FOR A FULL GENERATION after the burning of Legate and Wightman, though there were no further executions for heresy, the religious mind of England was being silently permeated by various influences that may well be traced to Socinian sources The widest and deepest of these was the spirit of tolerance in matters of belief, which had been so persuasively encouraged by Acontius, and recommended also by the three Latitudinarian leaders whom we have mentioned. As the Socinian writings current at the period so strongly urged this principle, it was no accident that those in the Church who favored broad toleration should on this account alone, even if not Socinian in doctrine, have been charged by the strictly orthodox with being Socinians in disguise. The new tendency to appeal to reason in the interpretation of Scripture, instead of merely seeking Scripture support for traditional dogmas, also invited the same criticism and led in the same direction, while subtly undermining the foundations of the accepted confessions. Thus many minds were already prepared to agree with Socinian writings when once acquainted with them. Such writings, even though they were presumed to be banned, and were cautiously circulated, were now coming to be more and more common. Soon after the middle of the seventeenth century more than three score Socinian books had been published in Holland, either as reprints of Raków originals, or in Dutch or even English translations, and as England had at this period, in its religious life, closer relations with Holland than with any other country, undoubtedly many of these (not to mention any direct importations from Poland) soon found their way to England, where also indeed a few were even secretly printed They were in the main brief doctrinal discussions by Socinus, Smalcius, Schlichting and other champions of Socinian views, or were commentaries on New Testament writings made by Crellius or other Socinian scholars Mostly tracts or small books of pocket size, they were well fitted for clandestine circulation and use, and with their independence of traditional forms of doctrine and their fresh and reasonable interpretations of Scripture, they were eagerly read wherever seen. The authorities of the established Church do not seem to have made at this time any serious attempt to suppress these writings; for Archbishop Laud was much less concerned that members of the Church should all agree in the details of their professed beliefs than that they should all worship in the forms officially adopted. Thus it came to pass that Socinian views were quietly diffused among not a few of the Episcopal party now dominating the national Church.
With the Presbyterian element in the Church, however, not yet organized as a separate body though rapidly gaining in strength, it was different. Their leaders were all for strict purity in doctrine, concerned not only to have the Church thoroughly purged of any shred of popery in organization, government and form of worship and ruled by ministers of their own choice rather than by Bishops appointed by the King, but also to keep its doctrine as strict and pure as Calvin had left it. To this end, as early as 1572 a group of those that disapproved of government of the Church by Bishops met at Wandsworth in the outskirts of London and formed the first presbytery in England; 1 and not long afterwards in several counties classes were formed, and worshiped apart from the established Church. The movement quietly spread for two generations or so, largely among the middle class, maintaining strict standards of Puritan belief and life, until by 1640 the Presbyterian party had even gained the ascendency in Parliament. Their ministers at this period were heads of a political as well as of a religious party; and their members in Parliament kept exerting increasing pressure in matters of religion, being constantly on the alert to discover anything that might discredit the episcopal party in its conduct of religious affairs. Hence in 1640 it was thought that the time had come to adopt measures for checking the progress of the Socinian heresy, which was well known to be silently making its way. The Convocation of that year, therefore, sitting as a Synod, framed a new body of Constitutions and Canons for the establishing of true religion, of which the fourth was directed against ‘the damnable and cursed heresy of Socinianism.’ It forbade the importation, printing or dispersion of Socinian books, and the preaching of Socinian doctrines, upon pain of excommunication, and forbade any university student or clergyman, except graduates in Divinity or higher clergy, to have or read any such book, and ordered that all such books in other hands be surrendered or burned.2 These Canons were in fact never enforced, having later in the year been condemned by Parliament as being beyond the power of the Convocation to enact, and framed too much in the interest of the episcopal party; but they furnish clear evidence that Socinian books were now in wide circulation, and that preaching of Socinian views was more or less common.3
As the evil still went on unhindered, the Puritan party in Parliament now determined to take the initiative in dealing with it, and in 1643 an ordinance was passed for the calling of an assembly of divines and others for settling the government and liturgy of the Church of England. It was composed of 121 clergymen, with 30 laymen as advisers, besides seven invited from Scotland.4 The different parties were represented, but the great majority were Presbyterians, while the few Episcopal divines soon withdrew. This Westminster Assembly of Divines as it was called continued to hold sittings until 1649. Its most notable acts were the framing of a Confession of Faith in place of the XXXIX Articles, the preparation of a corresponding Larger Catechism and a Shorter Catechism, and the making of a Directory of Worship in place of the Book of Common Prayer. No material doctrinal change was adopted, for Calvinism was retained as the accepted teaching of the Church, while Arminianism received no recognition; but government by presbyteries rather than by Bishops was formally established by Parliament in 1647.5 The Presbyterians, however, in order to gain the support needed for their interest, found it necessary to make common cause with those in Scotland, and to join with them in a Solemn League and Covenant to unite the two kingdoms in one religion. Although the Church of England thus became in theory a Presbyterian rather than an Episcopal Church (until the Restoration under Charles II in 1660), yet in the troubled state of national affairs the Presbyterian system was never fully set up except in London and Lancashire.6 The episcopal party had never approved of it, and the Independents now rapidly increasing thwarted it; and after they adopted a Declaration of their own at the Savoy Palace in 16587 they entertained hope that their own form of church polity might prevail in the nation Yet though agreeing with the Presbyterians in doctrine, they differed from them in upholding toleration, which the Presbyterians detested and contemptuously nicknamed ‘the great Diana of the Independents.’
From now until the passage of the Act of Uniformity (1662) religious questions were discussed with great feeling, and the leaders of the Puritan party were constantly on the alert. Of these leaders the most active and prominent was the Rev. Francis Cheynell8 (1608–65), an influential member of the Assembly, whom we have already met in anticipation as a bitter opponent of Chillingworth. He had already in 1643 published his Rise, Growth and Danger of Socinianisme,9 a book designed to arouse great alarm among the orthodox, and showing wide reading and familiarity with the Dutch literature on the subject; and he charged that Socinianism was corrupting the very vitals of the Church. He was a native of Oxford, where he was educated for the ministry, and was an able scholar and preacher, being considered the most learned and acute of his party, but he was bigoted in mind, extreme in his zeal for his cause, and of violent temper. For having sided with Parliament in the civil war he was refused his degree, and thus lost his post at Oxford; but when Parliament in 1646 set out to restore the University, which in the Civil War had fallen into a deplorable state, it appointed him one of the seven most popular divines to spend six months there in an effort to reform the people by their preaching. When this labor proved futile he was made one of a board of twenty-four visitors authorized to make a thorough investigation and remove any found unfit.10 In this congenial occupation he made himself the most detested of the whole board. In the course of this search he came to the chamber of John Webberley, sub-Rector of Lincoln College. Searching among his papers Cheynell found all ready for publication an English translation of a book by Socinus, and several other Socinian books. All these were seized by the visitors in 1648, while Webberley himself was imprisoned and later expelled from the University.11
Cheynell’s services to his cause were suitably rewarded. He was given a Doctor’s degree, made President of St. John’s College, and Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity. The next year he was directed by Parliament to draw up a confutation of the Socinian denial of the Trinity. This appeared in London, 1650, with the title, The Divine Trinunity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, a book of considerable size, showing wide reading, and discussing the doctrine in full detail in all its aspects. At the end he strongly urges that true Christians should have no communion with those that deny this doctrine, and he strikes out especially at Acontius, the first half of whose Stratagems had lately appeared in English translation, regarding which he had just reported to the Assembly that the book was very defective, and urged that all such writers should be punished by the magistrate. He also takes occasion in passing (pp. 426–430) to express his indignation at Col. John Fry (1609–57), who had been elected to Parliament by the Independents in 1648, had supported efforts for Biddle’s release from prison the following year, and being accused of holding blasphemous views had published in defence two plain-spoken pamphlets in which he spoke disrespectfully of the Trinity, extolled the use of reason in religion, and cast ridicule upon the clergy. His books were ordered burnt, and he was expelled from Parliament in 1651.12
The cases of Webberley at Oxford and Fry in Parliament may be taken as manifestations, appearing on the surface at the Universities and in public life, of a ferment widely active in the minds of English Protestants during the period when matters of religious organization were so much disturbing the nation. This ferment was also shown in various little groups unconnected with either the Church or Puritanism, as well as in numerous polemical works which mirror for us the life of the time. Thus toward the middle of the century, when the Baptists were beginning to flock by themselves, it is reported that in 1644 at Bath and Bristol the human nature of Christ and the unipersonality of God were discussed, and were also extensively propagated in that part of England. It was also remarked that the Independents, in their attachment to toleration, had in their congregations many Socinians and others of doubtful orthodoxy.13 These alarming symptoms were noted and deplored by orthodox writers in a steady stream of books. Thus the Rev. Thomas Edwards (1599–1647), one of the most zealous supporters of the Presbyterian party, in his Antapologia (London, 1644) attacked the Independents for their doctrinal laxity, and especially the Rev. John Goodwin, the boldest of their ministers, who was soon to translate Acontius into English. In the following year Edwards followed with intemperate fury in a much more extreme work, Gangraena: or, a catalogue and discovery of the errours, Heresies, Blasphemies vented and acted in England in these last four years (London, 1645), in which he showed the ruinous results of toleration by enumerating 16 sorts of sectaries and 176 ‘errours, heresies and blasphemies’ then current (a later edition considerably amplified the catalogue),14 of which 25 or more might be regarded as more or less Socinian. This abusive and grossly exaggerated book, which seems to have drawn freely from unverified loose rumors, called forth several spirited answers, especially Goodwin’s Cretensis: or, a brief answer to an ulcerous treatise — . . intituled Gangraena (London, 1646); Edwards’s final rejoinder to which (1647) treated ‘toleration and pretended liberty of conscience’ as ‘the last and strongest hold of Satan.’
A much more temperate book than Edwards’s, published in the same year, was Heraesiography (London, 1645) by the Rev. Ephraim Pagitt (1575–1647), who paid due attention to Arians and Socinians.15 The last action in this particular campaign was the publication of Dr. John Bastwick’s Utter Routing of the whole Army of all the Independents and Sectaries (London, 1646), whose author evidently considered the fight as good as won. Nevertheless Socinianism continued unchecked. Cheynell complained as late as 1650 16 that ‘since the beginning of the year 1545 there have been many blasphemous bookes to the great dishonour of the blessed Trinity printed in England.’ When the struggle was just about to reach its culmination between the slowly waning power of the Presbyterians, who in matters of religion urged strict and forcible repression of all heresy, and the steadily rising power of the Independents, who favored a policy of reasonable toleration, there appeared an English translation of the first four books of Acontius’s Stratgems (done, though anonymously, by an Independent minister, the Rev. John Goodwin above mentioned), dedicated to the Lords and Commons, and prefaced by a challenging introduction.17 It was reported to the Assembly of Divines, who were greatly excited, and voted that it be examined with all speed. The report was promptly made by Cheynell to whom it had been referred, and was unfavorable enough; but the Assembly had no power to decree punishment.
Parallel with these occurrences was the test case of Paul Best (1590–1657), Member of Parliament, who in 1645 was charged before the House with blasphemy in denying the Trinity and the deity of Christ. He was a gentleman of Yorkshire, who upon inheriting property left his studies at Cambridge and traveled in far countries in search of knowledge. In Germany, Poland and Transylvania he became interested in theology, had intercourse with Unitarians, and adopted their doctrines. Returning home, he communicated his new views as to the Trinity, privately and in confidence, to a clergyman whom he believed his friend, but who proved to be a tell-tale and at once reported him to the authorities. While his case was before the House he was long held in close prison, but was at length convicted and sentenced to be hanged. Though the authorities evidently wished him to be put to death, yet they were reluctant to incure public resentment, and deferred action. Hence after being held a year and a half he petitioned for release. At length after more than two years he made a conciliatory statement, though not a retractation, and in 1647 was quietly released, probably through Cromwell’s influence.18
The cumulation of events above related — the two books by Cheynell, the similar books of Edwards and Pagitt, the cases of Webberley at Oxford and Fry and Best in Parliament, and the daring reprint of Acontius — at last spurred Parliament, all the time under pressure from the Westminster Assembly, to face the situation and take some drastic action. The Presbyterians in Parliament had some months before prepared a law for the punishment of heresies, but the sentiment against it was so strong that they had not ventured to bring it to a vote. But now, highly excited by recent events, finding that they had again a majority in the House, they ordered it to be brought in, and on May 2, 1648, there was passed, though not without strong opposition, `An Ordinance of the Lords and Commons assembled in Parliament, for punishing Blasphemies and Heresies,' which has been justly styled the `Draconic Ordinance.’19 This shocking law was the final effort of the Presbyterian party to suppress freedom of discussion by public law. It is quite too long for quotation; but it provides with great particularity that `all persons that willingly, by preaching, teaching, printing or writing, maintain and publish that the Father is not God, the Son is not God, or that the Holy Ghost is not God, or that they three are not one eternal God, or that Christ is not God equal with the Father [besides seven other named heresies], shall be adjudged guilty of felony; and in case the party upon his trial shall not adjure his said error he shall suffer the pains of death, without benefit of clergy.’ The ordinance also specifies sixteen less serious errors to be punished by imprisonment. But the fact is that though the ordinance was passed it was never enforced. Dissensions broke out among the members of the House of Commons, many of both privates and officers in the army were amenable to the law, and the Presbyterian power in Parliament was tottering to its fall before the rising Independents. The ordinance therefore remained a dead letter, and seven months later Pride's Purge gave it the coup de grace.
It was fortunate for the Unitarian cause in England that this was so, for otherwise the first Englishman to avow Unitarian beliefs boldly and clearly, and to publish them fearlessly, undeterred by repeated imprisonments, must assuredly have fallen victim to the ordinance, which the guardians of orthodoxy were ready to invoke against him. His life and writings deserve our especial attention since, in contrast to the various isolated and disconnected instances thus far reviewed, they constitute the effectual beginning of what was henceforth to be a continuous and connected historical movement. During the same period in which the attention of the Long Parliament and the Westminster Assembly was being drawn to dangerous outbreaks of Socinian heresy at Oxford and even in Parliament itself, and alarm against them was being stirred up by books from guardians of the faith, similar trouble, independently of these, was brewing in another quarter at a distance from the capital. Its fountainhead was one John Biddle,20 born in 1615 at Wotton-under-edge in Gloucestershire, the son of a tailor or woolen-draper. In the local school he early showed such promise as to attract the attention of Lord Berkeley, who assisted him in his preparation for the University. At nineteen he became a student in Magdalen Hall,21 Oxford, where in due time he took his first degree, became tutor, and in 1641 was given the degree of M. A. Even as an undergraduate he was remarked for his independence of mind, being ‘determined more by reason than authority’; and his reputation as scholar and teacher was such that soon after graduation he was on recommendation from the University elected master of the Crypt free Grammar-school at Gloucester,22 where he came to be much esteemed as a teacher and for his personal character.
Continuing here his study of the Scriptures, he became so familiar with the New Testament that he knew it by heart, in both Greek and English, all but the last few chapters; the result of which was that, though he had hitherto read no Socinian writer, he became convinced that the common doctrine of the Trinity has no support in either Scripture or reason. He told others of his view, and in 1644 he was promptly reported to the Magistrates, who called him to account for heresy. In defence he submitted a confession of his faith, which was indeed unacceptable, though when he had rewritten it under pressure it was allowed to pass. But as his conscience was not at ease, he now carefully drew up XII Arguments drawn out of the Scripture, refuting the traditional doctrine of the Godhead of the Holy Spirit. Each argument is stated in form of an exact syllogism, resting at every step solely on statements of Scripture. They all go to establish the point that the Holy Spirit, instead of being a person in the supreme Deity, is an intelligent person distinct from God. Biddle had composed these arguments for the personal use of his friends, but one of them proved false and betrayed him to the Magistrate. Though ill of a fever he was lodged in jail to secure his appearance when Parliament should call up his case. He was soon set at large, however, on the security of a gentleman in Gloucester, and it was six months before he was summoned to appear before Parliament. At the middle of 1546 Archbishop Usher of Ireland passing through visited Biddle and tried to convince him of error, resting his argument on the tradition of the Church; but Biddle remained unmoved, and soon afterwards was summoned to appear in London. Here he freely admitted that he denied the deity of the Holy Spirit, and asked leave to discuss the subject with some competent theologian; but whether the members were preoccupied with more urgent matters, or had doubts of securing a conviction, the case was allowed to drag on until the next spring when, impatient of his long detention without trial, he wrote an urgent letter of appeal to the younger Sir Henry Vane, who had years before been a near contemporary of his in Magdalen Hall, and was now a member of the House of Commons, where he had been a member of the committee to whom Biddle’s case had been referred, and was known to be of liberal sympathies. Biddle besought him in pity either to have his case brought up for decision, or to procure his discharge.23 Sir Henry’s efforts were ineffectual, and nothing was accomplished. Instead Biddle was placed in the custody of one of the officers of the House and was still kept under restraint for the next five years. It was apparently an easy confinement, for his case was referred to the Assembly of Divines for consideration, and he often appeared before them to argue his cause, though without result. He had ample leisure for study, and was supplied with materials for writing, and his friends were evidently permitted to see him. He thus did not pass his time in idleness, and it is clear that his mind and pen kept busy with the theme nearest his heart. If his cause could not have a hearing in Parliament, he determined that the public at large should judge of it through the aid of the press. Accordingly he now put into print his XII Arguments (together with his letter to Vane), hoping thus to call attention to his case and perchance to elicit some reply to his views.
The publication of this little tract of less than a score of pages created a great sensation. Biddle was at once summoned to appear at the bar of the House, where he acknowledged his responsibility, and was then sent back to prison. His blasphemous pamphlet was called in and burnt by the hangman,24 but the demand for it was so great that a second edition was printed before the end of the year. This event, together with the reprint of Acontius's book, the case of Webberley at Oxford, and those of Paul Best and Col. Fry in Parliament, all falling at just this time, led to an urgent demand for Biddle's death, and to the hurried enactment of the Draconic Ordinance mentioned above. Unterrified by the ordinance, and meanwhile grown more confident and bold, Biddle now took the aggressive and followed up his tract on the Holy Spirit with two others of greater compass the same year: A Confession of Faith touching the Holy Trinity according to the Scripture; and, The Testimonies [of six early Fathers and six later writers] concerning that one God, and the Persons of the Holy Trinity. In these tracts Biddle shows thought more mature than in the former one. While he still closely follows Scripture, he goes on to comment on it at length, arguing his case, and appealing to reason as well as to Bible texts. He has now become acquainted with writings of Socinus, though not accepting his view that the Holy Spirit is only a divine power. While he sets forth various evils that have come from the doctrine of the Trinity, and make it a stumbling-block to faith, he still believes in a sort of Trinity, though not in an equal deity of the three persons, since Christ is a strictly human being. In support of his views he cites at length the writings of Church Fathers, not as authorities, but in order to confute those that appeal to them.
Biddle's three little works were not suffered to go without reply. The Rev. Nicolas Estwick, pastor of a congregation in Northants, published (London, 1648) an answer to the XII Arguments, entitled Pneumatologia: or, A Treatise of the Holy Ghost, in which the Godhead of the third Person of the Trinitie is . . . defended against the Sophisticall subtleties of John Bidle. The author undertakes to prove the deity of the Holy Ghost by Scripture and reason, answers Biddle's arguments seriatim, and ends by claiming victory. 25 In the same year also William Russell, who had been a boyhood schoolmate of Biddle, issued another answer to his little tract, entitled Blasphemoktonia: the Holy Ghost vindicated (London, I648), and again in the same year appeared yet another reply, written by the celebrated Presbyterian scholar, the Rev. Matthew Poole, and entitled Blasphemaktonia: The Blasphemer Slain; or, a Plea for the Godhood of the Holy Ghost, vindicated from the cavils of J. Bidle (London, 1648; ed. 2, 1654). To these replies Biddle made no rejoinder, whether because he had already stated his case so forcibly that he was content to let it rest there, or because he was now too much occupied with other interests in that exciting period to have a taste for fruitless controversy. Nor in all the long six years of his imprisonment, with all the many divines then sitting in the Assembly at Westminster, was he ever visited by any minister save one, an eager controversialist who later became Bishop Gunning of Ely.
Along with those, however, that reviled Biddle, and persecuted him, and said all manner of evil against him, he had also contemporaries that thought well of him, sought his companionship, and became his disciples. Not to mention Col. John Fry and Paul Best,26 whose cases were up in Parliament in the very period of Biddle's long imprisonment, and who may or may not have been influenced by his writings, at least two preachers openly espoused his views of Christian doctrine. One of these was the Rev. John Cooper of Cheltenham near Gloucester.27 He was born at Worcester in 1622, and after studying in Balliol College, Oxford, succeeded Biddle (though not immediately) in 1647 as Master of the Crypt School. This post he held until 1652, when with the allowance of Parliament still under Presbyterian influence he became minister of the near-by Cheltenham parish church, which he held until about 1660, when he was ejected.28 After this he continued minister of a little group of liberal Nonconformists at Cheltenham 29 until his death in 1665.30 That he had been much influenced by Biddle can scarcely be doubted; and a few months before Biddle's death one of his disciples named Hedworth 31 endeavored to bring Cooper and Knowles of Pershore a few miles away, to Oxford, in order to meet Christopher Crellius, one of the exiled Polish Socinians, who had come to England to solicit aid for the exiled brethren at Kreuzburg.32 Cooper's health forbade him to make the journey, though a year or so later he reports having collected a few pounds for the exiles. His congregation survived him a few years, and then dwindled away. The modern Unitarian church at Cheltenham is not descended from this movement.
The other preacher mentioned as a follower of Biddle was John Knowles.33 It is likely that he was a native of Gloucester, and that he there had relations with Biddle. He was an Independent lay preacher in 1648 and a thorough New Testament scholar, and at about the same time with Biddle's troubles there he was called before the Parliamentary Committee at Gloucester and questioned, being suspected of being an Antitrinitarian. In his reply he confessed some doubts on the subject, and admitted having been with Biddle, but was evidently let off. We next find him serving in the parliamentary army, and in 1650 as a lay preacher serving for a short time as chaplain of the garrison at Chester. His preaching in this office stands as the earliest recorded case of avowed Antitrinitarianism in an English pulpit. The Rev. Samuel Eaton, a prominent man of the period in Cheshire, was his predecessor in this post, and had removed elsewhere. He became deeply concerned upon hearing that Knowles was preaching Arianism, and sent his old congregation a paper on the Godhead of Christ. To counter this, Knowles circulated anonymously Biddle's Confession of Faith; and a controversy between the two ensued.34 The Council of State now took a hand, and ordered an investigation of Knowles, but he had already left Chester. He was followed to Gloucester, and there was ordered to be examined by the Mayor as to his preaching against the deity of Christ. Later in London he had probably been one of the little group that gathered about Biddle in one of the free periods before or after his island imprisonment, and at length settled down to a quiet life among his books at a friend's house at Pershore. Here for some years he devoted himself to reading, at the same time carrying on an interesting correspondence with Henry Hedworth (to be spoken of below), concerning the interests of Biddle and his disciples, and he was also active in collecting money in aid of the Polish exiles, as Cooper was doing. In 1665 he was arrested (possibly on suspicion of sedition against Charles II) and taken to London under guard, where he was held in prison for about a year in the time of the plague. When friends had secured his release, he is supposed to have preached to the group of Biddle's followers, while he mingled with the London clergy and was well esteemed by them, and with one of them had a brief doctrinal controversy.35 We have no further record of him save that dying he bequeathed his books to the library at Gloucester, and left a third of his property for the relief of men suffering religious persecution, and for other charities.
In connection with Cooper and Knowles mention has been made of Henry Hedworth (1626–1705),36 a gentleman of Huntingdon, who in the background worked modestly but effectively to forward their common cause. He was a friend and supporter of Biddle, with whose little group in London he had intimate relations, one of whom writes of him as ‘a gentleman of excellent learning and worth.’37 Cooper held him in very high esteem, and the sentiment was reciprocal. He evidently had the time and means to be often with the brethren in London and to share their enterprise, and he was able also to journey to Holland to meet Polish or Transylvanian Unitarians there, and to make them his guests in England. He thus took Christopher Crellius to Oxford to meet liberal spirits there, circulated his letter of appeal, and otherwise assisted him in 1662 in his campaign for raising funds for his countrymen in exile; and he later brought over from Holland a Transylvanian Unitarian38 for a visit of ten days. After Biddle's death he tried to persuade Knowles to come to London and shepherd the bereaved little flock, who were but few in number, held their meetings in great secrecy, and were sadly in want of competent leadership. Late in life he cooperated with Firmin and Nye in publishing the first three volumes of "Unitarian Tracts," 1691–95. He died in London in 1705 at the age of 78. Meanwhile Hedworth fell into controversy with the Quakers, in which William Penn took part. To this he contributed two pamphlets, The Spirit of the Quakers Tryed, and, Controversy Ended (London, 1672/3), in which he charges the Quakers with equivocation as to the divinity of Christ. The second of these books is noteworthy for the fact that it contains the earliest known instance of the word Unitarian in English print.39 Hedworth evidently picked up this term from the Transylvanian Unitarians whom he met in Holland, and found it more acceptable than the term Socinian, which recent controversies had made odious. Penn at once adopted it, and it became henceforth the accepted designation, and gradually supplanted the other term.
To return now from Biddle's chief friends and disciples to the experiences of Biddle himself. After the death of Charles I in the first month of 1649, and the rising of the Westminster Assembly a month later, and the rise of Cromwell to commanding influence, with his clear leaning toward reasonable toleration, the situation of Biddle in custody seems to have been somewhat relieved. Persons that had become interested in him were allowed to visit him, and among them some of influence. Of these one was a gentleman of Staffordshire, a Justice of the Peace, who having given security was allowed to take him into the country, made him his chaplain, had him appointed preacher at a neighboring church, and finally left him a legacy. When this became known to the presiding Judge in London, he at once recalled Biddle and had him more strictly confined than before. In this closer confinement Biddle soon began to suffer extreme want, and was at length reduced to a bare diet of milk morning and night, until the kindness of one that knew of his fine scholarship procured him employment as a corrector of proof of a new critical edition of the Septuagint then in process of publication.40 Early in 1651/2 Cromwell secured the passage of an Act of Oblivion which set free (with a few exceptions) all that stood accused of any crime. Biddle, being thus restored to liberty, at once improved it by gathering a little congregation of his friends, who met every Sunday for worship and the study of the Scriptures.41 These meetings, freely discussing doctrinal questions in the light of Scripture teachings, came to a number of fresh conclusions, which seem to be reported to us in a work by Sir Peter Pett (1630–99),42 who was apparently one of the participants. As reported, their conclusions went a good way beyond merely the doctrine of the Trinity and the deity of Christ. The group were at first known as Biddellians, or Socinians, and their meetings became so well known as to give offence to the London ministers, though there was no law under which they could be suppressed; but Dr. Gunning, who had already visited Biddle in prison, and was keen in pursuit of heresy, sought to attain his end in another way. He came one day to the meeting, with witnesses, and boldly interrupted the proceedings by beginning without warning a scholastic disputation on the deity of the Holy Spirit, in which Biddle, though unprepared, sustained his part well. His opponent returned the second and yet the third time, but to no purpose.
Biddle found that his cause of a reformed scriptural religion had not stood still during his absence from the scene. An Oxford scholar, Thomas Lushington, suspected of Socinianism, who had some years earlier published a translation of a Socinian work, Crellius's Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, had now also published one of Schlichting's Commentary on Galatians.43 Also a new edition of the Racovian Catechism, in Latin, an earlier edition of which had been burnt by King James in 1644,44 had been brought out in London (with the imprint "Racovia") in 1651–2, supposedly at his instigation, with a brief life of Socinus appended. It was ordered burnt in the following month.45 In the same year an English translation which some ascribed to him 46 was also published, ostensibly at "Amsterledam" but actually in London. Meantime Biddle's writings were reaching Holland. Professor Johannes Cloppenburg of the Frisian university at Franeker obtained from a Scottish gentleman named William Hamilton, whom he met at Bristol, a copy of Biddle's XIIArguments, and discussed the tract with him. Then returning home he shortly before his death put his defence of the doctrine into print in a writing47 three or four times as long, evidently fearing that Biddle might bring new strength to the Socinianism in Holland which he had but lately been endeavoring to refute. At about the same time the Oxford Divines had become so much alarmed by the publication of the Racovian Catechism in England that they requested Dr. John Owen, Vice-Chancellor of the University, to refute its teaching. Hence he published his Diatriba de Justicia Divina; seu Justiciae Vindicatricis Vindiciae (Oxoniae, 1653), in which he attacked the Socinian writings then becoming notorious, not only the Racovian Catechism, but also works of Crellius and Socinus, and endeavored to answer their arguments.48 In this year Biddle (no doubt subsidized by his followers as a missionary enterprise for their cause) published several little writings, some if not all of which he had himself translated.49 These little writings taken together were designed to soften religious prejudice, and to recommend that Christians should decide all questions in dispute by Scripture interpreted by reason rather than by reference to creeds or traditions, and to advocate mutual toleration.50
Toward the end of 1653 Cromwell was made Protector of the Commonwealth, and his first official act was to set forth an Instrument of Government in forty-two articles, which he took oath faithfully to observe. In the three articles relating to religion, freedom of worship was guaranteed to all professing Christians, and protection of all in the exercize of their religion was promised to all professing the fundamentals of Christianity. These fundamentals indeed were not specified, and a committee was named to determine the matter; but before their report was adopted Parliament was dissolved, and nothing more was heard of it.51 As Cromwell was known to be a friend of religious freedom, Biddle took fresh courage and renewed his activities. After the middle of the year, therefore, he published A Twofold Catechism: the One simply called a Scripture-Catechism: the Other, a brief Scripture-Catechism for Children.52These Catechisms were perhaps deliberately intended to offer the public an offset to the two Westminster Catechisms already widely circulated. The contrast between them is very striking. The one presents the Protestant doctrinal system in conventional terms under the categories of Calvinism; the other presents the Christian faith in simple terms in the very language of Scripture, ‘composed for their sakes that would fain be meer Christians and not of this or that sect.’ It does not directly attack controverted doctrines, but either ignores them outright, or else at most asks questions so skilfully framed that the answers, taken from Scripture itself, force the reader to the desired conclusions.53 In his preface Biddle complains that existing catechisms seem to be based not on the word of God, but on confessions composed by men and having little relation to Scripture, and he urges the reader to take the language of Scripture literally, and to discard terms invented by men. With this introduction he proceeds in twenty-four chapters to cover briefly the whole range of Christian doctrine and duty. Apart from its being in its language much simpler than the existing catechisms, and its rejecting the doctrine of the Trinity and of the deity of Christ, perhaps its most striking feature, and the one that invited the sharpest criticism was its literal acceptance of scripture references to God, whom it took to be a visible, tangible person, in form like a man, inhabiting a certain place, having human parts and passions, and limited in knowledge — in short, the crudest anthropomorphism.
The reaction of foreign theologians was prompt and decisive. Nicolaus Arnold, a Polish scholar who had come to fame as Professor at the University of Franeker, and was just publishing a large work in which his students had refuted the Racovian Catechism topic by topic in forty-six separate disputations,54 interrupted his preface to note the appearance of the new book and brand it as Socinian, and promised a refutation of it in due time.55 The promised work was delayed for several years, but it was at length issued to counteract the influence in Holland of books then so easily brought over from England, which might otherwise add strength to the spreading Socinianism and Anabaptism. It confutes in order the chapters of the Catechism. In the same summer with Arnold's earlier work appeared the second volume of a work by Samuel Maresius (Des Marets),56 Professor at Groningen, in the preface to which he utters a lament as to ‘this sad time, when the Socinian plague, deservedly called the culmination of all wickedness, seems now to have established its capital in England . . . whence there has just been brought over a Two-fold Catechism in English, published in London, which seems to be snatching the palm from that of Raków.’ He then goes on to fill a whole page with the dreadful errors with which this deadly book teems. Among other things, he is alarmed that the new book has appended a catalogue of Socinian books to be had in English, thus indicating that Socinus himself seems now to be in high esteem with the English people.
While Dutch theologians were thus concerned with Biddle's latest (and last) work, it was by no means overlooked by the guardians of orthodoxy in England. No more than mentioning a brief belated reply 57 to his earlier writings, and an enlarged reprint in 1655 of Poole's Blasphemer Slain (ed. I, 1647) we notice first an anonymous parody on the Scripture Catechism, entitled Biddle Dispossesst, or his Scripture perverting Catechism reformed by Scripture (London, 1654). When the attention of Parliament was finally called to Biddle's outspoken book, the members were quick to take action. He was brought to bar in September and examined; and in due time the committee reported that his book contained many blasphemous and heretical opinions, whereupon it was voted that all copies be seized and burnt by the common hangman, and that Biddle himself be committed to close imprisonment, which was done on December 13, and the books burnt the next day.58 The Presbyterians also urged that he be put to death, but there was evidently much opposition, and finally at the end of May he was set free. Meantime Parliament had ventured to try the method of reason instead of force to stem the mischief of his books. The Council of State requested Dr. John Owen, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, an Independent minister and a celebrated theologian of great learning, to prepare a reply to Biddle; which he did, under the title of Vindiciae Evangelicae ... in confutation of a Scripture Catechism written by J. Biddle (Oxford, 1655) 59 It has been well called `a learned and elaborate treatise,' and consists of nearly 700 8° pages as compared with the 140 little pages of the work criticized. The author lays his background in a lengthy preface in which he sketches the history of Socinianism and its antecedents from the earliest heretics down, and concludes with this warning for the present: ‘Doe not look upon these things, as things a far off, wherein you are little concerned: the evil is at the doore; there is not a Citty, a Towne, scarce a village in England, wherein some of this poyson is not poured forth.’60 He takes some offence that Dutch writers have taken it upon themselves to confute an English writer as though it were their own affair; but he then goes on to examine Biddle chapter by chapter, beginning with 40 pages on Biddle's preface of 5; and midway of his treatment he interpolates 150 pages in criticism of that part of the Racovian Catechism dealing with the person and offices of Christ, which seemed to him to merit more attention. The discussion is solid and scholarly throughout, and brings together wellnigh everything that is to be said on the subject; and it must be admitted that his close reasoning exposes many weak points in Biddle's strict literalism.
All the time that Biddle lay in prison, the sentence of death was hanging threateningly over his head; but before the matter could be brought to a vote Parliament was dissolved with his case still undetermined. At length, after nearly six months, the charge against him was abandoned and he was set free. In the meantime interest in him had increased, the demand for his Catechism had grown, and his followers had multiplied so that he at once resumed his meetings with them. But in less than a month he was again in difficulty. Several of his followers had been members of a Baptist church, whose minister, the Rev. John Griffin, took alarm and challenged Biddle to a public disputation on the supreme deity of Christ ,61 to be held in his own meeting-house. Before the discussion could be concluded a group of bigoted fanatics, composed of three booksellers in St. Paul's Churchyard, filed an information against Biddle and caused his arrest on a charge of blasphemy and heresy under the ‘Draconic Ordinance’ of 1648, which had lain dormant so long that it was supposed to be obsolete, and to be superseded by Cromwell's Instrument of Government.62 Biddle was then indicted and committed to prison, where counsel was reluctantly granted him. Cromwell now, being baited on the one side by Presbyterians and Independents who pressed for the enforcing of the law against blasphemy, and on the other by Baptists and other friends of liberty who relied on his sworn promise to guarantee religious freedom, was forced to realize that whether Biddle were acquitted or condemned his government would be embarrassed. He therefore cut the knot by taking the case into his own hands. Accordingly, after detaining him for some months in Newgate, he banished Biddle to the Scilly Islands, for life imprisonment in St. Mary's Castle. During the time both before and after his banishment, both Biddle's friends and his enemies were active in his case. He himself wrote letters of appeal to Cromwell and the President of the Council; and two anonymous narratives were published, evidently from Baptist sources. Also a signed petition from several London churches, which had first been presented to Cromwell in 1551 asking for repeal of the Draconic Ordinance, was now presented again.63 A Petition to the Officers and Souldiers of the Army, etc., asking for Biddle's release followed early the next year. Biddle, however, was now for the time beyond the reach of harm or help, and so remained for three years, during which his situation was somewhat relieved by a grant from Cromwell of a hundred crowns a year for subsistence, while he occupied his time in further study of the Bible. His friends continued to sue for his release, and at length he was brought up to London and, no accuser appearing, was discharged but a few months before Cromwell's death. During Biddle's retirement but two controversial works had appeared besides Estwick's belated reply referred to above,64 neither of them of much consequence. One of these was the Rev. Nicholas Chewney's Anti-Socinianism (London, 1656), which in fact had nothing to do with Biddle (though it had appended to it a little writing entitled Haeresiarchae, or a Cage of Unclean Birds, being brief sketches of a score of earlier writers in the Socinian tradition), but was a reply to a New England writer's recent book, supposed to be Socinian in tone,65 and the Rev. Edward Bagshawe's Dissertationes Duae Antisocinianae, in quibus probatur Socinianos non debere dici Christianos (London, 1657).
Biddle's little company of followers in London apparently held together during his imprisonment; for as soon as he was set at liberty he began, true to form, to meet with them again in meetings held every Sunday afternoon. But within a few months Cromwell died; and as the new Parliament called by his successor was expected to be hostile to Biddle, he was persuaded by a noble friend to retire into the country for as long as the session continued, after which he returned to his place. After the restoration of Charles II to the throne (1660), and the revival of episcopacy in the Church, non-conformist worship fell under the ban, and Biddle refrained from public meetings, and held his private ones more seldom; but within less than two months officers discovered them, entered his lodgings where he was worshiping with a few friends, and haled them all away to prison without bail. At first no law could be found under which they could be indicted, but at length action was taken under the common law, ending in a fine of twenty pounds for each save Biddle, who was fined one hundred pounds. Being unable to pay this he was retained in prison. In less than a month, overcome by the close and foul air, he fell victim to a dangerous disease, and though he was finally allowed to be removed, he expired two days later (September 22, 1662) in his 47th year, having said, as he saw the end approaching, that ‘the work was done.’66
In what has been said of Biddle, we have been mostly concerned with his writings and his sufferings as a reformer of Christian doctrines; but his earliest biographer judged that his greatest merit lay not in his efforts to spread his views of religious truth, but in his zeal for promoting holiness of life and manners, which was always his final aim in teaching. For he used to tell his friends that no religion would benefit a bad man; and he had little interest in doctrines as such apart from a reverent, godly life to which they contributed. Unlike many religious controversialists he was not by nature quarrelsome or opinionated; but as a scholar who had given long consideration to the matters involved, and was true to his convictions, he was content to state his case and let the evidence he offered speak for itself. Hence he was modest and self-effacing in bearing, and tolerant of differences in opinion. As to his personal character, he was irreproachable in conduct, temperate in food and drink, and earnest in the cultivation of a life in every way virtuous; while in matters relating to religion or the Scriptures he was to the highest degree reverent in speech and action. His little band apparently did not long outlast his leadership of it, for no competent leader appeared, and the danger of severe persecution was ever present. Two or three, however, are known to us, on whom his influence was marked and enduring, who faithfully watched the seed that he had sown, and a short generation later brought about a revival of his writings and teachings as part of a movement that had a profound effect in the development of thought and policy in the Church of England. We shall trace this movement in the next chapter.
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