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;’1 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 thing.
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.2 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. Milton 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 Socinians unconfessed.
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 3 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.4
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.5 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 generation.6
The Trinitarian Controversy, as this is commonly called, was started in 1687 by the publication of the Brief History of the Unitarians or Socinians 7 already referred to.8 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 Christian church.
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,9 and that Christ means 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 good conscience.
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,10 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,11 (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 three somewhats. 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.12 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 after.
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.13 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 hear 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 Remonstrants14 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,15 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 sprung 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 16 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, 17 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,18 promptly expelled him (1710). He finally withdrew from the church and joined the General Baptists; 19 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 he 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. He had 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 he 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 he intimated that the Prayer Book ought to be revised so as to correspond to this doctrine.20 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.21 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 life.
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 he 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,22 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 permanent results.