WITH THE RESTORATION of monarchy in England at the accession of Charles II on the one hand, and the death of Biddle on the other, the history of our movement enters a new period with a changed background. Charles, presumed to be a supporter of the established Church, though at heart a Catholic, was received with undisguised joy by the Presbyterian party, as denoting the end of the dominance by the Independents; but he soon disappointed their hopes. He is reported to have confided to one of his courtiers on the very day after his restoration that 'Presbyterianism is no religion for a gentleman'; and as to religion the policy that he at once adopted was to secure religious peace in his kingdom by enforcing uniformity in the worship and administration of the national Church. For between churchmen and Puritans the affairs and usages of the Church had fallen into great confusion under the Commonwealth; and in the effort to restore order and harmony the King now sided with the old church party. Already in 1661 the Corporation Act had been passed excluding from executive offices in municipal corporations all that had not within the year past communicated according to the rites of the Church, thus placing offices of incorporated towns solely in the hands of members of the Church of England;1 and now in May, 1662, a bigoted antiPuritan Parliament passed the Act of Uniformity applying yet stronger pressure upon the non-conforming clergy. It required that every clergyman declare his unfeigned assent to everything in the Book of Common Prayer, and forbade any one not episcopally ordained to preach or conduct public worship except under the prescribed form. 2 The Puritan clergy were given about three months in which to decide which course to take. The great majority of them stood fast. No fewer than 2,257 of them,3 including a great many of the ablest, most learned and most honored men in the service of the Church, refused to deny their convictions and violate their consciences by submitting to the demands of the Church party, and were consequently ‘ejected’ from their livings, left their pulpits and people, and ‘went out not knowing whither they went,’ to live they knew not how. What they suffered and how steadfastly they bore their sufferings during the quarter-century until the Toleration Act gave them relief in 1689 furnishes one of the most inspiring pages of heroism in the history of the Christian Church. Within this period some 8,000 (Neal, by a misprint, said 38,000) of these nonconformists are said to have died in prison, and 60,000 suffered otherwise for their dissent, with loss of property amounting to £2,000.000.4 All that, however, is apart from the main current of the stream of history that we are following here. Suffice it to say that it is of the direct descendants of these Protestant Nonconformists, as the Puritans were henceforth to be known, who could not be forced to avow beliefs that they held to be untrue, and to worship God under forms they abominated as wrong, that those congregations were largely made up which a century later began to cohere into a group of congregations known as Unitarian. The significance of this episode of our history is that it marks one long step in the progress toward more perfect freedom of thought and of worship in religion.5
For the present the nature of the struggle changes. Questions of doctrine become quiescent, as of minor interest, and give way to the (for the time) more vital ones of liturgical vs. free worship, prescribed prayers vs. voluntary ones, white surplices vs. black Geneva gowns for the clergy, and the like as the centres of emphasis. With the accent thus shifted, active controversies about disputed doctrines were continued, if at all, beneath the surface of church life instead of in public assemblies or in print. For the death of Biddle in 1662 checked the growth of his movement as an organization for reformed worship, though there are faint echoes of meetings of his disciples in London as late as 1696 — doubtless in a private house. Even when his congregation at last faded away, the influence of his life and teachings long survived in a few minds, as we shall see a little later. Before following them, however, it will be well to take account of some stirrings of thought in other quarters since the Restoration.
While the heat of religious controversy considerably subsided during Biddle's long imprisonment, yet there were evidences that the matters in question though less openly discussed, were still occupying the minds of many. Thus the Rev. Matthew Wren, Jr., published in 1660 a work entitled Increpatia Bar Jesu . . . ab imposturis perversionum in Catechesi Racoviana, etc., being an extensive collection of notes or essays that his father of the same name, Bishop of Ely, had during his imprisonment written in criticism of various passages. It called forth no reply, but in 1665 (the same year with Biddle's Two-fold Catechism) appeared a translation of Crellius's De Uno Deo Patre,6 supposed to have been done by the Rev. John Goodwin. It was a much extended treatment of the theme handled in the author's De Deo et ejus Attributis prefixed to Volkel's De Vera Religione,7 and was a solid and vigorous assertion, on the basis of Scripture, of the supreme deity of the Father only, and a decided opposition to the deity of Christ and the Holy Spirit. The publication is supposed to have been subsidized by Firmin 8 More active controversy was excited by the publication in 1669 by the Polish Arian, Christopher Sandius, Jr., of a work on ecclesiastical history, in which he undertook to prove from history that the Arian view of Christ was that of the first Apostles, and had always obtained among the orthodox.9 Imported from Holland, it evidently had wide circulation and aroused considerable alarm in church circles in England. The author had spent some time at Oxford, and having ransacked the libraries there for antitrinitarian material he produced a work showing thorough research and wide scholarship, and bringing to light many traces of the Arian view not only in the ante-Nicene Fathers, to whose authority the orthodox party had always confidently appealed, but through all the Christian centuries since, and even in the very leaders of the Reformation. Such a challenge as this work offered could not be received in silence, and answers of varying weight kept appearing for thirty years 10 until the question was swallowed up in the Trinitarian Controversy among the members of the established Church.
At just this period the Quakers were beginning to come into notice, and were becoming objects of persecution. Their beliefs were as yet loose and undefined, but it is noteworthy that in their earliest systematic work, Robert Barclay's Apology (1676), the doctrine of the Trinity is not once referred to. William Penn, however, in a tract (1668) defending Quakers against the charge ‘that the Quakers held damnable doctrines,’11 had denied outright the current doctrine of the Trinity and two others involved in it, refuting them at length from both Scripture and reason. This gave such great offence to the Church authorities that Penn was committed to the Tower, where he lay in strict isolation for some months, until influential friends secured his release. In the meantime, hearing that reports were circulating that did him injustice, he published early the next year an apology entitled Innocency with Her Open Face, in which he strove to correct some serious misunderstandings of his tract. This cooled the friendship that the followers of Biddle had entertained for him, too hastily claiming him as a recruit to their cause, and they now blamed him for abandoning his and their principles, and equivocally confessing the deity of Christ.12 But the truth is that he had never professed the Socinian doctrine, still less the Unitarian, and was at most only a sort of Sabellian. Nevertheless, he had clearly abandoned the Athanasian Trinity; and modern Unitarians later reprinted his Sandy Foundation as the witness of a highly honored man supporting their views.13
Although no one appeared at this time to take the lead in promoting the views of Biddle or of Socinus, yet despite any prohibitions of canons or laws they were evidently spreading with little hindrance, through books brought over from Holland. Thus the Puritan poet and Member of Parliament, Andrew Marvell (1621–78) complains in 1672, ‘There is a very great neglect somewhere, wheresoever the inspection of books is lodged, that at least the Socinian books are tolerated, and sell as openly as the Bible.’14 In view of this Dr. John Owen had already been moved to come forward again, supplementing his defence of the Trinity by a further work,15 in which he condensed and supplemented his former treatise. Also a comment from an unexpected quarter in the Catholic Church, which had been originally called forth in 1659 by the reprint of Biddle's first three tracts six years before, was now reprinted in an enlarged edition in 1674. This was the now little-known book entitled Controversy-Logick; or, the Method to find out the truth in debates of religion. Though anonymous, it was written by Thomas White, Gentleman (1593–1676), President of the English College at Lisbon. It was an interesting and calm discussion of the principles and method to be observed in controversies between Protestants and Catholics on questions of religion, and was almost the sole contribution from an English Catholic source.
A very striking example of the penetration of heretical views is seen in the case of the great Independent, Milton. He had for ten years been active in the government as Cromwell's Secretary for Foreign Affairs, and is believed to have had much influence with Cromwell in promoting measures of liberty and tolerance. It had long been known that after Milton's retirement from public life he was occupied in his time of blindness with the composition of several works, of which one was ‘a body of divinity,’ and that the manuscript had been left with an amanuensis to be published after his death in 1674; but it subsequently disappeared, and was supposed to have been destroyed, until it came to light in the State-Paper Office in London in 1823. The discovery created a tremendous literary sensation, and by royal command the original Latin (De Doctrina Christiana) was translated by the King's chaplain and published two years later.16 Various passages in Paradise Lost had long raised some suspicions as to Milton's entire orthodoxy, and now this work gave indisputable proof that in his theology Milton was a convinced Antitrinitarian, and in his doctrine of Christ an Arian.17 The religious world of England was startled and shocked at the unwelcome discovery — for a time even incredulous, for the Bishop of Salisbury the following year published a futile attempt to show that the manuscript was not by Milton at all.18 Though two leading Church periodicals apparently ignored the work altogether, the rest of the religious press proceeded to make the best of an unfortunate matter. Over half a hundred important articles have been noted, apart from many in the secular reviews; 19 and they cover the whole range from appreciation and sympathy through apology and regret to scorn and contempt.20
It was not Milton's aim in this work to offer a revision of existing doctrinal systems, but independently of these to set forth a system of the teaching contained in Scripture, on which it was to be based at every step. The parts of it that concern us here are three chapters in the first Book treating ‘Of God,’ ‘Of the Son of God,’ and ‘Of the Holy Spirit.’ He had long reflected on the subject, used his texts very carefully and logically, and adhered to them strictly, though it is hardly to be supposed that he was unacquainted with heretical writings, or that he can wholly have escaped being influenced by them. Careful studies of the writings concerned make it seem not unlikely that he had some acquaintance with Servetus or Ochino, or with both; 21 though whatever similarity may be shown, Milton was certainly too thorough a scholar to be a mere copyist.
At about the period in which Milton was tacitly harboring the Arian heresy, a contemporary English Poet, John Dryden, lately turned Catholic, sharpened his pen against the doctrine of Socinus, whom he intensely disliked as the embodiment of reason in religion in place of submissive and reverent faith; thus at once witnessing to the currency of Socinian thought in the circles about him, and to his abhorrence of its impious blasphemies.22 From yet another quarter a voice was raised breathing a spirit of tolerance wide enough to embrace both Arians and Socinians. Herbert Croft, Bishop of Hereford, published (anonymously) in 1675 a little book entitled The Naked Truth,23 in which, in order to consolidate all Protestants against Popery, he pleaded for broad comprehension, proposing as a basis of union in the Church only the Apostles' Creed, as containing everything necessary to salvation. He urged that faith can not be forced; that men should not be compelled to conform; that forms and ceremonies are not vitally important; and that non-episcopal ordination is valid. Bishop Burnet thought he went too far in thus surrendering the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds; but though broadly latitudinarian he was not Socinian. Yet the discussion that followed, in which several voices were raised pro and con, opened the way to the Trinitarian Controversy that sprang up a dozen years later. Again, in 1680, the Rev. George Ashwell (1612–93), Rector of an Oxfordshire parish, was moved by the wide dispersal, despite Church canons, of Socinian books, which were eagerly read by the younger students, and often in English translation were perverting the vulgar, and also by the fact that even some of the clergy were preaching and publishing in favor of Socinian doctrines, to write an earnest book, De Socino et Socinianismo Dissertatio, planned as an introduction to a larger work, which however did not appear. He gave a full account of the origin and history of Socinianism, and especially of the life and teaching of Socinus, to whom he paid the tribute of a notable appreciation (p. 18); and, with particular reference to the writings of Stegmann and Smalcius against the Trinity, he treated especially of the use of sound reason in religion, on which the Socinians laid so much stress, and then took up the main articles of the Socinian faith and criticized them. These separate and widely scattered instances furnish ample evidence that despite all efforts to maintain the purity of the faith in the Church, yet heresies were breaking out in many quarters.
Returning now from this digression to our movement where it was left by Biddle's death. Of his disciples, the one that contributed most to the movement was doubtless Thomas Firmin24 He was born at Ipswich in 1632 of a Puritan family in moderate circumstances, who gave him a plain, practical education, and sent him up to London when about fourteen to be apprenticed to a dealer in woolen goods, who worshiped in the congregation of the broaminded Independent preacher, John Goodwin, perhaps the most progressive Puritan of his time, whom we have already met as translator of Acontius into English in 1648, to the alarm of the orthodox in Parliament. Whether the lad was personally known to Goodwin or not, he was surely influenced by the preaching he heard from him, since he used to take down all the sermons in shorthand and to ponder them afterwards. While still an apprentice he must also have attended some of Biddle's meetings in the short period between his imprisonments, and have been deeply impressed by him, for he ventured to deliver to Cromwell a petition for Biddle's release from jail, and is said to have been told in reply, `You curlpate boy you, do you think I'll show any favor to a man who denies his Saviour, and disturbs the government?’25 His apprenticeship finished, Firmin set up business for himself in 1655 in Lombard Street as a mercer, and in this business prospered for more than forty years. It was at the very beginning of this career that Biddle, in the short period when he was left at liberty, was taken into Firmin's lodgings as his guest. In the intimacy thus afforded he doubtless had great influence not only in confirming in Firmin belief in the absolute unity of God, but in instilling in him those principles of Christian charity in the practice of which he became a pioneer in the history of British philanthropy. Biddle's stay under Firmin's roof was but brief, for after about two months he was again arrested and in the end was sent to the Scilly Isles as we have seen. It is believed that Firmin was one of those that persuaded Cromwell to give Biddle a pension, and added to it themselves, and that it was due to their efforts in his behalf that he was at length set free.
After this brief contact with Biddle, soon followed by Biddle's death, Firmin seems for some years not to have been actively concerned in religious affairs. The times were not too favorable, and the one that might have been his inspirer was no more. He therefore transferred his controlling interest from the doctrines of Christianity to the application of its principles to the problems of society. His philanthropic interests took a wide range. In 1662, perhaps incited thereto by Biddle's friend, Henry Hedworth, he was active in soliciting aid for the Polish Socinian exiles in whose interest Christopher Crellius had come to England;26 and again in 1681 he was no less active for the relief of the Polish Calvinists, whose turn for suffering persecution also had now arrived. At the same period he took the lead in relieving the needs of a large number of Huguenots who had taken refuge in England, providing lodgings for them, and assisting them to become established in linen manufacture. Finally, at the end of the reign of James II, when the Irish Protestants were suffering bitter persecution and were fleeing to England, Firmin was the Commissioner through whom nearly £60,000 were received and disbursed for their relief, which the Irish Bishops handsomely acknowledged in a letter addressed to him. But it was in local philanthropy that he became most distinguished. Following the practice of Biddle he began early in life to visit the needy in person in order the better to understand their condition. Thus also he extensively relieved sufferers by the terrible plague in 1665, and by the great London fire in 1666, attending to the distribution of supplies contributed, by the more fortunate. By establishing factories to furnish them employment he helped the destitute to help themselves, and thus assisted many hundreds of families of the London poor. He relieved several hundred that had been imprisoned for debt and promoted legislation for their relief. He investigated cases of want, and reported their need to those that would contribute to funds, of which he rendered strict account; and he printed Proposals for the Employment of the Poor for the Prevention of Idleness, which stands as a landmark in the history of charities: As Governor of St. Thomas's Hospital in Southwark he was largely instrumental in securing government aid in rebuilding it; and as Governor of Christ's Hospital School for nearly twenty-five years he caused great improvements to be made in it. In all these enterprises Firmin had of course the generous cooperation of many citizens, and so much enjoyed their confidence that he was able to gain their support for any cause that he recommended. All these things, however, are not directly in the line of our history, but are rather an interlude, from which we must presently return to the work of religious reform, which after remaining dormant for many years, at length toward the end of his life became one of his leading interests.
During the reigns of Charles II and James II Firmin was probably too much engaged in public affairs and in philanthropic work to give much open attention to spreading Unitarian views, though without doubt much more went on by way of conversation behind closed doors and at dinners than has been recorded; but it is evident that the influence of Biddle upon his young friend had not evaporated into thin air. Through his charity work and otherwise Firmin formed a wide and intimate acquaintance with many of the clergy from Archbishop Tillotson down, as also with leading dissenting ministers; and he often had them as guests at his table. One of these, who deserves our special notice, was the Rev. Stephen Nye (1648–1719), grandson of the Rev. Philip Nye, one of the most prominent of the early Independent ministers, a graduate of Cambridge and Rector of a tiny church with a poor living at Little Hormead, Herts. Heterodoxy had now for some time been wide-spread in the Church, and not unknown among non-conformists. Many of the clergy were insensibly slipping into Socinianism, and Nye was one among these who felt ill at with the formulas of the Church. It was thus natural that through his intimacy with Firmin he should have been attracted by the Unitarian doctrine of Biddle, though he regarded its crude anthropomorphism as no better than atheism. He succeeded, however, in winning both Firmin and Hedworth to a more spiritual view of the Supreme Being,27 and henceforth, taking advantage of the King's declaration of indulgence,28 the three carried on through the press an active campaign for the Unitarian views.
Nye wrote anonymous tracts, Hedworth passed judgment on them, and Firmin bore the expense of the printing. The first of the tracts thus published was A Brief History of the Unitarians, called also Socinians (1687). It consisted of four letters written by Nye to Firmin and recommended by Hedworth (though neither of them is named). The historical part is very brief, and the rest is taken up with a statement of the Unitarian doctrines, and a discussion of the Scripture texts on which they are founded. This tract at once attracted attention, and kindled the flames of a great controversy in the Church of England, the Trinitarian Controversy as it is called, which in its narrower compass lasted until about the end of the century, and in its broader connections ranged further yet. It was soon followed by a provocative little tract, Brief Notes upon Athanasius's Creed, which takes up the Creed clause by clause, keenly lays bare its inconsequent reasoning, and its contradictions with both reason and Scripture, and concludes that it ought therefore not to be retained in any Christian church. These two tracts called forth a formal defence of the doctrine of the Trinity in a famous ‘vindication’ by the Rev. Dr. Sherlock, to be spoken of more at length a little later.29 The ‘Brief Notes’ were then republished in enlarged form as The Acts of the Great Athanasius, which include a sketch of the life of Athanasius, and show him up as an ecclesiastical scoundrel, and tax Dr. Sherlock with tritheism. A commission had recently been appointed to propose a revision of the liturgy, in which, inter alia, the Athanasian Creed was objected to by many; and even while the matter was under discussion this tract was brought to their notice as being a book ‘of very dangerous consequence to the Christian religion,’30 and it raised considerable commotion. At the end of the year the main items in the Unitarian side of the discussion that followed were brought together into one collection for purposes of propaganda, headed by a reprint of Biddle's three early tracts of more than forty years before. The collection was issued with the title, The Faith of One God . . . asserted and defended (London, 1691), and constitutes the first volume of the series commonly cited as ‘The Unitarian (or Socinian) Tracts.’31
The first considerable reaction to these Unitarian Tracts was from Dr. Jonathan Edwards, Principal of Jesus College, Oxford,32 who seems to aim especially at answering Biddle's three tracts here reprinted. He reports swarms of Socinian books as having suddenly appeared and being dispersed through all parts of the kingdom. While admitting the moral excellence of the Socinian writings, he says that they tend to infidelity and enmity to revealed religion, to opposition to mysteries, and to latitudinarianism, the most dangerous of all; and he writes to show the opposition between Socinianism and the Bible, especially the New Testament. It is therefore impious and absurd.
In the first three volumes of these Unitarian Tracts the guiding influence was that of Stephen Nye, and though ably assisted by other anonymous writers he had himself contributed a large part of the material. It had never been his purpose to deny the doctrine of the Trinity outright, for he was an active clergyman in the Church, but rather to find recognition within its fold for a definition of the doctrine in terms to which Unitarians like himself could with clear conscience agree. The controversy stirred up by these tracts called forth contributions from a dozen or so of Bishops, clergymen, scholars, and Dissenting ministers, some of them hostile, indeed, but others showing a broad mind and a conciliatory spirit. They differed widely in the explanations that they offered of the doctrine, and at least six distinct ones were proposed, to some of which no very serious objection was felt. The writers fell in the main into two general classes, the Real and, the Nominal Trinitarians. The Real Trinitarians took the Trinity literally in terms that fell little short of bald tritheism, and defended it as ultimately an inexplicable mystery; but this view, when once clearly stated and avowed, was ere long disowned and rebuked by authority as heretical. The Nominal Trinitarians on the other hand met the challenge not by taking the terms of the doctrine in their literal meaning as language is used today, but by going back to what it was maintained had been their ancient sense. Although in the common mind this aroused no suspicion of heresy, it was in fact practically Sabellianism .33 But since this view had now been favored by several Bishops whose orthodoxy was beyond question, the Unitarians became satisfied that the majority of the Doctors of the Church did not mean by their scholastic terms any sort of tritheism (which was what they had objected to), but only a 'Nominal' Trinity, and hence they regarded themselves as sound and orthodox churchmen. Having thus found room for themselves within the Church, they were therefore content to abide in peace, and largely withdrew from the controversy, which now began to drift into other channels, and left the conservatives within the Church to carry on disputes with one another.
It was at this juncture that Firmin died in 1697 in his 66th year, worn out by his many activities and by chronic disease. He had never withdrawn from the Church of England, and with its Bishops and many of its clergy he was on excellent terms, though they were well aware of his unorthodox beliefs. His aim, and that of the tracts that he sponsored, had been to secure such breadth in the interpretation of the Church's liturgy that Unitarians might conscientiously remain in its communion.34 The three collections of tracts now published had tended to this end, and Firmin apparently felt that he was succeeding in his effort; for in the year, after his death his biographer (Mr. Nye?) declared, ‘Upon the whole we may say, There is now no Socinian controversy. The misunderstanding that was common to both parties, the Church and the Unitarians, is annihilated.’35 Firmin, however, was concerned lest Unitarians, though remaining in the Church, should unwittingly be led by the equivocal language of the liturgy to relapse into tritheistic notions of the Trinity. He therefore meant to continue his efforts to purify the faith of such false and corrupt ideas, and he intended, had not death prevented him, to establish meetings for Unitarian worship, not as offshoots from the Church but as fraternities within it, which should particularly emphasize the unity of God. It is in fact recorded that such a public meeting-place was set up in London for the Unitarians.36
As his final contribution to the long controversy Nye now published two more tracts, still anonymous, summing up results; 37 and when later a new controversy was in progress over the Arian doctrine about Christ, he felt it safe to come out into the open as author of a book supporting the liberal views.38 One further result followed from this protracted discussion. The name Unitarian became established as that of the heretical party. In the Unitarian Tracts it was consistently used in an inclusive sense, covering Sabellians, Arians, Unitarians and Socinians; but the name Socinian was now discarded as inappropriate. The English followers of Biddle had in fact never been properly Socinian; for though more or less influenced by Socinian writings, and broadly sympathizing with the Socinian spirit, they differed in several important details from the Socinian doctrine: 39 Henceforth the name when employed by the orthodox was used only as a term of reproach and contempt.
The history of the Unitarian movement in England properly began with Biddle, and we have followed the central stream of it, centering in the Unitarian Tracts, down to about the end of the seventeenth century; but there were also lateral currents and detached persons in the same period of whom some account needs to be given in order to make the tale complete. As has already been told, the reign of Charles II was marked by a succession of acts designed to oppress and weaken nonconformists; but under James II the persecution of them was no longer enforced, and there began to be talk about a policy of comprehension or else of toleration. By the former it was proposed to enlarge the conditions of membership in the Church by abolishing some objectionable features, or making them optional, so that all parties might heartily unite with the Church of England, and a Comprehension Bill was introduced into Parliament. But there was such determined opposition from many stiff conservatives among the clergy, and so cool an approval from the non-conformists, that though the House of Lords passed it, the Bill was put to sleep in the Commons, and nothing more was heard of it. There remained, however, the Act of Toleration, which passed both houses with little opposition in 1689, making it at last lawful for non-conformists to hold public worship. Catholics and deniers of the Trinity, however, were excluded from the toleration, and Unitarians were not granted full toleration until 1813.40 A few months after this the King appointed a commission of Bishops and divines to prepare alterations found expedient in the liturgy, in which the greatest stumbling block was offered by the Athanasian Creed; but in the Convocation there was so much dissension that nothing was accomplished, and the attempt to reform the liturgy came to nothing. 41
It was shortly after the passage of the Toleration Act that the series of the Unitarian Tracts began, initiating one line of the controversy that we have briefly followed above. Contemporary with this, however, were several other more or less separate controversies in the same field, in which clergymen in the Church endeavored, in view of attacks upon its doctrines, to set forth a satisfactory statement of them in competition with one another or in answer to critics. The earliest of these grew out of the Rev. George Bull's Defence of the Nicene Faith,42 which had been written in 1680 as an answer to Sandius,43 but not published until some years later. It had long been contended that the orthodox view of Christ was that held by the ante-Nicene Fathers, whereas Sandius, and the great Jesuit scholar Petau (Petavius) 44 had recently brought much evidence to show that that period was Arian. Bull now sought to demonstrate, in a work designed by its evidence of wide research to put an end to all dispute, that these Fathers were orthodox; 45 and he did this in a manner that showed supercilious contempt of his adversaries and heaped contumelies upon them. His work was highly praised, especially upon, the Continent, by both Protestant and Catholic scholars, whose verdict was gladly accepted as final. Henceforth it was triumphantly appealed to as the unanswerable testimony of profound scholarship, by apologists of whom few are likely to have given themselves the pains to read critically its 800 pages of learned Latin, when a ready-made judgment was so easily to be had. It was thus ten years before any serious reply to it appeared in England. In 1695, however, in the third volume of the Unitarian Tracts, there appeared an extended anonymous tract entitled The Judgment of the Fathers concerning the Doctrine of the Trinity, opposed to Dr. G. Bull's works mentioned above, and it laid them under unsparing criticism.46
At almost the same time with the above there appeared from the pen of the Rev. Gilbert Clerke (1641–97), a sometime Presbyterian minister of whom little else is known,47 two other writings, seriously questioning Dr. Bull's positions, and the soundness of his scholarship. These were entitled Ante-Nicenismus, sive Testimonia Patrum . . . de Trinitate (1694); and Brevis Responsio ad Domini D. Georgii Bulli Defensionem Synodi Nicaenae (1695); with which a third tract by an unknown writer, Vera et Antiqua Fides de Divinitate Christi asserta, contra D. D. Bulli Judicium Ecclesiae, in criticism of Dr. Bull's second book, was bound up in one volume, with the title, Tractatus Tres (1695).48 Closely connected with these three is a work by the Polish scholar, Samuel Crellius, recognized in his time as one of the most learned men in Europe, to whom, indeed, they have sometimes been ascribed; and who under a pseudonym published yet another work in criticism of those of Dr. Bull.49 But none of these criticisms, however just, could now catch up in the minds of the faithful with the firmly established reputation of the ‘incredibly learned Bishop Bull,’ for he had now been created Archdeacon of Llandaff and honored with the Doctor's degree, and was well on his way to be Bishop of St. David's. Nevertheless, half a generation later, in connection with another controversy, Dr. Daniel Whitby, a very learned divine in the Church, published a searching examination of his work, exposing its many errors and undermining its foundations, though it did not lessen his prestige in the Church.50
Mention of Crellius makes it natural at this point to refer to Sir Isaac Newton, who showed him singular kindness, and who, if not directly active in the movement whose history we are following, was in his thinking closely allied to it. The great scientist during the last thirty years of his life devoted much of his leisure time to studies in theology and ecclesiastical history, in which he became astonishingly well-read, and at his death in 1727 he left among his papers an important Historical Account of Two Corruptions of Scripture, which had been written already in 1690, and was to have been published at that time, when the doctrine of the Trinity was being actively debated, though for some reason it was withheld to be published posthumously, and hence did not see the light, even in an imperfect form, until 1754.51 This work presents an elaborate critical study of the original reading of the two main proof-texts for the doctrine of the Trinity (I. John v. 7, and I. Tim. iii. 16), and arrives at the conclusion that they are demonstrably corrupt and ought no longer to be relied upon. Critical investigation of Newton's manuscript remains by a recent biographer has definitely proved that his doctrinal views were wholly unitarian in the modern sense of the word.52
Perhaps the sharpest and most noted of the theological controversies at this period is that which broke out at Oxford in 1690, raged some five years, was conducted by eminent divines, and ended in a University decree forbidding further discussion. At a time when the doctrine of the Trinity was receiving much attention, in consequence of criticisms of the Athanasian Creed in some of the early Unitarian Tracts, the latitudinarian Dr. Arthur Bury, Rector of Exeter College,53 Oxford, published in 1690 a small book entitled The Naked Gospel, in which he sought to forestall controversy on the disputed doctrines by bringing the Christian religion back to its original simplicity. Christians, he held, have confused themselves by endless disputes about speculative questions, which are fruitless and irrelevant; for the Gospel is all summed up in two words, believe and repent. Violent controversy was stirred up over the book, and the personal character of the Rector and the administration of the College were drawn into it; the result of all which was that Dr. Bury was removed from his office, and excommunicated from the Church, his book was condemned as heretical and was ordered burned in the quadrangle of the College, and he himself was fined £500.54
While the above case was still pending, another Oxford divine offered a solution of the vexed problem. The venerable John Wallis, Professor of Geometry, who professed to have reflected on the subject for more than forty years, a celebrated mathematician who was one of the founders of modern Algebra, published a pamphlet entitled, The Doctrine of the Blessed Trinity briefly explained in a letter to a friend (London, 1690). His explanation was that there are in the Divine Being three distinctions, known to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, which we call Persons, each of which is God; but if the word Persons does not please, then let us call them three Somewhats. There is no inconsistency in saying that what in one respect are three may in another respect be One. To make the matter clear he takes from Geometry the familiar example of a cube, which he has used for many years. To believe in one God in three equal Persons is as reasonable as to believe in one cube with three equal dimensions. Just as simple as that. But his critics were not so easily convinced. From both within the Church and outside it they expressed their dissatisfaction with his explanations. The discussion ensuing ran for fourteen months, with eight successive letters from Wallis and as many replies from critics, who drove him to the very edge of heresy as a Sabellian.
It was not long, however, before attention was diverted to another quarter and a warmer controversy. Dr. William Sherlock, Master of the Temple, a clergyman of outstanding gifts, had been deeply stirred by the recent criticisms of the Trinity and other doctrines of the Church, especially by the Unitarian Brief Notes on the Creed of St. Athanasius, and Nye's Brief History of the Unitarians.55 Having recently been suspended from his preferments in the Church for refusing to swear allegiance to the new government, he now saw an opportunity to regain his standing in the Church by taking a bold stand as champion of the true faith. He therefore confidently stepped forth in 1690 with A Vindication of the Doctrine of the Holy and Ever Blessed Trinity, etc. (published with his Bishop's imprimatur), in answer to the two tracts just named.56 Of all the orthodox writings of the period this one made the greatest noise and called forth the severest criticisms. Much stress had of late been laid upon reason in religion in contrast with mere faith, and apologists for Christianity were concerned to show that its doctrines were not unreasonable. In this work, therefore, Sherlock aimed to vindicate the doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation from the alleged absurdities and contradictions that were charged upon them; and he felt sure that he had given ‘a very easy and intelligible notion of a Trinity in Unity.’ He held that there are in the Divine Being three intelligent infinite beings or persons, as really distinct as Peter, James and John, each of them self-conscious, and infinite in wisdom, goodness and power, and all united by mutual self-consciousness in one God; and that, in contrast to this, ‘Socinianism, for all its pretenses to Reason, is one of the most stupid, senseless heresies that ever infested the Christian Church’; whereas ‘this very plain and intelligible account of this great and venerable mystery is as plain and intelligible as the notion of One God, or of One Person in the Godhead.’
Sherlock's book was at first enthusiastically welcomed by the leading divines in London and in both Universities; for he was thought to have dealt the Unitarians a crushing blow. His forfeited offices and emoluments were restored to him, and he was not long afterwards made Dean of St. Paul's. The chorus of praise; however, was not universal. His offensive self-assurance and his contemptuous references to his opponents invited criticism; he was personally disliked by many of the clergy for his haughtiness; and not only the Unitarians but several other writers mercilessly picked his arguments to pieces. His critic in the Unitarian Tracts had opened many eyes to his virtual tritheism, and for a time attacks on the Socinians ceased. He was urged for the sake of peace in the Church to make no reply, and to let the controversy silently die out; but he, thinking that he had won the day, kept it alive by a second publication,57 until at length in 1693 there came from the press a spiteful work from a clergyman in the Church who was famous both as a great preacher and as a brilliant wit, and who heartily disliked Sherlock on personal grounds, and eagerly embraced the chance to humiliate him. This work, though published anonymously,58 was in fact by Dr. Robert South; and in it, with a continuous flow of stinging satire, he poured ridicule upon Sherlock's explanation of the Trinity, ruthlessly exposed his errors, self-contradictions and inconsistencies, and charged his view with being no better than bare. tritheism.59 But when he came to the constructive part of his discussion he fell into the opposite extreme, and after long citation of authorities, he concluded that ‘the three Persons of the Trinity are one and the same undivided Essence or Godhead, diversified only by three distinct modes of subsistence, sometimes called properties, or relations.’ Of course this explanation could not long escape criticism in turn, and Stephen Nye in an anonymous Considerations on the Explications of the Doctrine of the Trinity 60 showed with masterly skill that Dr. South, in avoiding the Scylla of Dr. Sherlock's tritheism, had quite fallen into the Charybdis of Sabellianism. A heated and many-sided controversy now followed through several years, in which parts were taken by both churchmen and Dissenters, conservatives and liberals, Christians and Free-thinkers. The Unitarian contributions are found in the second and third collections of Unitarian Tracts. It would add little to the development of our general theme, and nothing but weariness to the reader, to follow in detail the steps of a controversy that in its day absorbed such wide and close attention, but is today so outworn, and even in its own time began to grow wearisome.61 We touch upon only the outstanding points.
Archbishop Tillotson, who in one of his sermons had spoken in generous appreciation of Socinians,62 without at all approving their doctrines, was early drawn obliquely into the question, and had to republish his sermons in order to dispel the suspicion that he himself was a Socinian unconfessed; and in writing to Bishop Burnet of the Athanasian Creed he impatiently confessed, ‘I wish we were well rid of it.’63 Dr. John Howe, prominent Puritan divine, wrote several pieces, witnessing to the interest in the question among Dissenters. The Unitarians were alert to criticize every vulnerable point. Sherlock published another book defending his position,64 and South repeated more flatly his charge of tritheism; while the very learned Professor Joseph Bingham in a sermon at Oxford defended the now sharply criticized view of Sherlock so positively that Dr. South's party became alarmed, and procured from a meeting of heads of colleges at Oxford in 1695 a decree censuring this doctrine as false, impious and heretical, and forbidding all members of the University to affirm any such doctrine by preaching or otherwise.65 Upon this, those that had sympathized with Dr. Sherlock fell away from him in great numbers, leaving him almost alone; while his now triumphant adversaries heaped upon him the crowning insult by publishing Aretius's Short History of Valentinus Gentilis the Tritheist 66 ...put to death . . . at Bern in Switzerland (London, 1696), ‘now translated into English for the use of Dr. Sherlock’ and ‘tendered to the consideration of the Archbishops and Bishops’ as presumably a modest intimation of their duty at the present time. Despite the Oxford decree, and an ironic tract from the Socinian side by a humble clockmaker identified by the name of John Smith,67 discussion continued and was carried on in bitter spirit on both sides. Hence the King, weary of the long quarrel, at length intervened in the interest of religious peace, and directed the Archbishops and Bishops, for the sake of unity in the Church, to order that no preacher henceforth should presume to deliver any other doctrine concerning the Trinity than what is contained in Scripture, the three Creeds, and the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion; and that they should carefully avoid any new terms or unusual explanations of the doctrine.68
Nothing further was heard in defence of tritheism. Dr. Sherlock, it is true, continued to write, but now in milder tone and with greater caution, qualifying or correcting some of his statements or terms, and in his last contribution,69 he reviews the whole subject at considerable length and, without formally retracting anything, in effect expresses himself against the heresy of ‘three infinite, eternal minds, spirits, beings or substances,’ which he had so boldly put forth, thus showing that since the Oxford Decree and the refutation by the Unitarians, he had entirely reversed his position. Thus ended the famous Trinitarian Controversy which, though it was largely an internal matter in the Church, had relations that make it a part of the history of Unitarianism, for in it the clergy who felt ill at ease with the professed doctrines and liturgy of the Church were striving to secure some change in the received doctrines, or some new explication of them, which they could with good conscience accept. In this aim they felt that they had measurably succeeded, for they concluded that in the course of the controversy they had won their main point; and though they did not like the terms of the Creed, yet in the circumstances they were content to stay as they were rather than go out of the Church; and it was well past the middle of the next century before another generation of the clergy began in their consciences to feel oppressed by the required formularies of worship. In the meantime Socinian opinions were on the whole much more widely prevalent in the Church than in Dissent; and although they were well known to be held, yet no one suffered discipline for them, or had anything to fear so long as he refrained from openly proclaming unauthorized doctrines.
Though the Trinitarian Controversy held the centre of the stage in the last decade of the seventeenth century, yet independently of it there were outbreaks in other quarters. Thus early in 1693 one William Freeke (1662–1744), who had studied at Oxford and had read some Arian books and imbibed their teachings, and who called himself a Unitarian, published a little anti-trinitarian tract of eight pages 70 and sent it to members of both Houses of Parliament, who manifested their disapproval by voting it an infamous and scandalous libel, and ordering it burnt by the common hangman. The author also was ordered to be prosecuted, was fined ,£500, and was required to make a public recantation.
Yet more conspicuous was the tragic case of young Thomas Aikenhead,71 a youth of eighteen or twenty and a medical student at the University of Edinburgh, who under a long-ignored Scottish law was tried for blasphemy and for denying the Trinity. He had been given some shallow infidel writings to read, and carried away by transient agreement with them he let fall in the hearing of fellow-students some unguarded expressions which were reported and led to his arrest. His trial was marked by narrow bigotry, and was a travesty of both Christianity and justice. He was allowed no counsel. His admission of the charges made, his avowal of deep and sincere repentance, and his plea for mercy were all disregarded, and he was hanged in 1697. It was the last execution for heresy in Great Britain.
Contemporary with the developments that we have been following within the Church, but largely separate from them, was another, of lay origin, which though not directly related to the Unitarian movement yet powerfully contributed toward it as a movement for broad religious freedom. This was the advocacy of toleration so prominently urged by the philosopher John Locke (1632–1704), who has been well called the father of English Rationalism, and ‘the intellectual symbol of the period of the (English) Revolution.’ He was of Puritan ancestry, and educated at Oxford, where he became deeply interested in philosophy and later in religion, under the influence of the latitudinarians. After middle life, being at odds with the ruling powers in England, he made his home for five years in Holland, where he formed an intimate friendship with the Remonstrant professors Limborch and LeClerc who, though not Socinians, had been much influenced by the Socinian spirit. At the end of this period he published a Letter on Toleration which makes a landmark in the history of religious liberty; and in 1690 appeared his famous Essay concerning Human Understanding, which marked an epoch in the history of English philosophy, wherein he was a dominating figure for at least a century. But although these writings were not without influence upon the development of religious thought, it was Locke's (anonymous) Reasonableness of Christianity as delivered in Scriptures (1695) that gave especial stimulus to our movement. Locke had of late given earnest attention to Christian doctrine, and taking his stand on the conviction that there could be nothing in revelation incompatible with reason, he sought in this work to show that Jesus and his Apostles demanded of their followers nothing more than faith in him as the Messiah; and that there was no warrant for insisting upon acceptance of other doctrines. Foreign scholars greeted the work with enthusiastic praise, but orthodox writers in England at once assailed it furiously. Dr. John Edwards, a clergyman of the Church of England, and son of the Presbyterian author of the sensational Gangraena of the previous generation, was the first of these, and in a scurrilous attack 72 far outdoing the language of his father, he charged the book with being one of the causes of atheism. He was competently answered by an anonymous writer in the third volume of the Unitarian Tracts; 73 and Locke himself replied in two restrained vindications. In the next two years Edwards followed up his attack in two more works, in which he charged his opponent outright with being a Socinian in disguise, and the Socinian doctrines themselves as tending to irreligion and atheism.74
Locke's work found a doughty advocate, and Edwards's works received due criticism, in several publications by the Rev. Samuel Bold, rector of a church at Steeple, Dorset, who had himself suffered persecution for his pulpit utterances. He was unknown to Locke, and though more orthodox than he in belief, he came forward in broad-minded vindication of Locke's book, pronouncing it one of the best books that have been published for at least these sixteen hundred years.’75 Interchange of controversial writings at length died out with two or three exchanges between Locke and Dr. Edward Stillingfleet, Bishop of Worcester, over the doctrine of the Trinity (1697–98).76
The influence of Locke long outlasted that of his opponents, and constantly told in the direction of broader tolerance, greater simplicity of doctrine, and fuller reliance upon reason as a test of truth; but the doctrine of the Trinity ceased to be the subject of perpetual debate. Men might accommodate themselves to it under one of the various modified interpretations which controversy had apparently made acceptable, or they might abandon it altogether, but further disputation about it was no longer in order. In fact, nothing remained to be said on the subject. The number of writings contributed to it in the last twenty years of the century was extraordinary, though only the outstanding ones have been noticed here; while the remainder, though exploring every angle of the subject, and addressed to a various public, added little of importance to what others had written. Moreover Firmin, who had been sponsor of most of the Unitarian contributions, had died in 1697; his leading writers had found conditions in the Church at length more tolerable; the rationalistic tendencies springing from Locke's philosophy were creating a new atmosphere; and most of all, symptoms of Deism charged to him were beginning to appear and to attract alarmed attention as a more serious danger than Socinianism or Unitarianism. The last echo of the long controversy was heard in 1697, when one John Gailhard, Gent., published in London The Blasphemous Socinian Heresie Disproved and Confuted, with a concluding chapter casting an apprehensive glance toward the Deism in Toland's Christianity not Mysterious (1696). His book, dedicated to both Houses of Parliament, insistently urged that all the rigors of the law be now enforced against those that embraced and furthered Socinian doctrines. The Dissenters also, in an address to the King in 1697, had urged him to prohibit Unitarian publications, but he refused, and Gailhard's book had no immediate result. It was at once followed by the very sarcastic Apology for the Parliament, humbly representing to Mr. John Guilhard some reasons why they did not at his request enact Sanguinary Laws against Protestants in their last session (London, 1697).77 However, the next session, in 1698, passed ‘An Act for the more effectual suppressing of Blasphemy and Profaneness.’ It provided that any professed Christian convicted of denying the Trinity, or the truth of the Christian Religion, or the divine authority of the Scriptures, should be debarred from holding any public office, and upon the second conviction should be forever deprived of civil rights and be imprisoned three years. The King, yielding to strong pressure, reluctantly gave it his sanction,78 but fortunately very few attempts were ever made to enforce this act, though it stood on the statute books until 1813.
The Trinitarian Controversy in its various phases continued about ten years, and was largely carried on within the Church. It was very soon followed by the Arian Controversy, over a closely related doctrine, that of the person of Christ, and was largely carried on in the dissenting churches. It will furnish the theme of our next two chapters.
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