Leader Resource 2: From Antitrinitarian to Unitarian
The five readings requested below are provided on Handout 2, Defining Moments.
Distribute Handout 2, Defining Moments and invite volunteers to read quotes from the handout as indicated while you present this material.
Antitrinitarianism is the theological idea that God is one, whole and complete, a unity that rejects division into the three persons of the Trinity. The idea dates back to the first centuries of Christianity, but it became most dynamically present in the work of Arius (c. 250-336 CE), a priest from Alexandria, Egypt. In 325, the Council of Nicea declared Arius' view of a created Christ—, similar to, but not the same as, God the Father —to be a heresy.
(Leader: Ask a volunteer to read aloud Section 1 on the handout, Arius's letter to Eusebius.)
In the following centuries, isolated groups arose to challenge the doctrine and authority of the Christian Church. In 1517, when Martin Luther famously nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral, the Protestant Reformation was born. One of the most radical dissenters of the time was Michael Servetus (1511-1553), who set forth his antitrinitarian beliefs in his best known work, On the Errors of the Trinity, written at the age of 20. For this heresy, Servetus spent most of his adult years running from both the Catholic Inquisition and the Protestant Reformers. He was captured and put to death in 1553.
Arius and Servetus held similar antitrinitarian views—of a Christ less than God, yet still divine. A second stream of antitrinitarianism held that Christ was not of a lesser divinity than God, but fully human. This was the view of Faustus Socinus, who fled persecution in Italy and went on to inspire the founding of the Polish Brethren (the Minor Reform Church of Poland). Although Socinus did not seek to establish a new religious sect, the community of Socinians which formed around him represents one of the first instances when the theology became embodied in an institution. Before the Socinians were forced to flee Poland in 1660, the community of Polish Brethren included worshipping congregations, a school, and a publishing enterprise. Socinus wrote a number of works, but his Racovian Catechism is perhaps the best well-known.
(Leader: Ask a volunteer to read aloud Section 2, Faustus Socinus, The Racovian Catechism.)
From Poland and Transylvania, antitrinitarian thought spread west where it encountered similar movements in England and Holland. In the 17th and 18th centuries, leading voices for antitrinitarianism included people such as the teacher John Biddle (1615-1662), the poet John Milton (1608 -1674), the philosopher John Locke (1632-1704), ministers Thomas Emlyn (1663-1741) and Theophilus Lindsey (1723-1808), and the scientist Joseph Priestley (1733-1804).
(Leader: Ask a volunteer to read aloud Section 3, John Biddle, His Confession of Faith Touching the Holy Trinity (1648).)
The English and Irish Dissenters parted from the Church of England on both theological and organizational grounds. They included antitrinitarians, Baptists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and others. They sought not only freedom of belief, but freedom to organize their church societies as they saw fit. Groups of these Dissenters made their way to Holland and eventually to the New World where they became the genesis of New England churches.
Like the churches in Europe, over time the New England churches took on more liberal theological ideas about the nature of God, the nature of Christ and the nature of humanity. In reaction to this growing liberalism, the Great Awakening revival movement began in 1734, seeking to restore both orthodoxy and a religious passion its leaders saw waning. But liberal ministers were quick to respond, and we can see in their responses that liberal thought had widened beyond just antitrinitarianism to include other concepts that stood in direct opposition to Calvinist orthodoxy—free will, the ability to both discern and choose between good and evil, innate human goodness, and the use of reason in religion.
(Leader: Ask a volunteer to read aloud Section 4, Jonathan Mayhew, Seven Sermons (1749).)
But it was not only the Standing Order Puritan churches that felt the growth of liberalism. The First Episcopal Church in Boston (King's Chapel), unable to attract a minister from England, called James Freeman (1759-1835) to fill its pulpit in 1782. When Freeman could no longer reconcile the church's Trinitarian liturgy and Book of Common Prayer with his antitrinitarian beliefs, the congregation responded by removing all mention of the Trinity from their worship in 1785.
The same year that King's Chapel became avowedly antirinitarian, the First Parish Church in Worcester, Massachusetts, split over the candidacy of the liberal minister Aaron Bancroft. This started almost a century of schism as liberal and conservative New England churches parted ways over matters of theology. In 1819, William Ellery Channing preached his famous Baltimore sermon at the ordination of Jared Sparks, embracing the name "Unitarian" and laying out for the first time a comprehensive Unitarian theology.
(Leader: Ask a volunteer to read aloud Section 5, William Ellery Channing, Baltimore Sermon (1819).)