Reformation of the 16th century

The roots of the Unitarian movement lie mainly in the reformation of the 16th century. At that time people in many countries across Europe began to claim the right to read and interpret the bible for themselves, to have a direct relationship with God without the mediation of priest or church, and to set their own conscience against the claims of religious institutions.

During this time Protestant Christians separated from the Church of England and became known as Dissenters or Non-Conformists. A dissenter (from the Latin dissentire, “to disagree”) is one who disagrees in matters of opinion, belief, etc. English Dissenters / Non-Conformists opposed state interference in religious matters, and founded their own churches, educational establishments, and communities.

After the restoration of the monarchy following the English Civil War in 1660, Charles the 2nd and the newly formed parliament carried out a number of measures which directly affected people’s ability to take a differing view from the crown and government in regard to religion.
Although Charles the 2nd had promised religious toleration in areas where it did not disturb the peace of the kingdom parliament chose to interpret the threat of peace to the kingdom to include the holding of public office by non-Anglicans or Non-Conformists.

Anglicans dominated Parliament at this time and they became convinced that Non-Conformists were social revolutionaries. The ‘proof’ they gave for this came from a failed London rebellion of the Fifth Monarchy Men in January 1661. The Fifth Monarchy Men were a group of Non-Conformists who were only active between 1649 and 1661. Although they were considered an extreme Puritan sect this one group was used as an example that all Non-Conformists would cause social revolution and upheaval. Between 1660 and 1665 Parliament therefore passed four statutes that became known as the Clarendon Code.

The Clarendon Code

These acts of parliament severely limited the rights of Catholics and Non-Conformists, who parliament saw as a threat to their position and power.

The Corporation Act (1661) which required all municipal officials to take Anglican communion. The effect of this act was to exclude Non-Conformists from public office. This legislation was rescinded in 1828.

The Act of Uniformity (1662) which made use of the Book of Common Prayer compulsory in religious service. The Book of Common Prayer is a short title for a number of prayer books which instruct the structure and form of how Anglican religious services should be performed. Over two thousand clergy refused to comply and so were forced to resign their post and livings (known as the Great Ejection). The provisions of the act were modified by the Act of Uniformity Amendment Act, of 1872.

The Conventicle Act (1664) which forbade conventicles (a meeting for unauthorised worship) of more than five people who were not members of the same household. The purpose was to prevent Non-Conformist religious groups from meeting.

The Five Mile Act (1665) which forbade Non-Conformists ministers from coming within five miles of incorporated towns or the place of their former livings (where they may have lived and preached before resigning due to the previous acts). They were also forbidden to teach in schools. Most of the Act’s effects were repealed by 1689, but it was not formally abolished until 1812.

The desired effect of these acts was to restrict the development and spread of religion that did not conform to the views of the monarch and parliament. Those who questioned doctrine or wished to explore their own faith and would not conform to these acts and particularly the Act of Uniformity faced persecution and harassment. They also experienced social exclusion from holding positions of power, being able to attend Universities or teach others.

Even with these acts and restrictions there were still those who sought to explore their faith and religion.

1689 Act of Toleration

The Toleration Act 1689, also referred to as the Act of Toleration, was an Act of the Parliament of England, which removed some restriction of The Act of Uniformity (1662). The Act allowed freedom of worship to Non-Conformists who would conform to certain conditions:

They must pledge to the oath of Allegiance (a promise to be loyal to the British monarch).

They must pledge to the oath of Supremacy (swear allegiance to the British monarch as Supreme Governor of the Church of England).

They must reject the idea of transubstantiation (the change of substance by which the bread and wine offered in the sacrifice of the sacrament of the Eucharist during the Catholic Mass, become, in reality, the body and blood of Jesus Christ).

They must accept Trinitarian doctrine (the belief that God is three distinct Persons — the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).

This meant that Protestants who dissented from the Church of England such as Baptists and Congregationalists would have the restrictions of The Act of Uniformity removed, however Catholics and Unitarians were exempt from this act. Unitarians because they did not believe in the Trinitarian doctrine.
Nonconformists who were included in the act were at last allowed their own places of worship and their own teachers, as long as they accepted the oaths of allegiance. However, they were still required to register their meeting locations and were forbidden from meeting in private homes. Any preacher who was labelled a Non-Conformist had to be licensed by the government to preach.

It seems that Unitarians were more quietly accepted after the Act was passed as they were no longer actively pursued by the courts, but they were still criminal according to law and experienced social exclusion, being prevented from holding political office or attending universities. They also still had no right to assemble, pray or practice their religion.

The Toleration Act marked the beginning of a lengthy process towards conceding full civil rights to people outside the Anglican Church but it would still be a further 124 years before Unitarians were legally granted this right.

Doctrine of the Trinity Act 1813

The Doctrine of the Trinity Act 1813 was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. The Act removed the legal requirement for people to believe in the Trinitarian doctrine and granted toleration for Unitarian worship. As seen previously the Toleration Act of 1688 had only granted toleration to those Non-Conformists who accepted a number of conditions, one of which being the belief in the Trinitarian doctrine which Unitarians did not.
From this point Unitarians were now free to legally practice their religion without fear of persecution for doing so.

The start Unitarianism in England

Even though it was not legal to practice Unitarianism in England until 1813 many people continued to explore and grow the religion before this time. Read about a number of those people below.

When was Unitarianism first allowed in England?

Until the Doctrine of the Trinity Act was passed in 1813 it was illegal to be a practicing Unitarian within England.

Where are the British Unitarian headquarters?

The first Unitarian church in the UK was started by Theophilus Lindsey in 1774 at Essex Street, London and remains as the official headquarters of Unitarianism in Britain.

Who was John Biddle?

John Biddle, who has been called the father of Unitarianism in England, was a Gloucestershire tailor’s son, born at Wotton-under-Edge.

Outstandingly bright, he went to the local grammar school and then to Magdalen Hall, Oxford (now Hertford College), where he took his degree. He was a tutor at the college for a time before being appointed headmaster of a school in Gloucester in 1641. He believed in applying reason to religious questions, rather than accepting authority.

The school of which he was headmaster had links to Gloucester Cathedral, and since he was obliged to teach his pupils according to the Catechism of the Church of England (a series of fixed questions and answers used for instruction), he immersed himself in the study of the Bible. He concluded from his studies that the doctrine of the Trinity was not supported by the Bible, and set about publishing his own views on the nature of God and an individual’s relationship with God.

Biddle’s reservations and writings about the holy Trinity, the divinity of both Christ and the Holy Spirit came to the disapproving attention of Parliament, notably his writings titled ‘Twelve Arguments Drawn out of Scripture’.

He was imprisoned in Gloucester in 1645 for his views, but released on bail. He was imprisoned again by Parliament in 1646 and, in 1647. He was released on bail in 1648 before being imprisoned again later that year, where he remained until amnestied by the 1652 Act of Oblivion (This act was a general pardon for everyone who had committed crimes during the English Civil War 1642–1651).

In 1654-5 he was again in trouble with Parliament, which ordered his book, ‘A Two-fold Catechism’ seized. Instead of suppressing Biddle’s ideas Parliament’s actions against him actually drew attention to them. He was gathering some support amongst some in positions of power and in 1655 Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell personally saved him from execution by banishing him to the Scilly Isles.

Released in 1658, he presided over a small group of disciples who met regularly in London, but under Charles the 2nds regime he was sent to prison in 1662 and died there in September that year. He was still only 47 years old, but his influence lived on long afterwards through his disciples and reprints of his writings.

Although it is accepted that Unitarianism first began in Poland and Transylvania in the 1560s the ideas and works of John Biddle undoubtedly introduced it into English thought and 112 years after his death the first Unitarian congregation came into being in 1774 at Essex Chapel in London, founded by a former Church of England minister, Theophilus Lindsey.

Movement to Unitarianism

Whilst Unitarianism was against the law in England English readers were exposed to Unitarian views through Socinian books (a system of Christian doctrine that was based upon non Trinitarian belief) published in the Netherlands and in the writings of people like John Biddle. Although the Toleration Act of 1689 excluded Unitarians, advocates of Unitarian views appeared within the Church of England and among Non-Conformists. Gradually over the 18th century many groups of Presbyterian ministers and their congregations moved towards Unitarian views.

Theophilus Lindsey and the first Unitarian Chapel

Theophilus Lindsey was an English theologian and clergyman. Lindsey was a serious-minded and studious youth, and in due time entered St. John’s College, Cambridge, where he took his degrees with distinction, and became fellow in 1747.

After ordination he first became curate of a small chapel in London, but was soon chosen to be chaplain to the Duke of Somerset, for whose grandson he was for two years tutor and traveling companion on the Continent. Returning to England be became rector of a church at Kirkby Wiske in Yorkshire. Early in this period religious doubts began to stir in Lindsey’s mind. It was not now the question of subscription that troubled him, but anti-Trinitarian views and he was troubled in conscience about their inconsistency with the Anglican belief of the Holy Trinity.

Lindsey started to explore Unitarian viewpoints and was involved in petitioning parliament with the prayer that clergymen of the church and graduates of the universities might be relieved from the burden of subscribing to the defining statements of doctrines and practices of the Church of England, and “restored to their undoubted rights as Protestants of interpreting Scripture for themselves”.

After a number of petitions to parliament, which were all denied to even be received by parliament, seeing no prospect of obtaining within the church the relief which his conscience demanded, Lindsey resigned as a vicar.

When resigning Lindsey left a comfortable life with his then parish in Catterick, England, feeling that he could not continue offering worship to Christ and the Holy Spirit when he believed the Bible taught worship of God alone.

Lindsey travelled to London and it was there in April 1774 that Lindsey began to conduct Unitarian services in a room in Essex Street, the Strand, London, where first a church (Essex Street Chapel), and afterwards the Unitarian offices were established. This site remains to this day the headquarters of Unitarianism in Britain.

Unitarianism today

Unitarianism in England later became organized by Thomas Belsham (who succeeded Theophilus Lindsey as minister at the Essex Street Chapel) and popularized by orators of the time such as Joseph Priestly (who was also an eminent scientist of the time who is credited with the discovery of oxygen).
In the early years of the movement (where Unitarianism was not yet legal until 1813), meeting houses were in quiet back streets; on the old maps they even appear as Presbyterian Meeting Houses. Until made a legal religion Unitarian churches in the UK were still attacked by orthodox Christians and members persecuted.

In the 19th century, James Martineau revolutionised 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. Denominational structures (meaning principles or accepted guidelines) were also developed during the 19th century, finally uniting in the present General Assembly in 1928.

In 1928 the British and Foreign Unitarian Association merged with the Sunday School Association, with which it had been sharing offices for decades, as the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches. The General Assembly is still the umbrella organisation for British Unitarianism.

In 2001 The General Assembly of the Unitarian and Free Christian Churches revised its objective to continue and support its progressive attitude in today’s society. The updated objective is for Unitarianism ‘To promote a free and inquiring religion through the worship of God and the celebration of life; the service of humanity and respect for all creation; and the upholding of the liberal Christian tradition’.

In 2015 the General Assembly began the 2020 Congregational Development Plan (2020). This plan seeks to make Unitarianism more visible and vibrant to the future generations, supporting this goal through the creation of new and substantially renewed (rekindled) congregations.