The Unitarian Revolt from the Church of England: Theophilus Lindsey Organized the First Unitarian Church, 17501808


    In the last two chapters we have followed two separate streams of Unitarianism gathering volume, one in the Church of England, the other among the Dissenters. They were to a large degree independent of each other, for the Church and Dissent had, as they still have, little to do with each other. In this and the next chapter we are to find these two streams flowing together and making a channel of their own, which will issue in an organized Unitarian body. We have seen that the ministers in the Church of England who felt ill at ease using the Prayer Book or the Athanasian Creed most of them settled down at last into using these as they found them, but putting their own interpretations on them. After all, this sorely troubled the consciences of those who desired in religion above all things else to be and seem perfectly sincere, and for a generation or more they tried in various ways to get around a difficulty which they had been unable to remove. The Athanasian Creed was their worst stumbling block.

While the more timid kept their thoughts to themselves, others made no secret of them. Several altered the liturgy, and left it to the bishops to take action against them if they thought best. Some got the parish clerk to read for them parts of the service which they were unwilling to read themselves. Some omitted the creed altogether, and suffered prosecution in the ecclesiastical courts for doing so; and when one of these was ordered to restore it to its place in the service, he put it to ridicule by having it sung to the tune of a popular hunting song. Yet another, when he came to the creed, said, “Brethren, this is the creed of St. Athanasius, and God forbid it should be the creed of any other man.” Several of the bishops themselves were unsound as to the Trinity, and sympathizing with these evasions did nothing to prevent them; but the situation was notorious, and did nothing to raise the liberal clergy in public respect.1 Their behavior was in sad contrast to that of the 2,500 nonconforming clergy who in 1662 had given up all worldly prospects2 for a similar principle of conscience. It seemed as though sensitive conscience had deserted from the Church to Dissent.

The liberal Dissenters took note of all this, and when the Bishop of Oxford complained of the low state of religion, one of them taking up the subject in a book reminded him ‘that among the causes of the prevalent skepticism his Lordship had forgotten that the clergy themselves solemnly subscribed to Articles they did not believe.’ Of all the clergy at this time only one, William Robertson of Ireland, “the father of Unitarian Nonconformity,” followed his conscience so far as to abandon flattering prospects and, when well beyond middle life, at great cost to himself to resign from the ministry (1764).

Though the controversy following Dr. Clarke’s book had largely died out,3 all through the middle of the eighteenth century books or pamphlets kept appearing from time to time (almost always anonymously), urging that the terms of subscription should be relaxed, and thus preparing the way for a further move. For it must be remembered that all candidates for ordination or advancement in the ministry were required by law to subscribe the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion and all things in the liturgy of the Church of England, and that similar tests were imposed on admission or graduation at the universities. The feeling back of all these writings at length found its full expression in one of the most important books in the religious life of eighteenth century England, a book entitled The Confessional, published anonymously (1766) by the Rev. Francis Blackburne, Archdeacon of Cleveland.

The author was a sincere and earnest man, who spent nearly fifty years as rector of one parish, at Richmond in Yorkshire. It was only a few years after his ordination, that the book appeared which led Robertson to resign his charge and it roused grave questionings also in Blackburne’s mind, so that it was only after serious misgivings that he was persuaded to subscribe when he was made archdeacon the next year, and he never would subscribe again after that. He gradually grew bolder in his thought, sent his son to school at an Arian academy, and cultivated friendship with Dr. Priestley, who was now becoming a leader among the non-subscribing Dissenters. He printed one or two minor things on the subject so much on his mind, and petitioned the archbishop for reforms in the Church; but no visible notice was taken. He therefore began collecting materials for a convincing work on the subject.

Blackburne was apparently the same sort of Arian as Dr. Clarke; and in his book he discussed at length the history of subscription and the arguments for it, and argued powerfully that Protestant churches have no right to set up creeds composed by men, in place of the Word of God, as tests of the orthodoxy of ministers, and that subscription ought at once to be abolished as a mischievous stumbling block. The book caused great excitement among the conservatives, who took the view that the Church could not serve its purpose, but would fall to pieces, unless all its members believed alike. The archbishop soon spied out the authorship of the book, and a controversy ensued which ran to a hundred pamphlets and books. Though there was great clamor against the book and its writer, it won many converts, and made a deep impression, and it led at length to an organized movement to get relief from subscription, which had the support of even one or two of the bishops.

It was some years before the movement took definite shape; but in 1771 Blackburne, who was recognized as the leader in the cause, was induced to draw up some proposals for an appeal to Parliament for relief from subscription to the liturgy and Articles, and these were widely circulated. In the face of much discouragement from those in high station, and of timid lukewarmness in others, a meeting was held at the Feathers’ Tavern in London, where a petition to Parliament was drawn up. Though this Feathers’ Tavern Petition, as it was called, was circulated for half a year, only about two hundred and fifty signatures could be obtained. Most of the clergy who sympathized with the petition dared not give it their support for fear of consequences to themselves. The Rev. William Paley, who afterwards became famous as a theologian, unblushingly said what others doubtless felt, when he declined to sign the petition because ‘he could not afford to keep a conscience.’

The petition was presented to Parliament early in 1772, and very ably supported by its friends, but as bitterly opposed not only by orthodox Churchmen, but by the Methodists as well. It was urged that it would destroy the Church and disturb the peace of the country; and after an eight hours’ debate Parliament by a majority of three to one refused to receive the petition. A similar attempt two years later met the same fate, as did also an attempt the same year to get the Articles and the liturgy revised through petition to the archbishop.

So the movement died out, and those that had supported it slumped back and, even if they declined advancement and refused to sign the articles again, continued to say the creed and use the liturgy just as before, and kept on disbelieving them just as before.4 Of all that had signed the Feathers’ Tavern Petition, the most are so wholly forgotten that it is not easy even to discover their names. The only one that ever made any real mark on the religious thought of the time following was one Theophilus Lindsey, who now withdrew from the Church. We have next to follow the story of his life, for he became the founder of the Unitarian Church in England.

Theophilus Lindsey, the youngest son of a business man of Scotch origin, was born at Middlewich, Cheshire, in 1723. He showed good promise in boyhood, and thus attracted the attention of some ladies who provided for his education. In due time he went up to the University of Cambridge, where he was known for his high character and firm principles, was graduated with honors, and was made a Fellow. Flattering inducements were offered him to embrace the life of a scholar, but he deliberately chose the ministry as the calling where he could best serve God and do the most good to men. He was ordained minister in the Church of England, and soon became private chaplain in the family of a nobleman, and in this service he spent some years in travel on the continent. He then became minister of a modest parish in Yorkshire, near to Richmond, where he soon formed an intimate friendship with Archdeacon Blackburne, with whose views he had much in common. After three years he was persuaded by friends to accept a parish in Dorsetshire, where he proved a most faithful and devoted minister to the members of his flock.

He stayed there seven years, giving himself much to the study of Scripture and its doctrines, and in consequence came to entertain serious doubts as to the rightfulness of offering to Christ the worship which the liturgy required, He even thought seriously of resigning from his ministry altogether; but he was reluctant to abandon his chosen life work, and to take such an almost unprecedented step; and as he knew that many others who believed as he did remained in the Church, he made the usual excuses to himself, and managed for a time to quiet his conscience by explaining the doctrine of the Trinity in the way then common.

Meantime he married the Stepdaughter of Blackburne; but though he was offered a place in Ireland which would no doubt soon have led him to a bishopric, he declined the honor, and instead chose to go where the scenes and the people were dear to them both. He accordingly returned to Yorkshire in 1763 and settled over the parish of Catterick.

His new post gave him a smaller salary than the one he had left, but a greater opportunity of doing good; for there was a large number of poor people in it. He took up his new work with such enthusiasm that people said he had turned Methodist. He and his wife spent much of their time, and all the spare means that a most self-denying life afforded, in trying to improve the condition of the poor, and supplying them with nursing, medicine, food, and books, and so trying to make them feel the practical influence of the Christian religion. He devoted himself especially to young people, and in 1763 established one of the first Sunday schools in England for religious instruction.

Happy as he was in his work, however, one thing made Lindsey uneasy. He had been not a little troubled about subscribing the Articles when he settled at Catterick, and had determined that he would never subscribe again, but would stay there for the rest of his life. But he was far more troubled that whenever he used the Prayer Book he had to offer worship to Christ and the Holy Spirit, instead of to God alone as the Bible taught. While in this state of mind he had the fortune to spend several days at Blackburne’s house in the company of two non-subscribing Presbyterian ministers. One of these was Dr. Priestley, who had already become a convinced Unitarian, and was minister at Leeds, and was destined later to be recognized along with Lindsey as one of the two founders of the Unitarian Church in England. Lindsey told him how uneasy he felt, and that he had thoughts of resigning his charge. Priestley advised him to stay where he was, try to make the church broader, and alter the things in the Prayer Book which troubled him, waiting for the bishop to turn him out if he chose. But Lindsey remembered that he had solemnly promised to use the liturgy as it was, and whenever he remembered that Robertson had resigned for a similar reason, he felt reproached of conscience. He threw himself more deeply than ever into his work among the poor, and into the preaching of practical sermons, and made no secret of his views, but all to no purpose.

It was at this time that the Feathers’ Tavern movement took place. Though Lindsey had little expectation that anything would come of it, he grasped at it as one last straw, and went into the movement with great earnestness. Two thousand miles he traveled through snow and rain that winter trying to get signatures to the petition. He met with lukewarmness, timidity, even with abuse; but he got few signatures. Stimulated by the example of Robertson, and of the ejected clergy of a century before, he determined that if the petition failed he would resign. It failed, as we have seen; and without waiting for the attempt to be renewed he prepared to take the critical step. He had first to see his parishioners through a severe epidemic of smallpox which afflicted many of them. Then he took Blackburne and other friends into his confidence, hardly one of whom but tried to dissuade him; but he was unshakable. At length, after preparing for publication a full and careful Apology for Resigning the Vicarage of Catterick, he wrote a tender and affectionate Farewell Address to his people, preached his last sermon to them, and at the beginning of winter “went out, not knowing whither he went.” He had laid up nothing for a rainy day, having spent all his surplus on the poor of his parish; and after selling all but the most precious of his worldly possessions he had but 50 to face the world with, and an income of only 20 a year in sight.

It will be hard for us to realize what it can have meant for a man of fifty, frail in health, thus to give up his comfortable living and face a totally unknown future. Most of his former friends now fell away from him and treated him coldly, as either a traitor to religion or else a visionary fool. The Feathers’ Tavern petitioners protested that his resignation would ruin their cause. So strained became relations with Archdeacon Blackburne that for several years he refused to see the Lindseys. Hardly one of his friends offered him any help in his time of need, though one of her wealthy relations offered to provide for Mrs. Lindsey, if she would abandon her husband. Such a proposal she indignantly rejected, for she fully sympathized with him, and was ready without complaint to bear any sacrifices that might come. Outside the Church friends were kinder. One of them offered to recommend him to a very influential Dissenting congregation at Liverpool. Another offered him an opening to teach in a Dissenting academy. A third offered him a handsome salary as librarian. All these offers he declined because he had planned, if possible, to gather in London a congregation of others like himself (he was confident there must be a great many of them), who loved the worship of the Church of England, but wished to see important changes made in its liturgy.

On his way up to London Lindsey visited several friends, and at the house of one of them he saw the alterations which Dr. Clarke had proposed in the liturgy.5 This gave him light, and he copied them that he might publish a reformed Prayer Book for the use of his new congregation. Arrived at London, Lindsey took humble lodgings in two scantily furnished rooms, where he soon fell into such want that the family plate had to be sold to pay for food and lodging. On the other hand he enjoyed such peace from a good conscience as he had not known for years, and he began to draw up his reformed liturgy. Friends soon found him out, learned of his plan, and encouraged him in it. Unexpectedly few, indeed, from the Church of England; but there was Dr. Priestley, who was now a celebrated man and had influential connections, and Dr. Price also prominent among the liberal Dissenters. These and others helped to raise funds, a vacant auction-room in Essex Street was rented and fitted up for worship, and on April 17, 1774, was opened the Essex Street Chapel, the first place in England that came to anything, which was avowedly intended for the worship of God on Unitarian principles.6  Firmin’s plan7 was at length realized in a way, although Lindsey was disappointed to find that very few adherents of his movement, and only one gift for it, came from members of the Church; nor did many follow his example in resigning from its ministry. About a dozen clergymen resigned within a few years, but only two or three of these took up the Unitarian ministry, and only an occasional one has done so down to this day.

Officers of the government were suspicious of the new chapel, and there was delay in getting it legally registered as a place of worship. Not only was it still against the law to deny the Trinity, but political radicalism was feared, and for several Sundays an agent of the government was present to report whether the law were violated. He found nothing to complain of. Lindsey declared his intention not to engage in religious controversy; and the worship was much like that of the Church of England, save that the minister wore no surplice, and that the revised Prayer Book made many doctrinal omissions and some other changes. At the first service about two hundred were present, including one lord, several clergy of the Church of England, Dr. Priestley, and Dr. Benjamin Franklin, who was then in London in the interest of the American colonies, and was a regular attendant until he returned home. The congregations grew, and in them were found members of the nobility, members of Parliament, men prominent in public life, well-known scientists, and people of wealth who were generous to the cause. In fact, malicious tongues set afloat the rumor that Lindsey had resigned from Catterick with pecuniary ends in view! The chapel became too small to hold those that came, so that after four years the premises were bought and a new chapel and minister’s dwelling were built.8

From now on all went smoothly. As his work grew and his age increased, Lindsey sought a colleague. It was some years before one could be found; but in 1793 Dr. Disney, who had married another daughter of Archdeacon Blackburne, and had also been one of the Feathers’ Tavern Association, withdrew from the Church and came to assist Lindsey at Essex Street Chapel. Lindsey had already published several writings since coming to London; for he had found himself forced to break his original resolution as to religious controversy, and to answer attacks and argue in defense of the beliefs he held. Now that he had a colleague he gave himself more than ever to writing. One of the most important of his later works was his Historical View of Unitarianism (1783), which helped his followers to realize that instead of being a new and insignificant sect, they were part of a movement nearly as old as Protestantism, which had had distinguished adherents in half a dozen countries for two centuries and a half. He also wrote a defense of his dear friend, Dr. Priestley, who was now being bitterly attacked, as well as two books on the true belief about Christ, the prevalent worship of whom he boldly attacked as no better than “Christian idolatry.” He steadily grew clearer and firmer in his departure from orthodoxy, not a little influenced in this by the fearless attitude of Dr. Priestley. At seventy, though still in full vigor, he realized that his public work must be nearly done, and therefore resigned his pulpit, which he would never consent to enter again.

Lindsey lived fifteen years after his retirement, in a serene and very happy old age. He published one more book, showing his deep faith in the universal goodness of God, and was always ready with his counsel and with material aid for the cause he loved. He was a moving spirit in the first two societies which were the beginning of organized Unitarianism in England, and before he died he had the happiness of knowing that his views had spread widely in the British Isles and in France, and that the oldest Episcopal church in New England (King’s Chapel, Boston) had followed his example and revised its Prayer Book after the pattern of Dr. Clarke.

Lindsey was not a popular preacher who drew great crowds, but his sincerity and earnestness, his rare strength of character, and his unselfishness deeply impressed those that knew him. Though he lived at a period when they were uppermost in most minds, he would not discuss political questions in his pulpit; but outside it he took an active part in working for broader civil and religious liberty, and against slavery. Like his friends, Dr. Priestley and Dr. Price,9 he was very liberal in politics, and warmly sympathized with the American colonies (as did the Dissenters almost universally), and with the French Revolution in its early days as an uprising against despotic tyranny. His influence on the development of the Unitarian movement, though much more quiet than Priestley’s, was very great. As we have seen, it did not much affect the Church of England, and in this his hopes were disappointed; for those who should have followed his example preferred, when the pinch came, to stay where they were, whatever it might cost them in twinges of conscience. But to some of the liberal Dissenters, who had gradually drifted into Unitarian views without ever having confessed the Unitarian name, and who thus occupied an equivocal position, his bold, uncompromising, and successful example gave the courage of their convictions. Encouraged also by the advice of their acknowledged leader, Priestley, they now began openly to adopt the Unitarian name, until not long after Lindsey’s death nearly a score of these churches could be numbered, and their organization into one body went steadily on. We must now turn to see how these churches were led in this definite direction by Priestley.

Back Next
Click here to open the frame set built to read this document.
Text taken from a 1925 original copy of Earl Morse Wilbur's Our Unitarian Heritage.
Copyright released by Wilbur's grandchildren.
For comments of technical support, e-mail  the Webmaster at [ webmaster at pacificuu dot org ].