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Unitarian History

The word Unitarian first appeared in Britain in 1673. Protest against the Trinity arose as soon as this view of the Christian God became a creed in the early centuries of the Church. However it was the upheaval created by the Reformation which made Unitarian thinking into a movement in Italy, Poland and Transylvania (modern Romania and Hungary). Apart from Transylvania it went under the name of Socinianism, after one of its early leaders, Faustus Socinus, a 16th century Italian. Many who insisted on maintaining radical religious views suffered persecution and even death, like Michael Servetus, a Spanish doctor, burnt at the stake in 1553.

The Unitarian approach to looking at God as one became widespread in the Church of England in the 17th century. John Biddle, a Gloucester school-master often called the father of English Unitarianism, wrote and spoke extensively on his views and died in prison in 1662. Samuel Clarke, Rector of St James' Piccadilly, came under severe censure when his book, The Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity, appeared in 1712 in which he argued that supreme honour should be given only to God, the Father.

For the rest of the century Unitarianism spread, not only in the Church of England but most significantly amongst the dissenters from the Established Church, later known as nonconformists. They refused to accept Anglican practice though their churches had hitherto been orthodox in theology. It was then that Unitarian thinking in this country began to express itself in a church organisation. Some English Presbyterians, whose churches were amongst the oldest in dissent, adopted Unitarianism in the second half of the 18th century, to be followed by the old General Baptists, whose Assembly had been formed in 1653. Not that it was called Unitarianism, as this belief was specifically proscribed by the Toleration Act of 1689; Unitarianism did not become legal until 1813. The term applied to erstwhile Unitarians at this time was Rational Dissenters.

Joseph Priestley Joseph Priestley, the famous scientist and discoverer of oxygen, was the organiser of modern Unitarianism although not before Theophilus Lindsey, Vicar of Catterick, Yorkshire, left the Church of England to found the first avowed Unitarian congregation in Essex Street, near the Strand in London in 1774. The site remains to this day the headquarters of Unitarianism in Britain. It is from the late 18th century that modern Unitarianism can be said to date. A capital U has been used here for consistency but a lower case letter is more appropriate before this time when it was more a way of thinking, an approach to religious questions than a church organisation.

Unitarianism has always been a reform movement both in religion and in politics. Its opposition to the state church was not popular in Britain, nor was its support for the principles of the French Revolution. These affirmations led to renewed persecution in the 1790s which disappeared with the arrival of the nineteenth century, the age of confidence and influence for Unitarianism with its strong belief in individual liberty.

James Martineau In America, Unitarianism was a growing force in New England in the late 18th century, where it had evolved out of Congregationalism. The USA was to provide the most potent exemplars of Unitarian thinking and leadership in the first half of the 19th century.

In Britain, James Martineau revolutionalised the sterile thinking associated with traditional Unitarian reliance on Biblical texts, taking it forward to a new faith based on reason and the enlightened conscience. Unitarian churches were still attacked by orthodox Christians. Long running legal disputes centring on the illegality of Unitarian belief before 1813 nearly deprived Unitarians of most of their older chapels in the 1840s. However, for the first time ever, the government came to their aid and passed the Dissenters' Chapels Act of 1844 which secured the right of Unitarians to ownership of these buildings

Elizabeth Gaskell Unitarianism was possibly the only church organisation within the 19th century Christian fold not blown off course by the Darwinian revolution; indeed the movement embraced the new thought, as it has, in the main, subsequent scientific advances. It has consistently placed emphasis on the intellect, and Unitarians have included, for example Elizabeth Gaskell, the author, and Thomas Cogan, joint founder of the Royal Humane Society. In the 20th century Sir Adrian Boult the conductor, and C. Killick Millard, the founder of the Euthanasia Society, were Unitarians. In more recent times Unitarianism attracted Lancelot Ware, the founder of Mensa, and Tim Berners-Lee, the pioneer of the World Wide Web.

Alan Ruston

For a recent general and accessible history of the Unitarian movement in Europe, Great Britain and America see "The Unitarians: A Short History" by Leonard Smith, former principal of the Unitarian College, Manchester and available from Blackstone Editons. www.blackstoneeditions.com/titles.php#UU

For more information on the history of The General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches please click here

For more information on the history the Unitarian Headquarters (Essex Hall) please click here

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