1902 Encyclopedia > Unitarianism


UNITARIANISM. The term Unitarianism in its widest sense includes certain lines of the great religious and theological movement or revolution of the Reformation in the 16th century, when this is regarded as the commencement of the process of the humanization of theology and ethics on the basis of the autonomy of the human mind. In another sense the term stands for a set of theological opinions, more or less variable, and yet in their general drift con-nected, some of them as old as Christianity, and one section of which only is indicated by the term when used as synonymous with Antitrinitarianism. But there is another meaning of the term, a still narrower one, and to Unitarianism in this sense this article must be confined. We must limit ourselves to a brief account of Unitarianism as it appears in ecclesiastical organizations in separation from the orthodox churches. This treatment of the sub-ject is of course incomplete, and would be misleading were the incompleteness not expressly announced. For a marked feature of the late history of the Unitarian churches is the growing tendency they exhibit of working out to their logical results some of the wider principles of the Reformation to which they ultimately owe their origin, rather than the design of formulating and propagating systems of theology. To not a few modern Unitarian leaders the bond which connects them with a specifically Unitarian organization is the spirit and tendency of the larger movement for which it happens to provide freer play than the orthodox churches, while they repudiate the im-putation of belonging to a dogmatic sect. Modern Uni-tarians have also, both in Europe and America, emphati-cally and successfully resisted the inclination of some of their number to lay down, though in the most general terms, a creed of Unitarianism. Indeed, in opposing this inclination, it might sometimes seem as if the only essen-tial article of Unitarianism were the maintenance of free inquiry in religion,—an impression, however, which a care-ful study of the history of Unitarian thought would remove. In the same way such a study would show that Unitarian churches are in agreement on many points of doctrine with early and recent theologians of all churches and sects.

This brief sketch of Unitarianism, as it has appeared in organized religious societies, takes us into but a few countries, and covers but a limited space of time. Poland, Transylvania, England, and America are the only countries in which Unitarian congregations have existed in any numbers or for any length of time. Elsewhere, either the law of the land has rendered their existence impossible, or they have been unnecessary in consequence of the substan-tial adoption by the existing churches of their principles and doctrines. The former was the case in Italy, Switzer-land, Germany, and England in the 16th and 17th centuries, the latter to a certain extent in England in the 18th cen-tury, still more in Germany in the 18th and 19th centuries, and in Holland in the present century, as also to a large extent in France in the Beformed Church.

Poland (1565-1658).—The Unitarians, under the names of Arians, Samosatenians, Pinczowdans, were formed into a separate church in 1565 by their exclusion as Antitrinitarians from the synods of the Trinitarian Protestants. Very early in the progress of the Reforma-tion in Poland individuals had arrived at heterodox opinions on baptism and the Trinity, very much under the influence of the heterodox Italian refugees in Switzerland, some of whom visited Poland (Lelio Sozzini, 1551 and 1558 ; Paul Aleiati, 1561 ; 6. V. Gentile, 1561 ; Biandrata, 1555). Gonesius and Gregory Pauli were the first to openly preach Antitrinitarian doctrine. After their separation from the orthodox, the Polish Unitarians developed divergent views as to the nature of Christ, as to the lawfulness of paying divine worship to Him, as to the subjects of baptism (infants or adults), and as to the relation of Christians to the state. On the first point some were Arians and others Humanitarians, while those who claimed divine worship for Christ were called Adorantes and those of the opposite view Nonadorantes. An epoch in the history of the party was made by the arrival of Fausto Sozzini at Cracow in 1579 (see SOCINUS). He succeeded in converting the great majority of the churches to his views and in silencing the dissentients. Henceforth the Polish Unitarians adopted the Socinian practice of paying worship to Christ, the Socinian view of the necessity of baptism and of the Christian's duty towards the state. They rapidly became a numerous and powerful body in Poland, distinguished by the rank of their adherents, the ability and learning of their scholars, the excellence of their schools, and the superiority and wide circulation of their theological literature. Racow, the theological centre of the Socinians, with its school and printing presses, obtained a world-wide fame. It was there that the Racovian Catechism was published (1605 in the Polish language, 1608 in German, and 1609 in Latin). But before the death of Fausto Sozzini (1604) the situation of the Unitarians became more difficult, and in 1611 the Jesuits obtained their first open triumph over them. In the rapid course of the Catholic reaction, which was not resisted by the orthodox Protestants as long as the Socinian heretics only suffered, the church and school at Lublin, the most importantplace next to Racow, were first put down (1627), and Racow, with its church, school, and printing-press suffered the same fate in 1638. The final blow to the whole body followed in 1658, when all adherents of "the Arian and Anabaptist sect" were commanded to quit the kingdom within two years. A few renounced their faith, but the large majority fled into Transylvania, Prussia, Silesia, Holland, and England.

Transylvania (1568-1887).—Next to Poland Transylvania was the most important seat of Unitarianism. It was there the name was first used by the sect as its own designation, and it is there only that the sect has had a continuous existence down to our own time. It is generally considered that the Italian refugee Biandrata was the founder of Transylvanian Unitarianism, but the present repre-sentatives of the body claim for it a nobler and domestic origin. Biandrata attended John Sigismund as a physician in 1563, and under his influence Unitarianism made rapid progress. In 1568 its professors, favoured by the king and many magnates, after separating from the orthodox church, constituted themselves a distinct body under the distinguished man Francis David, who is now regarded as the apostle of true Transylvanian Unitarianism. Their principal centre was Klausenburg (Kolozsvar), where they had a large church, a college, and a printing-press. But the same conflict between a more radical and a more conservative tendency which appeared amongst the Unitarians of Poland greatly disturbed the churches of Transylvania, particularly with regard to the worship of Christ. On the side of the Adorantes was Biandrata, and on that of the Nonadorantes David. The party of David succumbed to force and fraud, and he himself died in prison a martyr to his convictions. Gradually the Socinian view prevailed, though in 1618 an old order to worship Christ required reinforcement. In the latter half of the 18th century the more logical view of David entirely disappeared. Under the Austrian dynasty the Unitarians were often exposed to great trials, until Joseph II. secured to them their rights and privileges. An official confession of faith of the year 1787 remains, with some modifications, essentially Socinian. But of late years the Transylvanian Unitarians have been in close relation with their co-religionists in England and America, some of the ministers having been educated at Manchester New College, and in consequence their theology is becoming essentially modern. The number of members was 32,000 in 1789, in 1847 40,000, dis-tributed in 104 parishes wdth 120 pastors. Their present number is 53,539 in 106 parishes. Their chief centres are Kolozsvar, Thorda, and Keresztur, where they have excellent schools.

England (1773-1887).—For two and a half centuries previous to the rise of organized Unitarianism in England, opinions commonly called by this name found numerous individual advocates and some martyrs. John Bidle (1615-62) published catechisms of Unitarian doctrine, translated Socinian works, and publicly discussed and preached an English form of Socinianism. But the severity of the law against Antitrinitarians, coupled with the gradual growth of free opinion in the Established Church and amongst the Presby-terian congregations, made the formation of separate Unitarian churches impossible, and, as was felt, less necessary for another hundred years. The adoption of a completely Humanitarian view of Christ's person by a few solitary individuals (Lardner 1730, Priestley 1767, Lindsey 1773), assisted by the awakened earnest-ness of the time, led to their formation. Lindsey resigned a valu-able living in Yorkshire, and gathered the first professedly Uni-tarian church in London. Other clergymen followed his example, and amongst the Presbyterians several ministers, like Joseph Priestley, exchanged their Arian for Humanitarian views. This process went on wdth deep permanent effects in some of the Dissenting academies. In the year 1791 was formed the Unitarian Book Society for the distribution of literature, and several provincial associations originated about the same time. In 1806 the Unitarian Fund Society was established, with the object of promoting Unitarian Christianity by direct mission work. In 1818 arose another society for protecting the civil rights of Unitarians. These various societies were consolidated in 1825 under the name of the British and Foreign Unitarian Association, which has now its headquarters in the building formerly used as Lindsey's chapel and residence in Essex Street, London. Early in this century nearly the whole of the old Presbyterian congregations, which, unlike those of the Baptists and Independents, had undogmatic trust-deeds, passed through the stages of Arminianism and various forms of Arianism into Socinianism in its peculiar English and mainly Priestleian form. The penal laws against Antitrinitarianism, which had long been obsolete, were repealed in 1813, and in 1844 the right of Uni-tarians to the chapels which they held in succession from their Presbyterian forefathers was legally secured to them by the Dissenters' Chapels Act without altering their undogmatic trust-deeds. Though these congregations, popularly known as Unitarian, on principle declined to restrict the progress of thought by imposing on either their ministers or members any dogmatic statements of belief, the generality of them adopted with some modifications the theological system of Priestley, which was a combination of Locke's philosophy with the crudest rationalistic supernaturalism. With the rise of a more spiritual philosophy in Germany, which bore fruit in England and America before the close of the second decade of the century, the theology of English Unitarianism underwent a radical change, very much in the first instance under the influence of Dr Channing's writings. Without at all sacrificing its critical and rational bent, a deeper emotional and spiritual element was introduced into it, which gradually, at the cost of some years of internal conflict, dispossessed the purely external and super-naturalistic Socinian and Priestleian legacy. English Unitarian theology was thereby brought into close sympathy with modern scientific theology in Germany and elsewhere. This great and saving transformation was mainly due directly to James Martineau, J. J. Tayler, and J. H. Thom, aided by the writings of Channing and then of Theodore Parker. One consequence of the greater sub-stantial agreement of the present theology of the larger number of the Unitarian churches with the scientific theology of the century is that not a few representatives of these churches disclaim the name Unitarian as one tending to perpetuate divisions which have really no right to continued existence. The main reason for continued separation from the larger liberal churches, whether Established or Dissenting, earnestly urged by many Unitarians of this class, is the use in those churches of theological formularies which modern theo-logy regards as of historic interest only. The number of congrega-tions in England and Wales generally described as Unitarian is about 300, nearly half of which date from between 1662 and 1750, and nearly all of which have undogmatic trust-deeds. Their consti-tution is purely congregational. For the education of their ministers they have Manchester New College, London (strictly undenomin-ational), the Unitarian Home Missionary Board, Manchester, and Carmarthen College, supported and managed by the Presbyterian Board in London, but practically Independent and Unitarian. The organs of the body are The Inquirer, The Christian Life, The Uni-tarian Herald (weeklies), and The Christian Reformer (monthly). In Scotland there are 7 Unitarian congregations and 2 Universalist, the latter being, as in America, Unitarian in doctrine. In Ireland the number is about 40, being nearly all Presbyterian in constitu-tion. They are much stronger in the north than in the south of Ireland. In the north Antitrinitarian views began to spread about 1750; but the first congregation at Dublin traces its Unitarianism back to Thomas Emlyn, who was imprisoned for his Arian opinions in 1702 at the instigation of orthodox Dissenters.

United States (1815-1887).—In the United States Unitarianism had no organized existence previous to 1815, and as in England at the present time the name has always covered great differences of opinion within a common outline of belief or common drift of religious thought. Historical American Unitarianism represent? '' the liberal wing of the Congregational body." Of the existing 370 churches 120 or more were originally the parish churches founded by the Puritan Congregationalists, which, like the Presbyterian congregations in England, passed gradually from Calvinism through Arminianism to Unitarianism, of which Harvard College became the spiritual centre. In 1812 there was but one church in America professedly Unitarian (that of King's Chapel, Boston), though the ministers of Boston generally held Unitarian views. In 1815 Belsham's account of the "State of the Unitarian Churches in America" (in his Life of Lindsey, London, 1812) led to a controversy, the issue of which was the distinct avowal of Unitarian principles on the part of the liberal clergy of New England. Dr Channing came forward as the prophet and champion of American Unitar-ianism, though the older he grew the more emphatically he re-pudiated sectarianism in every form. The Congregational body was thereby split into two sections, one of which styled themselves Unitarian Congregationalists. In 1825 the American Unitarian Association was formed, mainly for the diffusion of Unitarian literature and the support of poor congregations. At that time the Unitarian churches numbered about 122. Twenty years later they were some 280, while now they are about 370. The theological colleges of the body are the Divinity School of Harvard University, which is, like Manchester New College, undenominational, and the Theological School of Meadville. As in England so in America the theology of Unitarians has passed through marked changes, which have been attended by conflicts more or less acute. From 1815 to about 1836 a Biblical, semi-rationalistic semi-super-naturalistic theology prevailed, in the heart of which Channing's elevated ethical ideas were fermenting and slowly preparing a new birth. From 1836 forces such as Biblical criticism, Carlyle and Emerson's "transcendentalism," and Theodore Parker's "absolute religion " opened the era of modern theology, bringing American Unitarianism into living touch wdth the philosophy and theology of Germany. An effort in 1865 to bring the right and left wings of the body into a closer confederation with a more pronounced profession of Christianity led to the formation of a Free Religious Association on the broad basis of the love of truth and goodness. In the Western States the same controversy as to the basis of reli-gious association has been raging for more than ten years. In May 1886 a resolution was passed by the Western Unitarian Conference by a majority of more than three-fourths adopting a purely ethical and non-theological basis. This led to a split in the body, and the formation of a new Western Association on a distinctly Christian platform. The left wdng of American Unitarians show greater sym-pathy with recent scientific speculation and less fear of pantheistic theories than is the case with English Unitarians. The organs of the body are The Unitarian Revieio (Boston), The Christian Register (Boston), and The Unitarian (Chicago).

Literature.—On Unitarianism in general, see Fock, her Socinianismus, Kiel,
1847 ; Wallace, Antitrinitarian Biography. London, 1S50; Unitarianism exhibited
in its Actual Condition, edited by J. R. Beard, London, 1846. On Socinianism and
Unitarianism in Poland and Transylvania : the above works; the historical sketch
of Thomas Rees in his translation of the Racovian Catechism, London, 1818;
J. J. Tayler in Theological Review, Jan. 1869; Report of an Official Visit to
Transylvania, by Alexander Gordon, London, 1879. On Unitarianism in England:
Wallace's and Beard's works; J. J. Tayler, A Retrospect of the Religious Life
of England, London, 1845, 3d ed., 1876 ; James Martineau, The Three Stages
of Unitarian Theology, London, 1869 ; Bonet-Maury, Early Sources of English
Unitarian Christianity, English trans., London, 1884; Unitarian Christianity,
Ten Lectures on the Positive Aspects of Unitarian Thought and Doctrine, with
preface by Rev. J. Martineau, D.D., London, 1881. On Unitarianism in
America : Fock ; Beard ; J. H. Allen, Our Liberal Movement in Theology, 2d ed.,
Boston, 1883; The Year-Book of the Unitarian Congregational Churches for 1887,
Boston, 1SS6; Count Goblet d'Alviella, The Contemporary Evolution of Religious
Thought in England, America, and India, English trans., 1885. (J. F. S.)

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