CHAPTER XIII
THE ARIAN MOVEMENT IN THE CHURCH OF ENGLAND

THE TRINITARIAN CONTROVERSY, which kept the established Church in more or less serious turmoil for something like ten years, may be said to have pretty well subsided by 1697. Henceforth most consciences that had felt troubled about employing the formularies of the Church in their ordinary sense were content with being practically allowed to take them, without misgiving, in a Sabellian sense. This controversy had been almost wholly confined to members of the established Church, and only one or two among the Dissenters had made any contribution to it. But peace was of short duration. The eighteenth century was still young when another doctrinal controversy arose in the Church, which was to disturb its peace for fifteen or twenty years more, and for a time threatened to bring about changes in the liturgy that would have made a Unitarian movement well-nigh superfluous. This was the so-called Arian movement in the Church; and while in the end it died away with no definite doctrinal reform achieved in the Church itself, it took firm root among the Dissenters and led the way, as will be seen in the next chapter, to definite steps in the direction of modern Unitarianism.

It will be recalled that the former of these controversies grew out of an attempt to render the doctrine of the Trinity more intelligible and simple, and it ended as we have seen. The Arian movement, on the other hand, grew out of an attempt to revise the doctrine of the person of Christ as stated in the Athanasian Creed so as to make it more in accord with Scripture, and the movement thus started at length ended, as we shall see, in a purely Unitarian view of Christ. While the former controversy centered about the University of Oxford, the latter was largely related to Cambridge. It may also be noted that as in the first half of the seventeenth century ways of thinking in religion which a generation later became factors in the Trinitarian Controversy were promoted by the Latitudinarians at Oxford, so in the second half of the century the way for the Arian controversy was in some measure prepared by the Cambridge Platonists.1 Among a larger number included under this name, the leading spirits were Benjamin Whichcote, Ralph Cudworth, and Henry More, all three scholars teaching at Cambridge; and as the heads of the latitudinarian movement at Oxford came from the High Church and Royalist side of their period, so these Cambridge divines sprang from the Puritan side. Through their thinking they exercised great influence on the thought of their time. Stimulated by their study of Plato they broke away from stagnant scholasticism, opposed bigotry and dogmatism, insisted upon but few essential doctrines, and thus by their breadth of view and their generous sympathies they softened and broadened Puritanism. They held that religion can not be separated from reason, nor morals from piety; that minor doctrinal differences are unimportant, and that religious fellowship is to be based not on detailed agreement in doctrine, but on common sympathy and tolerant charity. It is not difficult to see that we have here conditions that in due time will be highly favorable to the development of religious liberalism; and it is against such a background that the Arian movement arose and developed.

The first in the Church of England to make open avowal of Arianism was William Whiston,2 and his published view was the first frank expression in the Church of a doctrine about Christ differing from the Athanasian Creed. Whiston was a clergyman, born in 1667 and educated at Cambridge, where he studied mathematics and obtained a fellowship. He took orders, but in 1703 he became Sir Isaac Newton's successor as professor of mathematics. He was a man of great learning, and published several scores of works, about evenly divided in subject between science and theology. He was sincere and outspoken to the last degree, never once counting the cost to himself; but he was also strangely credulous, ready, as Macaulay said of him, to believe everything but the Trinity, and his head was full of eccentric notions. Following a suggestion on the subject made by his friend Samuel Clarke, he made a careful examination of the writers of the first two Christian centuries, which convinced him that the primitive Christian belief was not Athanasian but Arian or, as he called it, ‘Eusebian’; and that it was his duty to try to restore it in the Church. It thus became the great passion of his life to bring the faith and usages of the Church back to their simple, original state; and to this end he preached Arianism in his sermons, omitted the Nicene parts of the liturgy, and about 1708 earnestly addressed the Archbishops, begging them to lay aside the use of the Athanasian Creed as corrupt and unchristian; though to this appeal he received no answer. His heresies presently became so notorious that his Bishop suspended him; while the University, not wishing to repeat Oxford's recent unhappy experience with heresy, deprived him of his chair in 1710 and banished him from the University. His Rector refused him the communion, and the Convocation of the Church also was ready to adopt a censure of his views as impious and heretical, though on technical grounds the measure failed.

Nevertheless he continued to advocate his views, attempted to start a new movement conformed to the standards of what he regarded as ‘primitive Christianity,’ revised the prayer-book accordingly, and in vindication of his convictions published in four volumes a learned work on Primitive Christianity Revived. Hoping to bring about a reform in the worship of the Church, he organized a Society for Promoting Primitive Christianity, in which a dozen or so met at his home for a year or two; but though at first he won a little following of sympathizers, they soon fell away and his project made no progress. Late in life he ceased to attend the established worship, and joined the General Baptists; whom he ‘took to be the best Christians, both in doctrine and practice, of any he had yet met with.’3  He died in 1752, and is scarcely remembered today for any of his writings except his translation of the works of Josephus. Whiston's heresies were in brief these: God the Father is the supreme deity, and the only object of supreme worship; but Jesus Christ is also truly God, by appointment of the Father, to whom he is not equal but subordinate; who existed before all creation, and was the Father's first-begotten Son. Whiston had few followers, but the Arian beliefs that he so boldly proclaimed indirectly influenced many. Not under his acknowledged leadership, however; for with his virtual exclusion from the Church his influence with its members practically ceased. His futile effort to have the worship of the Church restored to what he regarded as its simpler primitive form was based upon his study of the development of the Christian tradition. His friend and contemporary Samuel Clarke, on the other hand, paid only incidental regard to the testimony of Christian literature as to what the early Christian beliefs and usages were, but sought to bring the Church's doctrines and worship back to conformity with the teaching of Scripture, from which he felt that it had departed. Yet though he had great influence with a very respectable minority in the Church, still in the end he suc­ceeded no better than Whiston in his effort to reform the ritual of the Church; and his main influence survived among the liberal Dissenters in what has come to be known (however incorrectly) as the Arian movement.4

Samuel Clarke (1675–1729) was a native of Norwich, and took his University degrees at Cambridge, where he was distinguished as a student. He took orders in the Church, and in 1698 became chaplain to the Bishop of Norwich, and held this office for twelve years. In 1704–05 he sprang into fame with his Boyle Lectures5 on the Being and Attributes of God, in which he presented the a priori argument for religion so forcibly that it was an accepted classic for two or three generations. He came to be regarded as the greatest English theologian of his time, and was long spoken of as ‘the great Dr. Clarke,’6 and it was taken for granted that he would in due time be Archbishop of Canterbury. One fervent admirer wrote of him after his death, ‘it may truly be said of him that he was the greatest man that ever was born into the world.’ Although he had been deeply influenced by Locke's philosophy and by Newton's science, Clarke had not been known to be unsound in doctrine, and he had been made Rector of the important parish of St. James's Westminster (1709), as well as chaplain to Queen Anne. But Clarke was evidently not at peace with himself. Some years previously he had intimated to Whiston his conviction that the Athanasian Creed was not the primitive doctrine of the Church but a later invention; and now in 1709, when he was to stand for the Doctor's degree at Cambridge, which involved his resubscribing the Articles, Whiston tried to persuade him not to take the degree, or at least openly to declare in what sense he subscribed the Articles, and so preserve a clear conscience.7  Clarke subscribed nevertheless, though with an uneasy mind; for he determined to examine the doctrine further, and then to publish in what sense he took the Articles and the forms of worship. Meantime Whiston so frequently and strongly urged him to declare his views openly, reproaching him for his evident timidity as being insincere, that their old friendship was somewhat chilled.

The outcome was that Clarke, after making an exhaustive study of the New Testament teaching, and in face of dissuasions for fear of arousing dissensions in the Church, in 1712 published his conclusions in a book that he entitled The Scripture-doctrine of the Trinity. In this work he took no fewer than 1251 relevant passages that he had culled from the New Testament, classified them by subject and added any necessary explanations of them, and then drew out of them fifty-five doctrinal statements which he considered represented the Scripture doctrine of the Trinity. Finally by comparison of passages he sought to show how far the English liturgy agreed and where it seemed to differ from the scripture doctrine. Stated in few words, the doctrine at which he arrived was this: that the Father alone is the supreme God, to whom alone supreme worship is to be paid; that Christ, though existing from eternity, is a subordinate being, who may be worshiped only in a lower sense as Mediator; and that the Holy Spirit also is a subordinate being, for worshiping whom there is no clear warrant. When these three are mentioned together, they constitute the Trinity. This is what Clarke considered the Scripture-doctrine of the Trinity, though the conservatives presently regarded it as sheer Arianism.

It was more than a year before any important reply to this work was made. Meanwhile it not only made a wide impression in England, where the  required use of the Athanasian Creed kept the subject constantly in mind, but also was translated into German, and was long influential in Germany and Holland. Clarke had insisted that his views were not inconsistent with the formularies and liturgy of the Church as he understood them, and had said flatly in his introduction 8 that in this matter ‘every person may reasonably agree to such forms whenever he can, in any sense at all, reconcile them with Scripture.’ So many, who had formerly hesitated, were now inclined to adopt this easygoing policy, that the orthodox were aroused to protest. Half a score of attacks upon the work were made within two or three years, and several replies in defence appeared from Clarke's friends,9 though as the whole discussion lay between members of the Church, it is not to the purpose to relate it here.

Alarm at the spread of Clarke's views became so serious that in 1714 a complaint against his book was presented to the Lower House of Convocation on the ground of the heresies it contained; and the Upper House requested a copy of the particulars, which was furnished. Dr. Clarke apparently became apprehensive, and presented to the Upper House a very adroitly worded paper, expressing the opinion that the Son was eternally begotten of the Father, promising not to preach any more upon the subject in question, and stating that he did not intend to write any more concerning the doctrine of the Trinity, declaring that the Athanasian Creed and sections of the Litany had never been omitted in his church as charged, and hoping that in future his behavior would give no cause for complaint. Although he had retracted nothing, yet his enemies were pleased to construe this as a retractation, and the Upper House decided to proceed no further in the case. The Lower House, however, went on record as dissatisfied with the outcome.10 Although the charge of Arianism was distinctly refuted by Dr. Clarke, it was, and is, obvious that he no longer believed in the deity of Christ as defined by the Church. His influence considerably declined from this point on, and he was dismissed from his office as one of the Queen's chaplains. What he had written, however, and the example he had set, remained. He himself, indeed, became conscious of holding an equivocal position, so that he declined any further preferment requiring subscription; but within his own sphere he tried to realize some of his hopes, as when he would have substituted new doxologies for the old ones, only to be forbidden by his Bishop. He also planned, as Whiston had already done, a reformed liturgy, purged of Athanasianism; and, a half-century later the first Unitarian chapel in England, at Essex Hall, London, adopted a great part of his revisions in its Prayer Book, which were again transplanted to America in 1785 in the Prayer Book of King's Chapel, Boston.

His greatest legacy, however, was in what became notorious as ‘Arian Subscription,’ which although it was a matter wholly within the Church of England, yet casts a side-light on the course of the history we are following. Even before the publication of Dr. Clarke's book it had already been an occasional practice for clergymen that did not accept the Athanasian doctrine to subscribe the Articles nevertheless pro forma, or in some sophistical sense, and the practice had increased since Dr. Clarke seemed to justify it. Dr. Daniel Waterland of Cambridge, therefore, who in answer to Clarke had already written a very thorough and able defence of the divinity of Christ,11 feeling deep concern at the increasing laxity with which many were subscribing to what they did not honestly believe, was moved to publish a vigorous tract against the practice.12 He opposed the weaknesses and inconsistencies in Clarke's position, and in opposition to Clarke's contention that one may subscribe to whatever he can in any sense reconcile to Scripture as he understands it, he maintained 13 that the Church expects the subscriber strictly to observe the usual sense of the words as intended by the compilers and imposers; and that several expressions in the public formularies if thus taken are not susceptible of an Arian interpreta­tion.14 The controversy now subsided; but it was not without result. After this a few, indeed, declined preferments that required resubscription, but most of those concerned took the easier way; and continued to hold their benefices without censure. There was consequently wide and deep unrest both within and without the Church. At least one Bishop encouraged sophistical subscription, and some, relying upon episcopal indulgence, were bold enough to omit the Creed 15 or otherwise the liturgy to suit themselves; but no outward change was accom­plished. Thus those that had desired reform, being left undisturbed, at length settled back comfortably and did nothing further, being content to be let alone as they were; 16  while among the Dissenters adherence to the Athanasian doctrine of Christ tended to lessen, and non-subscription became more and more the practice.

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 }.