THE MOVEMENT THAT WE have been tracing in the foregoing chapters took place among Dissenting churches in England; but before we proceed to follow their further history as an organized Unitarian denomination, we should take note of similar though largely separate movements in Ireland, Scotland and Wales, which were later to coalesce with it. In an earlier chapter we have already related the isolated case of Thomas Emlyn, minister of a Presbyterian church at Dublin, who when discovered to hold Arian views was prosecuted and imprisoned for his heresy1; though his fate was so far from preventing the spread of his thought that within less than a generation his Dublin church called to its pulpit the Rev. John Abernethy, well known as leader of liberal Presbyterians in the vicinity of Belfast. It was, however, not at Dublin, but in the Province of Ulster that the movement in Ireland was to make its chief progress. The population here was largely of Scottish origin (the so-called Scotch-Irish), descended from Scottish immigrants who early in the seventeenth century had been encouraged to come over and settle a district sadly desolated by warfare. In faith and usages they were of course Presbyterian, but many of their ministers were broad-minded men, trained at Glasgow under the influence of Professors Simson, Leechman and Hutcheson, who had outgrown the narrow dogmatism of their fathers.
Among these ministers early in the eighteenth century was John Abernethy of Antrim above mentioned, who has been called the father of Non-subscription in Ireland. In 1705 he formed an association of ministers for mutual improvement, which was known as the Belfast Society, and this presently came to have controlling influence in the Synod, and included most of its leading men. Its members were generally opposed to requiring subscription to the Westminster Confession, and came later to be known as the ‘New Lights.’ Controversy between Subscribers and Non-Subscribers developed, and seriously disturbed meetings of the Synod for some years until 1725 when, in the interest of peace, the Synod at Dungannon rearranged its Presbyteries so as to place the Non-Subscribers by themselves in the Presbytery of Antrim.2 The following year the Synod, by a majority vote of the laity, though the ministers were almost equally divided, voted by a bare majority to exclude this Presbytery from the meetings of the General Synod of Ulster. The Presbyteries of Dublin and Munster still gave them fellowship. As yet the Non-Subscribers had not gone further than Arminianism, and the debate had thus far not been over doctrine, but over the matter of individual freedom.
During the next hundred years the two bodies had a loose affiliation with each other; and the practice of requiring subscription to the Confession was less and less insisted on until at the beginning of the nineteenth century even in the churches of the Synod ten of the fourteen Presbyteries were practically non-subscribing. At the same time Arian beliefs had spread widely in the Synod through the influence of the Glasgow College (later University), and of the Academies at Belfast and Dublin,3 as they had also done among the congregations in England ever since the Salters’ Hall assembly. Among the Subscribers this aroused alarm, which was much aggravated when the Rev. William Bruce, an avowed Arian, despite strenuous opposition on the part of the Subscribers, was elected Professor at the Belfast Academic Institution4 in 1821. About the same time the Rev. John Smethurst, an English Socinian, was sent over by the Unitarians to promote their views.5 This led to a heated controversy between the two parties in the Synod which was waged for seven years. The opposing champions were two remarkable men, Dr. Henry Cooke (1788–1868) for the Subscribers and Dr. Henry Montgomery (1788–1865) for the Non-Subscribers. At the Synod at Cookstown in 1828 the Subscribers at length won a sweeping victory, and subscription to the Westminster Confession was made compulsory.6 A meeting of Non-Subscribers was held at Belfast a little later, at which they drew up a ‘Remonstrance,’ which was formally laid before the Synod at a subsequent meeting, after which the Remonstrant ministers, seventeen in number, withdrew from the Synod with their congregations; and at Belfast, May 25, 1830, they organized the Remonstrant Synod of Ulster, constituted its Presbyteries, and in 1830 established a monthly periodical, the Bible Christian. Bitter feelings between the two Synods long persisted, many acts of persecution were committed against members of the Remonstrant congregations, and an attempt was made to deprive them of their meetinghouses. Those at Clough and Killinchy were claimed by both parties, and the cases were carried into court and decided in favor of the Subscribers in 1836.7 Other claims to church property or funds were also filed,8 but before decision was rendered they were quashed in consequence of the passage of the Dissenters Chapels Act in 1844.9
In 1835 the Remonstrant Synod united with the Presbytery of Antrim and a few congregations in the Synod of Munster to form the Association of Irish Non-Subscribing Presbyterians; and in 1910 a reorganization was effected, funds were established, and all the constitutent Presbyteries, together with three unattached congregations in the south, were consolidated as the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland.10 The total number of congregations (1947) is 35. They adhere stedfastly to the Presbyterian name and form of government and have tended to be rather more scriptural than the English. During the first half of the nineteenth century they remained Arian, but in doctrine they are now frankly Unitarian, and their congregations have long affiliated with the Unitarian churches of Great Britain. Their history for now well over a hundred years has in general been one with that of those in England.11
At the time when our movement in England and Ireland was steadily developing from orthodoxy through Arminianism and Arianism to Unitarianism, no such tendency was shown in Scotland. Indeed Unitarianism has for the most part found there but a sterile soil in which to take root. Hence instead of being able to trace a steady and coherent movement, we are able only to speak of outcroppings in some detached localities. We have noted above 12 the liberalizing influence of certain teachers at Glasgow in the first half of the eighteenth century; and this influence must have been felt in Scotland no less than in England and Ireland; for in the next generation it was reported that there was considerable commotion in the west of Scotland over the spread of Unitarian views among the ministers of the Scottish Kirk. A correspondent that had been traveling there reported in 1785 that he had met with many Unitarians; and that Dr. William McGill (1732–1807) and Dr. William Dalrymple (1723–1814) were decided Unitarians, and at Ayr had publicly preached the Unity of God.13 Robert Burns in his poem, ‘The Kirk's Alarm,’ bears witness to their heresy, and shows sympathy with it; 14 and he speaks of the unsettling influence in Scotland of the works of Dr. John Taylor of Norwich. As early as 1776, however, a small congregation was gathered at Edinburgh which, though it did not before the end of the century finally adopt the Unitarian name, may fairly be called the oldest established Unitarian congregation in Scotland. The members chose one James Purves 15 to be their leader, and at first called themselves Universalist Dissenters, though there was no Universalist movement organized which they might join.16 Purves evidently did not accept Unitarian views, for he later declined to fraternize with the Unitarian society gathered by Palmer at Dundee. After his death in 1795 lay services were maintained and correspondence was had with the Universalist-Unitarian William Vidler of London,17 and early in the new century the congregation was visited by several Unitarian missionaries from England, and though still Arian adopted the Unitarian name as best describing them, and received aid from the Unitarian Fund in London. The church maintained a precarious existence for years, but in 1823 erected a modest place of worship and had a settled minister.
In 1782 a small Unitarian society was gathered at Montrose by Mr. William Christie (1749–1823), a merchant who had been converted by his own studies, and maintained services until 1792.18 He was joined the next year by the Rev. Thomas Fyshe Palmer, who had just withdrawn from the Church of England, and assisted him until he went in 1785 to gather a congregation at Dundee which (besides missionary adventures in several other towns) he served for eight years, when he fell victim to political persecution, as elsewhere related.19 At Glasgow in 1793, a Rev. Mr. Spencer, then a medical student at Edinburgh, and a Unitarian, at the risk of his life preached to a congregation that had hitherto held Universalist opinions; and after him William Christie, lately of Montrose, had charge of the now Unitarian congregation as early as 1794;20 but after his removal to America the movement seems to have languished until 1808, when a Unitarian missionary from England came in the person of the Rev. James Lyons, a recent enthusiastic convert, who preached for some weeks to large congregations, and was followed the next year and in 1811 by Richard Wright, who preached to crowded audiences. A permanent organization was then formed, and in 1812 a Unitarian chapel was built (the first in Scotland), with the Rev. James Yates, M.A.,21 as minister. The interest spread to neighboring towns, and in 1813 a Scottish Unitarian Association was formed.22 Generous aid was given from the London Unitarian Fund, a great missionary activity was shown for several years, and a special missionary for Scotland was appointed; 23 though heated orthodox opposition was encountered, and ran to the very verge of physical violence. From 1815to 1818 a memorable controversy was carried on, at first from the pulpit and later in published books, between the Rev. Ralph Wardlaw, a Congregational minister, and Mr. Yates.24 It was conducted on a high and earnest plane, and was notably free from the usual acrimony.
From this time on for more than two decades the Unitarian movement in Scotland gave great promise, first under the vigorous missionary labors of Richard Wright and his contemporaries, and later under the inspiring preaching of the Rev. George Harris (1794–1859), both in his student days at Glasgow, and a decade later as minister there, whence he journeyed during the week carrying his message to threescore towns in every quarter of the kingdom.25 But the Presbyterian form of church government had taken firm root in Scotland, and it made the transformation of old congregations to more liberal modes of faith, as had been done in England, well-nigh impossible. The hopeful beginnings made by eloquent traveling missionaries would have needed to be followed up by the patient efforts of devoted pastors in order to get permanent results, and these were not to be had. The infant churches one after another succumbed for want of leaders, and by the end of the century a bare half-dozen survived.
The development of the Unitarian movement in Wales went on in general parallel to that in England, though largely independent of it. The national language and culture of Wales has indeed tended to keep it somewhat isolated from English influences. Passing over with mere mention the name of William Erbury (1604–54), a Welshman trained at Oxford, who was chaplain in the Parliamentary army and had in 1646 to give up his office when accused of Socinianism, and whose case is obscure and must be regarded as quite sporadic, we may say that the first clear step in the direction of Arianism was not taken until 1726. At this period a number of the pupils in a Dissenting Academy at Carmarthen were inclined toward liberal views. Of these, one was Jenkin Jones, who revolted from Calvinism and after leaving the Academy was for his liberal views excluded from the pulpit of his home church. He therefore formed in 1726 a congregation for which in 1733 he built a chapel on his own property at Llwynrhydowen, a little hamlet about four miles from Llandyssul. This is commonly reckoned as the oldest Unitarian congregation in Wales, though it was as yet no more than Arian. From this church sprang directly or indirectly more than half of the Unitarian churches in Cardiganshire. In less than half a century it had passed pretty well into Arianism, and in a half-century more had become Unitarian. This transformation went on in the liberal element existing in many of the old Dissenting churches, doubtless stimulated by influences from the liberal Dissent in England after Salters;’ Hall, as well as by echoes of the Emlyn case at Dublin. Thus before the end of the Arminian controversy the Nonconformist body had fallen apart into two antagonistic parties; and before Jenkin Jones died in 1742 six or seven ministers had adopted his views. Under his successor and nephew David Lloyd, the congregation had far outgrown its chapel, so that he sometimes preached in the open air to crowds of as many as 3,000; and the number of communicants under his care grew from 80 in 1745 to some 800 in 1779.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century considerable dissatisfaction arose over the conservative Arianism of the minister of the congregations about Llwynrhydowen, and there were secessions from his churches. Out of these as a nucleus Dr. Charles Lloyd, returning to Wales from a ministry in England exhilarated by a more modern theology, founded in 1802 at Llwynygroes and Pantydefaid in Cardiganshire the first two churches called Unitarian to be erected in Wales.26 While the churches above spoken of were by gradual steps moving from Calvinism to Unitarianism, twelve of the Baptist congregations had also grown liberal and had been expelled from the Baptist Association (1799), and together with others to the number of twenty in all had formed a General Baptist Association. Some of these later returned to the fold, and some died out; but several became permanently attached to the Unitarian movement. The views of Priestley attracted the more attention in Wales in consequence of his controversy 27 with Bishop Horsley of St. David's, and the articles in defence written by ‘A Welsh Freeholder’ (David Jones) ; but it took a half-century for all the old Arian elements to be outgrown or reconciled to the newer Unitarianism. By 1850 the fusion was accomplished, and from that time on the movement was united and progress was healthy. Development of thought continued to go on steadily, and was aided by the Rev. William (Marles) Thomas (1834–79), minister at Llwynrhydowen, who was long the only minister to preach an ‘advanced’ theology, and to interpret religion along the lines of Theodore Parker and James Martineau, which had come to prevail by the end of the century.
There has never been a Unitarian College in Wales, but no small factor in the history of the Welsh churches has been the Academy or College at Carmarthen, now known as the Presbyterian College. Soon after the passage of the Toleration Act Welsh Nonconformists opened private schools for the training of their ministers. The one to be spoken of here was at first supported from a joint fund of the united body of Presbyterians and Independents in London, though the latter soon withdrew from the union. The school they supported had a broken history for over a century, marked by a succession of different ministers who took in pupils, by several suspensions, and by repeated removals from place to place; but since 1796 it has been established at Carmarthen. Since it has on principle been favorable to liberty of thought and free inquiry, and its students have come from various bodies, it has never limited its teachers or its students to any particular denomination, nor required subscription to any confession. Hence in 1757, to avoid danger of heresy, the Congregational Board discontinued their aid to it, and established an orthodox Academy at Abergavenny. From that time on the College, while still choosing its teachers and receiving its students without distinction, has been clearly liberal. Its students have borne a high reputation for ability and scholarship, and have been called to many Arian or Unitarian pulpits, not only in Wales but also in England, where Welsh preachers are highly esteemed. Many have also served orthodox denominations. Since the reorganization of higher education in Wales the Presbyterian College, while still of course maintaining its free undenominational principle, has raised its standards, and has been an associated theological College of the University of Wales (from 1906), which confers its degrees upon graduate students:
The history of the Welsh churches during the past two or three generations has been in the main quiet and uneventful, though one episode has taken place that aroused wide attention and will long be remembered. At Llwynrhydowen, perhaps the largest Unitarian congregation in Wales, the church was in October, 1876, without previous notice, suddenly evicted from the chapel on leased ground in which they had worshiped undisturbed for 150 years, and was compelled to meet in the open air. Throughout their history Welsh Unitarian congregations have been known for their political radicalism, and in this district the minister and some of his members had in a previous parliamentary election given prominent support to the Liberal candidate. For this they had never been forgiven, bitter feelings had long smoldered, and attempts had been made to blacken the character of the minister, the Rev. William (Marles) Thomas, who had been there for many years and was greatly beloved. The Tory landlord was a young man who had only just attained his majority, and while he was traveling abroad, being then far away in California, the head agent and lawyer whom he had left in charge of his affairs took advantage of his absence, and without his knowledge issued the eviction, based on narrowly technical grounds. Indignation at this act, and sympathy with the persecuted, were at once expressed in all parts of the kingdom; and while a temporary wooden structure was occupied for two years, generous contributions poured in from near and far, and a handsome new chapel was erected in 1878. In the following year the keys of the old chapel were restored to the congregation by the sister of the now deceased landlord.28
The present number of active Unitarian churches in Wales is 31, of which all but four are in Cardiganshire and Glamorganshire. Eighteen of these congregations use the Welsh language. In general two churchesare served by one minister, with services alternately in the forenoon or the afternoon. Vocal music is much cultivated. Congregations are not large, but they are intensely loyal. They worship in Puritan simplicity, with a strongly biblical doctrine, in the spirit of Parker and Martineau. Their ministers throughoutthe years have been famous as teachers in schools. In Cardiganshire Unitarianism is almost the dominant faith, and the churches are so thickly scattered in the valley of the Teifi from Lampeter to Newcastle Emlyn that their rivals have named it ‘the Black Spot.’ They lie in small towns or in the farming country, and are devotedly served by faithful and self-sacrificing pastors, who are well educated and often serve two or three churches jointly. Their cause has for a century been much aided by their monthly journal, Yr Ymofynnydd (the Inquirer), published since 1847. The churchesunite for missionary purposes in the South Wales Unitarian Association, succeeding a Society of Believers in the Divine Unity in South Wales dating from 1802, and in the South East Wales Unitarian Society (1890); and they are all constituent members along with the churches in Great Britain and Ireland in the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches.29
We return now from our survey of minor branches of the Unitarian movement to follow again the course of its main stream. The condition and prospects of the Unitarian cause during the closing years of the eighteenth and the opening years of the nineteenth century looked precarious indeed. The Academies to which the churches had looked to supply their ministers — Exeter, Warrington, Hoxton — had been dissolved or else were weakened by confusion, and in their place no new one was firmly established. Their chief spokesman and fearless champion, Priestley, had been silenced and driven from the country, and had left no successor. Lindsey's powers were waning with age, and there was no one in view to take his place. No authentic publication had been established which might hold congregations together in the bonds of devotion to a common cause and vindicate their faith against the slurs and calumnies of their common foes. The established Church, regarding them as its most insidious and dangerous enemies, had been encouraged by recent victories in Parliament to fresh outbursts of hostility especially against the liberal Dissenters; while the prevailing spirit of the time was in a ferment of unrest and apprehension bred by the French Revolution. In fine, the liberal element in Dissent, which under the fearless championship of Priestley and the inspiring example of Lindsey had seemed to become conscious of itself and its mission, now that these were no longer at the helm bid fair within a generation to fall apart and disappear from the scene simply for want of an able leader, an efficient organization, and a definite cause to sustain. How such a leader came forward, how the scattered elements were organized to cooperate for their common interests, and how they became conscious of a worthy mission, and loyally united in promoting it, must now be told.
The person upon whose shoulders the mantle of both Priestley and Lindsey was to fall was Thomas Belsham,30 son of an Independent minister, and born at Bedford in 1750. He was the most eminent of the orthodox Dissenters to resign his position and openly join the Unitarians. He was educated at Daventry for the Independent ministry half a generation after Priestley, and upon finishing his course there he first served for seven years as an assistant tutor, and after a brief pastorate at Worcester was recalled in 1781 to be Principal of the Academy and Divinity Tutor. In the eight years that followed, his religious convictions gradually changed. Though orthodox by tradition, he was openminded, and in teaching his students the Christian doctrines, he urged them to study fairly the evidence on both sides, having no doubt what would be the result. The outcome was not what he had expected; for not only did many of his best pupils endorse the Unitarian view, but he himself was forced in the end to accept it. After fifteen years' teaching, therefore, he resigned his office in 1789, having in view no further plans than to retire to private life. Hitherto he had felt that ‘a Socinian was a sort of monster in the world,’31 and he had had little or no association with the species; though as early as in 1779 happening to be in London he was led by curiosity to drop in at a service in the Essex Street chapel, and came away with an impression ‘that it was possible for a Socinian to be a good man.’32 But soon after his resolve had been formed he made acquaintance with Lindsey in a brief call, though without speaking of his intended resignation. He had already twice been urged to remove to Warrington, in order to revive the moribund Academy there, and had declined; but as soon as his resignation from Daventry became known, he was pressed by Dr. Price, Dr. Priestley and Mr. Lindsey to come to the New College at Hackney as resident Tutor.33 It was a difficult challenge, but he accepted it, and taught there until 1794, when he was chosen minister of the Gravel Pit church at Hackney to succeed Dr. Priestley, who was emigrating to America. He was very happy to be back in the pulpit, and he served the Hackney congregation with great acceptance until 1805, when he was called to Lindsey's old pulpit at Essex Street.34
With his call to the pulpit of the Hackney church a new era began both in Belsham's life and in that of the liberal Dissenting churches. Priestley in his farewell sermon had warmly commended Belsham to the congregation, and had confided to him the defence of Unitarianism, as one that could be relied on to carry on his work in harmony with his spirit; and with all the enthusiasm of a fresh convert he went at his task with intelligent zeal. He was a widely read and accurate scholar, and a convincing and powerful preacher, and by his sermons and his published writings he rapidly won recognition as the acknowledged champion of the Unitarian cause, which he unweariedly advocated with great success for thirty years. He followed the philosophy of Hartley, and in that and his doctrine in general he was a disciple of Priestley. Even before Belsham became associated with the Unitarians, their leaders had made a modest concerted attempt to spread their views in print, and to that end formed (1783) a Society for promoting the Knowledge of the Scriptures; but though of the thirty or forty members most were Unitarians, yet several (including one Bishop) were from the established Church, no denominational line was followed, and little if anything was published beyond two volumes of Commentaries and Essays (London, 1787), and the society faded out.35 What the movement most urgently needed was a vigorous, clear-headed organizing leader; and one was presently discovered in Belsham, who realized the need so clearly and saw the opportunity so distinctly that early in his second year at the Hackney College he proposed the formation of the Unitarian Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and the Practice of Virtue by the Distribution of Books (1791). The project was heartily supported by Priestley, Lindsey and others and won a large membership from all parts of the kingdom. Its purpose was to form a closer union of scattered Unitarians about their common interests, and to print and circulate books and tracts to promote their faith.36 It fell to Belsham to define the object of the society in the preamble to its Rules. Since his purpose was to organize a society consisting strictly of believers in the proper unity of God and the simple humanity of Christ, uncorrupted by any kind of worship of Christ such as Arians more or less approved, and which he stigmatized as sheer idolatry, he shaped the rules of the society so as explicitly to exclude these. This limitation was opposed by some, but it was approved by Priestley and Lindsey, and was retained, though it involved the loss of a considerable number of members.
This step marked the beginning of a definite separation between Unitarians and Arians. The latter had never seriously attempted to organize for concerted action, for they were averse to controversy and disliked doctrinal preaching, though a sterile effort was made in 1789 by Hugh Worthington, the Arian preacher at Salters’ Hall, and seven or eight of the ablest Dissenting ministers in London were Arians; but from this date on their power and influence declined. Many ere long came over to the Unitarian position; perhaps a few eventually conformed to the established Church, or went over to the conservative wing of Dissent; and after a generation hardly an acknowledged Arian could be found.37 The Unitarian Book Society (to call it by its shorter name) was formed in February, 1791, but its first public meeting in April was unfortunate. The French Revolution was still in its glory, public feeling was greatly inflamed, and at the dinner political toasts were given which gave great offence, and were noticed in Parliament, to the prejudice of the Unitarian cause. Three months later occurred the Birmingham Riots, so that henceforth for some years the society held its meetings privately, and avoided politics.38 Nevertheless the society flourished surprisingly and widely circulated its tracts, which ran to thirteen volumes. It thus made the Unitarians of the country known to one another, and stirred them out of their long-standing timidity into boldness in defence of their cause. The time was evidently ripe for expansion, for in the next year a Western Unitarian Society was established in the West of England, where Dissent was politically very unpopular. Here again there was long and earnest discussion whether or not to admit Arians to membership in the society. The Western Society was in fact the only one to include them, and it did not become strictly Unitarian until 1831. Elsewhere the exclusive policy was gradually abandoned, or became superfluous.39 The Western Society was very active, existed until 1874, and published a large number of tracts and books. A Southern Unitarian Society soon followed, and then a Northern and several other district societies, besides numerous Unitarian Tract Societies in connection with separate congregations. These were all kindled with the new spirit, spread Unitarian writings far and wide, and thus prepared the ground for the efforts of missionary preachers that were ere long to proclaim their gospel widely among the common people.
Belsham had hitherto been too busily occupied with his teaching and the care of his congregation to engage in religious controversy; but in 1797 a book was published by a Member of Parliament which, on account of its authorship if not on its own account, attracted considerable attention.40 It was a layman’s serious survey of the defects of the actual religion of the period as compared with the standards formally professed. It was not mainly controversial, though toward the end the author made some reflections upon Unitarianism as a source of practical infidelity, which seemed to Belsham to call for a reply. This he published under the form of letters to a lady,41 in which he made strictures on the doctrines of the dominant religion and defended the principles and the character of the Unitarians. His reply was mild, though firm; but some of the Unitarians, deprecating all controversy, took offence that he should have made it at all.
Priestley’s old congregation at Birmingham at length opened a new chapel in 1802; and Belsham, as his successor, was naturally invited to preach the opening sermon, in which he clearly defended the cause of the congregation, now grown stronger than ever. At the end of the year, upon the resignation of his colleague at Hackney, he was unanimously invited to become sole pastor; but when in 1805 Dr. Disney's ill-health caused him to resign at Essex Street, and no satisfactory clergyman in the established Church could be found who was willing to follow Lindsey's example, Belsham was the inevitable choice. He therefore left the Hackney pulpit, to the great regret of his people, and at the end of March became minister at Essex Street, though continuing to live at Hackney until Lindsey's death four years later. Thus Lindsey's original hope of initiating a Unitarian secession from the established Church was disappointed, and the congregation he had gathered had by force of circumstances to coalesce with the Dissenters. It was an auspicious time, in which a new denomination was just budding and bursting into bloom, and in the face of bitterest opposition in both Church and State; for the next year was to see the beginning of the first regular Unitarian periodical, the Monthly Repository, which was for the next twenty years to render incalculable service in knitting scattered individuals and congregations together until their cause was solidly organized; and in the same month the establishing of the Unitarian Fund as the first effective missionary agency in the Unitarian name, which was ere long to expand into a comprehensive centre for all the church activities.
It was daily becoming clearer that one of the things that most prevented the movement from making rapid progress was the fact that it lacked a recognized public medium to speak for it and serve as a means of interchange of thought among the members. Priestley's Theological Repository had indeed served a good purpose, but its scope was too narrow and academic for it to make a general appeal; and the Protestant Dissenter's Magazine (1794–99),while mildly liberal, was not bold and positive enough to furnish the needed leadership. No one realized the situation more clearly than Belsham's successor at Hackney, the Rev. Robert Aspland (1782–1845),42 who on his own responsibility, and purely out of interest in the cause, determined to establish a worthy periodical to represent the liberal churches. He had already learned something of the value and the problems of such an organ in his association with the Rev. William Vidler 43 (1758–1816)who after a period of groping had become a Unitarian. Aspland took in hand the magazine of which Vidler had been the unsuccessful manager and editor, and transformed it, beginning with 1806, into The Monthly Repository of Theology and General Literature, thus entering upon a career as a Unitarian editor which, in addition to his work as pastor of an important church, he was to follow for nearly 40 years.44
Aspland's purpose was to provide a periodical that might unite the liberal congregations in common sympathy and joint action by interchange of news of their activities, discussion of plans, and against attacks by the orthodox which at this period were perhaps more vicious than ever before or since. Also together with these things there was a selection of formal articles on religious topics doctrinal or practical, general history, political reform, society, reviews, and English or foreign literature. The editor had not the means to pay for contributions, but scholarly ministers and laymen gave generous cooperation; and not a few contributions were made by young writers whose names later became well known in English letters. Religious controversy was not to be avoided, but attacks upon Unitarianism were accepted as well as defences of it, the deliberate policy being to open the pages to both sides. Orthodox writers sometimes took advantage of this opportunity to make hostile criticisms, though no orthodox journal ventured to make a reciprocal offer. The efforts making to secure greater social and political freedom for Dissenters, and for Catholics as well, were unequivocally supported. By all these means the hitherto disunited Unitarians were roused to a sense of the importance of their movement, and Aspland became recognized as leader of the denomination. The number of subscribers in so small a denomination naturally remained small, and Aspland's work as editor and publisher was largely a labor of love; indeed it was nearly ten years before enough was realized even to pay the printer, and after that the profits were meagre. But the service that the Repository rendered to the cause during twenty critical formative years, as a steady background to the efforts at organization and propaganda then making, was indispensable and incalculable.
A little more than a month after the publication of the first number of the Repository occurred another event of perhaps even more moment to the Unitarian cause. There had been for some time a growing feeling that more effective measures might be taken to spread the Unitarian gospel; that excellent as the work of the Book Society had been, still the word could be spread abroad by the living voice yet better than by the printed page; and that there were multitudes among the common folk of the country that would gladly receive the message of preachers to the common people. Yet no one among the leaders of the denomination could see what steps to take. It remained for a fresh convert to furnish the impulse, and that only after eight years of waiting.45 Mr. David Eaton, a theological bookseller and occasional preacher, born in Scotland of humble parents, and with little education, left home at fifteen, worked as a shoemaker at York, and there became associated with a company of Baptists who had just abandoned the doctrine of the Trinity as unscriptural. As a leader of them he often preached to neighboring country congregations. He thus became known to the local Unitarian ministers Cappe and Wellbeloved, who introduced him to Lindsey, and encouraged him to publish a book on his experiences.46 Later going up to London he engaged in the book trade and met influential Unitarians, on whom he so persistently and persuasively urged a plan for spreading the Unitarian gospel by missionary preaching to the humbler classes, that he overcame their objections. The leaders of the denomination expressed hearty approval of the plan, in theory, but urged practical objections: the time was hardly ripe as yet for such an undertaking; Unitarianism was not a religion for the multitude; missionary activity might excite the orthodox, and perhaps invite persecution under the law; the emotional excesses of the Methodists had brought popular preaching into disrepute; the efforts of the Book Society might be relied upon to spread the truth as fast as it could be received; and above all the employment of uneducated lay preachers was frowned upon. Nevertheless support enough was offered, chiefly by laymen, to justify the experiment, and the result was that, after eight years of persistent urging by Eaton, on February 11, 1806, the Unitarian Fund for Promoting Unitarianism by means of Popular Preaching was organized.47
The old Dissenting congregations that were now slowly growing together into a new denomination had hitherto been for the most part made up of people regarded as socially the more respectable in birth, education and wealth, and they had made little attempt to commend their religion to those of the humbler sort. Early Methodism had indeed appealed to these with wonderful success, and so to a less degree had the Baptist movement; but the Unitarians had quietly taken for granted that their doctrine was not adapted to the mind of the common people. The founders of the Unitarian Fund now proposed to disprove this notion. Leaving the old churches to do their work in their own way, they planned to spread the Unitarian doctrine among the common people by popular preaching, addressed to the common man in simple language, by carefully chosen preachers who spoke the same tongue with them. With its project wisely planned by an able Committee and directed by its energetic Secretary, Aspland, the success of the Fund soon surpassed all expectations. The number of members and the support of subscribers to the Fund was encouraging from the start,48 and steadily grew, while reports of progress in the Repository kept public interest alive. Soon after the establishment of the Fund a missionary was engaged in the person of the Rev. Richard Wright,49 a General Baptist minister at Wisbech, who had already for fourteen years done voluntary missionary work in his part of England. Results of his missions were so satisfactory that in 1810 he resigned his pastorate at Wisbech and was appointed a perpetual missionary, and in this capacity served until 1822, when for reasons of health he returned to the lighter duties of a local congregation. In his missions he covered 3,000 miles a year on foot, traversed districts in every part of England, Scotland and Wales, preaching in 400 or 500 different places, and revisiting many of them. He gathered new churches, especially in the manufacturing districts, reawakened dormant ones, brought new courage to churches and ministers sunk in despair, and in twenty years had created a new spirit in the body of the whole denomination. What he did on a large stage numerous other local preachers did in narrower fields, either assisting him or separately. In order to furnish popular rather than learned preachers suitable training for their work it was presently felt that a separate Academy should be set up; though the idea had to meet the usual opposition of the conservative or the timid, who thought the scheme premature or the plan defective. The New Academy, with Aspland as Principal and Tutor in Theology, was opened at Hackney in his residence in 1811, and offered a purely theological course of two years (later extended to four). Twelve students in all were enrolled; but public support was tardy and inadequate, and when Aspland's health gave way in 1816 the Academy was given up.50
At the time when these developments were going on, an entirely independent movement was taking shape in an isolated corner of the country. In the southeastern corner of Lancashire there was a little circuit of Methodist churches with a centre at Rochdale.51 Their members were mainly weavers or colliers, and they were ministered to by itinerant preachers. One of these was Joseph Cooke, a young man of promise who had been a traveling preacher for some ten years since he was twenty, and was now serving the Rochdale circuit. He was never a Unitarian, nor even an Arian, though a man of independent mind; but in 1805 his preaching was charged with departing from the doctrine of Wesley as to justification, and the Conference expelled him the next year.52 His friends in the circuit, who were many, were much grieved at this action, and a number of them at Rochdale invited him to settle among them and be their minister, and built a commodious chapel in which he preached to crowded congregations. A large number of them withdrew from the Methodist connection. Soon after this John Ashworth, a local preacher in the neighboring village of Newchurch, began to investigate the teaching of the Scriptures for himself, with the result that he too with a considerable company left the Methodist connection and built a chapel of their own (1809).53 Henceforth the “Cookites,” as they were coming to be called, devoted themselves seriously to the study of Scripture, of which the result was that they abandoned one by one the cardinal doctrines of their orthodoxy, and that without having known any Unitarian or read any Unitarian book they had arrived at Unitarian beliefs. Ere this, however, Cooke had passed to his rest. Worn out by his labors and weakened by his frequent exposures he succumbed to wasting disease and died in 1811 at the early age of 35. The work of the churches was not interrupted by the death of their leader, and they went on under the leadership of Ashworth. They were organized in a circuit with a dozen stations more or less, served in rotation under a prepared half-yearly schedule, by a like number of preachers or prayer leaders, all laymen from their own churches occupied during the week in weaving, mining or other manual labor. Meetings were more often in the early evening, and weekday prayer meetings were usual. Richard Wright visited the district and preached at Rochdale in 1812, and thrice in later years; but relations with the Unitarians were first had in 1815, when aid for the debt-burdened congregation at Newchurch was granted from Lady Hewley's Fund.54 Hitherto these churches had scarcely been conscious, in their isolation, that a respectable body of churches existed holding the same doctrines with them; but from now intercourse between the two became frequent, the congregations became avowedly Unitarian, and a Methodist Unitarian Association was formed which was maintained until 1844, by which time the group had gradually coalesced with the whole Unitarian movement. Ten or twelve congregations became affiliated with the Unitarian denomination, of which half have in vigor survived the ravages of time. These Methodist Unitarian churches were conspicuous for having ‘a lay ministry with regular exchanges of preachers, a profound love of prayer, a conspicuous zeal for Sunday-school work, and congregations composed in the main of poverty-stricken working men’; and their members were strong supporters of the Chartist movement and of the Reform Bills toward the middle of the nineteenth century.55
In connection with these Methodist Unitarian churches it is natural to speak also of another and similar movement a generation later, that of the Christian Brethren, which was active from 1841 to 1848 or later.56 Its founder was the Rev. Joseph Barker (1806–75), a brilliant and eloquent but undisciplined and unstable minister of the Methodist New Connexion, whose career moved successively from Methodism through Quakerism, Unitarianism, Secularism, and back to Primitive Methodism, who was inclined to go to extremes; and in 1841 was expelled from the Conference. Twenty-nine societies with over 4,000 members followed him, and formed a movement called The Christian Brethren, which spread somewhat widely in the northern counties and in the Potteries district of Staffordshire, largely among the common people. Their only test for members was the belief that Jesus is the Christ. Their beliefs drew them into sympathy with the Unitarians, who welcomed and aided them. They provided Barker with a press in furtherance of his effort to diffuse good literature among the people through cheap popular editions, and he published a popular edition of Channing's works, of which 30,000 copies were sold, and had great influence in popularizing his thought: When, however, Barker gave himself wholly to the cause of political and social reform, and left the country in 1848, his loosely knit movement quietly dissolved. A number of his congregations, and many scattered individuals, affiliated with the Unitarians, while others returned to Methodism.
One other source should here be mentioned among those that were gradually drawing together to form the Unitarian denomination, and that is the General Baptists. It was noted in an earlier chapter that quite a number of the pioneers of our movement in England who suffered for heresy as to the doctrine of the Trinity were said to be Anabaptists. These began to organize early in the seventeenth century, and gradually increased until the time of the Revolution. Their following was among the common people, and looking only to the Bible for their authority, and emphasizing the right of private judgment in religion, they were of a tolerant spirit. After the Revolution they much declined, losing ground to the Methodists, and in 1770 the orthodox portion withdrew from the rest and formed a ‘New Connection,’ while the remaining congregations (numbering some fifty, more or less, in 1826) gradually merged with the Unitarians, though long continuing to retain their Baptist name, hold their separate assemblies, and practice the rite of baptism in their own way.57 From this source came such leaders of the Unitarian movement as Robert Aspland, David Eaton, Richard Wright, and Joshua Toulmin, and most of the Unitarian missionary preachers of this period.
While these things were taking place at large, Belsham was busily occupied in his own field in London. As minister at Essex Street he was looked to as practically the leader and mouthpiece of the Unitarians. Thus in his sermons he not only powerfully maintained the Unitarian cause, and expounded its doctrines, but also discussed in the light of liberal principles certain questions of national policy, or measures debated in Parliament; while if ecclesiastics in high station in the Church made unwarranted attacks upon liberty or liberals in religion, none was so ready as he boldly to repel them, not hesitating to call even Bishops to account for shallow scholarship or ill-founded assumptions. But his predominant interest at this period was in the preparation of a new version of the New Testament, based upon a Greek text embodying the results of recent criticism. A project for a work of this sort had been proposed by Priestley in 1789, and was well advanced toward completion, when an important part of the manuscript was destroyed in the Birmingham Riots in 1791. Later in the same year, when the Unitarian Book Society was formed, the translation of the New Testament was made one of its main objects.58 After some five years' delay it was decided not to make an independent version, but to adopt the excellent one of Archbishop William Newcome, Primate of Ireland, as a basis, chiefly because it followed Griesbach's text, and to accompany it with an introduction and notes. The plan was taken up with ardor, and the work was published in 1808,59 in three sizes, and later in several editions; and it was at once reprinted in America (Boston, 1909), where Unitarianism was already incubating: It included a valuable introduction on the progress and principles of textual criticism, anticipating many judgments later adopted in the Revised Version of 1881; but drew the fire of the orthodox by omitting as late interpolations several passages traditionally cited as pillars of trinitarian doctrine. Belsham had taken the leading part in the editing of the work, and he regarded it with great satisfaction. It was widely circulated in Unitarian quarters; but in spite of its presenting a much more correct text, many strictures upon it were passed even by Unitarians,60 while to the orthodox its notes gave much offence, and by them it was generally scorned as a sectarian work, ‘The Unitarian New Testament,’ though it was never officially adopted even by the Unitarians.
The publication of the Improved Version seems to have largely absorbed the energies of the Book Society and to have lessened its circulation of tracts, though its former work was now complemented and surpassed by that of the Unitarian Fund. But in 1809 the successful example of the Religious Tract Society conducted by the evangelicals stirred up the Unitarians to organize a Christian Tract Society 61 for the purpose of circulating cheap moral and religious tracts, not of controversial character, among the common people, thus leaving doctrinal propaganda to the Unitarian Fund; and this modest work, annually distributing many thousands of helpful tracts, was successfully carried on for half a century.62
Along with the broader work of these organizations, Belsham devoted himself to his particular work at Essex Street. He reviewed and revised his doctrinal studies of earlier years, which he had embodied in lectures to his students at Daventry and his young people at Hackney, and published them to the world in A Calm Inquiry into the Scripture Doctrine concerning the Person of Christ (London, 1811).63 This work sets forth with careful thoroughness the scriptural evidence on the subject; and appended is a brief review of the Priestley-Horsley controversy, in answer to claims of Horsley that had lately been reasserted by his son. In the following year Belsham published his very interesting Memoirs of Theophilus Lindsey, a work of abiding value, which the author regarded as his principal work. Far surpassing these publications in current interest was the passage at this time of the so-called Trinity Bill. It will be remembered that the Toleration Act of 1689 did not extend toleration to deniers of the Trinity, and that the Blasphemy Act in 1698 punished them with civil disability, and eventually with loss of all civil rights, and imprisonment. It is true that during the intervening century this law had been well-nigh ignored; but it was still on the statute book, and there was no security that at any time a fresh outburst of bigotry might not demand enforcement. Hence the Unitarians, even if not legally condemned, keenly resented the reproach of being in theory criminals. Already in 1792, at a time when Government had been showing itself compliant with the requests of Dissenters, Fox, their champion in Parliament, had brought in a measure to repeal this law; but it was too soon after the Birmingham Riots, and it was defeated by a great majority. But now that several other persecuting laws had been repealed, when William Smith, M. P. for Norwich, and a member of Essex Street chapel, again introduced a bill for repeal of the old statutes, it was passed without opposition64 or even debate. Yet, though there was no opposition in Parliament, and both Archbishops spoke for it, bitter criticism was expressed in high quarters in the Church. On the Sunday after the Act had received royal assent, Belsham preached an appropriate sermon of rejoicing; 65 and this called forth from Bishop Thomas Burgess of St. David's A Brief Memorial on the Repeal, etc. (London, 1814), complaining that the repeal ought not to have taken place, and that the old laws ought to be restored, and making a bitter' attack upon Unitarianism in general and upon Belsham's Calm Inquiry and other writings in particular.66 To this publication Belsham made a due reply,67 in which in polite phrases mingled with withering sarcasm he defended the religion of his brethren, and vindicated his own writings.
It was evident that churchmen were much concerned at the recent rapid spread of Unitarianism in the country, due as they thought to the repeal of the old oppressive laws,68 and a concerted attack appears to have been decided on, for the Bishop came back the next year with a series of three Addresses to Persons calling themselves Unitarians 69 aimed at Belsham, but reviving also the controversy between Priestley and Horsley. At the same time the Bishop of London made the erroneous doctrines of the Unitarians the main burden of his first charge to the clergy of his diocese.70 Since Bishop Burgess's see was in Wales, the Unitarians in that district naturally desired that some reply should be made to his assaults on their cause. Belsham therefore felt called upon to publish in their interest A Letter to the Unitarian Christians in South Wales (London, 1816), adding to it a reprint of letters he had recently published in the Gentleman's Magazine in reply to the Bishop's Addresses above mentioned. He had by now grown weary of controversy, in which indeed he had never engaged by preference, though never avoiding it when challenged; but as he felt himself plainly growing older, he was glad to retire from it, and to promote his cause in other ways. One more challenge, however, was thrust upon him. The Bampton Lectures 71 for 1818 were so full of abuse, bigotry, dogmatism, rudeness, misunderstanding and ignorance that it was impossible to let them pass without notice. Belsham therefore replied to them,72 dissecting them chapter by chapter, mercilessly exposing their shallowness and blunders, and sarcastically refuting their misstatements; adding also an Appendix answering the unfounded charges that Dr. William Magee, Dean of Cork (later Archbishop of Dublin), had made against the Improved Version.73 With these writings Belsham's public part in the development of the Unitarian movement may be said to have closed. He still printed, indeed, an occasional sermon; but the infirm state of his health warned him not to enter on any new projects, and he limited himself to bringing to completion a work that he had long had in hand, and regarded of high importance.74 He had long been feeling the burden of advancing years, and with this work brought to completion he now felt ready to sing his Nunc Dimittis. In 1825 the Rev. Thomas Madge of Norwich was called to be his assistant in the pulpit; but with waning strength he kept diligently at work until his release came in 1829.75
Belsham came upon the field at a critical point in the history of English Unitarianism, when its leaders, Priestley and Lindsey, were soon to pass away; and without a competent leader at this juncture the movement might easily have disintegrated. But his strong and positive character, his competent scholarship, his force in the pulpit, his pen powerful in either defence or attack, his uncompromising boldness in speech, his ability as an organizer gave the scattered and disunited forces of liberal Dissent a valiant leader, who inspired bravery in the timid and confidence in the faint-hearted. Hence in his generation the bare handful of congregations that had ventured to wear the Unitarian name 76 multiplied into a well-knit and efficiently organized denomination of something like a hundred vigorous churches which, from being ignored or held in contempt, had now won respect and recognition among the religious forces of the time. As a constructive theologian he made a marked contribution to the movement. His philosophical standpoint, like Priestley's, was in the main that of Hartley, and like Priestley he was also a determinist. His doctrinal system too was in general that of Priestley and Lindsey, and he held it firmly and with little change; but he clarified and strengthened it, and laid much stress on the vital difference between Unitarianism and Arianism, deeming the latter no better than idolatry; while he regarded Jesus as in all respects a human being, though the chosen servant of God, authenticated as such by the miracles that he did, and by his resurrection and ascension into heaven, whence he is to return again. As his final authority he held fast to the word of Scripture, but it was to Scripture as critically investigated rather than as slavishly followed. Thus he readily adopted the results of German biblical criticism, and early accepted the composite authorship of the Pentateuch, while he discarded the creation account as unscientific and incredible, and he rejected the gospel stories of the miraculous birth as unhistorical, though refusing to give ear to the attempts then being made in Germany to explain miracles away by crude rationalism. He was thus one of the first in England to adopt views of the Bible that are now widely accepted. His influence upon the movement was more as its champion and interpreter in the pulpit and in print than as a leader in organizing its forces, for he trusted to the influence of individual conviction more than to that of organized effort. Nevertheless he was founder of the first Unitarian association in England in which individuals joined in a common effort to support their faith and make it better known, the Unitarian Book Society, which gave their faith a definite meaning and an accepted name; and he gave a cordial though tardy support to the work of the Unitarian Fund, though withholding it from the Civil Rights Association. His name therefore stands beside those of Priestley and Lindsey as one of the three founders to whom the Unitarian movement in England is most indebted for its existence.
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