English Unitarianism in the Nineteenth Century


    Although our story of the Unitarian movement in England has already covered more than a century and a half since its first definite beginnings with Bidle, it has not yet reached any organized body of Unitarian churches. It has been a story on the one hand of a struggle for life in face of constant danger of oppression by the laws of the land, and of bitter opposition in the religious circles of both churchmen and Dissenters; and on the other hand of the steady deepening of a clear religious conviction that would not be crushed by oppression nor driven from the field by opposition. The nineteenth century brings us a happier story, in which we find the old persecuting laws against Unitarians abolished, civil rights won by them after long struggle, religious opposition to them losing much of its bitterness, and the movement becoming organized for effective service as a recognized part of the religious life of England.

Three leaders stand out above all others in bringing this organization about. In the last two chapters we have spoken of two of these, of whom Priestley came from the liberal Dissenters, and Lindsey from the Church of England. The third member of the triumvirate came from yet a third source, the orthodox Dissenters, and was the first of them to resign an important position for conscience’ sake and join the Unitarians. His name was Thomas Belsham, and his great work was to lead in organizing the disunited Unitarian congregations into a denomination that could act effectively for its cause, and to continue Priestley’s work as the organizer of its thought, its public spokesman, and its champion against attacks.

Belsham was born at Bedford in 1750, the son of a Dissenting minister, and being designed for the ministry he was sent for his education to the academy at Daventry, where Priestley had studied a generation before him. In due time he entered the Independent (Congregational) ministry, but although preaching more or less he was for nearly twenty years chiefly occupied as teacher in the academy. He was earnestly orthodox, though open-minded, examining both sides of questions and encouraging his pupils to do the same. So it came to pass that he first drifted from strict Trinitarianism to the Arian views of Dr. Clarke, and later while studying Unitarian writings with the purpose of confuting them, felt driven to accept Unitarianism himself, and adopted views much the same as those of Priestley. He therefore resigned his very important position as principal of the academy in 1789 and confessed his views at a time when, as he said, “a Socinian is still a sort of monster in the world.”

Lindsey’s resignation had had only a limited effect among the Dissenters, but the example of Belsham, who had been held in great honor among them, had much influence in encouraging them frankly to profess their liberal beliefs. Although he had resigned without other prospects in view, he was soon chosen teacher in the Unitarian academy at Hackney, where he was happy in intimate association with Lindsey, and later with Priestley; and when Priestley removed to America, Belsham succeeded him as one of the ministers of the Unitarian church. At length in 1805, upon the resignation of Dr. Disney, who had succeeded Lindsey at Essex Street Chapel, Belsham was called to that important pulpit. Here he preached until his death in 1829, winning great popularity and fame as a powerful preacher both on theology and on questions of the day, so that he soon came to be regarded, from both his abilities and his position, as the leader of those holding Unitarian views.

A timid attempt had been made as early as 1783 to get the Unitarians to act together through a Society for Promoting Knowledge of the Scriptures, though it never flourished, and it accomplished nothing more than to publish a liberal commentary; but the society was not denominational, for there was as yet no denomination for it to belong to. Belsham, however, earnest with the zeal of a fresh convert, proposed that some positive action be now taken to organize the scattered liberal forces for spreading Unitarian views. He was heartily seconded by Lindsey and Priestley, and thus in 1791 was formed the Unitarian Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge and the Practice of Virtue by the Distribution of Books (briefly called the Unitarian Society, or Unitarian Book Society). Belsham was not willing that the publications of the society should give any uncertain sound, and as he regarded the worship of Christ as sheer idolatry he drew up the constitution so as expressly to exclude Arians from membership. Some of them objected to this provision, but the result of this and other causes was that within a generation Arianism was pretty well eliminated from the Unitarian movement. The Arians had never organized as such, and from now on, though some of them went back to orthodoxy, more and more of them accepted the strictly Unitarian views of Priestley and Belsham, until worship of Christ finally disappeared among the Unitarians.

This Unitarian Society of London proved so successful that it was soon followed by similar ones in each of the four quarters of the kingdom, and these in turn by many local tract societies. These all had an important influence in drawing the scattered liberal Presbyterian and General Baptist churches together in a common effort and sympathy, and in encouraging them to take the Unitarian name and support the Unitarian cause. It gave them the confidence and sense of united strength that is inspired by a common standard; and this had indeed become quite necessary for self-preservation in face of orthodox opposition. Many important books and tracts were published and circulated, especially by the Book Society. Most noted among these was an Improved Version of the New Testament (1808). In this work Belsham took the leading part. It made many corrections in the text, and anticipated many of the changes later made in the Revised Version. It was accompanied by many notes on points involved in the Unitarian controversy, and although it was most bitterly attacked by the orthodox it long served the Unitarians as an arsenal of scripture weapons.

Many Unitarians of the day shrank from active public efforts for their cause for fear lest laws still sleeping on the statute-books should be roused against them, and some of them therefore opposed even the founding of the Book Society. Many others felt that this organization would surely suffice, for when men once had the Unitarian argument in print and read it, orthodoxy must silently and surely be undermined within a few years. Converts came, but too slowly. Not all would read, and not all who read were converted. Many remained whom the printed books, sermons, tracts, and periodicals did not reach. It was seen that unless Unitarians were to rest content to have their lamp hidden under a bushel, personal missionary preaching needed to be done. One Richard Wright, a General Baptist preacher of humble origin, who had become converted to Unitarian views, had for fourteen years traveled about the north and east of England as a voluntary missionary of Unitarianism, and he found a ready hearing for his doctrine among the common people.

At about the same time David Eaton, a Baptist layman of York, made the great discovery of Unitarianism, and believed that instead of remaining merely on the defensive, Unitarians ought to be as aggressive and as zealous for spreading their gospel by popular preaching as were the orthodox. He began to do lay preaching himself, and continued to do so for many years, persistently agitating the while for the forming of a Unitarian missionary society. It was objected that the time was not ripe, that Unitarianism was not a religion for the common people, that orthodox opposition and perhaps even civil persecution would be stirred up, that lay preaching among the Methodists had run to scandalous excess and brought religion into ridicule. Lindsey, however, and some others sympathized with the idea, which gradually won approval; and after eight years of effort by Eaton there was founded in 1806 the Unitarian Fund for Promoting Unitarianism by means of Popular Preaching (briefly called the Unitarian Fund). It was designed to aid poor Unitarian congregations, to support Unitarian missionaries, and to assist ministers who had suffered on account of becoming Unitarians.

The missionary spirit now spread all over the country, and many local auxiliary societies were formed. Those who believed that Unitarianism would be acceptable only to the educated and wealthy of the upper classes discovered their serious mistake. Richard Wright was sent into the field as missionary, and for years he traveled on foot all over England and Scotland, undergoing much hardship, meeting many exciting adventures, preaching in kitchens, barns, marketplaces, or open fields, wherever he could get people together, like a Unitarian Wesley. He thus preached in every county and every large town in England and Scotland, and in many villages, won multitudes of converts, founded many Unitarian congregations of humble people, and strengthened many weak congregations already existing.

While Wright was spreading his message broadcast, a popular Methodist preacher in northeast Lancashire, Joseph Cooke, came to hold heretical views, and was therefore expelled from his church in 1806. He became the founder of Unitarian Methodism in that district, and about a dozen Unitarian Methodist churches resulted, which for some years had lay preachers and their own association, but at length were absorbed into the general Unitarian body under settled pastors.

The missionary wave also flowed north into Scotland. There had already been a liberal stir there in the second half of the eighteenth century, as Robert Burns reveals in his “Kirk’s Alarm,” but Presbyterianism was strictly organized there, and liberalism was held well in check. A Unitarian church was, however, founded in Edinburgh in 1776, and one at Montrose in 1782, and later one in Dundee, by the Rev. Thomas Fyshe Palmer, who also preached in various other towns. But the movement was cut short when Palmer, who had joined in an agitation for political reform, got caught in the backwash of political conservatism and was sentenced for sedition to seven years’ penal servitude at Botany Bay, whence returning home he was shipwrecked and perished on the way. In 1811, however, a strong permanent movement was established in Glasgow, and the first Unitarian church building in Scotland was erected.

The organization of the Unitarian Fund brought new spirit into the old churches, and by its successful missionary work soon surpassed the modest influence of the Book Society. Closed churches were reopened, weak ones were aided, more missionaries were sent into the field, and plans were made even for work in foreign lands. The results of these efforts were so widespread and the gains made were so rapid that whereas at the beginning of the century the Unitarians had been despised for their weakness, within less than twenty years they had become respected for their strength, and were viewed with alarm for the inroads they were making upon orthodoxy.

In all this new movement Belsham played an active part. He was an able organizer, and had an eloquent voice and a powerful pen. Though naturally disliking controversy, when he felt bound to go into it he showed himself a doughty antagonist, whose blows smarted and stung, and his biting sarcasm did not spare even a bishop who deserved it. His clear handling of questions in controversy with the Church of England did much to prevent defections to it from the Dissenting churches. He ably vindicated Priestley and Lindsey from attacks made on them after they were dead, and in his more than fifty published writings he clearly stated and powerfully defended the Unitarian doctrines. Unitarianism meant to him a very clear and definite thing: the belief in one God in one person only, who alone may be worshiped; and in Christ as in all respects a human being, whose miracles and resurrection prove him to be the chosen Messiah. Where timid Unitarians had hardly dared confess this belief, he proclaimed it boldly, and thus inspired them with boldness in standing by their convictions.

The open progress of Unitarianism at this period was not a little stimulated and encouraged in 1813 by the repeal of the part of the Blasphemy Act affecting them.1 This law, which had been on the statute book since 1698, making Unitarians liable to loss of civil rights and to imprisonment, had from the first been practically a dead letter, and the crown had of late forbidden prosecutions under it; yet there was always a haunting possibility that it might again be enforced. An unsuccessful attempt had been made to get it repealed in 1792, but that was too near the time of the Birmingham riots for any concessions to be made to liberal Dissenters. Now, however, the repeal was accomplished without opposition, under the leadership of William Smith (grandfather of Florence Nightingale), a stanch Unitarian who had long been the champion of the rights of Dissenters before Parliament.

Unitarians might now, after a century and a half, enjoy freedom of worship as a legal right, instead of having it merely winked at; but there were yet other rights to win before they had all those to which they should be entitled in a free country, and events soon showed them the need of carrying their struggle still further. For old laws still subjected them to various petty annoyances, and their property rights were endangered. The rapid progress they had made since the beginning of the century, and the vigorous speech of some of them in their attacks upon the orthodox system, had roused among some of the orthodox a spirit of intense antagonism against them, which only waited for an opportunity to make reprisals.

The first clear sign of trouble from this quarter was shown at Wolverhampton, near Birmingham. The Presbyterian church which had existed there since late in the seventeenth century had, like so many others, gradually grown liberal, and was now frankly Unitarian, though still occupying the chapel built by an orthodox generation. In 1816 its minister announced that he bad become a Trinitarian, whereupon an attempt was made to force his resignation. Much bitterness of feeling and action developed both for and against him. The orthodox took his part, and the next year went into court and sought to get the church property taken out of the hands of the Unitarians, on the ground that it had been intended only for orthodox worship. The suit was stubbornly fought on both sides and dragged on for many years; for it was realized that if the Unitarians lost this chapel they might also lose the greater number of all they occupied. Indeed, there were rumors of proceedings to this end being already started in various places.

Their previous organizations had had only missionary ends in view; but it was now seen by the Unitarians that they must organize to defend their common interests at law. Hence in 1819 was founded yet another society, the Association for the Protection of the Civil Rights of Unitarians. This was designed not only to defend their property rights but in various other ways to secure for them fuller civil rights; for there still seemed to be a possibility that bigots might have them prosecuted under the common law for blasphemy; while the Test and Corporation Acts still made it illegal for any Dissenters to hold public office.2 Further grievances were that marriage might be performed only by clergymen of the Established Church; births, marriages, and deaths might be legally recorded only in the parish registers of that church; Dissenters might not be buried in parish cemeteries except with the service of the Established Church; and they were excluded from the universities and were taxed to support the Established Church.

Although the Unitarians had long taken the lead in defending the public interests of the Dissenters, there were signs that from the orthodox they might now expect opposition rather than support of their own claims, so that they must needs act independently in their own behalf. The struggle for full equality of rights was long and hard fought. That for repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts lasted for over ninety years, and it was not until the fifth attempt in Parliament that they were finally repealed in 1828. The other rights were then secured one after another until last of all in 1871 all tests for degrees or fellowship were abolished at the universities.

In time it came to be realized that the common interests of Unitarians could be promoted by a single comprehensive organization better than by several separate ones, and such an organization was urged from 1819 on, until at length in 1825 was formed the British and Foreign Unitarian Association, which at once, absorbed the Civil Rights Association and the Unitarian Fund, and a year later the Book Society. From this time on, English Unitarianism, now efficiently organized, entered upon more effective work and greater activity as a denomination. Missionary enterprises were pushed with increased vigor. The Rev. George Harris during twenty years carried on an aggressive mission in the north of England and in Scotland. In Glasgow he drew immense audiences and won great prominence for the Unitarian faith, while elsewhere in Scotland he had over forty preaching stations, and was known by the orthodox as “the Devil’s chaplain.” Foreign work was also undertaken. Communication had already been established in 1822 with the Unitarians of Transylvania,3 and it has been kept up to this day. Churches were organized at Gibraltar (1830) and at Paris (1831), and a missionary sent to India (1831) established a church and school at Madras.

Such aggressive life aroused orthodox hostility at home, and bitter attacks were made on the Unitarians, and resulted in some notable controversies, in which the Unitarians generally acted on the defensive, replying to attacks made on them, appealing to Scripture for support of their doctrine, and trying as far as possible to keep the discussion within the bounds of courtesy. Great public interest was taken in some of these discussions, which took place in various parts of the country. Thus Belsham in London had maintained the Unitarian doctrine of Christ; Dr. Lant Carpenter at Bristol had defended the Unitarian doctrine of the atonement and the Improved Version (1820) against the unfair attacks of Dr. (later Archbishop) Magee; the Rev. James Yates at Glasgow had defended Unitarianism (1815—1817) against the attacks of the Rev. Ralph Wardlaw in a controversy which filled four or five volumes; the Rev. John Scott Porter held at Belfast (1834) a four days’ public debate on Unitarianism with the Rev. Dr. Bagot; while the three Unitarian ministers at Liverpool in thirteen sermons ably defended their doctrines against the massed attack made on them by thirteen clergymen of the Church of England (1839). These controversies indicate how dangerous the orthodox thought Unitarianism was becoming, and they not only won some Unitarian converts, but did yet more to rally the Unitarians themselves to their cause, and to confirm them in their faith.

The most serious of these controversies in its results upon the Unitarian movement was one which arose at Manchester in 1824. At a public dinner of the Unitarian congregation one of the speakers made some remarks upon orthodoxy which were reported in the newspaper and were indignantly resented by the orthodox, who at length determined to retaliate in a way that would not easily be forgotten. Ever since the beginning of the Wolverhampton Chapel case they had been casting envious eyes on the Unitarian properties, and waiting for the time to come when these might be seized by process of law. Sectarian zeal now stirred them up to carry out their design, in a law case which became very famous.

One Dame Sarah Hewley of the Presbyterian congregation at York had in 1704 and later left certain trust funds to found charities for “poor and godly preachers of Christ’s holy gospel” and others. As the Presbyterian churches grew more liberal these funds had gradually drifted into the hands of Unitarian trustees, and the income had to a considerable degree been used for the support of Unitarian ministers. The Independents now set about to get control of these funds, and in 1830 brought suit to have the Unitarian trustees removed, maintaining that Unitarians had no right to the use of the old Presbyterian properties, since these had been originally intended for orthodox use at a time when Unitarianism was illegal. The Unitarians maintained on the other hand that as no orthodox limitations had been specified none was intended. The case was stubbornly fought, and appealed from court to court, the decisions running steadily against the Unitarians, until finally it was decided by the House of Lords in 1842 that no trust might now be used for any purpose which was illegal at the time when the trust was established. The Unitarian trustees were therefore removed, and the trust was placed in the hands of trustees from the three orthodox Dissenting denominations.

The decision of the Lady Hewley case, as it was called, formed the most critical day in the history of English Unitarianism. The Wolverhampton Chapel case, which had been held back awaiting the decision of the Lady Hewley case, was now decided in accordance with it. The Unitarians lost their chapel there, but as it eventually fell into the hands of the Church of England, the orthodox Dissenters got no benefit of it.

While these cases were pending in England, similar litigation in Ireland had deprived the Unitarians of a chapel and a fund there; other suits were in progress, and there was danger that they might lose all their chapels in Ulster. No further suit had yet been brought in England, but as the orthodox had declared their intention of attacking all the old Presbyterian chapels and endowments, two or three hundred lawsuits were in prospect or talked of, and there was acute danger lest over two hundred chapels which the Unitarians had occupied for three or four generations, together with the churchyards where their dead were buried, and their schools and charitable funds, should be taken from them, and only a score or so of mostly small churches be left to them.

It was realized that no escape from their fate could be had except through a special act of Parliament. The government was therefore induced to bring in the “Dissenters’ Chapels Bill,” in 1844, which provided that congregations should henceforth remain undisturbed in the possession of chapels which they had occupied for twenty-five years. The bill was strenuously opposed and petitioned against by most of the Bishops, and by the Congregationalists, Methodists, and orthodox Baptists; but other petitions were made in favor of it, and it received the powerful support of the government of Sir Robert Peel, and of Lord John Russell, Lord Macaulay, and Gladstone, and was carried by about three to one, to the great indignation of its orthodox opponents.

The bitterly fought contests which had now dragged on through the courts for years so greatly aggravated any previous unfriendly feeling between Unitarians and orthodox that in 1836 all but one of the Unitarians, who for over a century had as Presbyterians belonged to the organization of Dissenting ministers in London, felt bound in self-respect to protest against the action of the orthodox majority by withdrawing from the union. Thus the last bond was severed that held together the three wings of the old Dissent.

This long struggle of nearly thirty years had so much absorbed the interest and the energies of the young denomination that its progress had been much slowed down for nearly a generation; yet some gains had been made, as when an influential group of liberal Presbyterian churches in Ireland joined the movement.4 And now the passage of the Dissenters’ Chapels Act opened the door for new hope, confidence, and zeal in the churches, which after a few years began to be shown in various ways; for from 1844 dates a new era. A new fund was raised to replace the lost Lady Hewley Fund; new missionary societies were founded; and although some small village churches were lost, many new congregations were established, especially in the large manufacturing towns of the north, and in London. Old congregations increased in size; new chapels were built and old ones repaired; churches were planted in the colonies; a new divinity school 5 was established; work was undertaken among the poor of the large cities. A second group of Methodists in the north of England joined the denomination, followers of the Rev. Joseph Barker, who in 1841 had been expelled from the Methodist New Connexion for heresy.

While these external struggles and changes were going on, the denomination was also ripening its inner spirit and settling its thought. Priestley and Belsham, who for half a century had led the thought and greatly influenced the religious life of the denomination, while men of deep and sincere personal religion themselves, were led to lay their greatest emphasis on matters of belief and on opposition to orthodoxy; and in consequence the cultivation of the religious feelings had been much neglected. Their religion seemed more of the head than of the heart, and many of the churches of their followers were deemed cold and unspiritual. This defect was early realized, and before the nineteenth century was a third gone the influence of Channing coming from America began to lead English Unitarians in another direction; while the subsiding of the controversy with orthodoxy soon after left the Unitarians more free than they had ever yet been to develop and nourish an independent religious life.

The leader in this change of spirit was James Martineau, 6 who began as a follower of Priestley, but after coming to give religion a different interpretation, was for forty-five years the teacher of many of the most influential ministers of the denomination and the molder of their thought. Under his guidance English Unitarians gave up their slavish reliance on texts of Scripture, and aimed first of all to have their beliefs reasonable; they ceased to attach importance to miracles, even if they continued to believe in them; and they came to regard Christ as wholly a man, and Arianism became practically extinct among them. Some regarded these changes with alarm, and in 1865 an attempt was made to set up a Unitarian creed to keep such developments from going further; but the attempt was defeated. In 1867 also Martineau attempted through a Free Christian Union to draw together liberal spirits in the various religious bodies; but the orthodox would have little to do with it, and it was short-lived. A like attempt made by some liberal Congregationalists at the Congregational Union meeting in 1871, to open the way for association between them and the Unitarians, was defeated by a large majority, and has not since been renewed.

Since the middle of the nineteenth century the history of English Unitarians has been one of wholesome and steady, though slow and uneventful progress. It has lost in some directions, but gained more in others. Minor organizations have grown up to supplement the work of the national Association, in most cases taking advantage of the experience of American organizations formed a few years earlier.

Unitarians have borne an influential and honorable part in the life of the nation. Far out of proportion to their numbers they have been represented in Parliament, and distinguished in liberal politics, social reform, philanthropies, education, science, and literature.7 Besides the burdens common to all Dissenters, they have had to bear the additional one of being opposed by all the orthodox Dissenters. If this double burden has somewhat retarded their progress, it has on the other hand intensified their loyalty to their cause. The beginning of the twentieth century found them consisting of about 360 churches in the British Isles, and about a dozen more in the colonies — a number since then somewhat increased. They have long since ceased to entertain their youthful hopes that within a generation or two all England must see the truth as they see it; but on the other hand it is realized more clearly than ever that they have a distinct contribution to make to the religious life of England, without which that life would be poorer. They are doing their part intelligently and earnestly, and they look forward to a future of steady growth and of ever greater usefulness to Christian civilization.



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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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