The Pioneers of Unitarianism in England, to 1644


    Thus far the path of our history has never been long or far out of sight of the stake, the block, or the prison; and the impression that remains most vivid with us out of the story of Unitarianism on the Continent is that of the persecutions it had to suffer. It will be a relief, therefore, to enter upon a further stage of our journey from which persecution is largely absent. In England, it is true, as we shall soon see, a few in the first century of the Reformation were put to death, and more were imprisoned, for denying the doctrine of the Trinity; but long before Unitarianism began to be an organized movement there, capital punishment, or even imprisonment, for heresy had ceased in England, and by comparison with what their brethren on the continent had suffered, the civil oppressions that English Unitarians had to endure can be called hardly more than inconveniences.

    The permanent history of Christianity in England began when Augustine, “the Apostle of the Anglo-Saxons,” was sent from Rome at the end of the sixth century as missionary. The English were for centuries devotedly faithful to the Church of Rome, and perhaps nowhere had it had a more splendid history than there, as its glorious cathedrals, and the monasteries and abbeys still beautiful in their ruins, bear witness. Long before the Reformation, however, English kings had become more or less restive under the exactions of the Pope, and his claims of authority over England; while at the same time the people at large were growing impatient of the great wealth and increasing corruption of the monks and priests, and hungry for pure religion. In the fourteenth century, in the time of John Wyclif, one of the “Reformers before the Reformation,” an earnest effort was made to get the abuses of the Church reformed; and the Bible was translated into English and circulated in manuscript, so that those that were able to do so might read it for themselves, instead of having to depend for their religious teaching wholly upon the priests. For the time nothing permanent seemed to come of it; but a century and a half later, when Henry VIII, for reasons of his own, threw off his allegiance to the Pope, and had himself made the head of the Church of England, he found large support from his people.

The English Reformation thus begun was mostly a political affair, and for some time no important changes were made in the doctrines or ceremonies of the Church. On the contrary, those that held the doctrines of Luther were severely persecuted. The Bible and the three ancient creeds were taken as authority; and the king authorized the publication of the English Bible, which was ordered to be set up in all the parish churches, so that all might have a chance to read it. A hundred thousand copies of it were in circulation within about twenty years, and the reading of it not only helped on the Reformation among the people, but eventually, as we shall see, paved the way for further reform of doctrine. Reformation of the Catholic doctrines went slowly on under the leadership of the clergy, until at length, under Edward VI, who was a convinced Protestant, a new Prayer Book was adopted, and new Articles of Religion, and so the Church of England became definitely established in its own ways. Queen Mary tried her best to restore the Catholic religion, and to this end put many Protestants to death, while many more fled to Geneva, where they came under the influence of Calvin; but her reign was short. Upon her death the Protestants returned in full force, and under Elizabeth the Reformation was fully organized, with a doctrine which was a compromise between Calvin and Luther, and a form of worship and ceremonies which were a compromise between Catholic and Protestant.

Many of the Protestants, however, thought that the Reformation ought to be carried much further, so as to purify the Church of all traces of Romanism in doctrines, government, ceremonies, and forms of worship. These came to be known as the Puritans, and for a century or more they formed the most vital element in English religious life. In Elizabeth’s time they developed in two different directions. The one of these was taken by those who despaired of any satisfactory reform in the Church of England, and therefore withdrew from it entirely. These became known as Separatists. Some of them remained in England, and, despite persecution, multiplied and at length became powerful; others fled to Holland, and thence in 1620 to New England, as the Pilgrim Fathers. The other party, the Puritans proper, although they disapproved of many things in the Church of England, tried to stay within it, hoping to be able to bring about the reforms they desired. They objected to government of the Church by a superior order of bishops, preferring a Presbyterian form of government; and they so much disapproved of liturgy that they would not use it in worship. Hence when Elizabeth, in order to secure uniform worship in all the English churches, tried to enforce an Act of Uniformity (1559), the Puritans began to worship in separate meetings of their own, and eventually to form their own separate organizations.

Many were the attempts to hold the Protestants of England together by force in one national Church, with one government and one form of worship. Elizabeth, James I, and Charles I severely persecuted those who refused to conform. Then came a reaction: the Puritans gained control of Parliament, and for a short time the established religion of England was Presbyterian. Then, under Cromwell, control passed into the hands of the Independents, until at length under Charles II the Episcopal Church was again established, and, in 1662 was passed the Act of Uniformity, requiring that all congregations conform to the prescribed form of worship, and that all ministers be ordained by bishops. This was the beginning of that deep division of English Protestantism into Anglicans and Nonconformists which has continued to this day; for out of the 9,000 clergy in the Church of England, some 2,500 refused to conform, and were therefore compelled to leave their pulpits and give up their livings. They were for the most part the ablest and most earnest of the whole clergy. Additional acts of Parliament were soon passed to oppress the Nonconformists yet more severely, and their lot was a most unhappy one until 1689, when the passage of the Toleration Act permitted them again on certain conditions to meet together for public worship under their own forms. During all this period since the rise of the Puritans, questions of doctrine had been little attended to; but while the Puritans still remained strict Calvinists, the Church of England had softened down its Calvinism toward that Arminianism which we have already met 1 among the Remonstrants in Holland. Not heresy in points of doctrine, but nonconformity in service of worship, was regarded as the great offense, and was most often punished under the laws.

It was out of such conditions in the religious life of England, disturbed not only by the hostility between Protestants and Catholics, but by controversies scarcely less bitter among the Protestants themselves over the forms of worship or of church organization and government, that English Unitarians arose. The movement began, as in other countries, with its little army of martyrs, for the act for the burning of heretics was enforced until 1612. 2  Even after that Unitarianism was liable to legal prosecution during many generations; for deniers of the Trinity, as well as Catholics, were expressly excluded from the benefits of the Toleration Act; while the Blasphemy Act of 1698 was especially aimed at Antitrinitarians, punishing their offense with civil disability and, if repeated, with imprisonment. They were not relieved of this until 1813. In a country where the Established Church controls nearly all the social prestige, and where dissent is widely regarded as almost a badge of social inferiority, Unitarians have throughout had to bear not only their share of the burdens that fall to all Dissenters, but the additional one of being excluded by both Anglicans and Dissenters as heretics. Their oppressions and burdens are of course not for a moment to be compared with those suffered by their brethren of like faith in Poland and Transylvania; yet they have been no light thing, and the bearing of them has developed devotion and heroism of a fine and sturdy type.

The Unitarian movement in England did not spring from any single source. We may discover at least four fairly distinct streams of influence that flowed together in it before the end of the seventeenth century. These are: first, the influence of the Bible itself; second, the influence of Italians and other foreign thinkers at the Strangers’ Church in London; third, Anabaptist influences; and fourth, the influence of Socinianism. Let us examine each of these in turn.

Wyclif’s manuscript translations of the Bible had been widely circulated from about 1380 on, and it is said that some of his followers were tinged with Antitrinitarianism; but this Bible had to be read in secret, as did Tyndale’s first printed New Testament of 1525, for fear of the law. In 1535, however, the English Bible began to be accessible to all, and many were reading it for the first time. First and last the influence of this book, when read in comparison with the creeds, has underlain all others leading men to reject the doctrine of the Trinity. Some of the most notable of the early English Unitarians declared they had never read nor heard the Unitarian doctrine, but had come to it solely through reading their Bibles. This influence was likely to be the more powerful, since the Articles of Religion of the Church of England themselves expressly declared that the Scriptures contain all things necessary for salvation, and that one need not believe anything not supported by them.

The second influence was found in the Strangers’ Church. In the first generation of the Reformation many Protestants from Catholic countries on the continent fled to Protestant England for freedom of worship and safety from persecution. There were Italians, Spaniards, Dutch, French, and others. Since they could not understand or speak English, they could neither worship in the English churches nor be overseen by the English bishops. Hence a Church of the Strangers (i. e., foreigners) was chartered in London in 1550 to be under the oversight of a superintendent of its own, subject to the Bishop of London It had at one time 5,000 members, and branches in eleven provincial towns. Since these churches received free spirits from all quarters, and since on account of their foreign tongues they could not be closely watched, they might easily become infested with heresy. To the church in London came Ochino, 3 not yet an Antitrinitarian, but headed in that direction; Giacomo Aconzio,4 who was denied the communion on account of his alleged Arianism; Cassiodora de Reyna, a professed follower of Servetus, and minister to a Spanish congregation of the church for five years; Lelius Socinus,5 and doubtless others less known to fame. Discussion of doctrines during the first generation of Protestant thinking may very well have been as free here as it was in the similar Italian church at Geneva6 at about the same time; and though it does not seem very likely that this church of foreigners had wide influence upon the beliefs of Englishmen, it is known that several of those that were punished for some form of Antitrinitarianism had been connected with it.

A more important influence was that of the Anabaptists, whose connection with antitrinitarian thought we have often noted in earlier chapters. 7  In 1535 many of them fled to England to escape a severe persecution which had broken out against them in Holland, in which one of their number had been cruelly put to death. They were received with tolerance, and soon spread through the kingdom, especially in the eastern counties, actively spreading their peculiar doctrines as they went. Their theology was not settled, but they took only the Bible for their authority; and upon this some of them built extravagant and fantastic doctrines, while some of them revived old heresies as to the Trinity or the person of Christ, or invented new ones of their own. Before many years their teachings began to attract the attention of the authorities, and for being Anabaptists twenty-eight of them were burnt under Henry VIII, and many more under Edward VI. Just what their heresies were does not clearly appear, for they were more or less vague and confused in their thinking, and their doctrines have doubtless been misunderstood or misrepresented by their persecutors who tell us of them; but there was probably more or less Arianism or Antitrinitarianism mixed up with them, for we know that Arian and Anabaptist were often used as synonymous terms in the sixteenth century. Seeing that they were of a humble class of people, and that there was much about them to create prejudice in the public mind, it does not seem likely that they had a very important influence in preparing the ground for Unitarianism in the quarters in which it finally took permanent root.

Some of these humble Christians, though we know little of them beyond their martyrdom, deserve to be mentioned and remembered by us for what they suffered as the first rude pioneers of our faith in England. Passing by the Rev. John Assheton of Lincolnshire, who was the first English Protestant known to have been called to account for denying the Trinity and the deity of Christ, but who in order to escape the stake confessed his crime and recanted his “errors, heresies, and damned opinions” in 1548, we find our first actual martyr in England in 1551, at a time when there was much alarm in church circles over the rapid spread of “Arianism,” and strict measures seemed necessary to repress it. Dr. George van Parris, a surgeon who had come from Mainz to London to practice his profession among the Dutch there, and was highly praised for his godly life, was excommunicated from the Dutch branch of the Strangers’ Church for declaring that Christ was not very God, and was burnt at Smithfield in 1551. He was apparently an Arian. In Queen Mary’s time, while a number accused of Antitrinitarianism saved their lives by recanting, one Patrick Rockingham, a dealer in hides, was burnt at Uxbridge in 1555, and others were imprisoned. Even in prison our heretics could not refrain from discussing the disputed doctrines with their orthodox fellow prisoners; and when reason fell short, other forms of argument were used, as appears from the quaint and impassioned Apology of John Philpot: written for spittyng on an Arian, by a reverend Archdeacon of Winchester, whom Mary had imprisoned for his Protestantism, and later sent to the stake.

When Elizabeth came to the throne, the law for burning heretics was abolished, and she was so much inclined to broad toleration in religious beliefs that she accepted Aconzio’s dedication to her of a book which urged that the necessary beliefs should be reduced to the fewest and simplest.8 But the Anabaptists kept coming into the country too fast, and heresy gained ground so rapidly that the fires had to be lighted again. In 1575 a whole little congregation of Flemish Anabaptists while holding a secret meeting in London were arrested and imprisoned for a heresy with regard to the birth of Christ, and were threatened with death. Most were banished, a few recanted, and one died in prison, while Jan Peters and Hendrik Terwoort were burnt at Smithfield. In 1579 Matthew Hamont, a ploughwright, was burned at Norwich for denying the deity of Christ; as were also John Lewes in 1583, Peter Cole, a tanner, in 1587, and the Rev. Francis Ket in 1589. James I, indeed, deemed it better policy to let heretics silently waste away in prison than to give them public execution, and no doubt many came to their end thus whose names remain unknown. It deserves mention, however, that the last two persons put to death in England for heresy were Antitrinitarians, Bartholomew Legate burnt at Smithfield (his brother Thomas also died in prison), and Edward Wightman burnt at Lichfield, both under King James in 1612. When already at the stake Legate was offered pardon if he would recant, but he remained stedfast. Wightman, feeling the pain of the fire, recanted and was set free, but later refused to confirm his act and was burnt. The law under which these things were done remained nominally in force until 1676; and in Scotland as late as 1697 a young student of eighteen, Thomas Aikenhead, was hanged at Edinburgh charged with denying the Trinity. But one more victim may be mentioned, a nameless Spanish “Arian,” who was condemned to death at about this time, but wasted away in prison at Newgate.

Thus even in England at least ten Protestants were put to death for some form of Unitarianism, and there is no telling how many more died in prison. All or nearly all of these got their heresy from Anabaptist sources; and many others who suffered on the general charge of being Anabaptists may have held similar views. Of course, it is not to be supposed that these martyrs held what is known as Unitarianism today; for many of their views would no doubt seem to us very extraordinary. The noteworthy thing is that they were all reaching out after some views of the nature of God, and the nature and work of Christ, which should satisfy them better than the teachings of the creeds. They were therefore true pioneers of Unitarianism. But they were for the most part isolated from one another, they formed no concerted movement, and they were so mercilessly persecuted out of existence that they do not seem to have left behind them any great influence upon the Unitarian movement that later established itself in England.

Beyond doubt the widest and deepest influence, therefore, of the four that were mentioned above, was that of Socinianism, which became active in England from early in the seventeenth century. It is likely that this was first introduced into England through Socinian books, many of which had by this time been published in Holland; but both before and after their exile from Poland occasional Socinian scholars kept coming to England and making the acquaintance of scholars and churchmen there. At a later time also these influences were reinforced by many Englishmen who went to Dutch universities to study, and there came into contact either with Socinians or with Socinian thought among the Remonstrants. In these ways Socinianism kept exercising a steady influence upon English religious thought until well into the eighteenth century, by which time English Unitarians had long been exerting an independent influence of their own. This influence was shown in particular in three different ways: the acceptance of the Socinian spirit of tolerance of difference in belief (which led to the Latitudinarian movement in the Church of England), the application of the Socinian test of reason to religious doctrines, and the adoption of Socinian doctrines as to God, Christ, or the atonement. The name Socinian was loosely applied to all three of these tendencies, so that many were called Socinians for one or other of the first two reasons who never accepted the Socinian system of doctrine.

Wide public attention in England was first drawn to Socinianism (as had perhaps been intended) by the dedication of the first Latin edition of the Racovian Catechism 9(1609) to King James. His majesty evidently did not much appreciate the compliment, for the work was burnt by royal command five years later. It may indeed have tended to rouse his anger against Legate and Wightman. James was a Scotch Calvinist born and bred, and deemed himself no mean theologian; for when Vorst’s book On God and His Attributes was being imported from Holland, he not only had it burnt at the two universities and at London in 1611 (the same year in which the “King James Version” of the Bible was published), but be wrote a book himself to confute it, calling Vorst a monster and a blasphemer and using his influence to get Vorst dismissed from his chair at the university.10 The flames, however, were unable to keep Socinian books from coming into the country more and more; for before the middle of the century Socinian commentaries, catechisms, and doctrinal and controversial writings in Latin for the use of scholars, were being printed in great numbers in Holland, and a few were printed even in England. A synod of the Church of England finally took notice of all this, and in 1640 adopted measures to check “the damnable and cursed heresy of Socinianism,” prohibiting all but the higher clergy and students in divinity from having or reading Socinian books (implying that they had already come into common circulation), yet thus at the same time leaving the door as wide open as any reasonable Socinian could have asked. Nevertheless it was still declared in 1672 that one could buy Socinian books as readily as the Bible.

A few Socinians also came in person. Adam Franck was discovered by Archbishop Laud in 1639 when, doubtless as a Socinian missionary, he was trying to make converts among the students at Cambridge. Wiszowaty11 came to England as a traveling missionary early in life, and met several distinguished men. At least four members of the distinguished Socinian family Crellius12 visited England, of whom Paul studied at Cambridge, while Samuel in repeated visits formed an intimate friendship with the Earl of Shaftesbury, and with Archbishop Tillotson, who publicly spoke in high appreciation of the Socinians, and was unfairly charged with being one himself. Several Unitarians also came from Transylvania, while Paul Best, who had traveled from England thither and to Poland, had debated with the Unitarians in Transylvania and been converted to their views, had studied Unitarian theology in Germany for some years, and had finally returned to England full of missionary spirit, was condemned to death by Parliament in 1645 for denying the Trinity, though the sentence was never executed and he was released after being two or three years in prison.

Many more examples might be given to show how wide and deep the spread of Socinian influence in England was coming to be. At the time of which we speak it was not yet an organized movement the laws stood in the way of that; but it was a ferment everywhere present. The orthodox writers realized this and wrote book after book full of warning. One writer enumerated 180 different flagrant heresies that had come from independent study of the Scriptures without the restraint of the creeds, and among these the Socinian teachings are most prominent. Another says Socinianism is corrupting the very vitals of church and state, which are much endangered by it. A third wrote three volumes to describe the gangrene that was infecting the nation. A fourth writes, “There is not a city, a town, scarce a village in England where some of this poison is not poured forth.” By such warnings as these Parliament was finally spurred up to pass in 1648 a “Draconic ordinance” against blasphemies and heresies, which made denial of the Trinity or the deity of Christ a felony, punishable by death, without benefit of clergy. Within a few months, however, the government changed, so that the law was never carried into effect, and the heresy kept on spreading. In the next chapter we shall see how this widespread movement came to a head in a man who by his voice and his pen gave it personal leadership, and thus became “the father of the English Unitarians,” John Bidle.


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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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