AT THE VERY JUNCTURE when the Trinitarian Controversy in the established Church was fading away, and the Arian movement had not yet developed in either the Church or Dissent, an interesting case occurred in a quarter somewhat apart from the centers of religious thought in England, which yet forms a sort of connecting link between the controversies in the Church that have been related in the last two chapters, and the Arian movement among the Dissenters with which the present chapter will deal. The field of this episode was in Dublin, and its central figure was the Presbyterian minister, Thomas Emlyn (1663–1741).1 Though born of parents that were of the Church, he was educated in Dissenting Academies and prepared for a ministry among the Presbyterians. He began his ministry by serving for five years as chaplain to a lady in the North of Ireland, and was afterwards for a short time minister of a congregation at Lowestoft in Suffolk. Here he made the acquaintance of a neighboring Independent minister,2 and the two discussed together Sherlock's Vindication of the Trinity, with the result that his friend became a convinced Socinian, and Emlyn an Arian. Called in 1691 to be associate minister of the important Presbyterian church in Wood Street, Dublin, he soon became much beloved for both his preaching and his personal relations as a diligent pastor. In his preaching he avoided reference to controversial doctrines lest he give needless offence, and confined himself to practical subjects. Thus for eleven years he gave great satisfaction to his congregation and to his older colleague, Mr. Boyse; but at length an influential member of the congregation, noting the omission of any reference to the doctrine of the Trinity, called on Emlyn to account for the omission. He frankly owned that he believed in the supreme deity of the Father alone, but offered to resign his charge if that were desired. The Dublin ministers seem to have exercized some authority over the individual congregations, and when the matter was reported to them they immediately forbade him to occupy his pulpit longer; but when he offered to the officers of his own congregation to resign, they asked him instead to take a leave of absence in London, hoping that in his absence the trouble would blow over. On the contrary, his critics took advantage of their opportunity by violent attacks from their pulpits to stir up great odium against him, and to write accusing letters to the London ministers. When after some ten weeks' absence Emlyn returned to Dublin to attend to family affairs, he found it necessary, in selfdefence against the evil things that were being said of him, to publish a tract entitled, An Humble Inquiry into the Scripture Account of Jesus Christ (1702),3 intending at once to return to England. Before he could do so, however, two of the most bigoted Dissenters procured his arrest and prosecution before a secular court on a charge of blasphemy.
The conduct of the trial that followed, with two Archbishops sitting upon the bench, was marked by extreme prejudice and unfairness, and Emlyn was refused permission to speak for himself. The jury, overawed, found him guilty ‘of writing and publishing an infamous and scandalous libel declaring that Jesus Christ is not the supreme God.’ He barely escaped the pillory, and was sentenced to a year's imprisonment, and to pay a fine of £1,000; the Chief Justice adding that had it been in Spain or Portugal the punishment would have been death at the stake. The exorbitant fine was quite beyond Emlyn's ability to pay, and he therefore lay in prison for more than two years, during which time not one of his former associates among the Dissenting ministers (save only his late colleague, Mr. Boyse) visited him. His enforced leisure he occupied in writing, and on Sundays he held religious services, preaching to his fellow-prisoners and some of his old congregation who gathered to hear him. At length after repeated appeals, his friends secured favor for him, and got his fine reduced to £70, which was paid; but even then the Archbishop at first insisted on a shilling in the pound of the whole fine, which the law allowed him, though at length he grudgingly agreed to a reduction to £20. A famous liberal Bishop gave a sarcastic summary of the case in words that have often been quoted: ‘The Non-conformists accused him, the Conformists condemned him, the Secular power was called in, and the cause ended in an imprisonment and a very great fine: two methods of conviction about which the gospel is silent.’ 4 The case of Emlyn aroused wide sympathy in London, though few ventured to give open evidence of it; but he was the last Dissenter to suffer imprisonment for denial of the Trinity.5
Just before his release, the anti-Arian General Synod of Ulster, in June, 1705, made subscription to the Westminster Confession compulsory for candidates for the ministry. After his release he returned to London, where finding no Dissenting pulpit open to him, he preached for several years to a dwindling congregation at Cutlers' Hall without pay. The Dissenting ministers were apparently reluctant to incur suspicion of approving his heresy, though two General Baptist brethren opened to him their pulpit in the Barbican. He was in narrow circumstances, but he was honored by many, both in the Church and among the Dissenters, as one that had suffered more than any other man of his time for freedom of conscience; and he lived to enjoy an intimate friendship with Whiston and Clarke, who also had experienced what it is to suffer for conscience' sake. An effort to have him prosecuted in London for his views proved abortive. His Humble Inquiry had much influence on the still smoldering controversy in the Church; and it is notable for having been the only English Unitarian book reprinted in America before the rise of the Unitarian Controversy there.6 As time went on he became increasingly busy with his pen, and his writings, all written with force and learning, had no little influence in the discussions of the Trinity and the deity of Christ.7 He was thus a link between the Socinians in the Church in the seventeenth century, who included some of his tracts among their own, and the Arian Dissenters. In 1726, upon the death of the Rev. James Peirce of Exeter, minister of a congregation that had separated from the Presbyterians on the issue of Arianism, Emlyn was approached about becoming his successor; but in view of his declining years and infirm health he felt bound to decline the attractive offer. He lived, however, until 1743, when he died in his eighty-first year.
Emlyn was pleased to describe himself as ‘a true Scriptural Trinitarian,’ and to insist that he worshiped Christ ‘on Unitarian principles.’ But it is more accurate to call him an Arian in the sense of the term then current in England; while he was the first minister who publicly took the Unitarian name then gradually coming into use. He held, indeed, that Christ was divine, but yet was God only in an inferior sense, and should be given only an inferior worship, not as the Supreme Being, but as an intercessor or mediator subordinate to the Father. His writings thus contributed much to prepare the way for the Arianism that (reenforced by the writings of Whiston and Clarke about to agitate the Church) was soon to dominate the progressive element among the Dissenters. Thought currents flowed swiftly at Dublin after Emlyn's trial. His co-minister heartily regretted the action taken, and did what he could to atone for it. Many of the members of his old church grew ashamed of it, and when he returned for occasional visits they received him with great kindness. His congregation fell off from the day of his leaving it. In less than a generation they called to their pulpit a minister of liberal sympathies, the Rev. John Abernethy who had already become the leader of the Non-subscribers in the North of Ireland; and in a half-century his old church had itself become Arian in tone, and steadily gravitated toward ultimate Unitarianism.
After following this interesting side-current in the history of religious liberty, more or less isolated from the course of affairs in England, we now return to trace the movement of the main stream. By the end of the seventeenth century the atmosphere of the Puritan element in English Christianity had grown much mellower than it had been in the days of the Commonwealth and the Westminster Assembly; and now with the passage of the Toleration Act the Dissenters, being at last guaranteed religious liberty and security, took on new life. Instead of worshiping longer in private houses, they began to build themselves at first plain chapels in back streets or alleys and later, as their strength grew, stately buildings in public view. In London, where the merchants and tradesmen were largely Dissenters, they converted more than twenty of the halls of the great trading guilds or companies into meeting-places, and fitted them up with pulpits, pews and galleries, or erected separate meeting-houses adjoining them. Taken together they were made up for the most part of the three bodies of Independents, Presbyterians and Baptists. The Independents were the most conservative in belief and generally strict Calvinists, and were the most democratic in spirit. The Presbyterians were not only quite the most numerous, but were also the most learned and wealthy and the most influential socially and politically, and they were drifting steadily away from Calvinism toward generous freedom in belief. The Baptists, while socially mostly of the humbler classes, were the most tolerant in doctrinal matters.8 Apparently the Presbyterians, influenced perhaps by their social and political traditions, had not escaped the influence of the controversies about the Trinity that had of late agitated the established Church; and it will presently be seen that as soon as the Arian Controversy became rife their aversion to creed subscription left them peculiarly open to influences from that direction. At all events, being once set free from the necessity of subscribing the Articles of the Church, they were little inclined to submit to a new bondage by enforcing subscription even to standards of their own. Although the Westminster Confession of the Presbyterians and the Savoy Confession of the Congregationalists still stood indeed as the nominal standards of their doctrine, yet attention was less and less fixed on them, and their high Calvinism was tending to be if not consciously outgrown, at least less emphasized and more ignored.
Besides the general influences already mentioned, tending in ways more or less undefined to open the way for Arianism, were two more active ones in the field of education: 1. the Dissenting schools and Academies to which they sent their youth for their education when the English Universities were closed against them, and 2. the Universities in Holland and Scotland to which those that could afford it repaired for their higher training, especially in preparation for the ministry. For the contribution that they made to our movement these deserve especial notice.9 When the Act of Uniformity was passed in 1662, and the nonconforming clergy were ejected from their livings and forbidden even to teach unless they would conform, many of them being among the best educated men in the kingdom, quietly evaded the law, and in order to get a living conducted private schools in their own homes. Despite the danger of prosecution, and having sometimes to remove from one remote place to another to escape arrest, they continued their work until many of these private schools grew and developed into Academies. Of these there were first and last more than eighty, of which at least twenty-two were founded by ejected ministers.10 Many of them, it is true, were small, had but one or two tutors and did not outlive their founders, who often, besides a heavy load of teaching, ministered to congregations on Sundays. They were widely scattered over the country, and varied in size from a bare handful of pupils to several score;11 but their tutors were men of ability and superior scholarship, and so thorough was the training given divinity students in their four or five years' course that they were sometimes admitted to the University degree at Edinburgh after a residence of only one year.
These Academies made a notable impress on English education in the eighteenth century and, when Dissenting students were debarred from entering the English Universities, furnished them a more thorough and a broader education than could at that time be had at Oxford or Cambridge. These, in their reaction from the exacting standards of the Puritan regime, had after the Restoration sunk, both intellectually and morally, to the lowest level in their history; while the Academies at this period, as has been well said, ‘were the greatest schools of their day, and stood immeasurably higher as regards efficiency than any other educational institutions.’12 Progressive in outlook, they broke new paths, employed new methods, replaced Latin by English as the medium of instruction, and emphasized the sciences, historical and social subjects, and the modern languages. The better Academies as a rule required no subscription to creeds, and in their theological teaching encouraged generous freedom of inquiry, and open discussion of various views or authorities or of varying interpretations of Scripture and the doctrines taught in it. Hence it was but natural that in the theological ferment of the seventeenth century not a few of the ministers educated in these Academies should have relaxed their doctrinal opinions and gravitated in the Arian direction.
It was naturally the ministers of the Dissenting churches that as religious teachers were to lead their congregations in the direction of Arianism and, after the Academies, these were most influenced by the foreign Universities to which many went for their higher training. For it was common for the better educated of the divinity students in the first half of the eighteenth century to repair to Holland, especially to the Universities at Leiden and Utrecht, which Socinian thought had for a generation been slowly penetrating, and moderating their former extreme Calvinism. Thus a considerable number of those who had studied there presently became leaders of the Arian movement among the Dissenters, among them Peirce and Hallet of Exeter, the famous New Testament scholar Nathaniel Lardner, and others. An even larger number went from the Academies to the Scottish Universities, where no theological tests were imposed, especially to Glasgow, where Francis Hutcheson the philosopher and William Leechman the theologian were teaching a broad theology, and shaping the thinking of many students from both England and the North of Ireland, who were to adopt Arian views and to spread them in their churches.13
It might easily be suspected that the Arian movement among Dissenters of the first half of the eighteenth century was an outgrowth of the Deism that had culminated a little earlier, and had seemed to leaders in the Church to offer much greater danger to religion than the views of Dr. Clarke; but such does not appear to have been the fact. The Deists (they preferred for themselves the name of Freethinkers) were largely men reared in the Church who considered themselves Christians, but who, influenced by the materialistic views of Hobbes and the rationalism of Locke, and the new views of the natural world that Newton had made current, aimed to make Christianity simpler and more rational by placing it on the solid foundation of Natural Religion alone. To this end they sought to eliminate all supernatural elements from the record, and all divine mysteries from the doctrines of the Church. Thus they tried, often in coarse and irreverent attacks, to discredit the divine authority of Scripture, and delighted to drag into light all the worst things that could be dug up out of the past history of the Church, as though these were characteristic of Christianity. Deism had able thinkers as its spokesmen, but their negative and critical spirit was such as to make them in effect practically enemies of organized religion. Nevertheless they compelled the Church to modify its apologetics and rest its defences of Christianity on more solid grounds. Its better elements were at length absorbed, somewhat transformed, into modern liberal religion, though this was not until modern biblical criticism and modern science and philosophy had prepared the way. While it is true that the doctrinal views of the Deists are in important respects similar to those of Unitarians of a later period, yet their divergences from those of the Arian Dissenters are no less marked; for while the Deists held that there was no revelation of religious truths outside of Nature, the Arians of the eighteenth century based their faith on the authority of Scripture, and believed in the Bible as a revelation of divine truth as devoutly as did the orthodox. Among the severest critics of Deism were leaders in the Arian camp such as Hallet, Foster, Benson, and above all Nathaniel Lardner with his classical work on The Credibility of the Gospel History (1727 and following) ; and the Arian interest among the Dissenters hardly took shape until the force of Deism was pretty well spent. 14
Springing from so wide a background of diverse influences, the nascent Arianism among the Dissenters is not easily traced. Many of the more progressive ministers, however, being no longer bound by the Westminster standards, though not venturing to invite censure or arouse heated controversy by avowing them openly, were doubtless more or less affected by liberal views. Before 1719, indeed, only three cases had appeared above the surface distinct enough to attract attention.15 But in 1717 an issue arose at Exeter that fanned all the smoldering embers into a flame, made it necessary for the hitherto latent and tacit Arians to declare themselves, and caused between them and the orthodox a permanent breach in the Nonconformist congregations. It has been called ‘one of the two momentous episodes in the history of Nonconformity in England.16 Nonconformity had long been strong in the West of England and nowhere more so than at Exeter, where early in the eighteenth century its adherents were both numerous and powerful. They had three congregations, administered under a modified Presbyterian regime by a joint committee of thirteen, the third being served in rotation by the ministers of the other two. Of the four ministers in 1717 three were liberal in their sympathies, and the fourth was, a strict Calvinist, though no division had occurred between them. One of the former was Joseph Hallet,17 the oldest minister at Exeter, son of an ejected minister of the same name. He also conducted an academy for divinity students, in which Arian views were quietly held, and by some were privately discussed. His own son had a clandestine correspondence with Whiston. Hallet's colleague, James Peirce 18 (note the spelling), was minister of the leading congregation, known as James's Meeting. He was a native of London, of good family; and being early orphaned he was brought up by an eminent Nonconformist minister. In his preparation for the ministry he went to Holland for five years' study under famous liberal scholars at Utrecht and Leiden.
Returning to England Peirce first served a congregation at Cambridge, where he formed an intimate friendship with Whiston, but after a few years he removed to Newbury in Berkshire, and there sprang into prominence through an able work in defence of the Dissenters, written in reply to an attack upon them by a prominent Clergyman.19 Hence he came to be regarded as the first man of his party, and was widely admired; and it naturally followed that when in 1713 a vacancy occurred at Exeter in the pulpit of the strongest church in the West of England he was unanimously chosen for the post.20 The liberal doctrinal views that had for some time been widely spread, at least in the Church, had by now also penetrated the Presbyterian congregation at Exeter, where Whiston and Clarke had been secretly read by a good many before Peirce's arrival, though no open avowal of them had been made, and no heresy had been broached in the pulpit. Peirce, who had hitherto been soundly orthodox, had on his part recently come to realize that he no longer held to the accepted doctrine in its strict form; but as no questions had been asked nor test applied, he held his peace, abstained from preaching on controverted questions, and adhering at all times closely to Scripture confined his preaching to the practical aspects of faith and duty.
Within a year or two after Peirce's settling at Exeter doctrinal discussion became active among the people, and it was whispered that even some of the ministers disbelieved and secretly opposed the doctrine of the deity of Christ. At length suspicion of Peirce's orthodoxy grew so strong that his friends urged him to preach a sermon calculated to set the rumors at rest. Meantime some liberal members of the congregation grew so bold in their talk that early in 1718 the committee of thirteen requested the ministers to preach on the eternal deity of Christ. Peirce resented such interference in his ministry, but complied nevertheless. Yet the self-appointed guardians of the orthodox doctrine, led by one of the younger ministers with the cooperation of some ministers of neighboring congregations in the country, continued to stir up criticism. A guest in Peirce's pulpit preached a sermon openly charging some of the Exeter Dissenters with ‘damnable heresies’; and during Peirce's absence for some weeks in London his critics determined to bring the matter before the United Brethren of Devon and Cornwall (commonly called the Exeter Assembly of Ministers), in order to force disavowal of Arianism among them. After long debate the ministers were allowed each to declare his own faith. Peirce declared his faith in the divinity of Christ and the Holy Spirit, but as subordinate to the Father; though some refused to submit to such an unwarranted inquisition into what they considered a private matter. A resolution was finally adopted by a large majority asserting the Assembly's belief in the divinity of the three persons in the Trinity.
Nevertheless Arianism continued to spread.21 The matter was fanned into a flame by a swarm of pamphlets pro and con. The Judge of Assizes was so much concerned that he made the danger of Arianism the burden of his charge to the jury, and intimated a possible connection between that and the spread of crime in the city. At this juncture some of the conservatives anxiously wrote to five prominent London ministers 22 for advice what to do. Advised by them to consult some of the neighboring ministers, they chose seven from the West of England, all of them men with known orthodox sympathies. These, without hearing Peirce in his own defence, advised in effect that the orthodox ought to separate themselves from Peirce and Hallet. Report was made to the London ministers, who gave their approval; while Peirce on his part informed a layman, John Shute Barrington,23 parliamentary leader of the Dissenting interest. Correspondence continued on both sides; but before the desired advice was decided upon in London, the opposition at Exeter grew impatient for conclusive action. Three of the proprietors of the chapels therefore arbitrarily seized the keys of James's Meeting and locked Peirce and Hallet out of their pulpit (March 10, 1719, N. S.). Peirce objected to this action as illegal, but a general meeting of all the proprietors of the three chapels ratified the action, and the Assembly endorsed it by a vote of 45 to 19.
The two ejected ministers had many sympathizers, and these at once formed a new society and on the next Sunday (March 15) 24 opened a new place of worship, which may thus be regarded as the first congregation in England avowedly devoted to antitrinitarian worship that has continued to the present day. A year later a new place of worship, the Mint Meeting, was erected, in which Peirce preached to a congregation of about 300. Considerably embittered by what he had suffered, and broken in health, he survived but seven years, dying in 1726 at the early age of 53 years.25 Thomas Emlyn, as we have seen above, was asked to be his successor, but was too infirm to be able to accept the invitation. Peirce's colleague Hallet had died in 1722 and was succeeded by his son, who became distinguished for his biblical scholarship and as an opponent of the Deists. The current of thought flowed swiftly at Exeter after the ejection. In 1753 the ministers of the Mint Meeting were readmitted to the Exeter Assembly from which they had been excluded a generation before. Peirce's old congregation at James's Meeting in 1749 chose as its minister Micaiah Towgood, who had adopted Arian views, and his successor Timothy Kenrick became a decided Unitarian. By this time the Mint Meeting also had moved on from Arianism to Unitarianism. When James's Meeting was abandoned in 1760, George's Meeting was opened in place of it, and in 1810 it and the Mint Meeting were reunited, and the breach that had lasted for ninety years was healed.26 From this time on Unitarianism spread with unexampled rapidity. The ejection of the two ministers27 made their doctrine popular. Within a generation nearly every Nonconformist church at Exeter had ceased to be orthodox, and many of those in Devon and Somerset followed suit, as well as in London and in the North of England. In less than half a century the old doctrines could hardly be heard in any of the old Presbyterian pulpits in England.28
The Exeter Controversy was immediately followed by the Salters' Hall Controversy. These often seem to be taken for simply two phases of one and the same movement; but though some of the participants were the same in both, yet they were quite distinct in origin, in location, in the main question at issue, in the leading characters, and in their results upon the churches involved. The event marked what was probably the most critical point in the whole history of Protestant Dissent.29 It will be recalled that in the course of the Exeter controversy Peirce's opponents sought advice from some of the London ministers, and that considerable correspondence ensued, and as many as 25 ministers of the three denominations, all conservatives, had met to consider the matter.30 They were reluctant to intervene actively in the affairs of sister churches as though claiming some sort of authority over them, and before an acceptable answer had been agreed upon the two ministers were ejected. During the same time Peirce had also been in communication with John Shute Barrington, who was a friend and follower of John Locke, and as leader of the Dissenting party in Parliament was anxious to keep the Dissenters united politically in support of the house of Hanover, and was also deeply concerned in an effort for the repeal of the oppressive Schism Act.31 An attempt had been barely defeated to saddle the pending measure with a test concerning the Trinity; but the fate of the movement for repeal was still uncertain, and he wished the forces of Dissent to show a solid front, unweakened by any sort of disagreement. He had therefore called together for counsel on February 5, 1719, a meeting of some influential Dissenters, both ministers and laymen, including several members of Parliament, to consider a manifesto that he had drawn up for adoption and signature by leading ministers, which was calculated to smooth out the quarrel at Exeter. These Advices for Peace, as they cameto be called, stripped of nonessentials, first set forth two preliminary points, which in brief were these: 1) that there are doctrinal errors serious enough to justify a separation between ministers and their people; and that 2) the people concerned are to determine for themselves what these errors are; and then, to complement the above principles, a series of Advices suggesting the methods to be followed in any case arising.
It will be noted that these Advices arose not out of the doctrinal situation at Exeter, but out of a critical situation in Parliament; and hence that they were not proposed as an answer to any request from Exeter, but (for the sake of their political effect) as an attempt to compose a threatened schism among the Dissenters; and the intent of them was therefore to confine any quarrel to the local congregation in which it arose. Hence, in order to enlist the desired support for these Articles, a private committee of ministers of the three main Dissenting bodies (Presbyterian, Independent and Baptist) called together all the ministers in London and vicinity to convene at Salters' Hall on February 19, 1719 (N. S.), to consider what amendments should be made to the Advices to be sent to the brethren at Exeter. The Schism Act had as a matter of fact been repealed on the day before the date set for the meeting; but the ministers nevertheless met and proceeded to discuss the paper of advices which had been previously prepared by Barrington and unanimously recommended by the preliminary committee.
This was the famous Salters' Hall conference,32 which at its first meetings was apparently composed of a few over a hundred ministers.33 Of the total 150 names ultimately named in the accounts, 80 are accounted as Presbyterians, 40 as Independents, and 30 as Baptists.34 At the first session it was voted to consider the paper submitted, article by article. It advised a Christian and conciliatory spirit, and against imposing human declarations or doctrinal tests, and recommended adherence instead to the Protestant principle of Scripture as the only rule. The framer of the Advices had aimed to keep out of sight every article of faith and to bring nothing doctrinal under consideration, to submit terms of peace and not matters of faith.
But Dr. Thomas Bradbury, a self-assertive man of great ability, minister of the New Court church in Fetter Lane, one of the oldest Independent congregations in London, taking the lead of the conservatives, protested against the paper from the start, and at the second session, February 24, expressed resentment that laymen (obviously referring to Barrington) should have intruded with their Advices in a matter properly in the province of the ministers. He therefore moved, in order to give the Advices the more weight at Exeter, that they be accompanied by a declaration of the Assembly's faith in the doctrine of the Trinity.35 Debate was long and heated. A division was called for, and those opposed to including such a declaration were asked to go up into the gallery. When the count had been made, the motion was declared lost by a vote of 57 to 53. Bradbury was primarily interested in the theological question involved at Exeter; Barrington, ignoring this, was chiefly concerned to preserve harmony among the Dissenters where their cause appeared to be in peril.
Adjournment was had to March 3, and in the interval both sides tried to rally their forces, though with little result. The order of the day was to continue consideration of the Advices; but Bradbury renewed his motion that a declaration of faith be first subscribed. It was objected that this would be imposition of a human interpretation of Scripture as a test of Christian communion, and the motion was ruled out of order. There were hours of angry discussion; but at length a paper was brought forward containing the Article of the Church of England concerning the Trinity, and the corresponding section of the Westminster Catechism, and those willing to subscribe were invited to go up stairs and do so. Several then left the hall, but sixty subscribed, then soon left the house in protest, went to another hall, continued their meeting, and adopted Advices of their own.36 They did not again meet with the remaining members of the conference. The latter returned to the order of the day, continued discussion of the Advices and adjourned for a week. In the meantime committees from both sides attempted to compose their differences, though to no purpose. Summons were sent to all the seceders to attend, but none came. Discussion of the Advices was completed without them, and they were adopted and signed by 73 on March 10. A week later the Advices with their signatures were forwarded to the brethren at Exeter.37 With them went a letter signed by the Moderator in the name of the rest, which declared that they utterly disowned the Arian doctrine, and sincerely believed the doctrine of the Trinity and the proper divinity of Christ, and in addition a statement of twelve reasons why they did not think it proper to subscribe the declaration of doctrines.
The Subscribers on their part finished on March 6 their own Advices, which though having some things in common with them differed materially from those of the Non-subscribers, and on April 7 forwarded them with a subscription to the doctrinal articles above mentioned, with 78 signatures and a letter of transmittal. They were acknowledged on April 11, though the brethren at Exeter made no acknowledgment of the Non-subscribers' communication. Both were in fact already superfluous, for Peirce and Hallet had been ejected on March 10.
The Salters' Hall conference had an effect the very opposite to that aimed at by Barrington in convening the ministers. Instead of uniting the Dissenters more closely, it ended in a division among them that has never since been repaired. It has been a popular tradition that in this division all the Independents took the side of the Subscribers, and all the Presbyterians took the opposite; but this was by no means the case. On the side of the Subscribers the numbers of the Independents and of the Presbyterians were nearly equal; though among the Nonsubscribers the Presbyterians outnumbered the Independents six to one, while the Baptists were nearly equally divided.38 Several of the most prominent Dissenters, such as Isaac Watts, Edmund Calamy, and Neal the historian of the Puritans, foreseeing the quarrel and its unfortunate consequences, resolved to have no hand in it.39 The questions at issue at Salters' Hall were very much mixed and confused in the minds and the acts of the participants. It was not a question of the orthodoxy or the heresy of the members. Of the Non-subscribers only two were fairly Arian, though four others might be considered doubtful.40 Practically all on either side believed, or supposed they believed, in the Trinity and the divinity of Christ; and it is asserted that as late as 1730 none of the 44 Presbyterian ministers in London was Arian, though half were liberal in tendency, and only 19were professed Calvinists.41 In fact, the whole assembly was overwhelmingly opposed to Arianism, witness both the doctrinal statements subscribed by the Subscribers, and the letter appended to the Advices of the Non-subscribers. The fundamental difference between the two parties was in the question whether one should be required to subscribe doctrinal statements as a condition of Christian fellowship; the question whether the individual may enjoy entire intellectual freedom in his religious beliefs, or shall be expected to conform to beliefs that others would impose upon him. The Non-subscribers, who had but lately escaped from persecution on doctrinal grounds, felt that their whole religious liberty as Protestants was endangered if they consented in their religious thought to submit to a bondage which a majority might impose as a condition of religious fellowship. It is, however, also quite possible that though they considered themselves still orthodox according to their old standards, they may yet have entertained an uneasy suspicion that their theology was undergoing an insensible change; and that they wished to retain full freedom to interpret Scripture for themselves.
The effect of the meetings at Salters' Hall did not cease with the answers sent to the brethren at Exeter.42 An angry pamphlet war between the two parties, running to some 70 different items, and marked by violence and animosity, went on for a year or more, and permanently widened the breach between them. Many of the original Presbyterian and Independent ministers were, after Salters' Hall, in one way or another affected by the Arianism that was now everywhere in the air. Those that had been unwilling to subscribe first ceased to proclaim the old doctrines as vitally important, then ignored them, and finally denied them outright. Thus throughout the middle of the eighteenth century Arian thought spread steadily, and then at the end of the century insensibly slipped over into Unitarianism, as the older ministers died off and younger ones came forward devoted to the ‘new notions’ of a new time.
In this period of transition the constituent elements of Dissent suffered considerable rearrangement, and new lines of cleavage developed. Independents that were reluctant to commit themselves to doctrinal statements more definite than Scripture itself were naturally drawn into closer relations with the Non-subscribers; and Presbyterians that wished to preserve their old beliefs unimpaired naturally gravitated to the Subscribers. The names Presbyterian and Independent gradually lost their original meanings. Many of the old Presbyterian congregations continued to retain their old name, indeed, but the old Presbyterian denomination silently disappeared, when at the end of the century the Unitarians began to be organized.43 The General Baptists tended to fraternize with the Non-subscribers, and the Calvinistic Baptists with the Congregationalists. Half of the old Presbyterian chapels are now Congregational, and many of the old Independent chapels are now Unitarian.
The episode of Salters' Hall marks a significant point in the history of freedom of thought in religion. Whiston acclaimed this as ‘the first example of a body of Christians [making a] public declaration for Christian liberty in matters of religion.’44 Dr. John Taylor of Norwich also speaks to the same purpose when he says, ‘This should always be remembered to their honor, as being the only instance, perhaps, that can be produced out of church history, for many centuries, of any synod of ministers declaring in favor of religious liberty.’45 Henceforth it became increasingly common not to require acceptance of formal confessions of faith from either ministers or church members. Another noteworthy circumstance is that from Salters' Hall onward the whole Dissenting movement began sensibly to decline in vigor, Subscribers equally with Non-subscribers,46 while no fewer than eighteen of the Non-subscribing ministers at Salters' Hall soon conformed to the Church of England.
Apart from the general Arian drift among the United Dissenters before and after the middle of the eighteenth century, several sporadic cases occurred in the same period, though not connected with it, which deserve mention. Thus the Quaker Richard Claridge in his Tractatus de Trinitate (1726) argued against the Trinity as unscriptural and confusing; and both George Fox and Robert Barclay, also Quakers, discarded the term Trinity as without Scripture warrant. The Rev. Philip Gibbs was dismissed from his Hackney church (1738) for his change of views.47 One Sayer Rudd, a Baptist preacher who had become liberal and was dismissed from the ministry (1734), had a meeting-house built for him in Snow Street, London, where he preached for a few years to a small congregation; and this was the first church in the city erected expressly for Unitarian worship.48
Echoes of Salters' Hall were not slow in reaching the ministers in New England, and the doctrinal consequences were at once appreciated. Cotton Mather wrote to Bradbury from Boston in September, 1719, reporting lamentation among the American brethren over the lapse into Arianism in England, and while allowing toleration to all good citizens insisted that Arians should be excluded from church membership.49
The history of the non-subscribing churches from Salters' Hall to the end of the eighteenth century is a difficult one to trace and relate, being that of a large and widely scattered group of mutually independent congregations, opposed to ecclesiastical domination, indeed, and firmly committed to individual freedom of belief, but not compactly knit together by organization as a denomination for carrying on any concerted work for their common cause. These churches of the old dissent were largely composed of well-to-do people of the middle class, including also some wealthy merchants and country gentlemen, accustomed to think and act for themselves and jealous of their independence. What they signified in the religious, intellectual and public life of eighteenth-century England can perhaps best be gathered by a glance at a few of their representative ministers. As a class these were able men of generous culture and ample education, interested in public affairs, active in broad-minded public service, and competent leaders in thought and action.
First and foremost of these ministers was Nathaniel Lardner (1684–1768), counted the most learned theologian of the Independents. He prepared for the ministry at Utrecht and Leiden, but handicapped by his poor delivery and his growing deafness he did not find a settlement until middle life, and indeed was never ordained. Meantime he had engaged in controversy with the Deists and been pursuing the studies in early Christian history which led to his great work on The Credibility of the Gospel History (London, 1727–57), which made him the founder of modern critical research into early Christian literature, and won him international reputation as a scholar of the first rank. His studies in this field led him to the view that ‘there is one God, even the Father; and that Jesus Christ is a man with a reasonable soul and a human body,’ that is, beyond Arianism to a Unitarian belief. This view, expressed in his celebrated Letter on the Logos,50 had considerable influence among the Dissenting ministers and was the means of converting Joseph Priestley from Arianism to Unitarianism. He was honored with a doctorate from Aberdeen, and continued to publish learned works until well after his eightieth year. He affirmed, from inspection of his papers, that Isaac Watts was, in his last thoughts, of his opinion as to the human nature of Christ.51
The most distinguished of the Arian preachers was James Foster (1697–1753). He was a native of Exeter, and studied for the ministry in Hallet's Academy, but seeking settlement at about the time of the Exeter controversy he found much difficulty for several years in finding a church, for he defended liberty of belief and accepted the views of Peirce and Emlyn. In fact, he had all but decided to give up the ministry when, having already adopted the views of the Baptists, he was invited to be minister of the Barbican church in London, succeeding their famous Dr. Gale. Here his success in the pulpit was so great that he presently became the most popular of all the Dissenting preachers in the city, and so remained for more than twenty years. He also ably controverted the Deists, and published a series of important religious essays which had wide influence.52 In 1744 he was called to be minister of the Pinners' Hall congregation, and he was honored with the Doctor's degree from Aberdeen; but after a few years died at the early age of 55.
George Benson (1699–1762)was distinguished among the Nonsubscribers by his contributions to New Testament scholarship. He was educated first in an academy at Whitehaven, and then at the University of Glasgow, where he forsook Calvinism and became a convinced Arian. After some years of ministry to a country congregation he preached for several years to a congregation in Southwark, and then for over twenty years first as colleague and then as successor of Dr. Lardner. He was for many years engaged on a Paraphrase and Notes on the New Testament Epistles, continuing in their spirit the works of Locke and Peirce. These works were highly esteemed both by Bishops in the Church, with several of whom he had friendly intercourse, and by continental scholars, and one of them was translated by the distinguished German scholar Michaelis. Against the Deists he published a work on The Reasonableness of Christianity (1743), and like several of his contemporaries he was honored with a degree from Aberdeen.53
One of the most learned and eminent divines of the eighteenth century was Samuel Chandler (1693–1766). He was son of a Dissenting minister, studied in several small academies, and at 23 became minister of a suburban London congregation. He was one of the Non-subscribers at Salters' Hall, and distinguished himself as lecturer in a week-day series at the Old Jewry, one of the principal congregations of Dissenters in London, was soon called to be one of its ministers, and preached there for more than 40 years. He was a powerful and popular preacher. As a convinced Arian he published numerous works defending Christian evidences against the Deists, and as a champion of Dissent vindicated its principles against the attacks of the Church; yet one of his writings was reprinted in a Collection of Theological Tracts compiled by Bishop Richard Watson (1785). He was a man of great abilities and wide learning, and was honored by both Edinburgh and Glasgow universities.
Caleb Fleming (1698–1779) was another of the able and distinguished liberal dissenting ministers who, brought up a Calvinist, became first Arian and then Unitarian. Though he had given much attention to theology, he did not study for the ministry, and did not enter it until he was forty years old. His early writings attracted attention, and he had a flattering opportunity to take orders in the Church, but was unwilling to comply with its formulas. Entering the Presbyterian ministry he served the congregation in Bartholomew Close for twelve years, and then succeeded Dr. Foster at Pinners' Hall, where he preached for many years. He was the first Dissenter to preach the simple humanity of Christ from the beginning to the end of his ministry. He was an intimate friend of Dr. Lardner, wrote against the Deists, and published numerous theological writings. The University of St. Andrews honored him with the Doctor's degree.54
John' Taylor of Norwich (1694–1761) was recognized by both Dissenters and churchmen as one of the most learned divines of the century. He was born in Lancashire and educated in Dissenting academies at Whitehaven and Findern. He began his ministry with an obscure congregation which paid him a salary of but £25 a year, but after eighteen years there, spent in industrious studies which bore fruit later, he was called to the important church at Norwich. Here his preaching was distinguished by straightforwardness on doctrinal questions, in which he took the side of freedom. Though an Arian in belief, he disowned all party names other than Christian, and did not much concern himself with the usual controversies about the Trinity and the deity of Christ, though he dealt boldly with other orthodox doctrines. Thus in 1740 he published a work of great ability and learning on The Scripture Doctrine of Original Sin, which cut up the Calvinistic doctrine root and branch, and won him great fame as a liberal theologian. It produced a wide, deep and permanent effect both at home and abroad.55 He also published The Scripture Doctrine of Atonement and other writings, of which one was included by Bishop Watson in his Collection of Theological Tracts; but his greatest work of scholarship was his Hebrew Concordance (London, 154–57), on which he labored for fourteen years, and which won him the friendship of many distinguished churchmen and foreign scholars. His office in the pulpit, however, was not neglected, and his congregation so increased that in 1756 it erected a larger place of worship, the famed Octagon Chapel. Not long thereafter he was urged to become Tutor in Divinity at the newly established academy at Warrington, and at no little sacrifice removed thither. His labors there were faithful and able, but unhappy, and were marred by ill health until his sudden death after but four years. He was honored by the University of Glasgow with the degree of Doctor of Divinity.56
The most distinguished champion of the Protestant Dissenters and of their secession from the Church was, after James Peirce, Micaiah Towgood (1700–1792). He was grandson of one of the ejected clergy of 1662, was born at Axminster in Devonshire, and spent his whole life in that county. He was educated at the Taunton academy, and entering the Presbyterian ministry soon after the Exeter controversy took sides with the Non-subscribers in the division that followed Salters' Hall. For over a quarter-century he ably served two churches in smaller towns, until he was in 1749 called to Exeter, where he spent the rest of his life, and established a reputation as an able and zealous Nonconformist. He published in 1737 a spirited little pamphlet, entitled High-flown Episcopal and Priestly Claims Freely Examined, which earned for him many thanks for this service to religious liberty, and brought him into correspondence with two of the early liberals in New England, Jonathan Mayhew and Charles Chauncy of Boston, where one of his writings was thrice reprinted. A few years after this the Rev. John White of St. John's College, Cambridge, made a virulent attack on the Dissenters in Letters to a Gentleman Dissenting from the Church of England (London 1743 ff). To these Towgood replied in The Dissenting Gentleman's Letters in Answer to Mr. White (1745 ff), a distinguished controversial writing which became the standard work on Non-conformity.57
In 1749, already an Arian in belief, Towgood was called to Exeter to the church from which Peirce had been ejected; and her his influence so broadened the congregation that before his death it had re-absorbed the Arian Mint Meeting. Already in 1753, largely through his influence, the Exeter Assembly had voted to accept candidates for ordination who refused to declare their faith in the deity of Christ and the Holy Spirit. In 1756 Bishop Secker of Oxford in his charge to the clergy had seriously deplored the growing skepticism of the age and the increasing neglect of religion. Towgood took occasion therefore to address to him a public letter, entitled Serious and Free Thoughts on the Present State of the Church, in which he pointed out, as one cause of the growth of the infidelity complained of, ‘a general apprehension that the clergy themselves are not thoroughly persuaded of the truth and importance of the truth and importance of the Christian Religion, inasmuch as they solemnly subscribe Articles, which they do not really believe; and declare publicly, in God's presence, their unfeigned Assent and Consent to forms, in divine worship, which they highly disapprove; perhaps, heartily condemn.’58 When a new academy was opened at Exeter in 1760, Towgood became one of its tutors, and served thus until it ceased in 1771; but he continued his ministry until 1782, when he resigned after more than sixty years of service, though he lived for ten years more. Joseph Priestley was invited to succeed him, but did not accept the call.59
What has been said of these few outstanding leaders in the liberal Dissenting churches in the eighteenth century may enable us to take the measure of the part these churches played in the religious, intellectual and general public life of the time. Their ministers in general far outstripped those of the other Dissenting churches in ability and scholarship, as their laity also did in culture, wealth and social influence, and in public life and public service. But their churches as a body were not united in any organization for effective spreading of their principles or for extending their borders. They had no acknowledged leader and no accepted plan for the future, and they were not increasing in numbers or strength. In short, they were like a ship that has outridden a heavy storm and reached calm waters, but is now hardly more than drifting, with no captain at the helm, and no definite port in view. The chances were that the movement would in a generation or two quietly fade away unless it could have guidance from wise and clearsighted leaders, and become conscious of a distinctive contribution to make to the religious life of the time. In the preceding chapters we have tried to trace the long and slow course through which the pioneers and precursors of our movement struggled on toward greater freedom in religious thought and worship. We have now arrived at the point where the movement will become conscious of its mission, will accept the guidance of competent leaders, and will organize its forces for greater strength and more effective action. The next two chapters will be concerned with this transformation of an undefined movement into a definite organization.
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