It is the purpose of this work to set forth a comprehensive and well documented account, from its earliest origins through the first quarter of the twentieth century, of that free and progressive movement in Christian history since the Reformation which, though it has at different times and in different lands borne a variety of names, has on the Continent of Europe (save in Transylvania) been most widely known as Socinianism, and in Transylvania, England and America as Unitarianism.(1) This movement is most often conceived by the world at large, and frequently even by its own adherents, as one confined to England and America, and limited to the past century and a half, definitely dating in England from the opening of Lindsey’s Unitarian chapel in London in 1774, and in America from Channing’s sermon at Baltimore in 1819. In reality, however, its beginnings were only a few years later than those of Protestantism itself; and it had on the Continent an organized existence of more than two centuries before it took form in England — a history of great dramatic interest, and of significant influence upon the thought and life of the whole period. For while the Protestant Reformation began in 1517 when Luther posted his theses at Wittenberg, it was only fourteen years later that Servetus in 1531, by publishing his first book in criticism of the doctrine of the Trinity, initiated the movement here treated. The springs of this movement in Italy, Switzerland and Germany ran together in that decade and those next following, into a stream that was to some extent to wash the shores of almost every country of western Europe; though its main current was to flow from Poland and Transylvania through Germany and Holland to England and America, in a continuity which, though it has not often been clearly recognized, is yet indisputable.
I have spoken of this as of a single movement in religious history. For although its developments in the countries with which it has been chiefly associated — Poland, Transylvania, England, America — have been so loosely connected or so little dependent upon one another that they might indeed easily be treated as distinct movements, yet they are in fact all joined together by very clear, even if sometimes slender, threads of historical sequence; and it will be shown that throughout their course they exhibit in common certain distinctive marks and principles which fundamentally characterize the movement as a whole.
It may be well at the outset to state the conception of this movement which will underlie the treatment of it here attempted. Whatever names it has borne, it has usually been regarded, alike by its adherents and its opponents, from the standpoint of doctrinal theology, as a movement or a sect characterized primarily by certain beliefs about the being of God and the person of Christ. It is true that it has from the beginning generally had such doctrinal associations. It has from first to last been antitrinitarian, or at least un-trinitarian, if the Nicene and Athanasian doctrine of the Trinity be taken as the standard. But beyond this it would not be easy to name another doctrine on which those adhering to this movement have not at one time or another held the widest differences of opinion. It has been thus with the doctrines relating to Christ, the Holy Spirit, revelation, man, sin, the atonement, salvation, and the future life. Indeed, its consistent adherence to the unipersonality of God and the subordinate rank of Christ, may almost be said to be incidental to the movement rather than essential to it. Had the chief doctrinal controversies in the early Church happened to be waged over the doctrine of man rather than the doctrines of God and Christ, the separation from the main stream of Christian tradition might have come about on quite other grounds; and this indeed came near happening in the Pelagian controversy of the fifth century. In the few and brief periods when this movement has been suffered to exist free from persecution or from the necessity of defending itself against attack, doctrine has almost invariably retired into the background, and the emphasis has by preference been laid on conduct and character. Its primary psychological character is thus best described in terms not of the intellect or of the emotions, but of the will.
It is intended here, therefore, to present not so much the history of a particular sect or form of Christian doctrine, as to consider broadly the development of a movement fundamentally characterized instead by its steadfast and increasing devotion to these three leading principles first, complete mental freedom in religion rather confessions; second, the unrestricted use of reason in religion, rather third, generous tolerance of differing religious views and usages rather than insistence upon uniformity in doctrine, worship or polity. Freedom, reason and tolerance: it is these conditions above all others that this movement has from the beginning increasingly sought to promote; while if emphasis upon certain doctrinal elements has often or for long periods seemed to characterize it or even to dictate its name, it has been largely because insistence upon contrary doctrines seemed to conflict with the enjoyment of the conditions above named.(2) For the movement has throughout its whole course strenuously resisted any attempt at dogmatic fixity, has made reason its ultimate court of appeal, and has normally been hospitable to changes and restatements in its forms of thought; being at all times far more concerned with its application to the situations of practical life than with intellectual formulations of Christian thought.
Yet though not intending to treat of this movement in any narrow or sectarian spirit, I do not undertake here to present a history of liberal Christian tendencies in general, tracing their manifestation in the various confessions or denominations, Protestant or Catholic. That would be a task quite too broad and ill-defined. I must content myself with the more modest attempt to follow them in the narrower stream, flowing in a channel largely separate from the others, in which the distinctive characteristics of which I have just spoken have therefore been more fully and clearly developed. This movement may be said to have some peculiar claims upon our interest. It has been carried on by bold and adventurous spirits that have habitually insisted upon being free and independent. Setting small store by traditions of past ages or the codified opinions of past generations, they have in the field of religion tended to seek out new truth or new interpretations of old truths. The interest that their story invites may be compared with that with which we follow those explorers of a New World who, dauntless and unafraid, left all familiar headlands behind them and made for the open sea and the ever-receding horizon. In such a quest for new worlds, even in the sphere of thought, there is bound to be much of dramatic interest. This history, in so far as it deals with leading personalities, will have to do with some of the bravest, boldest and most heroic pioneers of religious thought. Perhaps no other extant movement in the Christian Church has had a larger proportion of martyrs and confessors. Until near the beginning of the eighteenth century men suffered imprisonment or death for this faith, and civil disabilities attended it until almost the middle of the nineteenth; while such names as Servetus, Socinus, David, Biddle, Emlyn, Lindsey, Priestley, Martineau, Channing, Emerson and Parker may well be ranked with almost any others that Christian history can show, for the compelling interest of their lives, and their faithfulness to convictions of truth and duty. With a great price purchased they this freedom.
The movement whose history we are to explore was in its full development a fusion or amalgamation of various factors or elements which, arising from widely diverse sources, eventually combined in various proportions in a single stream that superficially often bore certain doctrinal marks, but was fundamentally characterized by the three broad principles spoken of above. It may therefore be well to speak in advance of the elements out of which the whole movement was gradually composed. Earliest in point of time was the element of deep personal devotion in many choice spirits of the mediaeval Church, which had comparatively little interest in speculative doctrines or doctrinal systems, and is preserved for us in such devotional classics as the Imitation of Christ and the Theologia Germanica. This element strongly influenced our movement by way of the Anabaptist tradition. There is also some think, a train from the scholastic philosophy, inducing a skeptical attitude toward the dogmas of the church. Servetus betrays some acquaintance with thinkers of this school, though it may be doubted whether this stream of thought penetrated deeply into Socinianism. But overshadowing all other elements that helped to shape Socinianism was the tendency to look directly to the word of Scripture itself as the sole pure source of religious truth, and to ignore as unimportant whatever could not be traced to this source. These various elements were emphasized in varying degree by the various leaders of the movement, each of whom made his contribution to it, until at length, when the competent leader appeared at the opportune time, all the streams became mingled in one, and what had been an irregular succession of individual influences became consolidated into a coherent movement.
The proper history of the Socinian-Unitarian movement begins, as has been said above, very early in the period of the Protestant Reformation. While it is true that in the thousand years preceding the Reformation we find occasional outbreaks of heretical opinion as to the received doctrine of God and of Christ, which seem in a way to anticipate this movement, yet they do not form part of any historically continuous development of thought. They must rather be regarded merely as sporadic instances, often widely separated in time and space, of independent and inquisitive minds applying themselves to difficult topics of theology. It was not until the Renaissance brought emancipation of the minds of men from the long slavery of the Middle Ages, and the invention of printing made the ideas of thinkers the common property of all that could read, that the way was opened for anew school of thought to become rapidly and widely diffused.
Nor can it be successfully maintained that this movement is simply a return to an earlier form of Christianity as it was in the fourth century. This interpretation of it has, it is true, often been made both by the adherents of this movement and by its opponents. On the one hand, the earlier Socinians and Unitarians contended that their faith was simply a revival of that of primitive Christianity, a return to the original pure teaching of Jesus and his Apostles, and of the Ante-Nicene Fathers, which had for twelve centuries been obscured and corrupted by admixture with pagan doctrines of Greek philosophy.(3) It was thought demonstrable that Peter and Paul were in fact first-century Unitarians, whose true successors had now at length recovered ‘the faith once delivered to the saints.’ On the other hand, their opponents contended that the new interpretations of Christianity were only a modern revival of ancient heresies long since condemned and discarded: these modern Socinians or Unitarians were only the ancient Ebionites, Samosatenians, Sabellians, Arians or Photinians under a new name, old foes with a new face. In both these contentions there was a certain measure of truth. It was easy enough for Socinians to demonstrate that nothing like the Athanasian or even the Nicene doctrine was to be found in the New Testament, and that these were elaborated in the fourth century or later when adjustment was sought between Christian faith and Greek philosophy; and that the primitive faith was expressed rather in the Apostles’ Creed and its successors. But this did not establish an identity between New Testament Christianity and Socinianism. It was easy on the other hand for orthodox theologians to find points of similarity between Socinian and Unitarian doctrines and the ancient heresies; and there was of course a tactical advantage in calling attention to the likeness. But there were also cardinal points of difference, and the so-called ‘Arians’ in Poland or in England indignantly and rightly insisted that they did not accept the doctrinal system of Arius. The key to a just understanding of the prolonged controversies that were to ensue can therefore be best gained through a brief resume of the development of Christian doctrine, from the beginning of Christianity down to the period of the Renaissance when the pioneers of our movement, in their effort for greater freedom and a fuller use of reason in religion, began to make their protest against a religion of blind obedience to authority and a servile following of tradition.
There is an immense gap between the religion of the Sermon on the Mount and the parables of Jesus as reported to us in the first three Gospels, on the one hand, and the orthodox Christianity of the fourth and fifth centuries as stated in the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds, on the other. In the former, while belief in God and recognition of man’s duty to obey him are everywhere taken for granted, the essence of religion is summed up in love to God and one’s neighbor; and the whole emphasis is laid upon a life of reverent trust in God and brotherly relations with men. In the latter, while piety and virtue may doubtless be presupposed in a Christian, yet they are hardly once mentioned, still less are they insisted on as of vital importance; while the entire emphasis is laid upon profession of belief in abstruse speculative dogmas which were finally arrived at only after generations of hair-splitting controversy. The difference is that between a religion of the heart and life, and one of the head. Nevertheless in the literature and history of early Christianity we may trace every step of the process by which the one was transformed into the other. This transformation was the outcome of a long continued effort to express the philosophy of a religion of Jewish origin in terms satisfactory to those whose habits of thinking had been cast in the mold of Greek philosophy.(4)
The primitive Christian religion of the first century was that of a Jewish sect. Its distinctive mark was the belief that Jesus was the promised Messiah. His credentials were the mighty works that he did and the prophecies that were fulfilled in him; and these were confirmed by resurrection from the dead. Belief in God was in a divine being of simplest unit: no other would have found a moment’s acceptance any Palestinian Jew of the first century, nor would the belief that Messiah shared the attributes of divinity. He was a man, chosen indeed for an exceptional office, endowed with exceptional powers, but yet limited in knowledge, authority, power and even goodness. Evidences of this primitive belief are numerous in the Gospels, and it survived for more than four centuries in the Jewish Christian sect known as Ebionites. But long before the end of the first century, as Christians became increasingly alienated from Judaism, and were now seeking converts in the gentile world, this earliest Christian belief began to be transformed. For Christianity encountered in the world of Greek thought the conception of a personified Logos or Word, a kind of world-soul intermediate between infinite and holy deity and finite and sinful man; and the critical step was taken when the Jewish Messiah or Christ came gradually to be identified with this Greek Logos. Thus a Christianity of Jewish origin was fitted into the frame of Greek philosophy, and the wide spread of the religion into the Greco-Roman world was assured.(5)
The problem facing the Christian Apologists of the second century as they tried to organize their religious beliefs into a tenable system was as to just how this Logos was related to Jesus of Nazareth on the one hand and the eternal God on the other. Various solutions were tentatively put forth by Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian and others, none of them finally satisfactory, yet all agreeing that he Logos or Son of God was inferior to the Father, though all tending to regard him as in some sense divine. To guard, however, against Christianity’s relapsing into a religion with more than one divinity, two further views were presented in the third century. Paul of Samosata suggested that though Jesus was originally a man, he gradually became divine until at length he was completely one with God; while Sabellius sought to preserve the unity of God by the view that Father, Son and Holy Spirit were simply three modes in which the one God manifested himself. Both these views long showed great vitality, but they were at length rejected by the Church as unsatisfactory, and were condemned as heretical.
The next and yet more important step was taken in the Arian controversy of the fourth century. The Bishop of Alexandria thought to simplify the problem by saying that the Son of God was possessed of eternal divinity, having always been of the same ‘substance,’ or essential nature, with God; whereas Arius, one of his priests, considering this as merely Sabellianism in another form, proposed the view that Christ, though a created being less than God, had yet existed before the world and ranked far above man, and that his nature was something between divine and human. Controversy between these two views became so heated in Alexandria, and grew so violent throughout the Empire, that it threatened to undermine the very throne. As a measure of political safety, therefore, and in order to bring the controversy to permanent settlement, the Emperor Constantine felt forced to convene at Nicaea in 325 a general council of all the churches in the Roman Empire. The council lasted six weeks, and was marked by great bitterness and even violence. Three parties were involved: followers of Arius, holding that in his essential nature Christ was different from God; followers of Athanasius, holding that he was the same as God, and an intermediate party, in the great majority holding that he was similar to God. The Arians, being a small minority, were soon outvoted; but the Athanasians, though also a minority, proved so unwilling to make the least concession, that at length the Emperor threw his weight into the balance, and insisted on the adoption of their statement of doctrine, which nearly all now signed. This was the Nicene Creed, affirming the eternal deity of Christ. Those opposing it were declared to be enemies of Christianity.
Nevertheless Arianism did not at once become extinct. In a few years it became even dominant, for forty years it was in the saddle in the East, and it was for a time the official religion of the whole Empire. The Emperor Theodosius, however, was of the opposite view, and in 380, in order once and for all to put an end to doctrinal controversies, he decreed that all nations in the Empire should adhere to the orthodox belief in the Trinity, and that all that would not do so should be branded as heretics and be punished as should seem best.(6) Thus Arianism, though it still survived among the barbarian nations of invaders for two centuries more, was finally outlawed in the Roman Empire.
From this account thus briefly given, it will be seen how it was that the primary emphasis of the Christian religion came to be laid upon an intellectual belief about a speculative question as to which Christians had been widely divided and had long wavered. If it is remembered, however, that this question distracted the whole Roman Empire more or less violently for two centuries, it will be the more readily understood why the question of belief came to be regarded as one of primary importance, taking precedence over all others. Henceforth for centuries the question of crucial importance was to be not, How does one act, what is his character? but, How does he believe, what is his creed?
In the fifth century the Emperor Justinian incorporated the doctrine of the accepted creed into the Roman law,(7) and the door was closed to freedom of belief or teaching on these subjects. The appeal might no longer be to reason, but only to tradition. Tolerance was a sin, toleration was treason, heresy was a crime to be punished at the stake; and to propagate heretical views was deemed as much worse than murder as the eternal life of a human soul is of greater importance than the temporal life of a human body. Such was the background of religion in Europe early in the sixteenth century, when the spirit of the Renaissance roused men’s minds to fresh inquiry in every field of thought, and the Reformation was re-opening many questions in religion long since regarded as closed.
Click here to open the frame set built to read this document.
This page was last modified
Sunday 12 November 2006.