CHAPTER XVIII
THE UNITARIAN CHURCH ORGANIZES, EXPANDS AND BATTLES DETERMINED OPPOSITION

ALTHOUGH THE PASSAGE Of the Trinity Act in 1813was hailed by the Unitarians as an important step toward complete religious liberty, yet they realized that other ground was still to be gained. When Lord Liverpool said to Mr. William Smith, who had introduced the bill, that he hoped the Unitarians would now be satisfied, the reply was, ‘No, my Lord, we shall not be satisfied while one disqualifying statute in matters of religion remains on the books.’1 For there still remained several conditions that had long irritated and humiliated not only Unitarians but more or less all Dissenters. Thus marriage (save in the case of Quakers and Jews) might be performed only in a consecrated building and by clergymen of the established Church and with its rites, which were emphatically trinitarian; burial of the dead in parish cemeteries might take place only with the office read by a clergyman; births, marriages and deaths might legally be recorded only in parish registers; rates for the support of the Church must be paid by Dissenters no less than by churchmen. And now questions were beginning to be raised as to the right of the Unitarians to hold property or administer funds that had originally been under the control of orthodox believers. Cases of religious persecution had arisen that called for joint resistance, which Dissenters in general had been loath to offer when Unitarians were concerned. Unitarians there­fore felt the need of some association to safeguard their interests; and in response to general request a meeting was held in London, January 13, 1819, at which, after full discussion, the Unitarian Association for Protecting the Civil Rights of Unitarians was formed.2 It gave its first attention to the proposed reform of the marriage law; but more than sixteen years of toil and repeated disappointment ensued before the desired reform was achieved in 1836 and that through the efforts of  Unitarians alone, unaided by other Dissenters.3 The new Association was able also to be of much service to the cause in the protracted liti­gation concerning the property rights of the Unitarians, which were just beginning to be called in question; for ever since the passage of the Trinity Act, relations between Unitarians and orthodox Dissenters had been growing more and more tense, and the latter had apparently only been waiting for some occasion to arise on which the questions at issue between them might be definitely settled. It was in this period that two law cases occurred, whose decision was destined to have far reaching consequences of the most serious nature. But before we take up the account of the serious contest that was to ensue, it will be well to trace the inner history of the movement a little further.

For the supporters of the young Unitarian movement the first third of the nineteenth century was a period of rising optimism and rapid growth, in which they had confident expectations as to their future. Although they were faced with growing hostility on the  part of their rivals in the orthodox Dissenting bodies, and threatened with the loss of their church estates, yet their previous timidity had given way to bold aggressiveness. New societies were being established in all parts of the kingdom, and their tracts had been published by the million and eagerly read by the common people. An enthusiastic writer declared that the Unitarian views had of late surpassed all expectations, had spread more rapidly than any other faith and bid fair to become the prevailing faith among thoughtful people; and he even suggested that Unitarianism was perhaps the only thriving sect.4 Hitherto the liberal Dissenting churches had, ever since the Act of Toleration, depended upon the Dissenting Academies to provide them with well-trained ministers; but of late, with the death or retirement of the ministers that conducted them, the Academies had gradually disappeared until, with the dissolution of that at Warrington in 1786,none was left. To meet so serious a situation a company met at Manchester even before the Warrington Academy had actually dissolved, and voted to establish at Manchester a new Academy, with the two ministers of Cross Street as tutors.5 The institution was planned on liberal lines, and was openly dedicated ‘to Truth, to Liberty, and to Religion,’ and was to be open to all without required subscription to any confession. Though designed primarily for the education of ministers, for whom a five-year course was planned, far more laymen than ministers were educated here. Its leading teachers were Arians.

The Academy went on well here for half a generation (1786–1803); but when the ministers of the chapel came to retire, and it was impossible to find satisfactory local successors, the problem was solved by a change of location. The Academy was therefore removed to York, and now came to be known as Manchester College, York. It was placed under the direction of the Rev. Charles Wellbeloved (1769–1858), minister of the St. Saviourgate chapel, an able scholar in the prime of life, who had been trained under Belsham.6 He began as sole teacher of eight students and taught until he was seventy. Mean­time the enrollment grew, and the Faculty was enlarged, most notably by the Rev. John Kenrick, F.S.A. (1782–1877), who with eminent learning taught at York for thirty years, whom Alexander Gordon esteemed ‘the greatest scholar of his denomination,’ and Martineau declared to be the wisest man he ever knew.7 Adequate buildings were secured, the churches gave generous support, and a considerable endowment was obtained. The students (of whom one was James Martineau) were active in missionary enterprise in the surrounding region.

Midway of this period at York considerable interest was stirred up by a local religious controversy. One Captain Thomas Thrush, a retired Naval officer living in an obscure village of northern Yorkshire, felt moved in 1820 to address to his neighbors a personal letter giving his reasons for not attending the worship of the Church.8 It was a mild enough apologia, and it made no reference to Unitarianism; but it fell into hands of the Rev. Francis Wrangham, Archdeacon of Cleveland, who made it a handle for his charges to his clergy the two following years, in which he poured contempt upon the doctrines ofUnitarianism and disrespect upon the scholarship of its professors, classing them as next to Deists. Captain Thrush published a letter in defence;9 but when he appealed to Wellbeloved as his friend for help in meeting the attack, which had mostly but repeated the long confuted calumnies of Horsley and Magee, Wellbeloved could not refuse the challenge, and published two series of letters (1823–24), marked by such decency of manners and such wealth of scholarship as to call forth high praise from churchmen themselves, and give him high standing as a champion of his faith. Wellbeloved taught his students during the whole of the time when the College was at York (1803–40), and placed his stamp on well over 200 students, of whom more than half were trained for the ministry; but when thirty-seven years of teaching had brought him to the age of seventy, and his chief colleague had already resigned two years before, the indications were clear that the College must again change its seat. It was now firmly established, its reputation had steadily grown, it had sent a steady stream of devoted ministers into the field; and with enlarged resources it now returned to Manchester, looking toward eventual association with one of the Universities.

At this period the Unitarians were finding much to encourage them in the evidences which appeared that their faith was spontaneously springing up in a distant land; for there were signs that the morning light was breaking in far-away India, where a native boy, born on the Malabar Coast in 1770 and early oprhaned, was kidnapped and sold as a slave to an English captain. Being later set free he took the name of William Roberts, and in 1793 he made the discovery of Unitarianism by reading writings of Lindsey and Priestley. Returning to India in 1813 he opened a small place of worship near Madras and, quite inde­pendently of any European agency, formed a congregation of native Unitarian Christians, made up of poor and uneducated converts from native religions, with himself as their minister. He opened correspondence with the Unitarian Book Society in 1816, and for over twenty years received from England modest support for his chapel and schools. He published a Tamil liturgy, based on Lindsey's Prayer Book, maintained regular services, and enrolled more than 100 members. But obstacles were too great for one man alone to overcome, and when Roberts, after twenty-five years of devoted effort, died in 1838; and no competent leader was found to take his place, his mission declined.10

In the early days of Roberts's mission among the humble classes in Madras, another movement quite independent of it was developing at Calcutta, and appealing to the upper classes, who had outgrown their traditional Hinduism with its gross superstitions and idolatry. The leader of this was a wealthy and learned high-caste Brahman, Rammohun Roy.11 He was born in 1772 and was well educated, learning besides his native tongue Persian, Arabic and Sanskrit, and when about 30 also English. In early manhood he had studied the Vedantas, the ancient scriptures of the Brahman religion, which he now determined to reform, being convinced by his studies that the endless superstitions and idolatries that were so prominent in the popular Hinduism were all corruptions of what in the earlier writings was a pure ethical monotheism. He was confirmed in this plan when he witnessed his brother's widow, against all persuasions and protests, sacrifice herself on the funeral pyre of her husband,12 and he then and there vowed that he would never rest until the custom of suttee was rooted out.

Rammohun now devoted himself to the task of religious reform,13 writing against the popular religions and gathering about him a small circle of intelligent sympathizers, who met together for religious study and reformed worship. In the course of his studies of religious history he became interested in Christianity, and ‘found the doctrines of Christ more conducive to moral principles, and more adapted for the use of rational beings, than any others that had come to his knowledge.'’ In order therefore to read the Bible in its original tongues he learned both Hebrew and Greek, and as a result he translated and published a little book entitled The Precepts of Jesus, the Guide to Peace and Happiness (1820). The English Missionaries in India, instead of welcoming such an introduction of Hindus to the teachings of Jesus, attacked it sharply in-print, as the attempt of a heathen to mislead the Hindus by a garbled version of Christianity. The little book had indeed not only omitted the miraculous element from his selections, but made no mention of the deity of Christ, or his atonement, and had even opposed the doctrine of the Trinity as savoring too much of the polytheism that he was trying to uproot in his people. Hence there were several exchanges of controversial writings.14 But an unexpected result happened. To assist him in translating the New Testament into Bengali, Rammohun had engaged as his instructor in English the Rev. William Adam, a Scottish Baptist whom the Baptist Missionary Society in London had sent out to India as a missionary. As they worked together some doctrinal questions came under discussion; and whereas Adam tried to convert his pupil to the doctrines of orthodox Christianity he was himself con­verted by his pupil to adopt the simpler doctrines as to God and Christ that he had gathered from the Gospels. He therefore renounced his Trinitarianism, was dismissed from his position in 1822,15 and joined with Rammohun Roy in promoting a simplified form of Christianity in Calcutta. Steps were taken toward building up a Unitarian mission. A school for both races was instituted, a generous sum was subscribed locally toward erecting a Unitarian chapel, and for a permanent fund, and further aid for the cause was given from England. Great enthusiasm over all this was aroused among the English Unitarians, who were easily tempted to claim Rammohun as a convert to their faith; while they indulged in a dream of all India as on the way to adopt Unitarianism.16 The brethren in America were also much stirred by the hopes thus raised, though they moved cautiously. A committee of investigation formed in Boston prepared a searching list of questions to be submitted to Mr. Adam for preliminary information, and sent a copy also to Rammohun Roy. Both answered at length, and the whole correspondence was published.17

Although Rammohun Roy had found Christian teachings more acceptable than any others that he had known, and was glad to cooperate heartily with the Unitarians to further a reasonable religion, yet he never professed to adopt their religion as his own, nor did he withdraw from his native Brahmanism, but remained true to his purpose of reforming it to its original purity. He continued, however, to promote their common cause, to support their school, to interest intelligent Hindu readers in the reform of their depraved religion, and above all to strive for the abolishment of suttee, which was at length brought about by Government in 1829. But the religious reform of India did not proceed along the lines first attempted. Aid from England, though generous for a denomination of limited numbers, was not sufficient to build up a cause in a far distant land, and ere long it became clear that any religion of wide appeal must spring out of the native soil rather than be an importation from an alien world. Mr. Adam's devotedness and sacrifice were unequal to his task, and early in 1828 he resigned brokenhearted.18 At this juncture a new plan took shape, toward which both Adam and the Brahmin leaders seem to have been driven.

A large number of progressive Hindus, leading men of Bengal, now formed a new theistic church, with its own services of worship and its own native preachers. It was formed August 20, 1828, and became known as the Brahmo Somaj, and Rammohun, though he stood in the background, supported it heartily. It has continued to this day, carrying on Rammohun Roy's ideal of a pure theistic worship, in its broad teachings broadly akin to Unitarianism, though in its origin and traditions quite independent of it.

The European residents were naturally disappointed with the new movement, but the spirit and methods of the Brahmos were found bet­ter adapted to India than those of a Bible-centered Christianity would have been; and as a native product of the Hindu mind it made its way among the educated Hindus of Calcutta as the other attempt could not have hoped to do. Thus the matter of establishing a religious reform on a firm footing was accomplished in the organization of the Brahmo Somaj; and in the following year the suttee was definitely abolished.  Late in 1829 Rammohun, who had for years been contemplating a visit to England, sailed for that country, being the first high-caste Hindu to do so. He bore the newly conferred title of Rajah, and held a com­mission from the Emperor of Delhi as his envoy to the King. In England, where he was received with the greatest distinction, the Unitarian Association held a special meeting in his honor.19 He furthered the interests of India in many ways; but after less than a year and a half he was stricken with fever and died, among Unitarian friends, at Bristol, September 27, 1833. His name lives in religious history as the virtual founder of the Brahmo Somaj.

The movement in India, although in the end disappointing, did much to broaden the horizon of the English Unitarians, as did their discovery, at about the same time, of the heroic movement in Transylvania,20 and the knowledge that a movement of great promise was also taking place in America. Letters indicating active interest were also coming from various quarters on the Continent, suggesting that everywhere wide fields were white already to harvest. It therefore seemed more than ever important that the various Unitarian interests, instead of acting separately, each in a limited field, should be all consolidated into one general association. Such a plan had indeed been proposed, outlined and approved as early as 1812,21 and now the time appeared to be ripe. Hence after some preliminary consultations, the Unitarian Fund and the Civil Rights Association were merged and formally united in the British and Foreign Unitarian Association at a meeting held at the London Tavern May 26,1825,22 and a year later these were also joined by the Unitarian Book Society,23 and in 1833 by the Sunday School Association.

The new Association at once opened a public office in Walbrook Buildings near the Mansion House, with a Secretary in attendance, and took up its work actively. Great enthusiasm was felt about the prospects in India, and the word ‘foreign’ in the title was taken seriously. A group of worshipers in a little town in Germany at once wished to join, and another on the island of Guernsey. A Unitarian congregation was formed at Gibraltar in 1830, and a little later an old pupil of Belsham's, who had formerly ministered to the Unitarian congregation at Dunkirk, visiting Paris found English and American residents who wished a chapel, gathered a congregation (1831) that twice outgrew its quarters, formed a French Unitarian Association, and published a little series of tracts in French. But an epidemic of cholera scattered the members, and thus the infant church, which had indeed won little support from the natives, was extinguished.24 It was encouraging, however, to know that Calvin's old church at Geneva had abolished subscription to his doctrines, and had adopted a liberal new Catechism, and that Socinianism was reported to be spreading there alarmingly,25 while the kindred movement in Massachusetts was said to be sweeping all before it.

The organization of the Association filled the denomination with new spirit. The old tasks were prosecuted with fresh vigor; missionary preachers continued to revive feeble churches or to plant new ones; many lay preachers took the field, especially in the industrial centers, with excellent results; new tracts were multiplied. Nevertheless the churches as a whole did not unite in support of the common cause with anything like such unanimity and heartiness as had been hoped for. It had been provided that the Association should be composed of a) district associations represented by delegates, b) independent congregations represented likewise, c) individual subscribers, and d) honorary members. But the congregations; of whom most had been expected, showed a singular reluctance to cooperate as such in the general united movement. A large majority of them seemed to be obsessed by an acute fear lest their joining a general body might jeopardize the independence that they so highly valued, limit their freedom of thought or action, subject them to the tyranny of a majority, and bind them to support measures of which they disapproved. Hence at the end of the first year out of a total of perhaps 200 congregations only 34 had joined the Association, and the number at no time exceeded 80, and it gradually declined until 1866 when it was only 13, so that the following year membership of congregations was discontinued. Hence the Association was far less a union of Unitarian churches than an association of individual Unitarians; and its financial support came not half so much from contributions of congregations as from annual subscriptions of individuals. The total annual income for the first twenty-five years averaged less than £1,200.26 With such modest resources available it was more than a decade before any considerable aid could be given to needy congregations or ministers.

Important items of unfinished business, however, were followed up. First in importance and urgency was a movement for the repeal of the Corporation and Test Acts. This had already been attempted four times, and defeated by generally decreasing majorities, but last of all by the heavy majority in 1792. Now the Unitarians again took the matter up, bearing the leading part, and in face of a stubborn fight against it the Bill was passed on the fifth attempt in 1828.27 Unlike the orthodox Dissenters, many of whom had long opposed it,28 they also gave un­stinted support the next year to the passage of the Catholic Emancipation Act, which removed disabilities under which Catholics had long suffered. An effort to abolish compulsory Church Rates was defeated in 1834, and was not carried through until a generation later; but the reform of the Marriage Law, which the Civil Rights Association had taken up sixteen years before, was passed in 1836, and thus abolished a grievance long and keenly felt.

These various activities illustrate the active part that organized Unitarianism was taking in public life, but their denominational concerns also were being vigorously developed in the same period. In 1832 they entered an important field of service in the establishment of what came to be known as Domestic Missions. The work that had recently been developed in America by Dr. Joseph Tuckerman of Boston, of missions to the poor and ignorant in their own dwellings, bringing the influence of the Christian religion to them more by personal contact and sympathetic counsel than by public methods, had aroused lively interest in England, which was much confirmed when Tuckerman himself visited England in 1833. The result was that the Association appointed a minister to undertake such work in the East End of London as an experiment, and within the next few years Domestic Mis­sion societies were established to conduct such work in several of the large industrial centres, and have continued to this day; 29 and around these has grown up a variety of uplifting social agencies.

The steady and rapid growth that the Unitarian cause was experiencing both before and after the organization of the British and Foreign Unitarian Association aroused the envy, and perhaps even sharpened the enmity, of both the Dissenters and the established Church. This antagonism to no small degree furnished the motive behind the Wolverhampton and the Lady Hewley suits as they slowly dragged their way through the courts, and it finally led to an open rupture of relations that had hitherto been friendly. Ever since the Revolution of 1688 the three main denominations of Dissenters — Presbyterians, Independents (or Congregationals), and Baptists — had usually acted together in comparative harmony in what concerned their common interests; and the Presbyterians had often borne the leading part in the long struggle of the Dissenting interest for equal rights and completer freedom. But the recent activity of the Presbyterians, now coming to be more commonly known as Unitarians, their bold preaching of their doctrines, and most of all the hostility aroused by the pending litigation, had increased orthodox antagonism against them. The culmination of this came when the ‘General Body of Protestant Dissenting Ministers of the Three Denominations’ in London (organized in 1736) ousted from office, admittedly on account of his heretical beliefs, the Unitarian Dr. Thomas Rees, who had for seven years served as Secretary with conspicuous ability. The Presbyterian members, therefore, felt that they could no longer with self-respect continue their mem­bership in the union, and voted to withdraw from it; and they there­fore claimed, and were given by the Government, recognition as a separate group from the other United Dissenters, and hence were granted access to the throne, and were received by the young Queen Victoria. 30 Thus the last bond was severed that had long held together the two wings of the old Dissent.31

In Liverpool in this period the Unitarians were manifesting so much vigor, with two large congregations under ministers of distinguished ability, and a membership eminent in civic and social affairs, that the Anglican clergymen grew alarmed, and felt that some concerted action must be taken to warn Unitarians and the public at large against the danger in which they stood. Early in 1839, therefore, the Rev. Fielding Ould, minister of Christ Church, published in the press an address ‘to all who call themselves Unitarians in the town and neighborhood of Liverpool,’ to attend a series of lectures in which he and his reverend brethren would undertake to expose the dangerous errors of the Unitarian system. A syllabus of thirteen lectures was presented, to be given by thirteen selected clergymen of Liverpool or vicinity. The three Unitarian ministers (James Martineau, John Hamilton Thom, Henry Giles) were invited to attend the lectures in person, and to urge their people to do the same, and they did so regularly. But when they proposed to give thirteen addresses in turn, setting forth the Unitarian view, the others declined to cooperate in a discussion or to attend, but would on the contrary do all in their power to dissuade others from attending; It was arranged that the proposed addresses should be given on successive Wednesday evenings, and that the corresponding answers should be given on the following Tuesday evenings. Both series were attended by crowds; and the addresses were promptly printed as pamphlets, with appropriate prefaces and appendixes.32 All Liverpool was profoundly stirred by the controversy, and its echoes spread far; but if there was any hope of making numerous converts on either side, that hope in the circumstances was bound to be disappointed. Two families were said to have come over to the Unitarians, and none is reported in the opposite direction. But, as is wont to be the case in controversies, existing convictions were cleared and confirmed, and old antagonisms were sharpened. The orthodox doctrines were reaffirmed, with the customary appeals to Scripture and to the traditions of past centuries; the Unitarian views were clarified and restated to correspond with the results of recent biblical criticism and the demands of reason, and were set forth with a vigor and fearlessness that gave direction to Unitarian thinking for the rest of the century.

We have now to come back to the struggle of the Unitarians over their disputed right to possess their ancient chapels and other properties. Complaints had been made more and more frequently by the orthodox Dissenters that Unitarian congregations were occupying chapels or holding funds that by legal right ought to be in orthodox hands, and only a suitable occasion was required to bring the matter into the law courts for definite settlement. Such an occasion occurred in 1816 in the John Street chapel at Wolverhampton near Birmingham.33 This chapel had been erected in 1701: by a congregation of English Presbyterians ‘for the worship and service of God and the use of Protestant Dissenters,’ without distinction. The founders were doubt­less orthodox, but in the course of a century the views of the congregation had insensibly changed until they were predominantly Unitarian. In 1818 a professed Unitarian, Mr. John Seward, was appointed minister for three years; but before this term expired his religious views changed and he avowed himself a Trinitarian. The congregation therefore requested him to withdraw from his position, granting him three months in which to find another place, and to this he consented. In the meantime, however, a sometime member, who had been appointed Trustee in 1782, but had seceded in 1783 upon the election of a Unitarian as minister, and without ever resigning his trust had joined an orthodox congregation, now came forward claiming to be the only living trustee, and persuaded the minister to stand his ground and resist ejectment. Some scenes of disorder ensued concerning possession of the pulpit, and the case was taken into court, where it was bitterly contested, and carried on from court to court, with decisions steadily running against the Unitarians, who presently withdrew and built another chapel, leaving the orthodox in possession of the old one. But even after a decision of the case had practically been reached, the court postponed pronouncing judgment for a considerable time, awaiting decision of a similar but more important case pending in the House of Lords. 34 At length, after the lapse of nineteen years, it was decreed in 1842 that the Unitarians had no legal right to the property.35 The costs of the long litigation far exceeded the value of the property, the chapel was sold under the hammer, the deficit was charged to the litigants, and after a short occupancy by the Bap­tists the Church of England secured the chapel as a chapel of ease to St. Peter's.

During all the time that this case was pending, a dark and ominous cloud overshadowed the Unitarians, for it was realized that the case was of vital importance, since it might tend to set a precedent involving the title to many old chapels once orthodox and now in Unitarian hands. On this ground, indeed, the Congregationals sought the assistance of their brethren in prosecuting the suit; and only a case was required which might definitely call for the statement of a general principle applicable to any similar situation. Such a case was the out­growth of an occurrence at Manchester in the summer of 1824, when a testimonial dinner was given for the Rev. John Grundy, minister of Cross Street Chapel, who was about to remove to Liverpool. On this occasion one of the after-dinner speakers was the Rev. George Harris, and in the course of an eloquent speech he allowed himself to draw a contrast between the spirit of orthodoxy and that of Unitarianism in terms which, when reported in full in the press, gave the orthodox great and just offence. A heated newspaper controversy ensued and was protracted for four months; and when in the course of this it was intimated that Unitarians were illegally holding many chapels that in their origin were properly orthodox, their opponents were virtually challenged to prove the charge in the courts.36 The challenge was accepted; and after due consultation for some time it was decided to probe the matter by inquiring into the administration of a famous charity that Dame Sarah Hewley, a Presbyterian of York, had founded in 1704 for the benefit of ‘poor and godly preachers of Christ's holy Gospel,’ and for certain kindred purposes. She had prescribed no doctrinal conditions; but while the trust far antedated the existence of Unitarianism as an acknowledged faith, it was well known that it had long been administered by trustees known to be Unitarian, and too often in the interest of Unitarian persons or causes; and as the fund amounted to perhaps £100,000, and was rapidly growing in value, it was increasingly coveted by the orthodox. At the instigation, therefore, of a group of leading Independents (Congregationals) as complainants, suit was at length brought in 1830 against the trustees of the charity, seeking to establish the right of orthodox Dissenters alone to manage and participate in the charity.

The case was stubbornly fought, for both parties realized that grave issues were at stake. The Unitarians in particular foresaw that if they lost this case, then scores of other suits might follow and deprive them of chapels that they had occupied without opposition for more than a hundred years. The recently flourishing denomination might thus at a blow be reduced to a mere handful of young and feeble congregations. It was rumored indeed that a group of Unitarians in Lancashire were in that event already contemplating emigration to Texas. To forestall such an outcome the Unitarians bent every effort to prove their unbroken line of descent from the Presbyterians of the eventeenth century. They industriously revived their long-neglected name of Presbyteri­ans, which now since the beginning of the century had been generally supplanted by that of Unitarians. They laid great stress on the consideration that their Presbyterian fathers held their church proper­ties under “open trusts,” intending thereby to refrain from any imposition of man-made tests or creeds, and not binding them to any beliefs narrower than Scripture; 37 and they sought to show that so far as their beliefs had changed it had been by gradual degrees of normal growth, and with no conscious break of continuity. The case was first tried in the Chancery Court before Vice-Chancellor Shadwell, who in December, 1883, decreed in substance ‘that no persons who deny the divinity of Christ, etc., are entitled to participate in Lady Hewley's charity, and that the trustees existing must be removed.’38 The trustees at once appealed to the Lord Chancellor, who in February, 1836, affirmed the Vice-Chancellor's judgment.39 The trustees appealed again to the House of Lords, where the case was argued for six days in May and June, 1839. The judges held the case under consideration for three years more, and final judgment was not pronounced until August, 1842, by the Chancellor, Lord Lyndhurst, who affirmed the previous decrees, six of the seven judges concurring.40 The value of the Hewley Fund had greatly appreciated during the nearly twelve years of litigation, and the income from it had grown from £2,800 to £4,200 annually; but the costs of the litigation amounted to more than £18,000, of which some two thirds came out of the charity, and the rest had to be paid by the trustees personally.41 The judges did not base their decision on doctrinal grounds, but held consistently to the principle that a trust could not now be held for any use that would have been illegal at the time when it was made; 42 and it soon became evident that they regretted that they had felt bound to give a decision that would be almost certain to result in great injustice to the defeated party. The decision of the case gave unfeigned delight to the orthodox, but filled the Unitarians with dismay; for the law now left them no valid title to their properties, and no right even to keep them in re­pair, nor yet to occupy them save for a little time on sufferance. Parties were understood to be ready and eager to begin proceedings, and there seemed good reason to expect that as soon as plans could be made a large number of suits would be brought against the congregations now worshiping in the Unitarian chapels. In Ireland, indeed, one or two cases involving church properties had already been determined against the Arian party, and others were pending; and it was feared that the attempt might be made to seize all the Remonstrant chapels.43 In England also, in view of the judgment in the Lady Hewley case, steps were already being taken in 1843 to attack another great Presbyterian trust, that of Dr. Williams,44 though the Attorney-General refused to sanction the proposed suit.45 Whether it was because they thought that the Congregational churches might be planning soon to appropriate Unitarian chapels to their own uses, or because it was suspected that they wished merely by legal means to inflict a crushing blow upon their rivals, or for some other reason, the Unitarians anxiously faced the possibility of their being ejected from more than 200 chapels in which they had worshiped undisturbed for a hundred years, and of seeing their denomination reduced to only twenty or thirty mostly unimportant congregations. In any case it was clear that there was no escape from their tragic situation except through an Act of Parliament, which should quiet titles and secure them in possession of their ancient chapels. It was this end that was sought through what is known as the Dissenters’ Chapel Bill.46

It was at once generally recognized that if the law were allowed to take its course a great wrong and shocking injustice would be suffered by a body of good citizens who had committed no crime, but had simply continued, unchallenged, to worship where their fathers before them had worshiped; while if allowed to continue as they were, no injustice would be suffered by any one. To discover what could now be done, a small committee at once laid their situation before the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Peel, and the Attorney-General, and applied for legislative relief. The Government was sympathetic, the Attorney­General promised to prevent any legal proceedings against them until their claim had been fully considered, and the judges who had decided the Hewley case against them were more than ready to cooperate in any measures to prevent them from suffering injustice in consequence of it. The committee was then enlarged so as to have authority from nearly every antitrinitarian congregation in England and Wales. At the next session of Parliament, in March, 1843, there was presented a full statement of the reasons for requesting parliamentary action.47 Steps were taken with careful deliberation, and a Bill so drawn as to apply to Ireland as well, and heartily supported by all the judges that had sat in the Lady Hewley case, was introduced in the House of Lords March 7, 1844 by the Lord Chancellor Lyndhurst, who had himself pronounced judgment in the previous case. A great number of petitions supporting the Bill, or opposing it, were presented; and after considerable debate from the Government in support of the Bill, and from the Bishops of London and Exeter leading the opposition opposing it, it passed the necessary stages by handsome majorities and was sent to the House of Commons. From the start various circumstances strongly favored the passage of the Bill. Not only did the judges give it their unanimous support, but the leaders of both the Government and the opposition party were agreed upon it. In the House of Commons in 1837 four fifths of the Dissenting members were Unitarians. The Bishops however were generally, though not unanimously, in opposition, and from outside of Parliament a vast number of petitions opposing the Bill were filed by Independents, Methodists and Calvinistic, Baptists, although there was a significant support given by churchmen and by minority members of the sects.48

The debate in the Commons was long and spirited, and was marked by notable speeches from Macaulay, Gladstone, Lord John Russell and others besides the Government speaking in favor. Important amend­ments and improvements were adopted, and the Bill passed the Commons by a vote of 203 to 83. The amended Bill was then further discussed in the House of Lords, and passed July 15, 1844 by a vote of 202 to 41. Royal Assent was given four days later.49 The Act as passed was based on the accepted principle that long undisputed possession of property creates a vested right; and it provided in the present case that the Unitarians should be secured in their possession of trusts containing no doctrinal provision, when they could prove undisputed usage of twenty-five years in favor of the opinions they held and taught. The decision was received with deep indignation by the orthodox bodies concerned, but by the public at large not directly concerned it was accepted as an act of simple justice, which established, to those that had for generations worshiped in them, the long uncontested title to their chapels, and thus put an end to otherwise endless litigation, and yet defrauded or injured no one. For the Unitarians themselves it gave welcome relief from a long period of anxious suspense, and opened the door to a period of renewed life and vigor.

Click here to open the frame set built to read this document. 

This page was last modified Sunday 12 November 2006.
Website ©1998–2006 Rev. Dr. Alicia McNary Forsey. Text ©1998–2004 t
he heirs of Earl Morse Wilbur.  All rights reserved.
For comments or requests write to { webweaver at pacificuu dot org }.