John Bidle and His Successors, 16441697


    The pioneers of Unitarianism in England whose influence we traced in the last chapter were isolated and widely separated individuals. They had no separate congregations where they might spread Unitarianism by preaching, they wrote no books to spread it among those who might read, and they made no effort to work together and organize a movement. “These all died in faith, not having received the promises,” and they left no descendants to continue their work. In contrast to these we turn now to another pioneer who was, with one possible exception, the first Englishman to gather and preach to a Unitarian congregation, and the first one to publish Unitarian books, a man who spent a large part of his adult life in prison for his faith, but left behind him friends and followers who continued his work, so that the movement he started has continued to this day. He is therefore deservedly called “the father of the English Unitarians.”

John Bidle1 was born in 1615/6 at Wotton-under-Edge, Gloucestershire, the son of a dealer in woolen cloth. Before he was ten years old he showed such promise at school that a neighboring nobleman was led to make a handsome annual contribution toward his education. In due time he proceeded to the University of Oxford, and was admitted to study at Magdalen Hall, where he graduated in 1638 with high reputation as a scholar, became a tutor, and at length received the Master’s degree. His reputation now brought him an appointment as master of the Crypt School at Gloucester, where his teaching gave great satisfaction.

At the university he had already shown an independent mind, and now, rather than blindly to accept what others declared were the doctrines of the Bible, he set himself while teaching to studying it for himself. He came to know the New Testament so well that he had it all by heart except the last few chapters, in both English and Greek. Though he had never read any Socinian writing, he became convinced from the Bible alone that it does not teach the common doctrine about the Trinity, and he also felt that the doctrine was not reasonable in itself. He frankly told his thoughts to others, but they complained of him to the authorities, and he was held to answer the charge of heresy. The authorities were not satisfied with his confession of faith in one God in but one person, and in Christ as truly God; but after a few days, having considered that perhaps the words might be variously understood, he consented to express belief in the three persons.

Bidle now continued to study the Bible more earnestly than ever, and at length drew up his conclusions in the shape of XII Arguments drawn out of the Scripture; wherein the commonly received Opinion, touching the Deity of the Holy Spirit, is clearly and fully refuted. These arguments were formally stated like propositions in logic, and were supported by Scripture texts and comments upon them. This paper he showed to some friends, one of whom forthwith again reported him as a heretic; and the result was that, although he was dangerously ill, he was at once thrown into jail, to be held until Parliament could act on his case. The larger part of the remaining seventeen years of his life he spent in prison or exile for his religious faith. An influential friend soon procured his release on bail, until six months later he was summoned to Westminster for trial. Here he made no secret of his not believing in the deity of the Holy Spirit unless he should be convinced otherwise from Scripture, but he refused to commit himself as to the deity of Christ, which had been made no part of the charge against him. The case dragged on, and for many months he was held in custody. He at length appealed to Sir Henry Vane to get his case determined; but although he was often called up for further examination before the Assembly of Divines at Westminster, nothing resulted, and he was kept in confinement for the next five years.

He now resolved to appeal to the public, and managed to get his XII Arguments published (1647). It was only a little pamphlet, hardly more than a tract, of less than fifty pages of very small size, and altogether it contained no more matter than the short gospel of Mark; but it created a tremendous sensation. Bidle when called into court did not deny responsibility for it, whereupon he was sent back to prison, and it was ordered that his blasphemous pamphlet be called in and burnt by the hangman. This only increased its reputation, and a second edition was sold before the end of the year. Its arguments were so convincing, and its influence was so much feared, that two large books were written the next year, and a third later, to confute it. It was also carried to the Continent, and in Holland it was so much read that a famous Dutch theologian thought it necessary four years later to print a large volume against it.

The next year Bidle proceeded to publish over his own name his second work, A Confession of Faith touching the Holy Trinity, according to the Scripture (1648). It was about as long as the gospel of Matthew, yet still not more than a little pamphlet; but it created an even greater stir than the former tract. In this writing Bidle did not deny the doctrine of the Trinity, but simply tried to purify it of the corruptions that the Catholic Church had brought into it, and to bring it back into harmony with Scripture. Like Servetus,2 he objected to the philosophical terms that were used to express it, and argued that the doctrine as then taught gave us three Gods instead of one, stood in the way of pure religion, and prevented many from accepting Christianity. He therefore set forth his own belief as to the Trinity in six plain articles, each supported by Bible texts and arguments upon them. Like Servetus, he held that though Christ had only a human nature, yet he was Son of God, and was also God. This tract was soon followed by a third, but little longer, in which he brought together in support of his views quotations from the early Fathers of the Church. These tracts made so great a stir that to deter Bidle from repeating his offense, or anyone else from following his example, Parliament passed a “Draconic Ordinance”3 decreeing the death penalty against any one denying the Trinity or the deity of Christ or of the Holy Spirit.

Fortunately for Bidle, this ordinance remained a dead letter for several years, during which the temper of Parliament somewhat softened, and he was at length released on bail. He was allowed to go to Staffordshire, where the gentleman who had procured his release employed him as his chaplain, and appointed him preacher in one of the parish churches. It was not long, however, before he was ordered returned to prison, and although his friend dying soon after left him a small legacy, his scanty means were soon used up, so that he could not have obtained the ordinary comforts of life, had not another friend who knew of his fine scholarship secured employment for him in correcting the proofs of a new edition of the Septuagint. He was not only deserted by people in general, but only one clergyman visited him in all the six years. Finally in 1652 Parliament passed a general Act of Oblivion, under which Bidle was released, and his broken imprisonment of more than six years was at an end. His little Confession of Faith and its sequel continued to have their influence, and as many as eight years after their publication a large book was published to refute them.

Bidle’s long imprisonment had attracted much attention to him, and as soon as he was released he took advantage of the more tolerant policy of the government, which now favored religious liberty, and began holding meetings in London. Here he gathered together for religious worship every Sunday many friends whom his little tracts had converted to his views, and he explained the Scriptures and preached to them. They organized an independent congregation which ere long began to attract the attention of strangers. Its members came to be known as Bidellians, and also as Socinians, though they themselves preferred to be called “mere Christians.” Although there are rumors of one or two similar congregations in England before this, they were obscure and short-lived, so that this congregation of Bidle’s may fairly enough be called the first Unitarian church in England. It continued its meetings, with some interruptions, at least as long as Bidle lived. Orthodox ministers sometimes attended the meetings and entered into disputes with Bidle on points of doctrine, but they always found him ready to give reason for the faith that was in him.

In 1651/2 Latin edition of the Racovian Catechism was published in London, and when it was brought to the attention of Parliament the next month its teachings were declared to be “blasphemous, erroneous, and scandalous,” and all copies that could be found were seized and burnt.4  Yet the following year an English translation was brought out.5  At about the same time Bidle reprinted his earlier tracts and published an English translation of a life of Socinus and of two little Socinian tracts. These, however, were soon quite overshadowed by a new work of his own, A Twofold Catechism6 (1654), the second part being a brief Catechism for children.  Bidle was by now well acquainted with the works of Socinus, but although he took many questions and answers from the Racovian Catechism, he was not wholly satisfied with it. In this book, therefore, he aimed to restore the pure teaching of Christianity by giving answers entirely in the very words of Scripture, whose divine authority he accepted. This little book covered not only the doctrine of the Trinity as his first tracts had done, but all the doctrines of Christianity, and it made much bolder attacks upon the orthodox doctrines than he had made before, and by sharp contrasts it showed how clearly they contradicted the words of the Scripture.

The Catechism roused a greater storm than ever. It went overseas, and circulated widely in Holland, where it seems to have been translated into Dutch, and was regarded as the most dangerous form of Socinianism yet attempted. One of the Dutch theologians, who had already refuted the Racovian Catechism in a book five times its size, now came forward again to defend the orthodox doctrine against Bidle’s “Socinian Atheism,” which seemed to be creeping into the country so fast; and in another large volume he took up and answered its teachings in great detail. Another took the English government to task for allowing Socinianism to spread so far. This criticism stung the English. The Council of State therefore requested the famous Dr. Owen of Oxford, who had lately answered the Racovian Catechism, to answer this one also. How serious a task he took it to be may be judged from the fact that his answer filled nearly 700 large and closely printed pages. Bidle was now attacked from many a pulpit, and after having been at liberty for nearly three years he was brought before Parliament and charged with being the author of a book full of scandalous teaching. All copies of his book that could be found were ordered to be burnt, and he himself was placed in the closest confinement, and denied writing materials and any visitors. The prospect was that when his case came to trial he would be condemned to death; but after a few months Parliament was dissolved, and Bidle was set free before his case was called.

If one supposes that Bidle, warned by the danger he had so fortunately and unexpectedly escaped, now sought to avoid further trouble by preserving henceforth a discreet silence, he little understands the nature of John Bidle; for though he was the mildest and gentlest of men, he had a full measure of the excellent British virtue of obstinacy in a good cause. As soon as he was released from prison, instead of avoiding his enemies by leaving London, he remained right there, and went back to preaching precisely as he had done before. The orthodox were determined to put him to silence. His teaching had won a good many adherents in a Baptist congregation, whose pastor being much disturbed over the matter therefore challenged Bidle to a public debate. After declining for a time, Bidle at length consented, and when it was asked at the beginning of the debate whether any one present denied that Christ was God, he replied that he did. Even before the debate was concluded he found himself arrested and lodged in prison, to be tried for his life for this heresy, and at first he was not even allowed legal counsel. His trial aroused great public interest. The Presbyterians attended it, and presented petitions against him, while the Baptists appealed in his behalf, and printed various things in his favor. Cromwell, as head of the government, being unwilling wholly to offend either party, at length (1655) cut the knot by banishing Bidle for life to the Scilly Islands, though he afterwards showed where his sympathies lay by granting him a pension of a hundred crowns a year.

Bidle was now at least out of danger, and occupied himself with renewed study of the Bible; but after something over two years his friends at last succeeded in getting him set at liberty. He at once returned to London and began preaching again, though after a few months a change in the government led him reluctantly to retire for safety into the country, to return once more to London as soon as danger seemed past. Charles II now came to the throne, however, and a new Act of Uniformity was passed, making it a crime to hold worship except under the forms of the Church of England. Bidle therefore held his meetings in private; but they were soon spied out, and he and his friends were all dragged away to prison. He was fined what was then the large sum of one hundred pounds, and was sentenced to lie in prison until it should be paid. The prison was so foul and the confinement so close that in a month he fell dangerously ill; and although he was at length allowed to be removed to a better place, he died two days later, September 22, 1662, at the early age of forty-seven. He had, indeed, not expected to survive another imprisonment, and had been heard to say that ‘the work was done.’

John Bidle was a man of the most exalted personal character, devout, reverent, and of the highest ideals of personal religion and private life; firm for the truth, as we have seen, self-forgetting, devoted to the sick and the poor. But it is not these qualities, nor even the many persecutions that he suffered, that make him important in the history of Unitarianism; it is the fact that he did so much to stir people up to examine the doctrine of the Trinity, and hence to disbelieve it. He knew his Bible from cover to cover, and he relied fully upon it for his authority; but when he came to interpret it, he looked not to tradition but to reason for his guidance. In this he was like the Socinians; and like them he held that though Christ was not God, yet he was divine, and was to be worshiped. In two notable respects, however, he differed from them; for he held to a kind of “scriptural Trinity” of three divine persons, though denying that the three are equal or make one God; and he held that the Holy Spirit is a person, though not God.

Bidle had never sought to found a new sect, and the little congregation of his friends had slight chance of holding together long after his death. One John Knowles, indeed, who had fallen under Bidle’s influence long before, and is said to have preached Arianism at Chester as early as 1650, is thought to have succeeded him for a while; but he did not long escape prison, and then the congregation probably scattered. The Rev. Thomas Emlyn also preached to a Unitarian congregation in London for a few years early in the eighteenth century;7 and a generation later a meeting house was built for an Arian Baptist preacher in Southwark who occupied it for more than two years. Save for these isolated instances, there was no organized Unitarian movement in England for more than a century after Bidle’s death.

Bidle, indeed, like many before him in England, might have remained but another sporadic prophet of Unitarianism, had not his influence been continued in another way by the printing press, and through the efforts of one of his disciples, Thomas Firmin, of whom we have now to speak. Firmin was born at Ipswich in 1632 of a family in the Puritan wing of the Church of England. In early manhood he came up to London to engage in business life, and here he soon fell under the influence of John Goodwin8 an Arminian minister who converted him from his Calvinism. It was at just this time that Bidle was preaching in London. Firmin made his acquaintance, became his devoted friend, and accepted his beliefs. He also supported him for a time at his own expense, and helped to secure from Cromwell a pension for him in exile.

Firmin was one of the leading philanthropists of his age. He became wealthy as a manufacturer and dealer in cloth, but Bidle’s devotion to them roused his interest in the poor and unfortunate. When the Socinian exiles from Poland appealed to English sympathizers for relief in their distress,9 it was Firmin that raised a fund for them by private subscriptions from his friends, and by collections which his influence caused to be taken up in the churches. He procured similar aid for the orthodox Protestants of Poland when their turn came to suffer in 1681, for Huguenot refugees from France in the same year, and for Protestant refugees from Ireland under the oppressions of James II a few years later. He did much for sufferers by the great plague in 1665, and by the great fire in London the following year; established a warehouse where coal and grain were sold to the poor at cost, and set up factories where many hundreds of them when out of work might earn their living by making linen or woolen cloth; and besides giving generously for poor relief out of his own purse, he was given very large sums by others who trusted him so fully that they never asked for an accounting. Moreover, he was a pioneer in scientific charity, for, far ahead of his time, he devised a scheme for systematic employment of the poor, and used to investigate their needs by visiting in their homes. Finally, he took an active part in the reform of prisons, in behalf of those imprisoned for debt, in the work of hospitals, and in the reform of public manners. In all these ways he was the model for many a public-spirited Unitarian in later generations, who has like him been inspired to good works by the preaching and example of his minister.

It was Firmin’s especial services to the cause of Unitarianism, however, that bring him into this history. Although he attended Bidle’s services as long as they lasted, he never withdrew from the Church of England, and until his death in 1697 he maintained with Archbishop Tillotson and with most of the prominent clergy an intimate friendship, which was never broken despite his known difference from them in matters of belief. As a convinced Unitarian, however, he sought every means to spread Unitarian teachings. He is said to have had an important Polish Socinian work translated and published in English not long after Bidle’s death, and to have assisted later on in bringing out a work by a liberal Anglican clergyman leading to the view that the English Church should be made so broad that a Socinian might join it.10 He also carried on the influence of Bidle in another way, and thus kindled a fire which has never since gone out. In 1687 he got the Rev. Stephen Nye, a clergyman holding Unitarian beliefs, to prepare A Brief History of the Unitarians, called also Socinians. This led to controversy, and other tracts followed. These made so many converts that in 1691 Firmin, at his own expense, had these and others collected into a volume of Unitarian tracts, with Bidle’s first three tracts reprinted and standing at the head. Other tracts were collected later, many or most of them written by clergymen in the Established Church, until at length there were five volumes of them, the last two published after Firmin’s death. These writings stirred up the celebrated Trinitarian Controversy in the Church of England, of which we shall speak in the next chapter, and they made sure that the truth to which Bidle had borne such brave witness did not fall to the ground. Unitarian beliefs thus came to be widely held in both pulpit and pew in the Church of England, and that with little concealment; so that for a time it was felt that the struggle for freedom of belief in the Church was won. No one had done more to bring about this result than Thomas Firmin.

The point has now been reached where we can begin to trace two fairly distinct streams of Unitarian thought, one in the Church of England, the other among the Dissenters, which at length united about the beginning of the nineteenth century in a separately organized Unitarian movement. We shall follow these two streams in the next two chapters.

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Text taken from a 1925 original copy of Earl Morse Wilbur's Our Unitarian Heritage.
Copyright released by Wilbur's grandchildren.
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