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Unitarianism Spreads in the Church of England:
The Trinitarian Controversy, 1690-1750
As we have seen in the previous chapter, the work of Bidle
for the spread of Unitarianism seemed for the most part to end with his life;
for he left no organized movement, and no preacher long continued his public
services. In fact, his writings, and those of one or two Unitarians in his
period, though some of them called forth elaborate answers, appear to have made
no particular impression on the general religious thought of England. All that
he had said and written and suffered might yet have come to naught had it not
been more and more reinforced by Socinian influences
which kept coming over in a constant stream from Holland.
The canon of the
Church adopted in 1640 had forbidden all but the clergy to have or read Socinian books;'
and, while it was never enforced even as regards the laity, the clergy
would seem to have made full use of the leave thus allowed them. The Socinian
books imported were mostly in Latin, and hence affected only scholars; but the
result upon the clergy was that before the end of the seventeenth century large
numbers of these, including some of the most influential, had in one respect or
another become decidedly influenced by Socinianism.
Moreover, during the greater part of the seventeenth century religious intercourse was very frequent between England and Holland. Many
Englishmen went to Dutch universities to study, especially the Nonconformist
candidates for the ministry, who were debarred from the English universities;
and they returned some of them outright Socinians, some Arians, some with the
Arminian theology of the Remonstrants, and all of them more given to the use of
reason in religion, and more tolerant in spirit. Whether they came back holding
Socinian doctrines, or favoring a more reasonable interpretation of
Christianity, which Socinians advocated, or merely mellowed by the Socinian
spirit of religious toleration, they were likely sooner or later to be accused
by their conservative brethren of being Socinians; and in the controversies of
the time the terms Arminian and Socinian were used as meaning much the same
The result of this influence is seen in some of those most eminent in the
religious life of England in the seventeenth century. Archbishop Tillotson has
already been mentioned. Chillingworth, the ablest reasoner in the Church of
England, recognized reason as supreme, and long objected to the Athanasian
Creed. Richard Baxter, the greatest of the Nonconformists, held only the Ten
Commandments, the Lord's Prayer, and the Apostles' Creed as essential, though
both Socinians and Catholics could have met these conditions. Cromwell strongly
upheld religious toleration, and the Independents in general favored it.
was at first an Arminian, but at his death he left a manuscript (On Christian
Doctrine, not discovered and published until 1825, and afterwards reprinted
in part by the Unitarians as a tract) which shows that he had become a Unitarian
in belief; so did Sir Isaac Newton; so, for a time, was William Penn, who wrote
a tract to show the Trinity's Sandy Foundation
Shaken, and was sent to the Tower for it; while the earlier teaching of the
Society of Friends in general omits the doctrine of the Trinity. None of these
ever joined a Unitarian movement in fact, there was as yet none for them to join, but they were all more or less Socinian either in belief, in principle,
or in spirit, and they were all reproached by the more orthodox as being
Perhaps the most widespread of these various Socinian influences was shown in
the direction of broad toleration of difference of opinion in religion, and in
the tendency to reduce the essentials of Christianity to the very fewest and
most important things - a tendency which presently came to be known as
Latitudinarianism. Such a principle had already been urged in Bidle's time, in
an English translation of Aconzio's Stratagems of Satan which would
have left the door of the Church so wide that men of all views might enter it.
The Athanasian Creed, however, which they were bound to use in public worship
thirteen times a year, kept the clergy constantly in mind of the doctrine of the
Trinity, and of their obligation to believe it in its most extreme and
objectionable form. Many who still believed in some sort of Trinity were far
from sure they believed in all the statements of this Creed, and every use of it
gave their consciences a twinge. Even Archbishop Tillotson said, "I wish we were
well rid of it."
Hence a movement arose which found much favor, urging that conditions of
membership in the Church be made much simpler. In 1675 Bishop Croft cautiously
put forth, without his name, a book called The Naked Truth, urging that
the Apostles' Creed, which had sufficed for the early Church, ought to be the
only confession of faith required now; that longer
creeds do nothing but harm; and that it is far better to follow the simple
teaching of the Scriptures than the philosophy of the Fathers. Although this
book was attacked by several writers, its views were defended by several others,
and its message spread.
At length after the passage of the Toleration Act in
1689, legalizing the worship of Dissenters, the king appointed a commission to
revise the Book of Common Prayer. Liberal influences were strong, and it was
proposed to omit the Athanasian Creed, or else to make the use of it optional,
and to omit various objectionable phrases in the liturgy; but unfortunately all
changes were defeated by the conservatives.
On the doctrinal side Socinian influences from Holland gave rise to a yet
greater controversy. The writings of Bidle, as we have seen, though attacked
enough while he lived, appear not to have made any deep or general impression,
and after his death public controversy about the Trinity ceased. Even in 1685,
when the Rev. George Bull (later Bishop Bull), who had himself been charged with
being a Socinian, sought to clear himself from suspicion of heresy, and
published his elaborate Defence of the Nicene Faith, he made no reference
to English writers, but was aiming only at some Socinian writings from Holland
which had made much impression in England.
He sought to prove that even the
early Fathers of the Church held the belief expressed in the Nicene Creed,
though he admitted that they made Christ subordinate
to the Father, which was the main point for which the early Socinians had
contended. Moreover, be wrote in Latin, and hence reached only the learned. Soon afterwards, however, a very active
discussion of both sides of the question arose within the Church of England itself, which aroused keen interest in a much larger public, and continued in one form or another for a full
The Trinitarian Controversy, as this is commonly called, was started in 1687
by the publication of the Brief History of the Unitarians or Socinians
already referred to. This tract gave an account of the Unitarians and their
beliefs from the early Church down, and refuted the proof texts usually quoted by
the Trinitarians in support of their doctrine, ending with the conclusion that
those holding Unitarian views of the Trinity ought not to be prosecuted for
them, but should be received in the Church as brethren.
This tract was soon
followed by another, Brief Notes on the Creed of St. Athanasius, which
took up the Creed clause by clause, laid bare its contradictions with itself,
reason, and Scripture, and concluded that it ought not to be retained in any
These tracts were widely read and made a great stir among both clergy and
laity; and seeing the doctrine of the Trinity thus attacked, one bishop or
doctor after another now came forward to defend it. Some maintained, against the
charge that the doctrine was unreasonable or self-contradictory,
that it ought to be reverently accepted on faith as a sacred mystery, above
human comprehension; to which was replied that this was precisely the argument
which Roman Catholics had urged in behalf of some of their own most
objectionable doctrines, and which Protestants had steadily refused to admit as
sound. Some sought to prove that the doctrine was supported by Scripture; but in
this they were all too easily confuted by the Unitarian writers.
Others, appealing to antiquity, tried to show that this had been the teaching of the
Christian Church from the beginning; but the Unitarians, while not unwilling to
admit that belief in some sort of Trinity was at least consistent with the Bible,
and was supported by the early Fathers of the Church, insisted that it was far
from being the kind of Trinity so carefully defined in the Athanasian Creed.
The crucial question in the controversy was as to what is meant by one God in three
persons. When the Unitarians urged that this belief by its own words
contradicts itself, some tried to remove the difficulty by explaining that
persons means just what we usually mean by the word; but the Unitarians
replied that this involves belief in three separate Gods.
Others sought to show that persons has here a special meaning, and simply means three different
modes of being or acting; but it was replied that this was the ancient heresy of Sabellianism, and that Christmeans something
more than merely God's mode of acting. So the controversy went on, with the
Unitarians ever keen to detect any flaw in the reasoning of the orthodox, and
ready to press every advantage against them. The controversy ended, the acute
stage of it at least, when the authorities of the Church at least seemed to
accept an explanation of the Trinity to which the Unitarians could assent with
This controversy was carried on in print by published tracts, sermons, or
books. Any publication on one side was promptly answered by one or several on
the other. The Unitarian contributions to it kept coming out every month or so
for some ten years or more.
The most important of them were written by a
clergyman of the Church of England, the Rev. Stephen Nye, who was a friend of Firmin's. Firmin himself paid the cost of publication, and distributed them freely as a part of his plan to spread Unitarian views within the Church. The
tracts seldom bore author's or publisher's name, for fear of prosecution, for
the law did not tolerate deniers of the Trinity; and on one occasion in this
period when one William Freeke ventured directly to attack the doctrine in a
Brief and Clear Confutation of the Doctrine of the Trinity,
Parliament condemned the book (1693) to be burnt by the common hangman as an infamous and
scandalous libel, and forced the author to recant and to pay a fine of £500.
Although this controversy in its time aroused the Church of England to an
intense pitch of interest, it would be tedious enough today to have to read
through it, or even to read very much about it.
Only a few of its most important
events need be mentioned here. Before the controversy had fairly got under way a
great stir arose in the very center of churchmanship
at the University of Oxford, where a book appeared entitled The Naked Gospel, (1690). It bore no name, but it was ere long discovered to have
been written by Dr. Arthur Bury, Rector of Exeter College.
It held that to be a
Christian means simply to have faith in Christ, and that to require assent to
speculations about his nature or the Trinity not only is useless but has done
much harm. A heated controversy ensued which ended in Dr. Bury's book being
burned as impious and heretical. At this juncture Professor John Wallis of
Oxford, who had won distinction in mathematics as one of the founders of modern
algebra, and was looking for new worlds to conquer, turned his attention to the
hardest problem in theology.
He thought the doctrine of the Trinity could be
made clear by a simple illustration from mathematics. To believe in one God in
three equal persons seemed to him as reasonable as to believe in a cube with
three equal dimensions. The length, breadth, and height are equal; yet there are
not three cubes but one cube; and if the word persons is objectionable, then say
Dr. Wallis carried on his discussion under the form of letters
to a friend, eight of them in all; but each letter exposed some fresh point for
attack and brought forth a fresh Unitarian criticism, so that before he was done
Wallis had been driven in his explanation of the doctrine from the orthodoxy of
Athanasius to the heresy of Sabellius.
The haughty Dr. William Sherlock, soon afterwards appointed Dean of St.
Paul's, now came confidently forward as champion in A Vindication of the
Doctrine of the Trinity (1690), in which be undertook to demolish the
arguments of the Unitarian writers and, by explaining away the contradictions
and absurdities they had complained of, to make the
great mystery clear to the meanest understanding by an original explanation. He
was well pleased with himself for having made the notion of a Trinity, as he
thought, as simple as that of one God; for he held that Father, Son, and Holy
Spirit are three persons as distinct as Peter, James, and John.
Pamphlets in answer came thick and fast. The Unitarians were quick to attack this new
explanation of the Trinity, and to open all eyes to the fact that it was no
better than tritheism; so that in the face of this new and greater danger their
opponents for a time ceased to attack them. Some of the orthodox defended
Sherlock's view, while others tried their hand at a better explanation.
These disputes, it must be remembered, were all between members of the Church
of England, and they so much disturbed its peace that one of the bishops was
moved to make an earnest plea that the whole subject be dropped. Sherlock,
thinking he had won the day, refused to keep silence, but he soon found himself
fiercely attacked from a new quarter as a dangerous heretic himself. Dr. Robert
South, famous as a great preacher and a brilliant wit, heartily disliking Dr.
Sherlock, and willing to see him humbled, published
some Animadversions upon Dr. Sherlock's Book (1693), in which he riddled
the Dean's arguments, and repeated the charge of tritheism.
But in the
explanation of the Trinity which he set up instead, both the Unitarians and Dr.
Sherlock were quick to detect the opposite heresy of Sabellianism. Heated
controversies ensued. Champions for both sides rushed into the fray with
pamphlets or sermons, until at length the University of Oxford formally
condemned the view held by Dr. Sherlock and his party as false, impious, and
heretical; his friends fell away, and his opponents published an English
translation of the life of Valentino Gentile put to death at Bern for tritheism, recommending it on the titlepage to Dr. Sherlock, with the
implication that he deserved a like fate.
To prevent a repetition of the scandal
to the Church, the archbishop now got the king to issue directions for the
clergy henceforth to abstain from unaccustomed explanations of the Trinity. Thus
the controversy was finally quieted. It had revealed the fact that in place of a
single orthodox explanation of the Athanasian Creed, there were now at least six
distinct explanations in the field, none of them orthodox, yet all held by men
who remained undisturbed in high positions in the Church.
The result was on the whole pleasing to the Unitarians in the Church; for any
explanation of the Trinity as meaning belief in three Gods, to which they had
most objected, had now been clearly repudiated. Although they did not relish the
terms used in Dr. South's explanation, they had no mind to dispute further about
mere words, feeling that they could in some sense honestly assent to the
doctrine about as he had explained it. To show this, Firmin now had a new tract
prepared (1697) to show The Agreement of the Unitarians with the Catholic
Church and the Church of England in nearly all points, and concluded that
their differences were well settled.
However, to make
sure that the view he had so striven for should not again be lost sight of, he
proposed that distinct Unitarian congregations should now be gathered within the
Church to emphasize the true unity of God in their worship, and to keep their
members from explaining this again in the wrong way. Firmin died the following
year, but this plan of his was perhaps tried for a time, since we read of
Unitarian meetings with their own ministers being held in London not many years
Finally even Dr. Sherlock took back most of the things he had said, and came
to a view which the Unitarians approved. Some of the Unitarians still held out,
and a tract was written to persuade them that they might now feel themselves
orthodox enough for the Church; some who held orthodox views argued in another
tract that they ought now to be admitted to communion; while against those that
wished to have them treated as heretics the Unitarians argued in a third tract
that they believed practically the same as many whose orthodoxy was not
questioned, indeed, that by the standard of Scripture and the Apostles' Creed
they were the most orthodox of all.
They seemed in fact to have grown heartily
tired of the long controversy, and to have become willing to go part way in
compromise in order to enjoy peace. Thus they became absorbed into the Church of
England, and we bear no more of them or their movement.
The Trinitarian controversy was over a matter of doctrine. While it was still
at its height a book appeared which brought the influence of Socinianism to bear
in another way, by emphasizing again the importance of tolerance in religion.
This was The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695), by John Locke. This
famous philosopher, although be had read no Socinian books, had imbibed the
Socinian spirit from liberal friends among the Remonstrants
while he lived in
Holland, and had already written epochmaking Letters on Toleration. In
his new book he urged that any one admitting the messiahship of Jesus should be
considered a Christian, no matter what he believed as to other doctrines. A
torrent of abuse followed from orthodox writers, especially among the
Dissenters, who were now much less liberal than the
Church of England. Not only was Locke charged with being a Socinian in disguise,
which he denied, but it was declared that such principles as his opened the way
to all irreligion, and were a fertile cause of atheism.
The book was in fact
quite ahead of its time. Two years later a large work on The Blasphemous
Socinian Heresie was written by John Gailhard to urge Parliament to use all
the rigors of the law against Socinians. It cited with approval a law lately
passed by the Scottish Parliament, under which Thomas Aikenhead, a student of
but eighteen, had just been put to death (1697) for denying the Trinity - the
last execution for heresy in Great Britain.
The Dissenting ministers, growing reactionary, urged King William at the same
time to shut the press against Unitarians, and the House of Commons urged him
that all their publications be suppressed and their authors and publishers
fined. The consequence was that in 1698 there was passed the Blasphemy Act,
providing among other things that any Christian convicted of denying the
Trinity, etc., should be disqualified from holding any public office, and upon a
second offence should lose all civil rights forever, and be imprisoned for three
years. This section of the act was not repealed until 1813.
The Unitarians, who had been troubled about the proper explanation of the
doctrine of the Trinity to which they were bound to subscribe, had now found
elbowroom within the Church, and henceforth were little disturbed there. Still
the Athanasian Creed would not down, nor would the scruples over having to use
it in public worship. Hence it was not many years until new questions arose,
mainly as to whether, or how, Christ was equal to God.
Thus sprun up what is sometimes known as the Arian Movement. This began through the
work of two clergymen of the Church of England, William Whiston and Samuel
Clarke. Whiston had succeeded Sir Isaac Newton as Professor of Mathematics at
the University of Cambridge. He was a man of great learning, sincere and
outspoken to a fault, yet with his head full of eccentric notions. As a
clergyman he was deeply interested in theological questions.
Following up a hint
from Clarke as to the Athanasian doctrine he studied the origin of it, and by
1708 he became convinced by study of the early Fathers of the church that they
were semi Arian and that he must follow them. He held that though Christ was God, and existed before the
world was made, supreme worship should be given only to the Father; and he set
himself to restore in the Church the belief and worship of primitive
Christianity. For two years by his writings and sermons he carried on an active
propaganda for his view.
He omitted from the liturgy such parts as did not suit
his beliefs, and proposed that the Prayer Book be purified of Athanasian
expressions. All this roused intense opposition; and the university, which did
not wish to repeat Oxford's unhappy experience of a few years before, promptly
expelled him (1710).
He finally withdrew from the church and joined the General
Baptists; but to the end of his long life be never ceased to proclaim his
views, and to believe that through the organization of
societies, composed of Christians of all denominations, for promoting primitive
Christianity, they would at length be brought to prevail.
Whiston's eccentricities and his early expulsion from the Church kept him
from having the influence be might otherwise have had, so that the real
leadership of the Arian movement soon fell to Dr. Clarke. He was already the
most distinguished theologian of his time, and was admiringly spoken of as "the
great Dr. Clarke"; and it was taken for granted that he might have any
advancement in the church, and would in time become an archbishop.
already suggested to Whiston that the early Fathers were not Athanasian in
belief, and soon after Whiston's expulsion he undertook to investigate carefully
the teaching of Scripture on the subject. In 1712 he published
a book on The Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity, in which he brought together every text
in the New Testament having the least bearing on the subject, some 1,250 of them
in all, classified according to their teaching.
From these be drew the
conclusion that the Scripture doctrine is that the Father alone is the supreme
God to whom supreme worship may be paid, and that Christ is subordinate to him,
and is to be worshiped only as a mediator; and be intimated that the Prayer Book
ought to be revised so as to correspond to this doctrine.
Half a score of
opponents were soon in the field with tracts or books against him. Though he
distinctly disowned the doctrine of Arius, it was charged that he was advocating
sheer Arianism. A great hue and cry was raised in the Church, and the matter was brought before the church
authorities. Clarke weakened somewhat and made a semi-retraction, so that no further action against him was taken; but he remained under a cloud of disapproval for the rest of his
Nevertheless Dr. Clarke's book made a deep impression on the minds and
consciences of many of the clergy. They realized that whenever they subscribed
to the Articles of Religion, as they were required to do when they were ordained
or were advanced to higher position in the Church, they must subscribe to what
they did not wholly believe; and that whenever they conducted worship in church
they must use expressions in the Prayer Book which they could no longer regard
as true. Hence some of them, including Dr. Clarke himself, declined further
advancement where subscription was required; while many, knowing that
their bishops more or less sympathized with them, altered the words of the
liturgy, and were not disturbed for it although it was contrary to law and to
the promises they had made.
Clarke himself had said in his book that "every
person may reasonably agree to such forms, whenever he can in any sense at
all reconcile them with Scripture." In other words, one might put
upon them any sense he pleased.
Many adopted this principle and subscribed with
large mental reservations, defending this practice as right, and it has
continued more or less down to the present day.
The Athanasian Creed had by now become a topic of general conversation, and a
vigorous controversy therefore arose over this "Arian subscription," as it was called; in which Dr.
Waterland very ably argued against Clarke and his followers that when one has
subscribed be is morally bound to stick to the usual sense of the words as
intended by the Church; and moreover, that the doctrine of the Trinity is of
such supreme importance that it ought not to be held in any lax sense. But a
much more serious danger was now threatening the Church, involving not merely
one article of doctrine but, as it was felt, the very
foundations of the Christian religion.
Doctrinal controversies now faded away
before that with Deism, and for half a century we hear little more of them. Thus
the second attempt to reform the doctrine of the Church of England so as to make
it more nearly like that of the Bible, came to nothing; and for the second time
those who had desired a reform finally settled back comfortably and did nothing,
content enough to be let alone as they were.
We shall presently see how the
inevitable question again came up in the time of Theophilus Lindsey, and led to
the organization of the first permanent Unitarian church in England. Meanwhile
the scene shifts from the Church of England to the Dissenting churches, where
the views of Clarke had a far wider and deeper influence, and led to more
Ref. 1925 Earl Morse Wilbur's Our Unitarian Heritage.
I also encourage the reader to explore the following:
Evolution Versus Creationism Archive
A Broad Exploration of Deism.
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