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 This legislation was rescinded in 1828.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.