Monday 7 January 2008

Historical Liberalism Correspondence

Recently I was asked to look over a long piece of writing about the Leonard Chamberlain Trust in Hull, set up along with the Calvinist and English Presbyterian congregation (that dates itself back to 1672) that eventually became Unitarian - identifiably (by minister) just into the nineteenth century.

As well as a set of detailed page by page comments where necessary, I wrote a general overview, part of which is reproduced here:

...There is then the point you have made before, and make again, regarding Leonard Chamberlain and his potentially favourable view towards Unitarianism. You have no evidence for any of this. It is simply not possible to give motives to someone in one historical period according to some culture and ideology of which he has no expectation. No Puritan considered they were setting up a congregation for which they would approve of later Unitarianism. The two do not fit. The Presbyterians were unhappy independents, and Calvinists, the very opposite of what Unitarianism represents.

The burning of books during Puritan rule included those of the known Unitarian of the day, John Biddle...

Ariel Hessayon, «Incendiary texts: book burning in England, c.1640 – c.1660», Cromohs, 12 (2007): 1-25 < URL: >

In other words, the Puritans regarded Unitarianism/ Socinianism, in so far as it existed, with contempt and subjected it to book burning. Puritans denied the place of human reasoning to find God - it was all one way revelation and election. Robert Boyle met John Biddle - to tell him that he was in error. Biddle expressly denied predestination and original sin, both key concepts for Puritans.

Dr. John Owen (1616-1683) was a moderate (in terms of Calvinists) Presbyterian Puritan and he wrote against Socinianism. They all opposed it.

Now there is the argument that some Puritans wanted a wholly voluntary Church, and that they would have tolerated a pluralistic society. Even so, it does not make them Unitarians/ Socinians or even sympathetic.

Puritanism and Liberty Revisited: The Case for Toleration in the English Revolution, John Coffey, University College, London;jsessionid=B322078B7E3E527976A030DFE5859D2E.tomcat1?fromPage=online&aid=5433

Your claim that Chamberlain would approve Unitarianism is no more than special pleading from a Unitarian many phases of even Unitarian evolution later.

It is more complex than that because we need to know what Unitarianism is, and of course the Unitarianism of the first minister of that label in Hull, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, preached a Unitarianism very different from that of the end of the nineteenth century when Park Street was built - but you bounce around these historical periods without any reference to how these are both continuous and discontinuous. The first Unitarianism was biblical literalism that claimed no doctrine of the Trinity in the New Testament (as is the case), with miracles, resurrection, Christ the Son of God, the Holy Spirit, the lot. They combined this with an early scientism, and with numerology too in some cases. The Unitarianism towards the end of the nineteenth century used biblical criticism, revisited high culture, was philosophical, was moving towards individualism as the basis of faith, was influenced by Anglican liturgical change, and wider consistent architectural change, and incorporated doubt, and was not very denominationalist and sometimes anti (the first actual liberals were fiercely denominational and they believed that they were correct against all others).

The way to track this is that the Presbyterian Puritans fell out of power and out of Church. So they set up independently, like the Independents preferred, and were persecuted. They were Calvinists looking for signs of their election by God, a God who saved and damned. When they gained rights to assemble, they showed the same social restriction regarding the population as before - and yet this was now against the prevailing tide. They were confident that their Calvinism was upheld by the Bible alone, but after generations they were Arminian. In so far as these were predominantly one social class, they represented the pre-capitalist mercantilists of the time. Now the liberals come, as such, from outside religiously, as a renewal into the Presbyterian shells that were in decline. They are continuous in that they are the middle class of the liberalising capitalism that breaks out with the industrial revolution. It all happens after 1760. The first Unitarianism is in fact Arian, motivated by liturgical change and doctrinal questioning, and the principal names were gathered with the ex-Anglican who wanted an Anglican movement of Arians (called Unitarian) but ended up in the Presbyterian stream - this taking up the middle class social and political cause as had the middle class predecessors in the Arminian churches that had never bothered to set up presbyteries once they could have done.

So to connect Leonard Chamberlain with any phase in Unitarianism can only be done by what is known about social class, middle class marginalisation and their push towards religious and political reform and about liberty to worship at different points. The safest thing to say is that they are connected by unintended consequences, as no Puritan would have approved of Unitarianism at any stage of its development.

My own interest at present includes the histories of Unitarian affected Free Catholicism. There was the more well known and marginal Unitarian inspired movement of the Society of Free Catholics, headed by J. M. Lloyd Thomas, but earlier than this was the lesser known (in some circles) Ulric Vernon Herford who had two Unitarian ministries (one of the Herford Unitarian ministers clan), who then set up a semi-detached liberal Catholic monastic church in Oxford, and then became a bishop in the Apostle Thomas line of consecrations that came through India - from him come lines of many consecrations of Independent Sacramental Ministries to this day. The idea that Unitarianism could produce such Catholic movements (affected by a combination of Martineau and the Oxford Movement in the C of E) would have had Puritans in utter revolt - the Book of Common Prayer was bad enough but anything so clearly like papacy would have sent them into spasms of anger and opposition.

I received this reply today, part of which is reproduced. It contains a proposition, but I'm half reluctant given the material already placed online. Received 7 January 2008.

Hi Adrian

Many thanks for your observations and discussion relating to the document on the history of the Leonard Chamberlain Trust.

I accept that the argument that Leonard Chamberlain might have become a Unitarian is pure supposition and have deleted it and added other suggested pieces to the text too.


You have obviously taken a great deal of time in detailing your theological points and I much appreciate this. However, I think you are much better qualified to write the history of the Unitarian movement and its progression from Puritanism. Have you thought about writing a booklet on the subject because from my knowledge there is nothing in the Unitarian publications which gives the development outlined in your reply?

If you think of doing this I can approach the trustees to see if they would be willing to fund a limited printing...


Of course looking online at past resources raises the big one about the presentation. Why on earth did I do it like that?

7 January 2008 reply:

There was already this, on my website:

The last four paragraphs are out of date now - in that there are now present developments of division in the Anglican Communion. How this comes back into the UK will probably develop a future pattern for some liberals. Assuming that the Global Anglican Communion (call it that before it does) has some success as a minority communion, then it could force the Church of England to tighten up for a short while as it competes against loss of conservative evangelicals and then relax off as the balance towards the liberals in the Canterbury Communion improves.

This was taken from documents, a long time ago:

There was, I note, a little updating to that and needs it again.

Then there was the sermon:

I mean, all this has been done already, and whilst it is possible to co-ordinate this into some sort of booklet, there isn't any more in the way of theology to add, I don't think. I was constantly weaving (and it is a tricky thing to do) between local changes and known national movements in Unitarianism. One thing that I did realise was how the Hull congregation moved between denominationalist and Free Christian tendencies in Unitarianism - oddly enough the Ernest Penn period was a curious mixture of universalist theology and denominationalist commitment.

One thing pretty obvious to me here is that these webpages need re-presenting, tidying up and the like. The table format of Unitarian developments in Hull is good, but it's hard to read some of this.

By the way, when I produced typed versions for MP of some of Ernest's sermons, I did of course upload them. I have now got back the material on Wesley's grandfather that I took to Epworth [the Museum], but haven't returned it yet, and there is one more sermon I haven't transcribed that I'd misplaced in my moving papers around. It's all back together now but it is a case of doing that as well.

If you scroll down here you'll see the four that I have done.

Funnily enough I was about to blog on this old book I have of Charles Beard and the Hibbert Lectures, when Darwin's Origin of Species was 25 years earlier. That is so good for showing the evolutionist liberalism of the time, applied to so much as indeed the book says.


One thing I am trying to do is build up a resource of understanding liberalism in religion, particularly in the need for some robust identities in the current institutional religious climate.

Best wishes to you and yours, and for the Hull congregation.

The problem with keeping a website is that even if nothing falls out of date, it still needs maintenance, and the website is now well over 1860 pages, and some of these were added when there were few pages.

No comments: