianity, and it made much bolder attacks upon the orthodox doctrines than he had made before, and by sharp contrasts it showed how clearly they contradicted the words of the Scripture.

The Catechism roused a greater storm than ever. It went overseas, and circulated widely in Holland, where it seems to have been translated into Dutch, and was regarded as the most dangerous form of Socinianism yet attempted. One of the Dutch theologians, who had already refuted the Racovian Catechism in a book five times its size, now came forward again to defend the orthodox doctrine against Bidle's "Socinian Atheism," which seemed to be creeping into the country so fast; and in another large volume he took up and answered its teachings in great detail. Another took the English government to task for allowing Socinianism to spread so far. This criticism stung the English. The Council of State therefore requested the famous Dr. Owen of Oxford, who had lately answered the Racovian Catechism, to answer this one also. How serious a task he took it to be may be judged from the fact that his answer filled nearly 700 large and closely printed pages. Bidle was now attacked from many a pulpit, and after having been at liberty for nearly three years he was brought before Parliament and charged with being the author of a book full of scandalous teaching. All copies of his book that could be found were ordered to be burnt, and he himself was placed in the closest confinement, and denied writing materials and any visitors. The prospect was that when his case came to trial he would be condemned to death; but after a few months Parliament was dissolved, and Bidle was set free before his case was called.

If one supposes that Bidle, warned by the danger he had so fortunately and unexpectedly escaped, now sought to avoid further trouble by preserving henceforth a discreet silence, he little understands the nature of John Bidle; for though he was the mildest and gentlest of men, he had a full measure of the excellent British virtue of obstinacy in a good cause. As soon as he was released from prison, instead of avoiding his enemies by leaving London, he remained right there, and went back to preaching precisely as he had done before. The orthodox were determined to put him to silence. His teaching had won a good many adherents in a Baptist congregation, whose pastor being much disturbed over the matter therefore challenged Bidle to a public debate. After declining for a time, Bidle at length consented, and when it was asked at the beginning of the debate whether any one present denied that Christ was God, he replied that he did. Even before the debate was concluded he found himself arrested and lodged in prison, to be tried for his life for this heresy, and at first he was not even allowed legal counsel. His trial aroused great public interest. The Presbyterians attended it, and presented petitions against him, while the Baptists appealed in his behalf, and printed various things in his favor. Cromwell, as head of the government, being unwilling wholly to offend either party, at length (1655) cut the knot by banishing Bidle for life to the Scilly Islands, though he afterwards showed where his sympathies lay by granting him a pension of a hundred crowns a year.

Bidle was now at least out of danger, and occupied himself with renewed study of the Bible; but after something over two years his friends at last succeeded in getting him set at liberty. He at once returned to London and began preaching again, though after a few months a change in the government led him reluctantly to retire for safety into the country, to return once more to London as soon as danger seemed past. Charles II now came to the throne, however, and a new Act of Uniformity was passed, making it a crime to hold worship except under the forms of the Church of England. Bidle therefore held his meetings in private; but they were soon spied out, and he and his friends were all dragged away to prison. He was fined what was then the large sum of one hundred pounds, and was sentenced to lie in prison until it should be paid. The prison was so foul and the confinement so close that in a month he fell dangerously ill; and although he was at length allowed to be removed to a better place, he died two days later, September 22, 1662, at the early age of forty-seven. He had, indeed, not expected to survive another imprisonment, and had been heard to say that 'the work was done.'

John Bidle was a man of the most exalted personal character, devout, reverent, and of the highest ideals of personal religion and private life; firm for the truth, as we have seen, self-forgetting, devoted to the sick and the poor. But it is not these qualities, nor even the many persecutions that he suffered, that make him important in the history of Unitarianism; it is the fact that he did so much to stir people up to examine the doctrine of the Trinity, and hence to disbelieve it. He knew his Bible from cover to cover, and he relied fully upon it for his authority; but when he came to interpret it, he looked not to tradition but to reason for his guidance. In this he was like the Socinians; and like them he held that though Christ was not God, yet he was divine, and was to be worshiped. In two notable respects, however, he differed from them; for he held to a kind of "scriptural Trinity" of three divine persons, though denying that the three are equal or make one God; and he held that the Holy Spirit is a person, though not God.

Bidle had never sought to found a new sect, and the little congregation of his friends had slight chance of holding together long after his death. One John Knowles, indeed, who had fallen under Bidle's influence long before, and is said to have preached Arianism at Chester as early as 1650, is thought to have succeeded him for a while; but he did not long escape prison, and then the congregation probably scattered. The Rev. Thomas Emlyn also preached to a Unitarian congregation in London for a few years early in the eighteenth century;7 and a generation later a meeting house was built for an Arian Baptist preacher in Southwark who occupied it for more than two years. Save for these isolated instances, there was no organized Unitarian movement in England for more than a century after Bidle's death.

Bidle, indeed, like many before him in England, might have remained but another sporadic prophet of Unitarianism, had not his influence been continued in another way by the printing press, and through the efforts of one of his disciples, Thomas Firmin, of whom we have now to speak. Firmin was born at Ipswich in 1632 of a family in the Puritan wing of the Church of England. In early manhood he came up to London to engage in business life, and here he soon fell under the influence of John Goodwin8 an Arminian minister who converted him from his Calvinism. It was at just this time that Bidle was preaching in London. Firmin made his acquaintance, became his devoted friend, and accepted his beliefs. He also supported him for a time at his own expense, and helped to secure from Cromwell a pension for him in exile.

Firmin was one of the leading philanthropists of his age. He became wealthy as a manufacturer and dealer in cloth, but Bidle's devotion to them roused his interest in the poor and unfortunate. When the Socinian exiles from Poland appealed to English sympathizers for relief in their distress,9 it was Firmin that raised a fund for them by private subscriptions from his friends, and by collections which his influence caused to be taken up in the churches. He procured similar aid for the orthodox Protestants of Poland when their turn came to suffer in 1681, for Huguenot refugees from France in the same year, and for Protestant refugees from Ireland under the oppressions of James II a few years later. He did much for sufferers by the great plague in 1665, and by the great fire in London the following year; established a warehouse where coal and grain were sold to the poor at cost, and set up factories where many hundreds of them when out of work might earn their living by making linen or woolen cloth; and besides giving generously for poor relief out of his own purse, he was given very large sums by others who trusted him so fully that they never asked for an accounting. Moreover, he was a pioneer in scientific charity, for, far ahead of his time, he devised a scheme for systematic employment of the poor, and used to investigate their needs by visiting in their homes. Finally, he took an active part in the reform of prisons, in behalf of those imprisoned for debt, in the work of hospitals, and in the reform of public manners. In all these ways he was the model for many a public-spirited Unitarian in later generations, who has like him been inspired to good works by the preaching and example of his minister.

It was Firmin's especial services to the cause of Unitarianism, however, that bring him into this history. Although he attended Bidle's services as long as they lasted, he never withdrew from the Church of England, and until his death in 1697 he maintained with Archbishop Tillotson and with most of the prominent clergy an intimate friendship, which was never broken despite his known difference from them in matters of belief. As a convinced Unitarian, however, he sought every means to spread Unitarian teachings. He is said to have had an important Polish Socinian work translated and published in English not long after Bidle's death, and to have assisted later on in bringing out a work by a liberal Anglican clergyman leading to the view that the English Church should be made so broad that a Socinian might join it.10 He also carried on the influence of Bidle in another way, and thus kindled a fire which has never since gone out. In 1687 he got the Rev. Stephen Nye, a clergyman holding Unitarian beliefs, to prepare A Brief History of the Unitarians, called also Socinians. This led to controversy, and other tracts followed. These made so many converts that in 1691 Firmin, at his own expense, had these and others collected into a volume of Unitarian tracts, with Bidle's first three tracts reprinted and standing at the head. Other tracts were collected later, many or most of them written by clergymen in the Established Church, until at length there were five volumes of them, the last two published after Firmin's death. These writings stirred up the celebrated Trinitarian Controversy in the Church of England, of which we shall speak in the next chapter, and they made sure that the truth to which Bidle had borne such brave witness did not fall to the ground. Unitarian beliefs thus came to be widely held in both pulpit and pew in the Church of England, and that with little concealment; so that for a time it was felt that the struggle for freedom of belief in the Church was won. No one had done more to bring about this result than Thomas Firmin.

The point has now been reached where we can begin to trace two fairly distinct streams of Unitarian thought, one in the Church of England, the other among the Dissenters, which at length united about the beginning of the nineteenth century in a separately organized Unitarian movement. We shall follow these two streams in the next two chapters.




CHAPTER XXIX

Unitarianism Spreads in the Church of England: The Trinitarian Controversy, 1690-1750

 

As we have seen in the previous chapter, the work of Bidle for the spread of Unitarianism seemed for the most part to end with his life; for he left no organized movement, and no preacher long continued his public services. In fact, his writings, and those of one or two Unitarians in his period, though some of them called forth elaborate answers, appear to have made no particular impression on the general religious thought of England. All that he had said and written and suffered might yet have come to naught had it not been more and more reinforced by Socinian influences which kept coming over in a constant stream from Holland. The canon of the Church adopted in 1640 had forbidden all but the clergy to have or read Socinian books;'1 and, while it was never enforced even as regards the laity, the clergy would seem to have made full use of the leave thus allowed them. The Socinian books imported were mostly in Latin, and hence affected only scholars; but the result upon the clergy was that before the end of the seventeenth century large numbers of these, including some of the most influential, had in one respect or another become decidedly influenced by Socinianism.

Moreover, during the greater part of the seventeenth century religious intercourse was very frequent between England and Holland. Many Englishmen went to Dutch universities to study, especially the Nonconformist candidates for the ministry, who were debarred from the English universities; and they returned some of them outright Socinians, some Arians, some with the Arminian theology of the Remonstrants, and all of them more given to the use of reason in religion, and more tolerant in spirit. Whether they came back holding Socinian doctrines, or favoring a more reasonable interpretation of Christianity, which Socinians advocated, or merely mellowed by the Socinian spirit of religious toleration, they were likely sooner or later to be accused by their conservative brethren of being Socinians; and in the controversies of the time the terms Arminian and Socinian were used as meaning much the same thing.

The result of this influence is seen in some of those most eminent in the religious life of England in the seventeenth century. Archbishop Tillotson has already been mentioned.2 Chillingworth, the ablest reasoner in the Church of England, recognized reason as supreme, and long objected to the Athanasian Creed. Richard Baxter, the greatest of the Nonconformists, held only the Ten Commandments, the Lord's Prayer, and the Apostles' Creed as essential, though both Socinians and Catholics could have met these conditions. Cromwell strongly upheld religious toleration, and the Independents in general favored it. Milton was at first an Arminian, but at his death he left a manuscript (On Christian Doctrine, not discovered and published until 1825, and afterwards reprinted in part by the Unitarians as a tract) which shows that he had become a Unitarian in belief; so did Sir Isaac Newton; so, for a time, was William Penn, who wrote a tract to show the Trinity's Sandy Foundation Shaken, and was sent to the Tower for it; while the earlier teaching of the Society of Friends in general omits the doctrine of the Trinity. None of these ever joined a Unitarian movement in fact, there was as yet none for them to join but they were all more or less Socinian either in belief, in principle, or in spirit, and they were all reproached by the more orthodox as being Socinians unconfessed.

Perhaps the most widespread of these various Socinian influences was shown in the direction of broad toleration of difference of opinion in religion, and in the tendency to reduce the essentials of Christianity to the very fewest and most important things - a tendency which presently came to be known as Latitudinarianism. Such a principle had already been urged in Bidle's time, in an English translation of Aconzio's Stratagems of Satan 3 which would have left the door of the Church so wide that men of all views might enter it. The Athanasian Creed, however, which they were bound to use in public worship thirteen times a year, kept the clergy constantly in mind of the doctrine of the Trinity, and of their obligation to believe it in its most extreme and objectionable form. Many who still believed in some sort of Trinity were far from sure they believed in all the statements of this Creed, and every use of it gave their consciences a twinge. Even Archbishop Tillotson said, "I wish we were well rid of it."

Hence a movement arose which found much favor, urging that conditions of membership in the Church be made much simpler. In 1675 Bishop Croft cautiously put forth, without his name, a book called The Naked Truth, urging that the Apostles' Creed, which had sufficed for the early Church, ought to be the only confession of faith required now; that longer creeds do nothing but harm; and that it is far better to follow the simple teaching of the Scriptures than the philosophy of the Fathers. Although this book was attacked by several writers, its views were defended by several others, and its message spread. At length after the passage of the Toleration Act in 1689, legalizing the worship of Dissenters, the king appointed a commission to revise the Book of Common Prayer. Liberal influences were strong, and it was proposed to omit the Athanasian Creed, or else to make the use of it optional, and to omit various objectionable phrases in the liturgy; but unfortunately all changes were defeated by the conservatives.4

On the doctrinal side Socinian influences from Holland gave rise to a yet greater controversy. The writings of Bidle, as we have seen, though attacked enough while he lived, appear not to have made any deep or general impression, and after his death public controversy about the Trinity ceased. Even in 1685, when the Rev. George Bull (later Bishop Bull), who had himself been charged with being a Socinian, sought to clear himself from suspicion of heresy, and published his elaborate Defence of the Nicene Faith, he made no reference to English writers, but was aiming only at some Socinian writings from Holland which had made much impression in England. He sought to prove that even the early Fathers of the Church held the belief expressed in the Nicene Creed, though he admitted that they made Christ subordinate to the Father, which was the main point for which the early Socinians had contended.5 Moreover, be wrote in Latin, and hence reached only the learned. Soon afterwards, however, a very active discussion of both sides of the question arose within the Church of England itself, which aroused keen interest in a much larger public, and continued in one form or another for a full generation.6

The Trinitarian Controversy, as this is commonly called, was started in 1687 by the publication of the Brief History of the Unitarians or Socinians 7 already referred to.8 This tract gave an account of the Unitarians and their beliefs from the early Church down, and refuted the proof texts usually quoted by the Trinitarians in support of their doctrine, ending with the conclusion that those holding Unitarian views of the Trinity ought not to be prosecuted for them, but should be received in the Church as brethren. This tract was soon followed by another, Brief Notes on the Creed of St. Athanasius, which took up the Creed clause by clause, laid bare its contradictions with itself, reason, and Scripture, and concluded that it ought not to be retained in any Christian church.

These tracts were widely read and made a great stir among both clergy and laity; and seeing the doctrine of the Trinity thus attacked, one bishop or doctor after another now came forward to defend it. Some maintained, against the charge that the doctrine was unreasonable or self-contradictory, that it ought to be reverently accepted on faith as a sacred mystery, above human comprehension; to which was replied that this was precisely the argument which Roman Catholics had urged in behalf of some of their own most objectionable doctrines, and which Protestants had steadily refused to admit as sound. Some sought to prove that the doctrine was supported by Scripture; but in this they were all too easily confuted by the Unitarian writers. Others, appealing to antiquity, tried to show that this had been the teaching of the Christian Church from the beginning; but the Unitarians, while not unwilling to admit that belief in some sort of Trinity was at least consistent with the Bible, and was supported by the early Fathers of the Church, insisted that it was far from being the kind of Trinity so carefully defined in the Athanasian Creed. The crucial question in the controversy was as to what is meant by one God in three persons. When the Unitarians urged that this belief by its own words contradicts itself, some tried to remove the difficulty by explaining that persons means just what we usually mean by the word; but the Unitarians replied that this involves belief in three separate Gods. Others sought to show that persons has here a special meaning, and simply means three different modes of being or acting; but it was replied that this was the ancient heresy of Sabellianism,9 and that Christ means something more than merely God's mode of acting. So the controversy went on, with the Unitarians ever keen to detect any flaw in the reasoning of the orthodox, and ready to press every advantage against them. The controversy ended, the acute stage of it at least, when the authorities of the Church at least seemed to accept an explanation of the Trinity to which the Unitarians could assent with good conscience.

This controversy was carried on in print by published tracts, sermons, or books. Any publication on one side was promptly answered by one or several on the other. The Unitarian contributions to it kept coming out every month or so for some ten years or more. The most important of them were written by a clergyman of the Church of England, the Rev. Stephen Nye,10 who was a friend of Firmin's. Firmin himself paid the cost of publication, and distributed them freely as a part of his plan to spread Unitarian views within the Church. The tracts seldom bore author's or publisher's name, for fear of prosecution, for the law did not tolerate deniers of the Trinity; and on one occasion in this period when one William Freeke ventured directly to attack the doctrine in a Brief and Clear Confutation of the Doctrine of the Trinity, Parliament condemned the book (1693) to be burnt by the common hangman as an infamous and scandalous libel, and forced the author to recant and to pay a fine of 500.

Although this controversy in its time aroused the Church of England to an intense pitch of interest, it would be tedious enough today to have to read through it, or even to read very much about it. Only a few of its most important events need be mentioned here. Before the controversy had fairly got under way a great stir arose in the very center of churchmanship at the University of Oxford, where a book appeared entitled The Naked Gospel,11 (1690). It bore no name, but it was ere long discovered to have been written by Dr. Arthur Bury, Rector of Exeter College. It held that to be a Christian means simply to have faith in Christ, and that to require assent to speculations about his nature or the Trinity not only is useless but has done much harm. A heated controversy ensued which ended in Dr. Bury's book being burned as impious and heretical. At this juncture Professor John Wallis of Oxford, who had won distinction in mathematics as one of the founders of modern algebra, and was looking for new worlds to conquer, turned his attention to the hardest problem in theology. He thought the doctrine of the Trinity could be made clear by a simple illustration from mathematics. To believe in one God in three equal persons seemed to him as reasonable as to believe in a cube with three equal dimensions. The length, breadth, and height are equal; yet there are not three cubes but one cube; and if the word persons is objectionable, then say three somewhats. Dr. Wallis carried on his discussion under the form of letters to a friend, eight of them in all; but each letter exposed some fresh point for attack and brought forth a fresh Unitarian criticism, so that before he was done Wallis had been driven in his explanation of the doctrine from the orthodoxy of Athanasius to the heresy of Sabellius.

The haughty Dr. William Sherlock, soon afterwards appointed Dean of St. Paul's, now came confidently forward as champion in A Vindication of the Doctrine of the Trinity (1690), in which be undertook to demolish the arguments of the Unitarian writers and, by explaining away the contradictions and absurdities they had complained of, to make the great mystery clear to the meanest understanding by an original explanation. He was well pleased with himself for having made the notion of a Trinity, as he thought, as simple as that of one God; for he held that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three persons as distinct as Peter, James, and John. Pamphlets in answer came thick and fast. The Unitarians were quick to attack this new explanation of the Trinity, and to open all eyes to the fact that it was no better than tritheism; so that in the face of this new and greater danger their opponents for a time ceased to attack them. Some of the orthodox defended Sherlock's view, while others tried their hand at a better explanation.

These disputes, it must be remembered, were all between members of the Church of England, and they so much disturbed its peace that one of the bishops was moved to make an earnest plea that the whole subject be dropped. Sherlock, thinking he had won the day, refused to keep silence, but he soon found himself fiercely attacked from a new quarter as a dangerous heretic himself. Dr. Robert South, famous as a great preacher and a brilliant wit, heartily disliking Dr. Sherlock, and willing to see him humbled, published some Animadversions upon Dr. Sherlock's Book (1693), in which he riddled the Dean's arguments, and repeated the charge of tritheism. But in the explanation of the Trinity which he set up instead, both the Unitarians and Dr. Sherlock were quick to detect the opposite heresy of Sabellianism. Heated controversies ensued. Champions for both sides rushed into the fray with pamphlets or sermons, until at length the University of Oxford formally condemned the view held by Dr. Sherlock and his party as false, impious, and heretical; his friends fell away, and his opponents published an English translation of the life of Valentino Gentile.12 put to death at Bern for tritheism, recommending it on the titlepage to Dr. Sherlock, with the implication that he deserved a like fate. To prevent a repetition of the scandal to the Church, the archbishop now got the king to issue directions for the clergy henceforth to abstain from unaccustomed explanations of the Trinity. Thus the controversy was finally quieted. It had revealed the fact that in place of a single orthodox explanation of the Athanasian Creed, there were now at least six distinct explanations in the field, none of them orthodox, yet all held by men who remained undisturbed in high positions in the Church.

The result was on the whole pleasing to the Unitarians in the Church; for any explanation of the Trinity as meaning belief in three Gods, to which they had most objected, had now been clearly repudiated. Although they did not relish the terms used in Dr. South's explanation, they had no mind to dispute further about mere words, feeling that they could in some sense honestly assent to the doctrine about as he had explained it. To show this, Firmin now had a new tract prepared (1697) to show The Agreement of the Unitarians with the Catholic Church and the Church of England in nearly all points, and concluded that their differences were well settled. However, to make sure that the view he had so striven for should not again be lost sight of, he proposed that distinct Unitarian congregations should now be gathered within the Church to emphasize the true unity of God in their worship, and to keep their members from explaining this again in the wrong way. Firmin died the following year, but this plan of his was perhaps tried for a time, since we read of Unitarian meetings with their own ministers being held in London not many years after.

Finally even Dr. Sherlock took back most of the things he had said, and came to a view which the Unitarians approved. Some of the Unitarians still held out, and a tract was written to persuade them that they might now feel themselves orthodox enough for the Church; some who held orthodox views argued in another tract that they ought now to be admitted to communion; while against those that wished to have them treated as heretics the Unitarians argued in a third tract that they believed practically the same as many whose orthodoxy was not questioned, indeed, that by the standard of Scripture and the Apostles' Creed they were the most orthodox of all.13 They seemed in fact to have grown heartily tired of the long controversy, and to have become willing to go part way in compromise in order to enjoy peace. Thus they became absorbed into the Church of England, and we hear no more of them or their movement.

The Trinitarian controversy was over a matter of doctrine. While it was still at its height a book appeared which brought the influence of Socinianism to bear in another way, by emphasizing again the importance of tolerance in religion. This was The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695), by John Locke. This famous philosopher, although be had read no Socinian books, had imbibed the Socinian spirit from liberal friends among the Remonstrants14 while he lived in Holland, and had already written epochmaking Letters on Toleration. In his new book he urged that any one admitting the messiahship of Jesus should be considered a Christian, no matter what he believed as to other doctrines. A torrent of abuse followed from orthodox writers, especially among the Dissenters, who were now much less liberal than the Church of England. Not only was Locke charged with being a Socinian in disguise, which he denied, but it was declared that such principles as his opened the way to all irreligion, and were a fertile cause of atheism. The book was in fact quite ahead of its time. Two years later a large work on The Blasphemous Socinian Heresie was written by John Gailhard to urge Parliament to use all the rigors of the law against Socinians. It cited with approval a law lately passed by the Scottish Parliament, under which Thomas Aikenhead,15 a student of but eighteen, had just been put to death (1697) for denying the Trinity - the last execution for heresy in Great Britain.

The Dissenting ministers, growing reactionary, urged King William at the same time to shut the press against Unitarians, and the House of Commons urged him that all their publications be suppressed and their authors and publishers fined. The consequence was that in 1698 there was passed the Blasphemy Act, providing among other things that any Christian convicted of denying the Trinity, etc., should be disqualified from holding any public office, and upon a second offence should lose all civil rights forever, and be imprisoned for three years. This section of the act was not repealed until 1813.

The Unitarians, who had been troubled about the proper explanation of the doctrine of the Trinity to which they were bound to subscribe, had now found elbowroom within the Church, and henceforth were little disturbed there. Still the Athanasian Creed would not down, nor would the scruples over having to use it in public worship. Hence it was not many years until new questions arose, mainly as to whether, or how, Christ was equal to God. Thus sprung up what is sometimes known as the Arian Movement. This began through the work of two clergymen of the Church of England, William Whiston and Samuel Clarke. Whiston had succeeded Sir Isaac Newton 16 as Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge. He was a man of great learning, sincere and outspoken to a fault, yet with his head full of eccentric notions. As a clergyman he was deeply interested in theological questions. Following up a hint from Clarke as to the Athanasian doctrine he studied the origin of it, and by 1708 he became convinced by study of the early Fathers of the church that they were semi-Arian, 17 and that he must follow them. He held that though Christ was God, and existed before the world was made, supreme worship should be given only to the Father; and he set himself to restore in the Church the belief and worship of primitive Christianity. For two years by his writings and sermons he carried on an active propaganda for his view. He omitted from the liturgy such parts as did not suit his beliefs, and proposed that the Prayer Book be purified of Athanasian expressions. All this roused intense opposition; and the university, which did not wish to repeat Oxford's unhappy experience of a few years before,18 promptly expelled him (1710). He finally withdrew from the church and joined the General Baptists; 19 but to the end of his long life be never ceased to proclaim his views, and to believe that through the organization of societies, composed of Christians of all denominations, for promoting primitive Christianity, they would at length be brought to prevail.

Whiston's eccentricities and his early expulsion from the Church kept him from having the influence he might otherwise have had, so that the real leadership of the Arian movement soon fell to Dr. Clarke. He was already the most distinguished theologian of his time, and was admiringly spoken of as "the great Dr. Clarke"; and it was taken for granted that he might have any advancement in the church, and would in time become an archbishop. He had already suggested to Whiston that the early Fathers were not Athanasian in belief, and soon after Whiston's expulsion he undertook to investigate carefully the teaching of Scripture on the subject. In 1712 he published a book on The Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity, in which he brought together every text in the New Testament having the least bearing on the subject, some 1,250 of them in all, classified according to their teaching. From these he drew the conclusion that the Scripture doctrine is that the Father alone is the supreme God to whom supreme worship may be paid, and that Christ is subordinate to him, and is to be worshiped only as a mediator; and he intimated that the Prayer Book ought to be revised so as to correspond to this doctrine.20 Half a score of opponents were soon in the field with tracts or books against him. Though he distinctly disowned the doctrine of Arius, it was charged that he was advocating sheer Arianism.21 A great hue and cry was raised in the Church, and the matter was brought before the church authorities.  Clarke weakened somewhat and made a semi-retraction, so that no further action against him was taken; but he remained under a cloud of disapproval for the rest of his life.

Nevertheless Dr. Clarke's book made a deep impression on the minds and consciences of many of the clergy. They realized that whenever they subscribed to the Articles of Religion, as they were required to do when they were ordained or were advanced to higher position in the Church, they must subscribe to what they did not wholly believe; and that whenever they conducted worship in church they must use expressions in the Prayer Book which they could no longer regard as true. Hence some of them, including Dr. Clarke himself, declined further advancement where subscription was required; while many, knowing that their bishops more or less sympathized with them, altered the words of the liturgy, and were not disturbed for it although it was contrary to law and to the promises they had made. Clarke himself had said in his book that "every person may reasonably agree to such forms, whenever he can in any sense at all reconcile them with Scripture." In other words, one might put upon them any sense he pleased. Many adopted this principle and subscribed with large mental reservations, defending this practice as right, and it has continued more or less down to the present day.

The Athanasian Creed had by now become a topic of general conversation, and a vigorous controversy therefore arose over this "Arian subscription," as it was called; in which Dr. Waterland very ably argued against Clarke and his followers that when one has subscribed he is morally bound to stick to the usual sense of the words as intended by the Church; and moreover, that the doctrine of the Trinity is of such supreme importance that it ought not to be held in any lax sense. But a much more serious danger was now threatening the Church, involving not merely one article of doctrine but, as it was felt, the very foundations of the Christian religion. Doctrinal controversies now faded away before that with Deism, and for half a century we hear little more of them. Thus the second attempt to reform the doctrine of the Church of England so as to make it more nearly like that of the Bible, came to nothing; and for the second time those who had desired a reform finally settled back comfortably and did nothing, content enough to be let alone as they were. We shall presently see how the inevitable question again came up in the time of Theophilus Lindsey,22 and led to the organization of the first permanent Unitarian church in England. Meanwhile the scene shifts from the Church of England to the Dissenting churches, where the views of Clarke had a far wider and deeper influence, and led to more permanent results.

 




CHAPTER XXX

Unitarianism Spreads among the Dissenting Churches:
The Arian Movement, 1703-1750

 

The controversy over the doctrine of the Trinity, and the spread of Unitarian explanations of it, described in the last chapter, were wholly within the Church of England. At about the time that movement was dying out in the Church a similar one was beginning to arise among the Dissenting churches. As briefly told in an earlier chapter, ever since the time of Queen Elizabeth there had been many in England who did not feel that the reformation of the church had been carried far enough; and as they refused to conform to the appointed forms and rites of the Established Church they came to be known as Nonconformists. Some of these withdrew from the Church as early as 1616, and became known as Independents. Others, forming the Puritan party in the Church, came at length to be known as Presbyterians. During the Commonwealth the Nonconformists were in the majority, had control of the government, and had things their own way; but when the Episcopal Church was reestablished under Charles II, an Act of Uniformity was passed (1662), forbidding any public worship except that prescribed by the Church of England.

Any minister refusing to conform was required to give up his pulpit and his living. It was a tragic decision that they were required to make. It was to involve poverty, homelessness, fines, imprisonment, and even death, for many. The Nonconformists did not complain of the doctrines required; but they conscientiously objected to using certain forms which seemed to them Catholic superstitions, and to being re-ordained by bishops. The temptation to conform was almost irresistible; yet it was resisted by about 2,500 of the ablest, most learned, and most godly ministers of England, who with great regret left the Church forever. "But we must live," said one whose conscience was weak, and who shrank from poverty, and was about to give in. "But we must die," replied the other, remembering the account he must give to God for an undefiled conscience. The "Nonconformist conscience" became henceforth a fixed element in the moral life of England. The Act of Uniformity was reinforced by several others which made it unlawful for a Nonconformist to hold any municipal or government office, and forbade ministers to hold meetings or to come within five miles of their old churches.1 Under these acts 60,000 are said to have suffered punishment within the twenty-seven years during which the Act of Uniformity was enforced against them; property was taken away to the value of 2,000,000; and 8,000 are said to have died in prisons. Despite all this the Nonconformists largely increased in numbers, and won great respect from the church authorities. It was out of these conscientious and heroic Nonconformists that the first Unitarian churches in England were almost entirely made up.

When the Revolution came and William and Mary ascended the throne in 1688, one of the first steps taken was to pass the Toleration Act (1689), making the worship of Dissenters (as the Nonconformists now came generally to be called) lawful. An effort was also made to change the forms and rules of the Church to which they objected, so that they might all be included in its membership, and that England might have one great, broad church which should include practically all Protestants. High Churchmen bitterly opposed this "scheme of comprehension," and even the Dissenters had misgivings about it. The plan fell through, and henceforth Protestant England was to be permanently divided into two great bodies. Under the Toleration Act the Dissenting congregations grew and flourished as never before; for nearly a generation of bitter persecution had only strengthened them and united them firmly together. They now built meetinghouses all over the land and worshiped openly, and by the end of the century they counted two million members, the most numerous and wealthy body of Christians in the kingdom.

The Dissenters were of three different denominations: the Presbyterians and the Independents of whom we have already spoken, and the Baptists who had succeeded the earlier Anabaptists. Besides these there were the Quakers, who kept steadily aloof from the rest, and were cordially hated by them. Of all these the Presbyterians, now at the height of their power, were about two-thirds. They had gradually grown more tolerant, and their Calvinism had lost its edge. The Independents were generally stricter in their views and narrower in their spirit. Still the two bodies were much alike, and differed more in name than in fact. Neither was so broad as the Church of England; but the Baptists were on the whole the most liberal of the three.

There was for a time some prospect that Dissenters generally might unite into one comprehensive Dissenting body over against the Church of England. In 1690 over eighty of the Presbyterian and Independent ministers in London drew up a plan of union, and some years later the Baptists joined them. They were known as the United Protestant Dissenters; but they did not long hold together. A doctrinal controversy soon arose, and within four years they had drifted hopelessly apart again into separate denominations. The point of difference was between extreme and moderate Calvinism. As to the Trinity they were all still orthodox; though already it might be foreseen that the Presbyterians would in the end take the side of liberty. After sketching this background we are now prepared to fill in the details of the development.

The first minister among the Dissenters to attract attention for his disbelief in the Trinity was Thomas Emlyn. He was born the year after Bidle's death; and though his parents attended the Church of England, they leaned toward the Puritan party and had him educated for the ministry at a Dissenting academy. Conscience forbade him to conform to the Established Church, hence, after a few years he became minister of a small Presbyterian congregation at Lowestoft. Here he formed a friendship with a neighboring Congregational minister; and as it was at the period of the Trinitarian Controversy, they read and discussed together Sherlock's Vindication 2 of the doctrine. The result was that Emlyn became an Arian and his friend a Socinian. Soon afterwards he was called to Dublin as joint minister of a large Presbyterian church, which he served acceptably for eleven years. He was somewhat ill at ease over his doctrinal views, but he kept them to himself, and confined himself to practical preaching. One of his congregation, noting at length that Emlyn never preached about the Trinity, began to scent heresy. He took it upon him to ask Emlyn what he believed, whereupon the latter gave an open and honest answer, and said he was willing to resign if it were desired. The matter was laid before the congregation, and conference was had with the other ministers of the city. They decided that he should withdraw for a time.

The church was unwilling to accept Emlyn's resignation, but gave him leave of absence, and he went to London. In his absence he was violently attacked from the other pulpits, and on his return he felt bound to set forth and defend his views in An Humble Inquiry into the Scripture Account of Jesus Christ3 (1702). His position was much like that of Clarke: that God is supreme, so that Christ has only an inferior deity and deserves only inferior worship.4

Emlyn had intended to return at once to England; but before he could do so he was prosecuted at the instance of a zealous Baptist deacon, and tried for having in his book uttered an infamous and scandalous libel against Christ. His trial was carried on with great unfairness and prejudice, and resulted in conviction (1703). Refusing to retract he was sentenced to one year's imprisonment and a fine of 1,000, and was reminded that he was fortunate not to have been tried in Spain, where he would have been sent to the stake. Unable to pay his exorbitant fine, he lay in prison over two years, neglected of his former friends, and visited by but one of his brother ministers; but he occupied himself in writing, and in preaching on Sundays to his fellow prisoners. His fine was at length reduced to 70, besides 120 more which fell to the Bishop of Armagh under the law.

Emlyn was set free in 1705 and soon went to London, where he spent the rest of his life. He gathered a Dissenting congregation there, and for a number of years preached to them in Cutlers' Hall without pay. Some of the orthodox complained of him, and urged that he be again brought to trial, but no action was taken, and at length his congregation scattered. He received much sympathy in London, and was held in high honor by many both in the Church and among the Dissenters as one that had suffered more than any other man of his time for freedom of conscience. Whiston and Clarke gave him their friendship, and he was intimate with them from the beginning of the Arian movement; but except two Baptist ministers no one was brave enough to invite him to preach in his pulpit. With his pen he entered actively into the controversy still raging over the Trinity, and his writings did much to interest Dissenters in the subject, and even before Whiston and Clarke to prepare them for the Arian point of view which was soon to spread so widely among them. In the cause of religious freedom he had yet greater influence, as people of all parties reacted in disgust from the religious narrowness and the persecuting spirit shown in his trial. He was the last Dissenter to suffer imprisonment for blasphemy under the English law. Time brought its vindication. Twenty-five years after Emlyn's release from prison, his old congregation, which had fallen off from the day he left it, called a minister who inclined strongly to religious freedom, and who later became a leader of the Arian movement in the north of Ireland;5 within a half century it had itself become Arian, and at length it came fully into the Unitarian movement.

The controversy in the Church of England over the explanation of the persons in the Trinity had made little impression on the Dissenters, and indeed only one or two of them had taken part in it; for the Athanasian Creed which kept the subject constantly before the minds of Conformists was not used in the Dissenters' worship. But the question of whether and how Christ was God, and what kind of worship should be paid to him, interested them deeply. This had been Emlyn's question, but it was brought most forcibly to their attention by the writings of Whiston and Clarke; and the so-called Arian movement which they led had much less influence in their own Church of England than among the Dissenters, by whom Clarke was widely read. It was therefore in their quarter that the next long step was to be taken toward Unitarianism, as we shall now see.

The leaders of the movement were ministers who had become liberal while preparing for the ministry. They had not been able to attend the English universities, for students in those were required to be members of the Church of England or to subscribe its Articles, which as Dissenters they could not do. Hence some of them went to Dutch universities to study, and there they were bound to come under the influence of teachers and fellow students leavened with Socinian thought. Others attended Dissenting academies in England; for after the Nonconforming clergy had been ejected from their parishes in 1662 many of them turned to teaching; and some of the academies that thus grew up were in general subjects almost equal, and in theological and biblical teaching quite superior, to the universities, which were then at a low ebb. The academies especially insisted on free investigation of the Scriptures and on the use of reason, while they paid much less respect to the authority of the creeds. It is little wonder, then, that many of them became seedbeds for something like Arianism.

Besides Emlyn's case in Ireland, there were a few other outbreaks of Arianism in England which attracted a little attention, and it was suspected that Arianism was secretly gaining ground to a considerable degree. It was at Exeter, however, that it was first recognized as a serious danger. The Dissenters had long been strong here, where they had several Presbyterian congregations jointly managed by a single committee. Three of the four ministers were liberal. The senior minister, who had studied in Holland, conducted an academy which had the seeds of heresy in it, for one of its students was a secret correspondent of Whiston's. Another of the ministers, James Peirce, who had also studied in Holland, and had won high standing as a champion of the Dissenters, had long been a friend of Whiston, and had accepted Clarke's view of the Trinity before settling at Exeter. Like Emlyn, he kept his opinions to himself, and preached only on practical subjects. After Peirce had preached at Exeter some years, a rumor got afloat that he and others were not sound on the Trinity, and he was asked to declare his belief. Though he protested that he was not an Arian, the beliefs he expressed were not satisfactory to the Exeter Assembly of Ministers. A violent controversy ensued. The attempt was made to compel subscription of the ministers to an orthodox statement about the Trinity. Peirce and several others refused to subscribe, holding that the ministers had no authority over one another's private opinions. At a loss what step to take next, the Assembly appealed to the Dissenting ministers of London for advice, and these met to consider the matter, as we shall soon see; but before their answer was received, the committee locked Peirce and his colleague out of their pulpits and refused to let them preach further, and similar action was taken in several other churches of the region.

The two excluded ministers then formed a new church of their own,6 with a large congregation, and soon built a meetinghouse. Peirce, embittered by this experience, and broken in health, died a few years later,7 but his church went on. So did the cause he had espoused, beyond all expectation, stimulated rather than hindered by what had happened. Within a generation a known Arian was called to the pulpit from which Peirce had been excluded for Arianism; he in turn was succeeded by a decided Unitarian; and in 1810 Peirce's church was reunited with the other. Many of the other churches in Devonshire moved fast and far in the same direction, and well before the end of the century Unitarianism was so far in the ascendant that even Arians were looked down on as idolaters for their worship of Christ.

What took place thus in the west of England is only an example of a similar movement among the Presbyterian and other churches of the rest of England, Wales, and Ireland, in the middle half of the eighteenth century. The movement was stimulated by the Exeter controversy. When the Exeter ministers appealed for advice to the Dissenting ministers of the three denominations in London, the latter met in assembly at Salters' Hall8 in 1719, to the number of a hundred and fifty. The question laid before them was whether the holding of Arian opinions by a minister was sufficient reason for withdrawing fellowship from him. As to the main question, there was general agreement; but one of the conservative ministers proposed that before a vote were taken on this question all present should first prove their orthodoxy by subscribing to the doctrine of the Trinity. Doubtless not a few of the ministers, under the influence of Emlyn and Clarke, had already come seriously to waver as to this doctrine, while yet others did not feel sure as to the future. At all events, the motion was met by determined opposition, and was lost by a small majority.

The important thing is that the debate over this question led to a permanent split between the progressive and the conservative elements among the Dissenters, not over doctrine, but over the principle of freedom in religion. At Salters' Hall in the main Presbyterians were strong against subscription, Independents strong for it, and Baptists about evenly divided; although in each of the denominations there were both orthodox believers and Arians in both camps. From this time forth for a generation the most burning question among Dissenters was the question as to subscription or non-subscription of creeds, which had first been raised at Exeter; the one party maintaining that ministers ought to be required to subscribe confessions of faith, the other that they ought to be left free. The controversy was long and heated, but the result was that within the next generation the ministers and congregations favoring subscription remained orthodox, and either conformed to the Church of England or else went over to the Independents; while the non-subscribers of the three denominations gravitated toward the Presbyterian side and became steadily more liberal.

With required subscription to creeds now out of the way, there was little to control the Presbyterian ministers. Doctrinal changes went on rapidly among them, and their people followed them. Doctrines of the creeds found not to be in the Scriptures were first neglected, then soon disbelieved and forgotten. Disuse of the Westminster Catechism gradually became general. All through the middle of the century Arian views spread rapidly and widely; and these in their turn led to Unitarian views. In less than two generations from the Salters' Hall controversy practically all the churches that still kept the Presbyterian name had abandoned the Trinitarian faith; and from this source came nearly all the oldest churches which later organized together in the English Unitarian movement of the nineteenth century. In the second half of the eighteenth century these liberal Presbyterian churches far outstripped the rest of the Dissenters in the ability and scholarship of their ministers, in the culture, wealth, and social influence of their members, and in public life and public service; but they were not effectively organized, and they made little new growth in numbers or strength.

Another liberal drift, very similar to that among the Presbyterians, was going on independently at about the same time among the General Baptists.9 A generation before the case of Peirce at Exeter an attempt, several times repeated, had been made to exclude from Baptist fellowship a minister whose views were more or less Unitarian. Though the Assembly disapproved his views, they refused to exclude him, thus declaring for liberty of belief. The orthodox minority thereupon seceded for a time; but the denomination steadily grew more liberal in belief, and most of its churches, like the Presbyterians and not a few of the liberal Independents, eventually joined the Unitarian movement.

The discussion begun at Salters' Hall was not long in spreading to the Presbyterians in Wales and Ireland. In Wales Calvinism had begun to decay early in the eighteenth century, giving way first to Arminian and then to Arian views. The movement, as had been the case in England, was stimulated by a Dissenting academy at Carmarthen, which was now supported largely by Presbyterian funds from London. Before the middle of the century many of its students, doubtless influenced by the writings of Emlyn and Clarke, had become Arian, and from that time on their views rapidly spread. As in England, nearly all the old Presbyterian as well as several General Baptist congregations gave up their belief in the Trinity; and as Arianism faded away Unitarianism succeeded it, and many new churches of that faith were founded. In Cardiganshire they were so numerous that the orthodox gave vent to their feelings over the situation by naming that region "the black spot." The number of Welsh Unitarian congregations today is between thirty and forty.

In Scotland liberal influences were felt at the universities, and spread thence into Ireland, whence many young men had come to study for the ministry; but though there were for a time several sporadic movements toward the end of the century, Unitarianism in any form did not take firm root until well on in the nineteenth century.

In the north of Ireland Presbyterianism had been organized among the inhabitants of Scotch origin (the Scotch-Irish) in 1642, and subscription to creeds had never been required. But after Emlyn's trial, and while he was still in prison, in order to guard against the spread of his beliefs in northern Ireland, it was voted in 1705, in face of strong opposition, to require subscription to the Westminster Confession from all ministers seeking ordination.10 The Rev. John Abernethy, who had just declined a call to succeed Emlyn at the Dublin church, now settled at Antrim, and soon gathered about him an association of ministers. Meeting together during some years they came to agree in opposing subscription, and to take open ground against it. In the controversy that followed for six or seven years they were named the "New Lights," and this name clung to the Irish and Scotch liberals for a full century.11 Friction between them and the orthodox increased so much that in 1725 the synod set the non-subscribers apart into a Presbytery of Antrim by themselves, and the next year excluded them from the synod altogether, the ministers in the synod being nearly equally divided, but the elders strongly conservative. It was suspected that many of the non-subscribers were inclined to Arianism; but the issue here was precisely what it had been at Salters' Hall.

This victory of the orthodox did little to stop the spread of heresy. Many of the ministers in the Synod of Ulster remained out of sympathy with required subscription, and the feeling against it steadily grew. In the course of the century the practice of subscribing gradually decayed or was evaded more and more even among the orthodox. Arian views spread correspondingly; and after the law against deniers of the Trinity was repealed in 1817, Unitarian doctrines began to be preached openly. This at length roused the orthodox into action, and after a bitter controversy it was again voted in 1828 to insist upon subscription. The non-subscribers then withdrew and in 1830 formed a Remonstrant synod, suffering considerable persecution in consequence. Presbyterian churches had always been very few in the south of Ireland, but a similar movement went on in the churches there. To anticipate here, and bring the story down to the present day, it may be added that in 1907 the various bodies of Unitarians in the north of Ireland united to form the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland, which though Presbyterian in name and form of government is Unitarian in belief, and is associated with the Unitarian churches of Great Britain. The number of congregations is about forty.

We have now reached the point where in the third quarter of the eighteenth century a large number of the Dissenting ministers and churches of Great Britain and Ireland had become practically Unitarian. They were no longer bound to accept a particular creed, they had come to a generous tolerance of differences of belief, they had left the doctrine of the Trinity behind, and they were coming to accept the full humanity of Jesus. Still their movement in this direction had been so slow and gradual that they hardly realized how far they had come, or whither they were bound. They were but a loosely connected group of churches, and they had taken no definite step to show just what they stood for; they were conscious of no common body of doctrine; they had no recognized leader or common rallying point; and they had no clear vision or plan for the future. They were like a stream that has broadened out until it is likely to sink into the ground and be lost unless it can be led together again into a well marked channel. In short, they needed a leader and a spokesman, and a name and a recognized cause to rally about. In the fullness of time these two needs were now to be supplied, in the persons of the two men of whom the next two chapters will speak.

 




CHAPTER XXXI

The Unitarian Revolt from the Church of England: Theophilus Lindsey Organized the First Unitarian Church, 1750-1808

 

In the last two chapters we have followed two separate streams of Unitarianism gathering volume, one in the Church of England, the other among the Dissenters. They were to a large degree independent of each other, for the Church and Dissent had, as they still have, little to do with each other. In this and the next chapter we are to find these two streams flowing together and making a channel of their own, which will issue in an organized Unitarian body. We have seen that the ministers in the Church of England who felt ill at ease using the Prayer Book or the Athanasian Creed most of them settled down at last into using these as they found them, but putting their own interpretations on them. After all, this sorely troubled the consciences of those who desired in religion above all things else to be and seem perfectly sincere, and for a generation or more they tried in various ways to get around a difficulty which they had been unable to remove. The Athanasian Creed was their worst stumbling block.

While the more timid kept their thoughts to themselves, others made no secret of them. Several altered the liturgy, and left it to the bishops to take action against them if they thought best. Some got the parish clerk to read for them parts of the service which they were unwilling to read themselves. Some omitted the creed altogether, and suffered prosecution in the ecclesiastical courts for doing so; and when one of these was ordered to restore it to its place in the service, he put it to ridicule by having it sung to the tune of a popular hunting song. Yet another, when he came to the creed, said, "Brethren, this is the creed of St. Athanasius, and God forbid it should be the creed of any other man." Several of the bishops themselves were unsound as to the Trinity, and sympathizing with these evasions did nothing to prevent them; but the situation was notorious, and did nothing to raise the liberal clergy in public respect.1 Their behavior was in sad contrast to that of the 2,500 nonconforming clergy who in 1662 had given up all worldly prospects2 for a similar principle of conscience. It seemed as though sensitive conscience had deserted from the Church to Dissent.

The liberal Dissenters took note of all this, and when the Bishop of Oxford complained of the low state of religion, one of them taking up the subject in a book reminded him 'that among the causes of the prevalent skepticism his Lordship had forgotten that the clergy themselves solemnly subscribed to Articles they did not believe.' Of all the clergy at this time only one, William Robertson of Ireland, "the father of Unitarian Nonconformity," followed his conscience so far as to abandon flattering prospects and, when well beyond middle life, at great cost to himself to resign from the ministry (1764).

Though the controversy following Dr. Clarke's book had largely died out,3 all through the middle of the eighteenth century books or pamphlets kept appearing from time to time (almost always anonymously), urging that the terms of subscription should be relaxed, and thus preparing the way for a further move. For it must be remembered that all candidates for ordination or advancement in the ministry were required by law to subscribe the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion and all things in the liturgy of the Church of England, and that similar tests were imposed on admission or graduation at the universities. The feeling back of all these writings at length found its full expression in one of the most important books in the religious life of eighteenth century England, a book entitled The Confessional, published anonymously (1766) by the Rev. Francis Blackburne, Archdeacon of Cleveland.

The author was a sincere and earnest man, who spent nearly fifty years as rector of one parish, at Richmond in Yorkshire. It was only a few years after his ordination, that the book appeared which led Robertson to resign his charge and it roused grave questionings also in Blackburne's mind, so that it was only after serious misgivings that he was persuaded to subscribe when he was made archdeacon the next year, and he never would subscribe again after that. He gradually grew bolder in his thought, sent his son to school at an Arian academy, and cultivated friendship with Dr. Priestley, who was now becoming a leader among the non-subscribing Dissenters. He printed one or two minor things on the subject so much on his mind, and petitioned the archbishop for reforms in the Church; but no visible notice was taken. He therefore began collecting materials for a convincing work on the subject.

Blackburne was apparently the same sort of Arian as Dr. Clarke; and in his book he discussed at length the history of subscription and the arguments for it, and argued powerfully that Protestant churches have no right to set up creeds composed by men, in place of the Word of God, as tests of the orthodoxy of ministers, and that subscription ought at once to be abolished as a mischievous stumbling block. The book caused great excitement among the conservatives, who took the view that the Church could not serve its purpose, but would fall to pieces, unless all its members believed alike. The archbishop soon spied out the authorship of the book, and a controversy ensued which ran to a hundred pamphlets and books. Though there was great clamor against the book and its writer, it won many converts, and made a deep impression, and it led at length to an organized movement to get relief from subscription, which had the support of even one or two of the bishops.

It was some years before the movement took definite shape; but in 1771 Blackburne, who was recognized as the leader in the cause, was induced to draw up some proposals for an appeal to Parliament for relief from subscription to the liturgy and Articles, and these were widely circulated. In the face of much discouragement from those in high station, and of timid lukewarmness in others, a meeting was held at the Feathers' Tavern in London, where a petition to Parliament was drawn up. Though this Feathers' Tavern Petition, as it was called, was circulated for half a year, only about two hundred and fifty signatures could be obtained. Most of the clergy who sympathized with the petition dared not give it their support for fear of consequences to themselves. The Rev. William Paley, who afterwards became famous as a theologian, unblushingly said what others doubtless felt, when he declined to sign the petition because 'he could not afford to keep a conscience.'

The petition was presented to Parliament early in 1772, and very ably supported by its friends, but as bitterly opposed not only by orthodox Churchmen, but by the Methodists as well. It was urged that it would destroy the Church and disturb the peace of the country; and after an eight hours' debate Parliament by a majority of three to one refused to receive the petition. A similar attempt two years later met the same fate, as did also an attempt the same year to get the Articles and the liturgy revised through petition to the archbishop.

So the movement died out, and those that had supported it slumped back and, even if they declined advancement and refused to sign the articles again, continued to say the creed and use the liturgy just as before, and kept on disbelieving them just as before.4 Of all that had signed the Feathers' Tavern Petition, the most are so wholly forgotten that it is not easy even to discover their names. The only one that ever made any real mark on the religious thought of the time following was one Theophilus Lindsey, who now withdrew from the Church. We have next to follow the story of his life, for he became the founder of the Unitarian Church in England.

Theophilus Lindsey, the youngest son of a business man of Scotch origin, was born at Middlewich, Cheshire, in 1723. He showed good promise in boyhood, and thus attracted the attention of some ladies who provided for his education. In due time he went up to the University of Cambridge, where he was known for his high character and firm principles, was graduated with honors, and was made a Fellow. Flattering inducements were offered him to embrace the life of a scholar, but he deliberately chose the ministry as the calling where he could best serve God and do the most good to men. He was ordained minister in the Church of England, and soon became private chaplain in the family of a nobleman, and in this service he spent some years in travel on the continent. He then became minister of a modest parish in Yorkshire, near to Richmond, where he soon formed an intimate friendship with Archdeacon Blackburne, with whose views he had much in common. After three years he was persuaded by friends to accept a parish in Dorsetshire, where he proved a most faithful and devoted minister to the members of his flock.

He stayed there seven years, giving himself much to the study of Scripture and its doctrines, and in consequence came to entertain serious doubts as to the rightfulness of offering to Christ the worship which the liturgy required, He even thought seriously of resigning from his ministry altogether; but he was reluctant to abandon his chosen life work, and to take such an almost unprecedented step; and as he knew that many others who believed as he did remained in the Church, he made the usual excuses to himself, and managed for a time to quiet his conscience by explaining the doctrine of the Trinity in the way then common.

Meantime he married the Stepdaughter of Blackburne; but though he was offered a place in Ireland which would no doubt soon have led him to a bishopric, he declined the honor, and instead chose to go where the scenes and the people were dear to them both. He accordingly returned to Yorkshire in 1763 and settled over the parish of Catterick.

His new post gave him a smaller salary than the one he had left, but a greater opportunity of doing good; for there was a large number of poor people in it. He took up his new work with such enthusiasm that people said he had turned Methodist. He and his wife spent much of their time, and all the spare means that a most self-denying life afforded, in trying to improve the condition of the poor, and supplying them with nursing, medicine, food, and books, and so trying to make them feel the practical influence of the Christian religion. He devoted himself especially to young people, and in 1763 established one of the first Sunday schools in England for religious instruction.

Happy as he was in his work, however, one thing made Lindsey uneasy. He had been not a little troubled about subscribing the Articles when he settled at Catterick, and had determined that he would never subscribe again, but would stay there for the rest of his life. But he was far more troubled that whenever he used the Prayer Book he had to offer worship to Christ and the Holy Spirit, instead of to God alone as the Bible taught. While in this state of mind he had the fortune to spend several days at Blackburne's house in the company of two non-subscribing Presbyterian ministers. One of these was Dr. Priestley, who had already become a convinced Unitarian, and was minister at Leeds, and was destined later to be recognized along with Lindsey as one of the two founders of the Unitarian Church in England. Lindsey told him how uneasy he felt, and that he had thoughts of resigning his charge. Priestley advised him to stay where he was, try to make the church broader, and alter the things in the Prayer Book which troubled him, waiting for the bishop to turn him out if he chose. But Lindsey remembered that he had solemnly promised to use the liturgy as it was, and whenever he remembered that Robertson had resigned for a similar reason, he felt reproached of conscience. He threw himself more deeply than ever into his work among the poor, and into the preaching of practical sermons, and made no secret of his views, but all to no purpose.

It was at this time that the Feathers' Tavern movement took place. Though Lindsey had little expectation that anything would come of it, he grasped at it as one last straw, and went into the movement with great earnestness. Two thousand miles he traveled through snow and rain that winter trying to get signatures to the petition. He met with lukewarmness, timidity, even with abuse; but he got few signatures. Stimulated by the example of Robertson, and of the ejected clergy of a century before, he determined that if the petition failed he would resign. It failed, as we have seen; and without waiting for the attempt to be renewed he prepared to take the critical step. He had first to see his parishioners through a severe epidemic of smallpox which afflicted many of them. Then he took Blackburne and other friends into his confidence, hardly one of whom but tried to dissuade him; but he was unshakable. At length, after preparing for publication a full and careful Apology for Resigning the Vicarage of Catterick, he wrote a tender and affectionate Farewell Address to his people, preached his last sermon to them, and at the beginning of winter "went out, not knowing whither he went." He had laid up nothing for a rainy day, having spent all his surplus on the poor of his parish; and after selling all but the most precious of his worldly possessions he had but 50 to face the world with, and an income of only 20 a year in sight.

It will be hard for us to realize what it can have meant for a man of fifty, frail in health, thus to give up his comfortable living and face a totally unknown future. Most of his former friends now fell away from him and treated him coldly, as either a traitor to religion or else a visionary fool. The Feathers' Tavern petitioners protested that his resignation would ruin their cause. So strained became relations with Archdeacon Blackburne that for several years he refused to see the Lindseys. Hardly one of his friends offered him any help in his time of need, though one of her wealthy relations offered to provide for Mrs. Lindsey, if she would abandon her husband. Such a proposal she indignantly rejected, for she fully sympathized with him, and was ready without complaint to bear any sacrifices that might come. Outside the Church friends were kinder. One of them offered to recommend him to a very influential Dissenting congregation at Liverpool. Another offered him an opening to teach in a Dissenting academy. A third offered him a handsome salary as librarian. All these offers he declined because he had planned, if possible, to gather in London a congregation of others like himself (he was confident there must be a great many of them), who loved the worship of the Church of England, but wished to see important changes made in its liturgy.

On his way up to London Lindsey visited several friends, and at the house of one of them he saw the alterations which Dr. Clarke had proposed in the liturgy.5 This gave him light, and he copied them that he might publish a reformed Prayer Book for the use of his new congregation. Arrived at London, Lindsey took humble lodgings in two scantily furnished rooms, where he soon fell into such want that the family plate had to be sold to pay for food and lodging. On the other hand he enjoyed such peace from a good conscience as he had not known for years, and he began to draw up his reformed liturgy. Friends soon found him out, learned of his plan, and encouraged him in it. Unexpectedly few, indeed, from the Church of England; but there was Dr. Priestley, who was now a celebrated man and had influential connections, and Dr. Price also prominent among the liberal Dissenters. These and others helped to raise funds, a vacant auction-room in Essex Street was rented and fitted up for worship, and on April 17, 1774, was opened the Essex Street Chapel, the first place in England that came to anything, which was avowedly intended for the worship of God on Unitarian principles.6  Firmin's plan7 was at length realized in a way, although Lindsey was disappointed to find that very few adherents of his movement, and only one gift for it, came from members of the Church; nor did many follow his example in resigning from its ministry. About a dozen clergymen resigned within a few years, but only two or three of these took up the Unitarian ministry, and only an occasional one has done so down to this day.

Officers of the government were suspicious of the new chapel, and there was delay in getting it legally registered as a place of worship. Not only was it still against the law to deny the Trinity, but political radicalism was feared, and for several Sundays an agent of the government was present to report whether the law were violated. He found nothing to complain of. Lindsey declared his intention not to engage in religious controversy; and the worship was much like that of the Church of England, save that the minister wore no surplice, and that the revised Prayer Book made many doctrinal omissions and some other changes. At the first service about two hundred were present, including one lord, several clergy of the Church of England, Dr. Priestley, and Dr. Benjamin Franklin, who was then in London in the interest of the American colonies, and was a regular attendant until he returned home. The congregations grew, and in them were found members of the nobility, members of Parliament, men prominent in public life, well-known scientists, and people of wealth who were generous to the cause. In fact, malicious tongues set afloat the rumor that Lindsey had resigned from Catterick with pecuniary ends in view! The chapel became too small to hold those that came, so that after four years the premises were bought and a new chapel and minister's dwelling were built.8

From now on all went smoothly. As his work grew and his age increased, Lindsey sought a colleague. It was some years before one could be found; but in 1793 Dr. Disney, who had married another daughter of Archdeacon Blackburne, and had also been one of the Feathers' Tavern Association, withdrew from the Church and came to assist Lindsey at Essex Street Chapel. Lindsey had already published several writings since coming to London; for he had found himself forced to break his original resolution as to religious controversy, and to answer attacks and argue in defense of the beliefs he held. Now that he had a colleague he gave himself more than ever to writing. One of the most important of his later works was his Historical View of Unitarianism (1783), which helped his followers to realize that instead of being a new and insignificant sect, they were part of a movement nearly as old as Protestantism, which had had distinguished adherents in half a dozen countries for two centuries and a half. He also wrote a defense of his dear friend, Dr. Priestley, who was now being bitterly attacked, as well as two books on the true belief about Christ, the prevalent worship of whom he boldly attacked as no better than "Christian idolatry." He steadily grew clearer and firmer in his departure from orthodoxy, not a little influenced in this by the fearless attitude of Dr. Priestley. At seventy, though still in full vigor, he realized that his public work must be nearly done, and therefore resigned his pulpit, which he would never consent to enter again.

Lindsey lived fifteen years after his retirement, in a serene and very happy old age. He published one more book, showing his deep faith in the universal goodness of God, and was always ready with his counsel and with material aid for the cause he loved. He was a moving spirit in the first two societies which were the beginning of organized Unitarianism in England, and before he died he had the happiness of knowing that his views had spread widely in the British Isles and in France, and that the oldest Episcopal church in New England (King's Chapel, Boston) had followed his example and revised its Prayer Book after the pattern of Dr. Clarke.

Lindsey was not a popular preacher who drew great crowds, but his sincerity and earnestness, his rare strength of character, and his unselfishness deeply impressed those that knew him. Though he lived at a period when they were uppermost in most minds, he would not discuss political questions in his pulpit; but outside it he took an active part in working for broader civil and religious liberty, and against slavery. Like his friends, Dr. Priestley and Dr. Price,9 he was very liberal in politics, and warmly sympathized with the American colonies (as did the Dissenters almost universally), and with the French Revolution in its early days as an uprising against despotic tyranny. His influence on the development of the Unitarian movement, though much more quiet than Priestley's, was very great. As we have seen, it did not much affect the Church of England, and in this his hopes were disappointed; for those who should have followed his example preferred, when the pinch came, to stay where they were, whatever it might cost them in twinges of conscience. But to some of the liberal Dissenters, who had gradually drifted into Unitarian views without ever having confessed the Unitarian name, and who thus occupied an equivocal position, his bold, uncompromising, and successful example gave the courage of their convictions. Encouraged also by the advice of their acknowledged leader, Priestley, they now began openly to adopt the Unitarian name, until not long after Lindsey's death nearly a score of these churches could be numbered, and their organization into one body went steadily on. We must now turn to see how these churches were led in this definite direction by Priestley.




Footnotes


Chapter XXVII

1 See Chapter 20, page 200.

2. The act dated from 1401, and was not repealed until 1677.

3. See pages 71,72, 101, 111,114.

4. See page 293.

5. See pages 114-116.

6. See pages 101, 102.

7. See chapters VII, XV, XXI.

8. Aconzio was an Italian, a lawyer by profession, who had also devoted himself to military engineering. Becoming Protestant in faith he fled from Italy, came to England, and was long in Elizabeth's service constructing fortifications. He was the most distinguished member of the Strangers' Church, but was excommunicated from it for his views, and a little later, in 1565, published his Stratagems of Satan, which was published in five different languages and in print for more than a century, and had a wide and powerful influence throughout Europe in encouraging liberal beliefs and a tolerant spirit. Whether or not be believed in the Trinity, he at least did not think it an essential doctrine.

9. See page 159.

10. See page 197.

11. See page 187.

12. See page 190.

Chapter XXVIII

1. The name has more commonly been spelt Biddle.

2. There is no evidence that Bidle was acquainted with the writings of Servetus, but by now he had evidently come to know the Racovian Catechism, by which his Confession of Faith seems to have been influenced.

3. See page 298.

4. This is sometimes confused with the burning of the first Latin edition in 1614. See page  296.

5. This translation is sometimes attributed to Bidle, but this is doubtful. It purported to have been printed in Holland.

6. Two years after Bidle's death this work was translated into Latin for circulation on the Continent by Nathaniel Stuckey, a lad of fifteen who had been a member of his congregation and was warmly attached to him. The boy died at sixteen, and the next year his mother undertook charge of the education of two of the children of Christopher Crellius, a distinguished Polish Socinian in exile. This indicates close relations between Bidle's followers and the Socinians on the continent. It was the two sons of one of these children that emigrated to America. See page 190.

7. See page 331.

8. Goodwin had lately translated Aconzio's Stratagem of Satan into English. See page 293.

9. See Chapter 18, page 179.

10. Respectively, John Crellius's Two Books touching One God the Father 1665; and Dr. Arthur Bury's The Naked Gospel, 1690.

Chapter XXIX

1. See page 296.

2. See page 297.

3. See page 293.

4. A century later, however, when the Episcopal Church in America was revising the English Prayer Book for its own use, it adopted these changes, and omitted the Athanasian Creed. The Nicene Creed also was at first omitted, but later was restored, as otherwise no English bishop would consent to consecrate the American bishops. In the Episcopal Church of Ireland the Athanasian Creed may be used in public worship only by special permission, which has seldom been sought.

5. See Chapter 15, page 132.

6. How serious this controversy was may be judged from the fact that it extended, in its widest compass, from 1687 to 1734, comprised more than 300 separate writings by not fewer than 100 known writers (including several bishops and archbishops), besides many others who wrote anonymously. The whole controversy divides up into some twenty different ones, ranging round some particular writing or some minor branch of the whole question at issue.

7. Unitarians was the name preferred by Firmin and generally used by his associates who, although they were generally called Socinians by the orthodox, and did not deny that they agreed with the Socinians on many points, yet did not accept all the Socinian doctrines. By Unitarian they meant, at this period, one who holds the doctrine of the Trinity in some sense which does not imply belief in three Gods. The name was borrowed from Transylvania by way of Holland, and first appeared in English print in 1672-73.

8. See page 310.

9. See page 15.

10. See page 310.

11. See page 310 n.

12. See page 106-109.

13. The Socinians of Poland had made a similar claim. See page 161.

14.  See Chapter 20, page 200.

15. See page 294.

16. Newton himself had already (1690) come to disbelieve the authority of the two strongest prooftexts for the doctrine of the Trinity; but shrinking from being drawn into controversy he would not let his views be published while be lived. Whiston is now best remembered for his translation of Josephus.

17. See page 21.

18. See page 319.

19. See page 338, n.

20. He later drew up a scheme of revisions in the Prayer Book, which were adopted late in the century by Lindsey's Unitarian church in London, and by King's Chapel in Boston, as we shall see hereafter. See page 351.

21. The so called Arianism of Whiston, Clarke, and others of their time differed in several important respects from that of the fourth century (see page 17), especially since they did not regard Christ as a created being. But in theological controversy it has been the custom to prejudice the case of an opponent by giving him whenever possible the name of a discredited heresy, whether really deserved or not. At the present time (1925) in political controversy the name Bolshevik is freely applied in the same way.

22.  See chapter xxxi.

Chapter XXX

1. Respectively, the Corporation Act, the Test Act, the Conventicle Act, and the Five Mile Act.

2. See page 319.

3. This work was reprinted at Boston, 1756, the sole Unitarian work by any European writer to be reprinted in America before the rise of Unitarianism there.

4. He described himself as "a true scriptural Trinitarian," but accepted the name Unitarian in the sense then current (see p. 316, note 3) and wrote A Vindication of the Worship of the Lord Jesus Christ on Unitarian Principles (1706). He was really Arian in much the same sense as Whiston and Clarke and their followers (see p. 324, 325).

5. See pages 339-341.

6. This church, founded in 1717, may be called the earliest antitrinitarian church in England which has continued its existence down to the present day.

7. Emlyn was called to succeed him, but was now grown too infirm to accept.

8. After the passage of the Toleration Act over a score of the Dissenting congregations in London, instead of building new meetinghouses, for a time used for worship the handsome halls of old London guilds, whose members were almost entirely from among the Dissenters.

Salters' Hall was one of these, used as a Presbyterian church. This assembly is often spoken of as the Salters' Hall synod, but it was not properly a synod, for it did not represent any organization of churches, and it had no authority over either churches or ministers.

9. The Baptists, who had come together into an organized denomination in England early in the seventeenth century, had split up in 1633 into Particular Baptists, who were the smaller sect and strict Calvinists, and General Baptists, who were more numerous and more liberal in spirit and progressive in doctrine.

10. In the very next year Calvin's old church at Geneva took the opposite step, and abolished subscription.

11. Their influence was much felt in the Church of Scotland at the beginning of the nineteenth century. See Robert Burns's "Kirk's Alarm."

Chapter XXXI

1. A prominent clergyman who was in a position to know as well as anyone, declared that not over a fifth of the clergy subscribed in the strict sense.

2. See page 329.

3. See page 327.

4. The Feathers' Tavern Petition was brought up in Parliament again in 1774 and decisively rejected, and the situation remained quite unchanged down to 1865, when the terms of subscription were altered so that now one must assent only to "the Articles" (instead of "all and every the Articles") and the Book of Common Prayer, and believe the doctrine therein set forth to be agreeable to the Word of God. Some deem this an important change and a great relief to conscience; others see no great difference. In 1867 an effort was made to have the Athanasian Creed removed from the service of the Church. The High Churchmen opposed the movement, and threatened to leave the Church if any change were made. The creed is still retained, and must be used thirteen times a year, though evasion of the full requirement is often practiced, and as often winked at. In 1858 tests for matriculation for the bachelor's degree were abolished at Oxford, and conditions had been relaxed at Cambridge. two years before. All university tests were abolished by Gladstone's government in 1871.

5. See page 325 n.

6. The earlier short-lived meetings of Bidle, Emlyn and others are not to be forgotten in this connection, nor is Peirce's Arian movement at Exeter. It is true that not a few of the old Presbyterian congregations had before now outgrown their Arianism and become Unitarian in belief, but they were not yet so in name. Lindsey adopted the Unitarian doctrine without reserve, and gave the word a new definition. By it be meant "that religious worship is to be addressed only to the One true God, the Father," implying therefore the pure humanity of Jesus. The orthodox did not like to admit the right of Unitarians to appropriate the name, claiming that they too believed in the unity of God; and for a long time they insisted on naming the Unitarians Socinians. But the name chosen by Lindsey spread and has survived, and the other has passed out of use.

7. See page 321.

8. The Essex Street congregation worshiped here until 1886, when they removed to a more suitable location in Kensington. Since then Essex Hall has been headquarters for organized Unitarianism in England.

9. Dr. Richard Price was, after Priestley, the most famous of the liberal Dissenters. He was a noted mathematician, and wrote important works on finance, politics, and philosophy, and on the war with America. His view of Christ was Arian and was strongly opposed by Dr. Priestley, but their friendship was of the warmest.






Text taken from a 1925 original copy of Earl Morse Wilbur's Our Unitarian Heritage.