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Unitariorum in Anglia

A Latin Message to Transylvania

Part 2

The Beliefs, History and Present Position of the Unitarians in England
A Short Explanation (1821)

Alan Ruston

The first part of this translation from the Latin of a key document in the history of European Unitarianism in the nineteenth century appeared in the TUHS in 2005. The introduction which appeared then should be used when reading the remainder of the translation. The English text has again been prepared by Rev Dr Arthur Long, to whom we are most grateful, with input at certain key points from Miss Ann Grosso and Mr David Powell.

Where double brackets appear [ ] some explanatory material has been inserted. Italics shown in the original document have been included. For background on both WJ Fox and Robert Aspland, see Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. The original copy of Unitariorum in Anglia from the property of the late Trevor Watkins will be lodged at Harris Manchester College Oxford. The pencil marking on the printed document suggest the possibility that it could have originated from Manchester College, but there is no hard evidence to prove its provenance. Dr Williams’s Library already possess an original copy as indicated in the introduction to Part 1.

Alan Ruston


So far, we have been considering the progress towards the Unitarian faith in the Church of England. Among the Dissenters (who were divided into three sects, known as the Presbyterians, the Independents, and the Baptists) progress was impeded from the beginning of the 18th century by the constancy with which almost all of them adhered to the beliefs which they had inherited, and which they also continued to profess after much study and toil – and this was especially the case where the possibility of exclusion from public office was involved. The first of those who were unable to conform to the worship of the Church of England were nearly all Trinitarians. Indeed, among the 2000 ministers who were ejected from their livings during the reign of Charles II under the terms of the Act of Uniformity, only William Manning steadfastly maintained a rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity. It was a friend of his, Thomas Emlyn, a minister in Dublin, who suffered much persecution at the hands of fellow-believers because he also had heretical opinions about the Trinity. But through the books, in which he defended his position, Emlyn converted many souls to the faith in the One True God.

Among the Dissenters, the advocacy of freedom in the pursuit of truth was pioneered by the Presbyterians. They developed a theology of a more learned nature, and they had a more liberal system of church government than the Independents and the Baptists. The synods of the English Presbyterians were never able to achieve much, since synod meetings had long since passed into disuse. The dissemination of new teaching amongst them was not suspected until the 1718. This was the year in which the Very Rev. James Peirce, a minister in Exeter (who had revised and augmented, with great learning, John Locke’s Commentary on the Epistles of St Paul) was obliged, because of the intolerance of some of his colleagues in the Western Presbytery, to declare openly and publicly that he no longer accepted the doctrine of the Trinity. Many others followed his example, and in the hope of avoiding discord, a meeting of Dissenting Ministers was held in London. There was an attendance of more than a hundred, but a majority voted against a proposal that subscription to the Trinity (as stipulated in the first and second of the 39 Articles of the Church of England) should no longer be required. However, thanks to this controversy, the opinions of Peirce, who had adopted an Arian position, far from being crushed, were disseminated even more widely. Indeed, it soon became clear that the greater part of the Presbyterian groups in the west of England were unable to find a common home even in Arianism, and they were soon venturing into the realms of Unitarianism. The spread of this doctrine among the Presbyterians generally was much helped by the writings of the Very Rev. Nathaniel Lardner, D.D. whose book on the faith of the Gospels (The Credibility of Gospel History) has left a lasting memorial of learning, industry and clarity, while his Letter on the Logos and his writings on Chapter 2, verse 6 of the Letter to the Philippians have shown the extent to which he was the opponent of both the corrupters and the opponents of Christianity. At the present time, almost all of the Presbyterian Dissenters now profess the Unitarian faith – at least in the sense that they all agree in assigning supreme deity to God the Father only.

As for the English Baptists, almost from the beginning they were divided into two groups – the Particular and the General Baptists, the one following the beliefs of Calvin and the other those of Arminius. The General Baptists provoked a major controversy when they rejected subscription to the Trinity as a sign of common orthodoxy. This led to a new secession, and the majority of the General Baptists now profess the Unitarian faith. Recently, there has arisen among the Particular Baptists, a group who call themselves Unionists and who profess Unitarianism tinged with Sabellianism. Robert Robinson, the most illustrious of the Baptists, who at the end of his life moved on to Unitarianism, had earlier written in support of the divinity of Christ, and he is even now regarded as one of the strongest defenders of that doctrine. But he had his own particular brand of eloquence, which was designed not merely to delight the empty ears of the learned. His whole being, voice, appearance and gesture were filled with a deep emotion, well calculated to kindle, in the minds of all who heard him, the flame of freedom which he himself loved so much.

The Independents had a much more cautious approach towards the concept of progress in religious thought. But thanks to the use of symbolic language, the preaching in their pulpits and societies was carefully safeguarded against any kind of heresy or dangerous opinions, and even infants imbibed the mysteries of the Trinity. Their communities therefore, remained for the most part in an unchanged condition. However, in both their preaching and their formal declarations, through the employment of words not openly in conflict with those of the Holy Scriptures, some controversies did continue. What is more, from time to time, some of their ministers and learned associates did exchange their faith for Unitarianism. For example, in his old age, the distinguished poet and theologian Isaac Watts, whose hymns to this day are held sacred by the Independents as well as other Christian groups, departed very widely from his former beliefs.

It was also among this same group (the Independents) that there was born the scientist Joseph Priestley LL.D, one who (to put it briefly) was famous in both his own and every age. It was by the Independents that he was first appointed to a sacramental office. But when he became aware of the errors in the beliefs in which he had been instructed, he moved over to the Unitarians and exerted all his strength of mind to restore to better understanding those who, like him, had fallen into the same errors. It is thanks to his teaching more than that of anyone else, that in our own time, the doctrine of the One True God, infused with new light, has from day to day, been spread ever wider.

There are also many other matters in which Priestley advanced and adorned the gift of reform. His versatile nature enabled him to compare equally one thing with another. A tireless labourer with a mind indifferent to danger, he displayed an ardent zeal for seeking out the truth and an admirable knowledge of the principles of reason and the methods of explanation. Even his adversaries recognised his greatness. They readily acknowledged his benevolence, his brilliance of mind, and above all his piety, reflected in the way in which he referred everything back to God and to Providence – and this not only in prosperity, but also in circumstances where, for him, things were otherwise. For the rest, while he did indeed toil more fruitfully than almost any of his contemporaries to perfect the conclusions of natural science, he did not allow such petty glory to draw him away from his primary concern, which was always that of exploring the true nature of the Christian religion, which, thanks to the errors of his time, had been corrupted by long-established falsehood. He insisted (and this was where his greatest strength lay) that to maximise the power of sacred literature and improve our knowledge of primitive Christianity, where doubt exists, we must promote the revision of ancient writings, in the hope of restoring them to their original integrity.

It is indeed much to be lamented that this man should have found the country which he had adorned by the fame of his genius and his discoveries, should, in the event, have proved so ungrateful to him. But after the change of regime in France (the Revolution of 1789) when that country became a republic, Priestley was falsely accused of criminal activity and of promoting revolution in England. Thanks to rumours and lies, the anger of the people was aroused against him. The civil authorities, whose duty it should have been to restrain the mob, either by approval or active connivance, permitted an attack on his home. The doors were broken down, and his library, his scientific instruments and his papers were all destroyed by fire. He himself barely escaped with his life, and in 1794 when he realised that there was no way in which the law would protect him, he went into voluntary exile in America where he died a few years later, full of that hope which befits a Christian when he dies, and eager to forgive the injuries done to him by his native country. We hope that there are now few Englishmen who do not blush with shame at the way in which the memory of the madness to which Priestley was subjected has been so soon forgotten – and if it is possible to prophesy, it seems certain that among his spiritual descendants, there will be hardly anyone now who will not admit, with lowered eyes, that this matter was indeed an unworthy crime.

Shortly before he went into exile, Priestley had presented to an association meeting in London, an abridged version of a work which he had compiled. The association was called “The Unitarian Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and the Practice of Virtue by the Distribution of Books” and its purpose was twofold. The first was that amongst all those who believe “that there is one God and one mediator between God and man, Christ Jesus,” there should be, for the promotion of mutual strength, a coming together in agreement. The second was the printing and publishing at low cost of books aimed at spreading the tenets of true Christian doctrine and the promotion of virtue. It should also be noted in particular that among the other beneficial activities of this Society, there was the publication under its auspices in 1808, of a second edition of the Griesbach text of the New Testament, together with notes compiled with great learning, covering completely all matters relative to the translation of the New Testament. This Society now thrives under the care of Thomas Rees, LLD, who recently translated into English, with some explanatory notes, the Racovian Catechism. Many institutions similar to the Society also arose in the provinces, so much so that they almost formed an organised ecclesiastical body for the Unitarians. They were often joined by societies called Christian Tract Societies and they were dedicated to the distribution among the uninformed of pamphlets designed for the encouragement of virtue rather than the promotion of theological controversy.

But as a consequence of these developments, controversies about the Trinity did begin to appear not only in learned circles, but among the uneducated also – whence it soon became apparent that the pulpit no less than the printing press would have to be employed, and that some means would have to be found of relieving the misfortunes to which both private individuals and associations were being subjected because of their rejection of ancient dogmas. In 1806 therefore, there was founded a society called The Unitarian Fund for the Promotion of Unitarianism by means of Popular Preaching. The purpose of this association was, firstly, to help Unitarian societies handicapped by lack of funds to pursue religious activities; secondly, to assist speakers capable of bringing the Gospel of Unitarianism to the people; and thirdly to provide financial assistance for ministers who, because they had openly proclaimed Unitarianism, were suffering hardship. This association has done more than any other institution to unify and strengthen the diligence of English Unitarians. It has ensured (at least in the opinion of Unitarians themselves) that a true and genuine gospel has been everywhere proclaimed. Faithful and competent missionaries have brought light to England and to Wales. Scotland too, where there are now a few Unitarian societies, has been frequently visited, and the proclamation of truth there has been considerably strengthened. The supervision of the deliberations and activities of the Unitarian Fund, from it foundation until very recently, has been entrusted to the very Rev. Robert Aspland. He has also presided with great distinction at the Church whose former ministers were the very Revs. Price and Priestley. He has now been succeeded by the Rev. William J. Fox, the minister of the Unitarian Society meeting for the worship of God at Parliament Court, Artillery Lane, London.

Unitarian missionaries have not yet been able to penetrate into Ireland where there are a considerable number of people who operate under a Presbyterian system of Church organisation, and who profess Arian beliefs. We have not, however, heard of any public gatherings of believers who could be called Unitarian as we have come to understand the term. But in both North and South Ireland, (as indeed in England also) there are, of course, many who entertain Unitarian beliefs in private, but who do not join churches which profess these beliefs.

In respect of civic matters the position of Unitarians is still little different from that of the other Dissenters. They are allowed freedom of worship, but they are at the same time excluded from all high public office, unless this is explicitly permitted by the Church of England. They are, however, allowed to become Members of Parliament, and the Parliamentary measure of 1813 [the Trinity Act] which relieved the Unitarians of the severe penalties to which they had been hitherto liable, was passed at the instigation of William Smith, a Unitarian MP. He was a worthy gentleman whose name was held in high esteem, even by foreigners, because of the way on which he had toiled for freedom for 30 years. (It has to be confessed, of course, that the imposition of the legal penalties formerly prescribed for Unitarians had long been obsolete, and there was little chance of their being reintroduced)

As all students seeking admission to the Ancient Universities are required to subscribe to the Church of England’s Thirty-Nine Articles, all young Unitarians are excluded from these institutions. But the Unitarians have founded new Academies at their own expense, and at the present time, the very Rev. Charles Wellbeloved is Principal of a College at York, where he is also Professor of Theology. In order to ensure that young men of ability are presented with unbiased judgment in respect of the interpretation of Scripture, his method of study is to gather together not only his own opinions, but also those of others, including the findings of the most learned men of all the other Christian sects. His colleagues at the College are William Turner MA, and John Kenrick MA, one of whom teaches Latin and Greek and Ancient and .Modern History, and the other, Mathematics and Philosophy. Some young Unitarians go to the Scottish Universities, and there are also quite a number of preachers taking courses with the mainstream Dissenters who subsequently change their opinions and move over to Unitarianism.

There are also two monthly periodicals, one entitled “The Monthly Repository of Theology and General Literature” and the other “The Christian Reformer.” These are published by the Unitarians for the purpose of defending their beliefs against opponents, promoting theological learning, and providing information about developments in the field of religion, both at home and abroad. The latter of the two (The Christian Reformer) is published at a very modest price and is therefore extremely beneficial for those with low incomes.

At the present time, there are more than 200 Unitarian Churches in England, Scotland and Wales. It is much to be hoped that 100 years from now, not one will have survived. Indeed, even in 50 years time, it is likely that there will be very few who will still wish to retain the Unitarian name. But as the number has grown so much in recent times, in spite of the difficulties which are always encountered, the hope of the Unitarians is still that the days is not far distant when “there will be One God, and only one name for him over all the earth.” There are, in fact, other matters no less certain which give rise to this same hope. The work of those learned men who have collected together the various sacred codices and have studied the principles of textual criticism, has progressed so far that amongst those qualified to judge, there is now hardly any disagreement at all regarding the text of the New Testament. Slowly and gradually Truth enters the human mind. Men may be unwilling to confess their errors in eloquent words, but every day, false opinions are discarded. Finally – and what is perhaps most important – in our day, the human mind seems to be most able to display its powers when it is prepared to follow a new and amended path, and thus to rise to its fuller and more majestic destiny.

The association mentioned above (The Unitarian Fund) has prepared this brief exposition, in order that its operations and plans may be known abroad. It commends itself to those whose aim it is to promote principles which the Fund itself judges to be Christian, and which are concerned with anything which seeks to promote the virtue and happiness of mankind. It has heard with great joy that a society of Unitarians has been recently formed in Madras, which is hopeful of calling others in India away from idolatry to the worship of the One True God. There is now a better system of postal communication, not only with India, but also with the American Unitarians, of whom there are a considerable number. It would be good to have better knowledge of any individuals or societies of like mind in other parts of the world. We would be only too happy to receive advice regarding better ways of spreading and promoting the spirit which we all share. Letters containing such advice may be addressed to “Rev. W.J.Fox, Dalston, near London” or “Rev. R.Aspland, Hackney, near London.”

London, April 30th, 1821