Chalice

Unitarian Historical Society

THE BELIEFS, HISTORY AND PRESENT POSITION
OF THE UNITARIANS IN ENGLAND

A Short Explanation

The great and honourable men who carried forward the torch of the Reformation made great efforts to bring into the light and sanctify the following principles: (1) that the Holy Scriptures are without doubt the only rule of belief and action; and (2) that every individual has the sacred and inalienable right to interpret things for himself.

Following from these two principles, these honourable men rooted out the numerous corruptions and errors which have for so long debased the beauty and simplicity of Christianity. Having set up these men as examples and following in their footsteps, the Community which we are now describing developed for itself its own beliefs and worship. However, it did not insist upon these dogmatically or conclude that it did not have the right to make further progress, when their forebears, either because of a fear of too much change, or the persuasions of false piety and the weakness of human nature, held back while the contest was still incomplete, fearing to pass from the depths to the heights in one single step.

The Unitarians, in interpreting the Word of God, have vindicated completely the lawful gift of reason. But they have not (because the subject has rarely been examined) set out their concept of revelation in detail. But since both reason and revelation are the gifts of God, they deny that any disagreement between the two can ever arise - even though it may not always be possible to determine precisely what each of them teaches. They believe that reason entitles us to make a judgment regarding the truth of a revelation, by distinguishing between the spurious and the genuine parts of Sacred Literature. This enables them eventually to arrive at a definite opinion, through a perusal of what they see as genuine. Whatever they understand to have definitely been revealed by God they accept with grateful awe. Nor do they hold anything more sacred than the duties of piety and love, adhering openly and constantly, though with due humility, to those opinions which, without any thought of personal gain, they have arrived at from a diligent examination of the Scriptures.

The sum of the faith of the Unitarians, so far as it pertains to God, would appear to be that "There is One God, and God is Love." As their name indicates, they affirm the true, complete and certain unity of God. As they say, they judge God to be one essence, one person and one substance. This, they claim, is confirmed by the realm of Nature, since God, the Author of all things, "strong in counsel and mighty in power" is clearly one. This holy revelation is also sanctified and clearly confirmed by the Scriptures, both Hebrew and Christian. With one voice, both Moses and Christ proclaim: "The first of all the Commandments is this: Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord, and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul and with all thy mind and with all thy strength. This is the first Commandment."

Faithful to this belief, the Unitarians reject all notion of a plurality within the Divine Godhead. Indeed, they insist that this is contrary to the Word of God. In the Holy Scriptures they find no mention of the word Trinity or anything suggesting that dogma. On the contrary, they read that "the Father is greater than the Son" and they believe that the Holy Spirit is not a separate person, but merely a power exercised by God, or a gift donated by him.

Attributing every perfection to God, the possessor of all excellence and benevolence, they worship him only and no other person. And although they concede that the Scriptures do sometimes speak of a Spirit or Devil with power rivalling that of God, they do not believe that this Evil Spirit is capable of frustrating the plans or purposes of God, or of subjecting some part of the world to his control. What is more, it is said that "his mercy is over all his works" - which would seem to contradict the view that God, by his own irretrievable decree, predestined the entire human race to depravity and eternal misery.

Since "sin is iniquity" and justice is equity; and since "every man who practises justice is justified," the precepts of the law are that "the soul that sins, it must die" and "every man must bear his own burden" The Unitarians believe that the imputation of sin to the just, and justice to the unjust, cannot be reconciled with the laws of nature, with civil law, or with the Sacred Scriptures. They argue that the application of the name Father to God is not a metaphysical distinction or something signifying a distribution of powers between him and other Persons. It must it be taken as implying simply a more noble status, especially in respect of the relationship between him and his off-spring, "the work of his hands," and his own goodwill towards the human race indicates, at the same time, that one God alone is worthy of human adoration. Our Lord Christ does indeed attribute the name of Father to God to illustrate his own divine nature and to provide some comfort for his disciples in his impending separation from them. But his own words show that he and his disciples are equally the sons of God.

The Unitarians believe however, that "Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, who for the sake of all his brethren of the human race, was made in the likeness of men." But because of his life of extreme benevolence free from every blemish, enabling him to endure the severity of his service and the bitterness of the sufferings, and not least because of the splendid name which God gave him, he is therefore most worthy of the highest reverence and adoration.

In the Sacred Scriptures (as the Unitarians believe) Christ is most clearly distinguished from God, since God is the Father who sends, gives, anoints, sanctifies and rewards, whereas Christ is the Son who is sent, receives, is anointed, sanctified and rewarded. They recognise, nevertheless, that Christ is at one with God on account of a mutual consensus of will and purpose. But at the same time, they agree that we also are at one with him and with God his father.

Seeing as it is the sin of the world which was the cause of the persecution and death of the Saviour, his afflictions are, to this extent, a great incitement to the avoidance of crime and the cultivation of justice (since they confirm the truths which he taught, reinforce his perfect example and the spreading of the gospel throughout the whole world, making his resurrection from the dead an earnest of our own resurrection). The Unitarians are persuaded that these words from the Scriptures: - "He died for our sins, and his blood redeems us from all sin" - are to be interpreted in this sense.

The Unitarians are also convinced that salvation does not demand faith in obscure and mystical symbols. Paul says that "if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, then you will be saved."

They also hope, humbly but firmly, that as the word of God has already clearly shown, God's mercy is such that he will always accept sincere obedience and pardon all sin when there is true repentance. But besides that, the Unitarians are also of the opinion that great punishment is meted out to the wicked for their sins: "To whom much is given, from him much will be required." In all things they will be punished with few or many strokes, according to the measure of their guilt. For just as wise legislators enforce penalties, not for vengeance, but rather to bring about correction, not only for the health of the community, but also for the general improvement of things, so the majority of the Unitarians are persuaded that God, "who does not desire that anyone should perish, but rather that all should repent," will rule his kingdom in the same way.

The simplicity of Unitarian worship has much to commend it. But Unitarians also have a favourable opinion about the different rites and ceremonies of other Churches. They have established for themselves the right to freedom in religious matters and would be happy to grant the same right to others - while still bearing in mind the precepts that "misjudgments and disagreement in thinking, may indicate weakness of faith," and "it is unanimity in sound mind which brings certainty." They hold that charity is a stronger bond of unity than faith, and with joy they acknowledge them as brothers, and share with them, whatever good they might desire for themselves: "For us, there is one God, the Father,in whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and we I him."

To investigate from the beginning the early history of the Unitarians in England, is not an easy task. But it now seems to be agreed that the human mind, after being buried for so long in sleep, suddenly awoke and swiftly applied itself to discovering the truth in these matters. About the end of the 15th century, Reginald Peacock, the Bishop, first of St Asaph, and then of Chichester, an advocate of reform in morals and faith, seems to have become involved in arguments, familiar in later times, concerning not only the Deity of Christ, but also the account of his miraculous birth, as related in the early chapters of the Gospel according to Matthew. For this, he was expelled from the office of bishop, but as the record suggests, his constancy was not strong enough to enable him to withstand the hardships occasioned by his honesty.

In the 16th century, Henry VIII, because of his impure and illicit desires, separated the Church of England from the Roman Church. In England, this separation was more a consequence of imperial might than of the investigations then occurring in other regions of religious reform, and it was less complete or absolute. But Henry was made the Head of the Church of England and new symbols of faith were imposed. However, there were many of strong spirits who would not allow their opinions to be set aside at the nod of a tyrant, and they embraced a deeper knowledge of sacred literature and the history of the Church. During the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI and Elizabeth, while the Hierarchy consolidated its strength, many who had turned away from the dogma of the Trinity were martyred, and in our records, there are many names of those who, because they wished to worship God the Father only, paid the ultimate price of being burned to death. Especially significant is the fate of Joan Bocher. She was sentenced to death on the orders of Archbishop Cranmer, who, because of the zeal for the Reformation which he had promoted, himself experienced the cruelty of the Papists during the reign of Queen Mary. But it was the death of Joan which wrenched him away from the amiable young king, Edward VI, who had said to the Archbishop with his eyes full of tears : "In this matter, I accommodate myself entirely to your judgment. But is for you to render to God the reason for this deed." This most excellent woman had embraced the doctrine of the simple Unity of God from her reading of the Scriptures, which had recently been translated into English. This new doctrine was disseminated so rapidly that many long-lasting persecutions were instituted to suppress it. Bartholomew Legate was put to death in 1611 during the reign of James I, despite the unassailable proof of the integrity of his life and morals given to his enemies. This event and the piety and fortitude of others in their final hours, so affected the minds of spectators, that eventually, it was decided that it would be more prudent to deal in another way with those who were proclaiming the Unity of God, and that it would be better of they were left to die in silence, shut up in secret places. No human record remains of their bravery and sufferings, but their memory is consecrated in immortal literature and their names are clearly written in the Book of Life.

After the death of Charles I, there was a brief triumph for the Dissenters from the Church of England, when much religious liberty became more acceptable. But the Unitarians were not allowed to take advantage of this. The life of John Biddle, was put in great danger by reason of the hatred of the Presbyterian Theologians. He was a man most worthy of imitation by all, thanks to his virtues, who had gathered a small body of Unitarian Christians in his home, and after Charles II had regained his ancestral throne, he perished in prison.

The remarkable turn-around in public affairs by which William III was elevated to the English throne (which was known as the REVOLUTION) confirmed the principles of the Protestant religion, and the passing by Parliament of the Toleration Act, which in those days was judged to be liberal, pardoned all Dissenters. But Unitarians were specifically excluded by name, and after a few years they were treated even more harshly. Under a law not repealed until 1813, penalties of beatings, imprisonment and fines were imposed on all who denied in any way that the Person of God was a Trinity.

Around the end of the 17th century, two names in particular shine out among those who affirmed the unique divinity of God the Father. The first was John Locke, a great defender of toleration and civil liberty, who worked with distinction not only on the nature of the human mind and the exploration of its workings, but also on a reconsideration of the legitimate function of reason in the interpretation of the Word of God. His books "The Reasonableness of Christianity" and "Notes on the Epistles of St Paul" contributed much to the accurate exposition of the Scriptures. The second was Thomas Firmin, a wealthy citizen of London and a great benefactor of the poor. Many institutions still flourishing bear witness to his great patronage and support. Even in those days, the Unity of God was vehemently debated, and this distinguished man (Firmin) undertook the task of printing and distributing many erudite expositions and defences which were collected together as Unitarian Tracts, and even after many more recent studies, these are still read today. Thomas Firmin and many other Unitarians at that time, remained within the fold of the Church of England, and though it is not for us to pass judgment on excellent men, we much regret this decision, which greatly diminished the weight of their witness to the Unity of God.

From the beginning to the end of the 18th century, there was a great band of men among the theologians of the Church of England who cherished the hope that a revision of the beliefs of the Established Church would be by no means difficult to achieve. Although they also did not secede from the Church, they felt obliged, for reasons of fashion, to subscribe to official beliefs if they wanted to retain their hold on public office. If they were unwilling to show by repetition their complete assent, this would close for them the route to any amplification of their honours, and some preferred to enjoy their own persuasions without molestation.

At the beginning of the century (1710) William Whiston, a man of great learning and piety, well-known for his integrity, was deprived of the office of Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge and expelled from his College, because he had defended the doctrine of the Unity of God. Samuel Clarke DD wrote a learned book on the Trinity and converted many to his arguments. It prepared the minds of many within the Church of England for a possible revision of its principles. Clarke attacked the liturgy of the Church, rejecting everything which did not address worship to God the Father only. From that time, some Unitarian Societies in England and in North America began to use the revised liturgy which Clarke had prepared - sometimes after agreeing to less radical changes.

Among the number of Unitarians who flourished at that time, the one who must by no means be excluded is the distinguished philosopher Isaac Newton. He was a sincere and humble Christian and a most earnest student of the Holy Scriptures, who steadfastly proclaimed the Unity of God. In a most useful Dissertation, he also defended the case for believing that the conclusion contained in the First Epistle of John 5, 7. [a specific reference to the Trinity] is a forgery.

In 1771, a group was set up, consisting for the most part of Anglican clergymen, who petitioned Parliament more than once, asking that clergy be freed from the necessity of subscribing to the Church's official Articles of Belief, and to substitute instead a declaration that nothing beyond Scripture was the basis of their faith. When the hope of this proved vain, many Unitarians from that time onward, resigned from the Church of England and the English Universities. [A long footnote is inserted at this point - see below]

Among the most memorable of those who resigned were Wakefield, Jebb, Evanson and Disney. Of these, the first at least [presumably Gilbert Wakefield?] was known throughout Europe for his learning and gifts of genius.

The secession in particular of Theophilus Lindsey, because of his love of Truth, his spurning of the very many honours which he might have hoped to receive, his own sufferings, and the hardships which he had to endure, was the one which had the greatest influence on men's minds. Shortly after rejecting his ecclesiastical benefice, he built a chapel dedicated to God at Essex Street in London, where divine worship was instituted, using a liturgy which was a revision by Lindsey himself, of the revised Prayer Book of Clarke. It is thought that this was the first Chapel in England dedicated to the worship of God the Father, and it was designated as such from its foundation. Right from the start, this church was frequented by men of ability, gifts and position, famous for their eloquence in Parliament or the market place, and this is still the case today. The minister at the present time is the Very Rev Thomas Belsham, formerly the Professor of Theology at a Dissenting Academy dedicated to Calvinist dogmas. In his writings he has defended the truth of the Christian Religion and the Unitarian faith, vehemently condemning the blind pride displayed in the attacks of our brothers. He has also ably criticised, with erudition, perceptiveness and elegance, the urge to undermine the debt of praise which we owe to the dead. Indeed, the integrity of his life and the courtesy of his manners have evoked the goodwill of all.

[ Footnote]

With regard to the English Universities, it would hardly have been expected that amongst those concerned with subscription to the doctrine of the Trinity, there would be many who, because of the scholastic rewards or ecclesiastical benefits which they enjoyed, would wish to hinder the discussion of Unitarianism. Nevertheless, there were also some men at Cambridge who continued to concern themselves with these studies.

Amongst those who stand out for their honesty and integrity of beliefs and manners were Robert Tyrwhitt, MA, and John Jebb, MD, the first of whom publicly defended the Unity of God at the University Church of St Mary, while the other was prepared to defend it publicly, had opportunity offered. At first, in 1771, Jebb proposed, with the support of a large group of extremely learned academics, that the official rule of the University (known as Gratia requiring those seeking academic honours to subscribe to particular religious doctrines, should be repealed. Jebb was a very close colleague of Tyrwhitt, and displaying great integrity, he himself renounced his own academic rewards and ecclesiastical benefits. But at length, after some public lectures at Cambridge on Greek Law, having become weary of the way in which his arguments were being misinterpreted, he departed for London, where he studied medicine and practised as a physician. A friend and one united with him in learning was Edmund Law, who was the Bishop of Carlisle and the Master of Peterhouse at Cambridge. Jebb was exceedingly dedicated to metaphysical studies, and he provided, as it were, a torch for the English Unitarians of those times. He was at first called an Arian, but before his death, he had become, in a more strict sense, a Unitarian.

At this period (1787-1789) many others followed in his footsteps and departed from Cambridge. Amongst them were William Frend, MA, Tutor and Fellow of Jesus College, John Hammond, MA, Fellow of King's College, Robert Edward Garnham, MA, Fellow of Trinity College, George Dyer, BA, of Emmanuel College, and other learned men as well. These, by their writings or the honesty of their testimonies, either defended Unitarian doctrines, or vehemently opposed Subscription, and they separated themselves from their Church, their ecclesistical benefits and their Colleges - though some, if their College Statutes permitted it, preferred to remain and continue their studies.

(English translation to be continued in a later issue)



Notes by Arthur Long:

(1) Joan Bocher (page 3) - burnt at the stake in 1550 on the orders of Cranmer. It is interesting to see that the Letter gives her special attention. She seems to have been much neglected by modern Unitarians - I can't recall any special celebrations of her martyrdom, e.g. in 1950 or in 2000. Diarmaid MacCulloch gives her considerable attention in his biography of Cranmer and his recent book on the Reformation of Edward VI. He calls her a Unitarian martyr and "an alarmingly self-possessed and articulate radical." She seems to have been associated with George van Parris of the Strangers' Church in London. John Foxe includes them together in his Book of Martyrs, though he appears to be a little unhappy about this because he was aware that they were burned for attacking the Trinity. Apparently Foxe is responsible for the story about the young King pleading for Cranmer on behalf of Joan - it seems that Van Parris was also included in the plea. Most Unitarian histories (including Wilbur) mention and are full of praise for Van Parris, but Joan seems to have been forgotten!

(2) Lindsey (Latin Text - page 7 - translation page 5) - Interesting to see that the Letter does not refer to the fact that Lindsey's Church in Essex Street was originally called a 'Unitarian Chapel' - something which we now proudly mention. There is a reference to the matter in Alexander Gordon's monograph on Belsham in his Addresses Biographical and Historical where there is a quotation from a letter to the Monthly Repository of February 1814, complaining about the fact that 'Unitarian' had been removed from the Essex Street notice-board! Gordon has an interesting discussion about the increasing reluctance at that time to use the name Unitarian especially, curiously enough, after the passing of the Trinity Act. It seems that Belsham himself had considerable reservations about the use of the term Unitarian for churches - and he was certainly against the idea of a Unitarian denomination!

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