Leonard Chamberlain: Change and Continuation

This is an edited version of a sermon given on 24th September 1995 at Hull Unitarian Church. Leonard Chamberlain died on September 22nd, 1716 and the service was followed by a pilgrimage to his burial place in the chancel of the Church of St. Peter in the village of Rowley. The sermon was controversial because it showed a discontinuity between the beliefs of Leonard Chamberlain, a strict Puritan, and those of the Unitarians who emerged later.

Leonard Chamberlain's houses, farms, closes, garths, commons and pighills in Sutton and Stoneferry allowed the establishment of the Chamberlain Trust. Its basic education went to children of "any denomination whatsoever" and other help to "sober and good Christians and such as want relief". His funds stipulated to Presbyterian causes were for bread for the poor and money for ministers. The Trust continued with providing almshouses with pensions for elderly women from 1800, and the distribution of coal. Today it is still active giving money to ministers in churches with Presbyterian Puritan origins, selected ministry trainees, and students of Sutton, Stoneferry and Selby going into Higher Education. It houses some elderly people in Sutton and Selby. And each year the Hull Unitarian Church provides a service for the Trust on the Sutton Feast Day.

He was also principal trustee of the united Presbyterian congregation that was to lead to the Unitarian cause in Hull, founded orginally in 1672, merged in 1680 and with a new chapel under the care of the trustees from 1693.

In this religious sermon I want to ask if there is any connection between his kind of faith and ours. It must be said that he was in no sense a Unitarian or a liberal. I wish to argue that even if what he did had consequences of movement towards Unitarianism, this was not intended by him or by those around him.

The Restoration meant that in 1662 some 2000 Puritan ministers were excluded from the Church of England. Around them formed laypeople for pure Calvinist worship. An all knowing, all powerful God the Trinity already knew from eternity who would be saved, for whom Christ shed his blood. Everyone else was damned. This was the faith of the people who began this Unitarian church, including Leonard Chamberlain.

Unlike in Transylvania a century earlier where they achieved limited legal protection and survived subsequent persecution with semi-Unitarian views, the liberty sought throughout England, and in Hull by both Joseph Wilson, the first ejected Presbyterian minister, and Samuel Charles, the first minister of the merged congregation, was the liberty to organise and not at all about liberal religion. Just before Samuel Charles was imprisoned, the authorities did not accuse him of undermining doctrine, but rather that, to quote them: "We have a Protestant Church". Samuel Charles wanted one Church too many because dissenters threatened the restoration of the Church and State. Leonard Chamberlain himself was put under house arrest in 1685, not because of his faith but because the Duke of Monmouth staged a rebellion at Sedgefield and it demonstrated the political danger of the Presbyterians. When the trouble died down, Chamberlain and the others were freed.

So from the beginning it was a political church. Chamberlain, a woollen draper in Market Place, and other lay leaders, were well to do merchants and traders, and getting wealthy, and yet the Restoration had set back their political and social status. Dissenters remained restricted and so the whole history of Bowlalley Lane church was of a people arguing to sweep away the narrow and corrupted governing regime: and as a disenfranchised minority it petitioned parliament for a whole range of liberties leading up to the 1832 Reform Bill to make Parliament credible. Agitation still took place when a defined Unitarianism had arrived, which is why much Unitarianism supported the bourgeois 1789 French Revolution.

But what of liberal belief? Originally Presbyterian Puritans had called for the death sentence for Socinians. Socinians were people of ideas originating in Poland who said the Bible could be understood by "ordinary comprehension", who denied the Trinity and focussed on the resurrection of Christ rather than his bloody death and atonement for human sin. Samuel Charles, as part of his training in Derbyshire, had to argue against Socinian views. And the evidence that this church's forebears were not liberals at all is in the existence of The Society for the Reformation of Manners in Kingston upon Hull, a moral throwback, in that it prosecuted people who fished on Sundays or did not attend church and other things of offence to Puritans. Of course it did not continue, especially as the stress changed to demanding political and religious liberties for this economically rising social class.

Unitarians have often claimed that liberal belief was, in some sense, established from the beginning. In the 1840's in England orthodox dissenters were arguing in court that the now Unitarian chapels were using trusts set up by people of orthodox views and intentions, like Leonard Chamberlain, who would not have left funds for Unitarians. So in 1844, facing the probable total removal of trust assets, Hull Unitarians argued to Parliament that there was an Open Trust from the beginning and the congregation had never subscribed to creeds, in other words that from the beginning this church had expected belief to be unshackled and free to change. In fact the trusts were not open because of an early commitment to liberalism; they were left undefined because the Trinity was assumed as in law and due to their belief in the total sufficiency of the Bible, and for the same reason the majority of Presbyterians declined Church creeds and articles.

Of course, the Bible was not doctrinally sufficient. Arminian ideas slowly replaced Calvinist ones. Arminian ideas said that all people of confessed faith would be saved, not just the elect few. And the Presbyterians absorbed these ideas more than other Churches, not because of the open trust deeds but their organisation. Chamberlain and others were merchants; the first Hull church was in the architectural style of a London Merchants' Hall; and the trustee management system was based on merchants' gilds. So this trustee system rented out the pews and so Presbyterians just sat in them and listened. It was often intentionally parish church in character reflecting an impossible early Presbyterian wish to return to the National Church. So no one was asked for a personal statement of faith. The minister, ordained by other ministers, was left to get on with his trade, his speciality. Ministers absorbed the new ideas in the academies and preached on them.

With wealth Presbyterians dropped their rigid next life salvation beliefs and their agitation became more this worldly. Agitating rational beliefs fitted the new industrialising, mechanistic age with a new, fierce, urban liberalism, and a rational liberal Unitarianism attached itself to a rather theologically dithering denomination and demanded the rights of humankind. This church accepted its first such Unitarian minister, William Severn, in 1806, although, in general, Hull has historically employed the more Free Christian and less denominational unitarian minister.

Unitarians, gaining the status that Chamberlain and others had wanted, and their trusts protected by Parliament, continued with Chamberlain's direct philanthropic intention. The contrast of wealth and poverty, of concern in nineteenth century Bowlalley Lane, demanded at least some action by the wealthy, and enhanced their reputations. Church relief, leisure and education by organised religion grew and although organised religion is now marginalised in society, the Chamberlain Trust and this church still serves.

So, in conclusion, Leonard Chamberlain certainly did intend to establish a broad philanthropy as existing now. Political agitation became respectability in Bowlalley Lane and the gothic Park Street church building was all about respectability. What Chamberlain never intended was to have a place of liberal faith, and his mercantilism led to it only by default. However, we have a right to a liberal faith of whatever kind, because this church, as in his time, still makes financial provision for itself, organises its self management appropriately for the day and argues for the right to worship - just as we please.

Rev. Ernest Penn and Adrian Worsfold conducted the service and Adrian Worsfold gave the sermon in a Unitarian Service at Park Street, Hull.