CHAPTER X
PRECURSORS OF UNITARIANISM IN ENGLAND

THE RELIGIOUS MOVEMENT whose history we are endeavoring to trace from its beginning early in the era of the Protestant Reformation down to the present time, affected to some little extent the religious life of every country in which the Reformation took root, though it became fully developed in thought and polity in only four countries, one after another, namely Poland, Transylvania, England and America. But in each of these it showed, along with certain individual characteristics, a general spirit, a common point of view, and a doctrinal pattern that tempt one to regard them as all outgrowths of a single movement which passed from one to another; for nothing could be more natural than to presume that these common features implied a common ancestry. Yet such is not the fact, for in each of these four lands the movement, instead of having originated elsewhere, and been translated only after attaining mature growth, appears to have sprung independently and directly from its own native roots, and to have been influenced by other and similar movements only after it had already developed an independent life and character of its own.

Thus the Socinian movement in Poland arose in the bosom of local Protestantism out of germs stirring in the minds of religious exiles from Catholic Italy, and owed nothing to any foreign movement, unless it were some subsidiary social features imbibed by a few of its early leaders from the Anabaptist Communists in Moravia. The Unitarian movement in Transylvania, again, though in its origin almost exactly contemporaneous with that in Poland, instead of being derived from the latter, grew directly out of the local Calvinist church, under the leadership of Francis Dávid, well before Socinianisin in Poland had become firmly established; and it had a largely independent his­tory for well-nigh forty years before it yielded much to the dominating influence of Socinianism. Likewise early Unitarianism in England was no outright importation of Socinianism from Poland or Holland, though in this a fully developed system lay already to hand; for a full dozen or more of the precursors of the English movement had suffered martyrdom for some form of the Unitarian heresy in the ninety years before Socinianism had become well enough known to be recognized by the authorities as a public danger. Nor had John Biddle, ‘the Father of the English Unitarians,’ ever read any Socinian writer before he settled his judgment concerning the doctrine of the Trinity,1 although his followers were later so much influenced by reading So­cinian books that the orthodox long called their movement Socinianism. In fact, it seems not unlikely that each of these separate movements might have reached essentially much the same position that it eventually occupied, without any outside influences, but simply as the normal outgrowth of certain tendencies latent in Protestantism itself, and in certain types of mind in whatever national or religious environment.

The ultimate germs of English Unitarianism, then, are to be found far back of the first clear emergence of the movement in the second half of the seventeenth century, and are foreshadowed even before the Protestant Reformation. It is necessary here to do little more than mention briefly three early heretics who seemed to lean toward Unitarian views. Earliest of these was the rather questionable instance of Adam Duff O’Toole,2 who is said to have denied the incarnation and the doctrine of the Trinity, and was burned alive at Dublin as heretic and blasphemer in 1327. Next comes the case of William Sawtrey Sautre),3 sometime priest at Lynn, who was convicted of heresy, publicly recanted, was condemned again and finally burned as a relapsed heretic at Smithfield, March 20, 1401, eight days before the passage of the fateful Act De haeretico comburendo, which condemned all convicted heretics to death at the stake and was not abolished until 1677. He was the first in England to suffer death for his religion. Third was Reginald Pecock (c. 139–c.1460), Bishop of St. Asaph and later Chichester, called by Bonet-Maury ‘the father of English Rationalism’ who in two published writings expressed the view that the au­thority of Scripture and reason was superior to that of ecclesiastical tradition, and hence was made to resign his office in 1458.4 These, however, can be considered but isolated instances, widely separated in time and space, not standing even as the beginnings of our movement, but merely as evidences of individuals reaching out for freedom of faith in place of blind obedience to traditional authority.

Leaving these early instances, we come nearer to the beginnings of an integrated movement when we reach John Wyclif, whose translation of the Bible5 into English late in the fourteenth century opened the Scriptures for the common layman to read and judge for himself. Using this freedom his Lollard followers inevitably tended to stray more or less beyond the close fold of traditional belief, and thus came to be charged with sundry heresies. Some of them are said to have been tinged with Antitrinitarianism; indeed, William Sawtrey just mentioned was said to be a Lollard. It is however less because he was a pioneer of Unitarian views than because he burst the stifling bonds of the traditional doctrinal system, and encouraged a broader freedom of belief in general (itself one of the prime characteristics of the Unitarian movement), that Wyclif deserves to be included in this reckon­ing. For independent study of the Bible must be regarded as the most fundamental of all the influences that combined in shaping the Unitarian movement. The leaven continued thus to work and spread, despite manifold persecutions, for a century and a half until Henry VIII, in declaring England’s independence of the Pope in 1534, established the English Reformation, and thus opened the door to many on the Continent who were suffering from religious persecution and looked to England as a haven of refuge; for by the new law, passed in 1534, a sentence passed against a heretic might not be executed without the King’s warrant, the right to deal with heretics being thus taken from the Church and lodged with the civil authorities.6

In the following year 1535, therefore, during a bloody persecution of the Anabaptist followers of Jan van Geelen in their violent insurrec­tion at Amsterdam, in the course of which van Geelen himself was killed,7 numerous companies of Anabaptists crossed over to England, where they established themselves chiefly in the eastern counties and in Kent. They were welcomed as immigrants for their skill as useful artisans, and they were in the main orderly and peaceable citizens; but religiously they were under suspicion and were narrowly watched. In fact, in their religious views they were of two sorts; some were marked only by their objection to the custom of baptizing infants, which they believed to be without scripture warrant; others, being unrestrained by an authorized confession, and interpreting the Bible as seemed to them good, ran into a variety of vagaries that might easily breed religious dissension in the new Protestant kingdom, and even end in civil disorder. To avoid such a danger, therefore, several Bishops and others were commissioned to search these out and bring them into court. A number were found and abjured their errors, among which were denial of the Trinity and of the deity of Christ; in fact, at this period, Arian and Anabaptist were used indiscriminately as equivalent names.8 In the same year twenty-five Dutch men and women were examined in St. Paul’s for denying Christ’s humanity; and of these fourteen were condemned and burned, two in Smithfield, the rest in other towns.9  These measures were ineffectual, and Arianism is reported at this time to have been professed openly in Essex and Kent; 10 and of the twenty-six burned under Henry VIII it is fair to presume that a good number suffered for denying the Trinity.11

With the accession of Edward VI in 1537 the prospects of carrying out a thorough reform of the Church became brighter. Henry VIII had never been more than half Protestant, and as he grew older he became lukewarm to the Reformation. But under Edward, a boy of but nine years, while the civil government was managed by the Privy Council, ecclesiastical matters were administered by Archbishop Cranmer, who was zealous for the Reformation and for strictness in doctrine. He began to root out those that were unsound in their views, and already in June 1548, John Assheton, priest of Shiltelington, was brought before him, accused of holding that the doctrine of the Trinity was first established by the Athanasian Creed; that the Holy Spirit is not God, but only a certain power of the Father; and that Jesus Christ, though a holy prophet, was not the true and living God. All these things he admitted, but now for fear of the stake he renounced and abjured these ‘errors, heresies and damnable opinions,’ confessing the Trinity and the deity of Christ.12 Assheton was the first one in England to be arraigned on the charge of Antitrinitarianism.

In order to strengthen the Reformation, and at the same time to build up the English Universities, Cranmer invited eminent scholars from Protestant centers on the Continent to come to England. One of these was Ochino, and for a short time Laelius Socinus who came in 1547/8, though neither was as yet antitrinitarian. Persons from various coun­tries on the Continent, however, having been banished on account of their religion, came to England in increasing numbers, until there were said to be in London at least 3,000 Protestant refugees, mostly from the Low Countries, but also from France, Italy and Spain. As they had no place where they might meet for worship in their own language, the King in 1550 granted them in London the church of the Austin Friars, to use for religious worship after their own manner. This came to be known as the Strangers’ (i.e., ‘foreigners’) Church, and it was placed under the oversight of a Superintendent of their own rather than that of an English Bishop, though subject to visitation by the Bishop of London.13 Their first Superintendent was the famous Polish Protestant John à Lasco (Jan Łaski). Being composed of various ele­ments and governed as it was, this church, though in outward form orthodox, ere long became a center where various unorthodox views found expression, and thus it doubtless had some influence on the early development of English Unitarianism, though by no means so broad or deep as Bonet-Maury contends.

Throughout the reign of Edward VI there was much alarm in church circles over the rapid spread of ‘Arianism,’ and Cranmer took every means to discover the sources of this and to stop them. Complaint was made to the Council, and six Bishops and some others were appointed a commission to search for and examine any Anabaptists or other heretics and either reclaim them or else if obstinate deliver them to the secular arm. Several thus discovered abjured; but one that was conspicuous for views more or less Unitarian remained stedfast and suffered accordingly. This was Dr. George van Parris, a surgeon by profession and a Fleming by birth. He had come from Mainz to London, where he was a member of the Strangers’ Church,14 a man of unblemished character, notable for his devout habits; but there had been of late considerable fear lest Unitarian views spread. He was therefore accused and tried before Cranmer where, as he knew no English, the examination had to be conducted through an interpreter. He was charged with believing that Christ is not very God, and that the only God is God the Father, which he refused to retract or abjure. Unmoved b threats he was excommunicated from the Strangers’ Church, condemned for denial of the deity of Christ, and despite powerful intercessions in his behalf was burned at Smithfield, April 25, 1551.

The brief reign of Edward VI came to an end in 1553, and with the violent reaction introduced by Queen Mary the Church of the Strangers was broken up, and its members scattered over the Continent, not to return until 1560, when Queen Elizabeth allowed them their church again. Mary promised indeed to make no change in religion, but she soon broke her promise. She had Edward’s laws about religion repealed, and the old penal laws against heretics were revived. Protestant leaders began to be burned, and preachers in large numbers were turned out of their pulpits. Over 800 that had been prominent in the Reformation fled the country and sought safety in Protestant centres in Germany or Switzerland, including 14 of the higher clergy, over 50 Doctors and eminent preachers, together with many of the nobility and hundreds of other prominent citizens. Though no Catholic had been put to death in Edward’s time, Cranmer, Ridley and Latimer were now sent to the stake, and in all nearly 300 of the reformed were put to death in Mary’s reign.15 Mary’s persecutions fell not only on the leaders, but also on the humble and the poor. Though we know little of them but their names and their fate, some of these deserved honorable mention in this record. Thus one Patrick Packingham, a dealer in hides, was burned as an Arian at Uxbridge in 1555, a fate from which his recantation at the stake did not save him.16 In the next year William Powling, a sawyer of Thornham in Kent, denied the Trinity and the deity of Christ and the Holy Spirit; John Simms of Brenchley and Robert King of Petham confessed to similar heresies, though all three escaped their fate by a timely abjuring.17 Others were imprisoned, as is witnessed by the case of a nameless confessor who was shamefully treated by a fellow prisoner of orthodox faith. John Philpot, Archdeacon of Winchester, whom Mary had imprisoned for his Protestantism, while in prison had a theological discussion with an Arian, in which he became so wrought up that he must needs relieve his feelings by spitting on his opponent, for doing which he afterwards sought to justify himself by publishing the singular tract entitled, ‘An Apology of John Philpot; written for spitting upon an Arian: with an invective against Arians, the veri natural children of Antichrist: with an admonition to all that be faithful in Christ, to beware of them, and of other late sprung heresies, as of the most enemies of the gospel.’ 18 (1559). What became of the Arian is not recorded; but Philpot himself was sent to the stake in 1555.

Apparently the same troublesome heresy followed the English refugees on the Continent and called for opposition there; for Dr. Bartholomew Traheron (1510–58), who had been Dean of Chichester, and was one of the exile church at Frankfurt, where he taught in their seminary, lectured and published expressly against the Antitrinitarians.19 The Rev. John Pullayne also published a ‘Tract against the Arians,’ 20 and was rewarded by being made Archdeacon of Colchester.

With the death of Queen Mary and the accession of Elizabeth in 1558, the Church of England again became Protestant. The people had strongly reacted against the severity of Mary’s rule, and that of Elizabeth was welcomed. Though she favored the Reformation, she proceeded with caution, seeking to establish a national Church that should as far as possible be acceptable to all parties. Its doctrine was to be a compromise between Calvin and Luther, and its worship and ceremonial a compromise between Catholic and Protestant. Thus the unity of the kingdom was to be saved from weakening quarrels about religion, while any that refused to cooperate in so generous and inclusive a policy were to be regarded not so much heretics in doctrine as traitors to the civil government. She therefore made as few changes in outward forms as were consistent with reformation in essentials, and the result therefore was not wholly satisfactory to the reforming party. The refu­gees now returned from the Continent, confirmed in their attachment to the Reformation, but already showing the beginnings of a cleavage between two wings. Those from the congregation at Frankfurt favored the conservative forms they had known under Edward VI; while those that had been under Calvin’s influence at Geneva and desired a more radical reform provided the germ of the Puritan party soon to arise.

Elizabeth reestablished the Strangers’ Church in 1559, though now under the direct oversight of the Bishop of London, and besides the Dutch congregation already existing separate ones were gathered for Protestant refugees from France, Italy and Spain.21 She also at once abolished the laws for the burning of heretics, though within a year she was persuaded to order an investigation as to whether any heresies were being spread; when so many were discovered that in 1560 all Anabaptists were ordered to leave England, since they refused to join the worship of either the national Church or the Strangers’ Church as Elizabeth’s Act of Uniformity of the previous year required, but instead met secretly.22 Evidently persecutions of the Anabaptists followed, for in 1560 they petitioned the Bishop through Adriaen van Haemstede (Adrian Hamsted), one of the ministers of the Dutch church at Austin Friars, asking for toleration. Bishop Grindal regarded this as a request for toleration of heresy, and not only refused to grant it, but called van Haemstede before him, and when he refused to subscribe a recantation of the Anabaptist errors excommunicated him.23 An eminent Italian member of the church, Jacobus Acontius (Jacopo or Giacomo Acontio, Aconzio, Concio),24 who shared van Haemstede’s views and openly defended him before the Bishop, was also excommunicated in the following year. Acontius was the author of several interesting writings on various subjects, but he is of particular interest to us here on account of his famous work, Satanae Stratagemata (Basel, 1565), which was in print for more than a century in the original Latin, or in French, Dutch and English translations.25

This work, which Acontius returned from London to Basel in 1564 to see through the press, was dedicated to the Queen, and for more than a hundred years was eagerly read or bitterly denounced for its powerful argument in favor of religious toleration, in which he com­plemented the work of Castellio (v. supra, vol. i, p. 205). As a convert from Catholicism he regarded the many sects and heated controversies among the reformed churches, to which Catholics pointed as the crowing disgrace of Protestantism, as clever devices of Satan to divide and weaken Christ’s kingdom and destroy men’s souls. The way to outwit these wiles of the old fox was to ignore most of the points in dispute as non-essential. Let all the sects discard their confessions, and unite upon one containing only the few essentials of Christian belief, stated in language taken from Scripture alone. In the seventh book of his second edition he proposed a statement covering only six brief points, and beyond these he would require no one to accept any doctrine as necessary to salvation. This plea for a tolerance broad enough to unite all sects into a single church, holding doctrines that all Protestants own, found ready acceptance among broad-minded Christians. Thus, after its translation into Dutch in 1611, it rapidly spread among the Arminans in Holland, attracted some favorable notice even in Germany, was espoused by Latitudinarian leaders in the Church of England, and was employed by Milton in his Areopagitica.26 On the other hand it was strongly objected to by the conservatives in all quarters; for it ignored as non-essential the Trinity, the deity of Christ, the Lord’s Supper, and other hotly disputed doctrines, so that it was complained that even Arians or Socinians could subscribe such a confession. When  at length in 1648 the Rev. John Goodwin translated the first four books into English, it was reported to the Assembly as defective in doctrine,27 and led to the passage of the ‘Draconic ordinance’ against heresy. If, however, the essential feature of the movement whose history we are ere tracing is assumed to be the form of doctrine known as Unitarian, Lien Acontius can not be regarded as one of its apostles. But if one of its most pronounced characteristics is acknowledged to be tolerance in religion, then Acontius deserves to be included in this record as one of its earliest and most influential heralds.

Despite the measures taken against them, the Anabaptists continued to increase, so that in 1575 the Act De haeretica comburendo, after slumbering seventeen years, was reluctantly revived and enforced against them. On Easter of that year a little congregation of them, while privately worshiping in a house in Aldersgate Street, London, was sur­prised, and some thirty of them were arrested and imprisoned. Some recanted, some were flogged and banished, one died in prison, and two others, the poor and aged Jan Pieters (or Jan the Wheelwright) and Hendrik Terwoort, a goldsmith, who were charged with a heretical view concerning the incarnation, were burned alive at Smithfield, and ‘died in great horror, with crying and roaring,’ as the historian relates.28 John Foxe, the martyrologist, addressed to the Queen an eloquent appeal in their behalf, but in vain. She excused her action by saying that it would ill become her to set free those that had dishonored God, when she had lately punished some that had been traitors to the State.29 The principal seat of Antitrinitarian views among the Anabap­tists was in the county of Norfolk, where a number of victims were ferreted out by Bishop Scambler. Mention is also made of Matthew Hamont of Hethersett, a plowwright, who was burned in 1579 for denying that Christ was God; and of his followers John Lewes, and Peter Cole a tanner of Ipswich, who were burned in 1583 and 1587 respectively; and of the Rev. Francis Kett, a graduate of Cambridge, who for blasphemous opinions concerning Christ had his ears cut off, and was then burned near Norwich in 1589.30 All these were charged in vague but generally extravagant terms with unsound views as to the Trinity or Christ; but they all give evidence of a wide-spread prevalence among humble, Bible-reading Christians of discontent with the traditional doctrines and a desire for a simpler and more scriptural form of doctrine.31

By the end of Elizabeth’s reign the heresy fires had pretty well burned themselves out, to be revived under James I for a brief moment, after slumbering for over twenty years. James came to the throne in 1603, bred a Strict Calvinist, thinking himself a competent judge of religious questions, and disposed to take quite seriously his title of Defender of the Faith. One of his first acts was to publish ‘Constitutions and Canons Ecclesiastical,’ by which he asserted supreme authority over all matters of the Church, and outlawed all meetings outside the Church of England assuming to be those of lawful churches, thus striking at the Anabaptists.32 Also at the Hampton Court Conference in his first year, where he listened to the desires of both parties, he made it clear that the struggle between the Episcopalians, who wished to maintain the government and practices of the Church as they were, and the Presby­terians, who desired a more thorough reform and were beginning to be known as Puritans, his sympathies were all with the former. He also undertook to check the introduction of heresies from abroad. Thus in 1611 he ordered Vorst’s Treatise on God and His Attributes to be burned at St. Paul’s Cross and at both Universities; and in 1614 he caused to be burned the Latin edition of the Racovian Catechism, which the translator had dedicated to him.33 It was well on in James’s reign at the last instances of burning for heresy in England took place in 1612, in the cases of Legate and Wightman, who died in the same month, and are usually spoken of together, but in almost every other respect were quite separate. Bartholomew Legate 34 was a cloth merchant in the county of Essex, where he had business connections with Holland. He was a prominent Anabaptist, and his brother Thomas had already died in prison in 1608. He was of attractive personality, of  blameless character, and well versed in the Scriptures. The King was reluctant to proceed against him though he was under arrest as a heretic, and in private interviews he often sought to correct him. But when Legate yet remained unshaken, the King at length burst out in anger, ‘spurned at him (kicked him) with his foot,’ and banished him from his presence. He was long held in easy confinement and kindly treated, and was-often called before the Bishops in the Consistory of St. Paul’s for examination; but as he boldly persisted in defending his opinions and refused to repent, he was finally excommunicated by the Bishop and condemned on thirteen blasphemous counts as an obdurate, contumacious and incorrigible heretic, and was sentenced to death. Refusing all offers of mercy and pardon offered even at the stake, he was burned on March 18, 1612, in the presence of a great concourse of spectators.35

Almost exactly contemporary with the case of Legate was that of Edward Wightman36 of the parish of Burton-upon-Trent, who has the distinction of being the last to be burned for heresy in England. We know little more of him than what the documents of his trial relate; but he was evidently a man of disordered mind on matters of religion, for apart from denying the Trinity, the deity of Christ and of the Holy Spirit, and the Creeds, he considered himself a divinely appointed prophet foretold in Scripture, and that he himself was the Holy Spirit. Examined before the Bishop of Coventry and Lichfield, he was charged with holding the heresies of ten ancient heretics and of the Anabaptists, and was convicted on sixteen separate heads. He lay in prison for several months and was often exhorted to repent, but refused, and was finally sentenced to die. At the stake, when scorched by the fire, he recanted and was pulled out of it; but after two or three weeks he took back his recantation, ‘and died blaspheming.’ One other was sentenced to death under James, a Spanish ‘Arian’ whose name has not been preserved; but he was permitted ‘to linger out a miserable life in Newgate rather than to awaken too far the compassions of the people.’ 37  Indeed, the King seems to have lost his faith in this method of discouraging heresy, seeing that heresy still survived nevertheless, and that the public were led by such executions to be impressed by the constancy of the victims, and rather to sympathize with them than to abhor their opinions. He therefore ‘politicly preferred,’ says the historian Fuller, ‘that heretics hereafter, though condemned, should silently and privately waste themselves away in the prison rather than to grace them, and amuse others, with the solemnity of a public execution, which in popular judgments usurped the honor of a persecution.’ As time went on, the King’s zeal for orthodoxy and conformity in religion somewhat relaxed, and he contented himself with the burning of heretical books. When the Reformed Church in Holland convened the Synod of Dort in 1608 to deal with the rising Arminianism, he sent several representatives of the Church to do all in their power to repress the growing spirit of liberalism in Holland; and when before and after that date the orthodox majority in the Dutch church were opposing the appointment of Vorst to a chair at Leiden, he used all his influence with the Dutch government to prevent his being installed. Henceforth the engrossing problems of the Church in England were concerned less with the irruption of heresies from the outside than with the growing differences within the Church itself, first the bitter struggle between the Episcopal party and the Puritan party for control of the Church, which was to end in a permanent division between churchmen and Dissenters in separate organizations, and after that the slow approach toward greater freedom of belief in both the Church and organized Dissent.

After the burning of Wightman there were no more executions for heresy in England. The extreme Calvinism of James’s theology became strangely transformed into the relatively liberal Arminianism of the Remonstrants. He had perhaps come to realize that heresy could not be successfully exterminated at the stake; while the Anabaptists doubtless learned the wisdom of being yet more secretive in their meetings. But chiefly interest was centering less on heretical tendencies outside the Church in a barely tolerated sect, and was becoming concerned rather with the question of the constitution of the Church itself: should it still be governed by the Episcopal element then in control, and remain in polity, doctrine and worship closely akin to the Roman Church, to which James seemed more and more inclined; or should the Puritan element, now steadily gaining in strength, prevail and enforce a complete reformation, leaving the Church Presbyterian in its organization, and purged of any trace of Catholicism in doctrine and form of worship. This was to be the issue that was to divide both Church and State for the greater part of the seventeenth century taking precedence over mere details of doctrine which had hitherto been so conspicuous. Such questions, however, were still discussed among members of both parties, though somewhat less publicly than before.

For well-nigh a generation before and after the death of James, therefore, there was no overt Antitrinitarianism, though the leaven was quietly working beneath the surface. For by this time many Socinian works in Latin for scholars were coming from the Raków press and were being eagerly read in private by persons of inquiring mind, and English translations of important works of Socinus and others were being clandestinely printed by Collegiants or Remonstrants in Holland, and were circulating widely among the common people in England. At the same time an occasional Polish scholar or nobleman in his travels came in person and formed friendly acquaintance with English scholars, and discussed religious questions even with a Bishop, making a favorable impression by their high breeding and by their temperate and reasonable way of discussing controverted points.38 An occasional student from Poland or Transylvania also appeared at one of the uni­versities, and sought to arouse interest in his religion, or to make converts to it. Thus Adam Franck was discovered by Archbishop Laud in 1639, trying to make converts among the students at Cambridge; and the Transylvanians whom Milton reports as studying there 39 will doubtless have included some Unitarians. But though Socinian or Unitarian views were thus quietly spreading, no action was as yet taken against Socinianism save in the burning of the Racovian Catechism at James’s instance in 1614.

Midway of this period there was at Oxford a little circle of thoughtful men who were to have no small influence upon religious thought and to be known as the founders of the latitudinarian movement in the Church of England. The three most important of these were Lucius Cary (the second Lord Falkland), ‘the ever memorable John Hales of Eton,’ as he was afterwards known, and William Chillingworth.40 All three were devout churchmen and adherents of the Episcopal party, and quite out of sympathy with the Puritans, wishing the Church to be as broadly inclusive as possible, so that it might welcome Christians of all shades of opinion, and insisting on belief in only the smallest possible number of essential doctrines. They were true Broad-churchmen and apostles of tolerance. They had evidently imbibed the spirit of Acontius, whose Stratagems was reprinted at Oxford at just this time (1631), very possibly at their instance. Lord Falkland, born a Calvinist, had fallen under liberal teachers at Dublin University, and afterwards settling on his estate near Oxford became the centre of a brilliant literary circle; and at a time when religious liberty was being shamelessly violated under Archbishop Laud he earnestly devoted himself for some years to philosophical and theological studies, together with his close friends Hales and Chillingworth. Entering Parliament he took an active part in discussion of policies of Church and State, as head of the modrrate or liberal party, opposing the claims of infallibility in any sphere, and pleading in his speeches for freedom of religious opinion, reason and tolerance. When the Civil War broke out Falkland sided, however, with the King, and fell in battle at Newbury in 1642. He had early been shown some writings of Socinus by his chaplain, Dr. Hugh Cressy of Oxford, who had been the first to bring Socinus’s works to England, and was so greatly taken with them that he was judged to have been one of the first Socinians in England.41 By his career in Parliament, and by his writings on Episcopacy and Infallibility, he had an influence that long endured in favor of a moderate and liberal Church.

A more influential and more famous member of the same group was John Hales (1584—1656). In his student days at Oxford he showed brilliant talents, and after taking his degree was in due time made fellow, and then Professor of Greek. Having also taken orders in the Church he was presently made fellow of Eton College, where he lived the retired life of a scholar, interrupted only by his attendance at the Synod of Dort, as chaplain to the English Ambassador. Here the treatment of the Remonstrants by the orthodox seemed to him so outrageous that, though hitherto a Calvinist, he ‘bid Calvin good night.’42 He wrote but little, but he detested tyranny in the Church, and opposed intolerance, discussing it eloquently in a Tract concerning Schism and Schismatics (1636), and in one On Private Judgment in Religion. These brought upon him the charge of Socinianism,43 a term that at this time generally referred not to doctrine but to tolerance, and the habit of applying reason to the interpretation of Scripture; though his ideas of tolerance were undoubtedly derived from Socinian writings. Having espoused the royalist side in the civil war, he was expelled from his fellowship, and lived the rest of his life in poverty. His reputation as a scholar and as a preacher gave him much influence in making the atmosphere of the Church more hospitable to reason and tolerance in the Church, and thus paving the way toward Socinianism and the later Unitarianism.44

The third and most famous of the three Oxford Latitudinarians was William Chillingworth (1602—44), considerably younger than Hales and Falkland.45 He was well connected, and took his degree at Oxford, where he had already won a reputation for his ability as a debater. He was much concerned to find an assured foundation on which to rest his religious faith, and in his search for this he was persuaded to embrace the Roman Catholic religion, and entered a Jesuit seminary at Douai; but finding himself soon disappointed he returned to his old associations at Oxford, applied himself seriously to a free investigation of religious questions and eventually, after much wavering, took orders in the Church of England. He thus was drawn into a controversy then current between a Jesuit father who wrote under the name of Knott, and an Oxford divine, over the foundation of the authority of the Church of Rome, and to this he contributed his most famous writing, on which he had labored for some three years.46 This work, The Religion of Protestants, stands in the history of Protestant theology as one of its greatest monuments. In its main intent it is an investigation of the fundamental grounds of certainty in the field of religious truth. It is a masterpiece of clear and logical reasoning, dignified and elevated in tone, straightforward and fair in manner, simple and earnest in style. To the main question as to the ultimate foundation of religious truth, his opponent maintained that it was the voice of the infallible Church. Chillingworth replied, in words that became classic, ‘The Bible, and the Bible only, is the religion of Protestants.’ He maintained that Scripture and an honest, open mind are the only factors in the problem. Only truths necessary to salvation need be sought for, and they are so plainly taught in Scripture, and so few in number, that any open mind that will look for them may see them. All other doctrines on which men differ are arbitrary and unimportant. They should therefore be treated with full toleration, in the light of one’s native reason. Religious certitude can thus be attained by any honest mind.

This plea of Chillingworth for the broadest toleration in most disputed doctrines, and his confident appeal to reason in determining them, naturally invited bitter criticism from his opponent, who was quick to hurl and press the charge that he was a Socinian in disguise. He had indeed early been so bold as to say that Arianism is no damnable heresy, he objected to the Athanasian Creed, especially its damnatory clauses, and for a time he refused to subscribe the Articles of the Church; but though in these respects he sympathized with the Socinians, in doctrine he was no Socinian, but accepted the doctrinal standards of the Church in the broad and loose way that was to become usual among Latitudinarians. His book was approved by both Archbishop Laud and the King; and in the civil war that soon broke out he took the royalist side, became chaplain in the King’s army, and in this capacity was taken prisoner. While thus in confinement, though mortally ill, he was persistently pestered by a noted Puritan divine, Dr. Francis Cheynell, an intense controversialist who attempted to convert him, and failing in this heaped reproaches on him, even at his grave, and in Chilllngworthi Novissima (1644) a malignant book, which gave an account of his last days.

While Chillingworth can in no wise be claimed as a Unitarian yet his views spread widely in the established Church, and thus contributed to create an atmosphere in which Unitarianism was soon to find an authentic voice and a numerous hearing, not as a condemned heresy, but as a development of historical Christianity; for thus far Unitarianism in England has been only a latent element of thought, with no written or spoken word to give it expression. It is at this point, early in the reign of Charles I, when the Presbyterian party was about to win the ascendancy over episcopacy in the direction of the Church of England, that we may take our leave of those venturesome spirits who, widely separated in space and time, may be counted precursors of our move­ment, and may enter another stage of our story in which the movement that we are following began to have a public voice, and to carry on propaganda through the press. We are to find the movement so long preparing brought at length to a focus in the person of one who has been called ‘the father of the English Unitarians,’ John Biddle.

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 }.