McGuffie, Duncan (1975; written September 1972), 'Unitarian Christology Since The Reformation' in Wigmore-Beddoes, Dennis G. (1975), Concerning Jesus: A Symposium, London: The Lindsey Press, pages 26 to 52, [Online], Available World Wide Web, URL: [Accessed:Tuesday March 15 2016, 01:57].

Stylistic changes: punctuation brought to the words, spaces reduced, full stops after footnote numbers, use of simple dashes.



"UNITARIAN" doctrines of Christ have been many and varied. They have all seen him as subordinate to God the Father and rejected the orthodox view that he is a unique God-man, a person in the Godhead co-equal, co-eternal and of one substance with the Father and the Holy Spirit, but whether they have had anything else in common is far from obvious. It is possible, nevertheless, to trace the line of their development from the sixteenth century onwards.

As a result of the Reformation there was an upsurge of unorthodox ideas about Christ. Heresies on the subject were rife among the extreme Protestants known as Anabaptists, many of whom believed, for example, that Christ brought his flesh down with him from heaven. This doctrine of "the celestial flesh of Christ" was among those held by one of the best-known exponents of an unorthodox Christology, the Spaniard Michael Servetus, who was burned at Geneva in 1553. His main theological work, the Christianismi Restitutio, was quickly and thoroughly suppressed, but his two earlier treatises on the Trinity had a wider circulation. Northern Italian radicalism, in particular, felt his influence, before in its turn influencing Faustus Socinus (1539-1604), the first Protestant founder of a school of Unitarian thought.

[page 26 becomes page 27] Socinus' opportunity came in Poland, where a largely Anabaptist and baptist anti-Trinitarian movement had been expelled from the Reformed Church in 1565 and had set up the Minor Reformed Church. When Socinus settled in Poland in 1580 the Minor Church was in doctrinal chaos; by the end of the decade he had won it over to his views. In 1605 the Racovian Catechism, drawn up by his disciples, gave classic expression to the new system.

The Socinians held that Christ had no existence before his miraculous conception. He was a real but sinless man, who because of his divine origin was the Son of God. After his baptism he was taken up to heaven and filled with the Holy Spirit, which was not a person in the Godhead but God's power in the human heart. Having been instructed in the divine message that, though man by nature is mortal, eternal life awaits those who choose to obey God's commandments, Christ returned to earth and proved the authenticity of his teachings by working miracles. Rather than reconciling God to man, he reconciled man to God by giving us the example of his life and death; and as a reward for his transcendent merit God raised him from the dead, carried him up to heaven and made him ruler over the angels and all the created universe. In this capacity Christ could be called "God" in an inferior sense. As for worshipping him, a distinction was drawn between the prayer of the lips and the homage of the heart. The first was allowable and a matter of individual choice; the second, in the opinion of the earlier Socinians, was essential in order to be a Christian.

By using reason and the Scriptures, the Socinians hoped to restore the simplicity of the Christian faith. Concerning other churches, Socinus wrote in 1584 that he neither condemned nor despised them, but acknowledged all as true churches of Christ.  1  However, although this was an unusually liberal attitude for its time, Socinus's belief in worshipping Christ meant that he denied

1. Quoted in H. John McLachlan, Socinionism [sic] in Seventeenth-century England (Oxford, 1951), p. 16.

[Page 27 becomes page 28] the name of Christian to the Unitarians of Transylvania. These, following Francis David (1510-1579), held that prayer should be offered to the Father alone. David argued that Jesus' death was contrary to the intention of God, who had meant him to be King of the Jews; since his resurrection and ascension he had been placed in a state totally unconnected with all that was going on in the world, and hence, being unable to receive worship, he was not a proper object of it. During the seventeenth century the Transylvanian Unitarians gradually accepted the Socinian view of the matter, but they were an isolated and persecuted body whose doctrinal development then came to a halt.

Anti-Trinitarians were expelled from Poland in 1660. The leading Socinian scholars took refuge in Holland, one of whose outstanding figures, the jurist and theologian Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), had been so thoroughly influenced by Socinianism that he was liable to be claimed as a convert to it. New and impressive revised editions of the Racovian Catechism were published in Amsterdam in 1665 and 1680. By well before the middle of the next century, however, having felt the inroads of the widespread "Arianism" which denied that Christ had a human nature and saw him as a preexistent divine being, the Socinians had been absorbed into Dutch religious liberalism.

In England anti-Trinitarianism was regarded with horror, at least among the educated. Sporadic cases of it were not unknown, and charges of Socinianism were hurled at liberal-minded Anglicans who emphasised the place of reason in religion, but its first important English spokesman was a rationalistic puritan. John Biddle (1616-1662), a schoolmaster of Gloucester and former tutor at Oxford, seems to have become a heretic during the early 1640s. At that time he had read no Socinian books; his first step was to reject the Godhead of the Holy Spirit, and he later acknowledged that his belief that the Holy Spirit was an angel who had a hand in making man differed from that of the Socinians. As far as Christology was concerned, however, he agreed with them. Jesus has no nature other than [page 28 becomes page 29] a human one, but because he was in an inferior sense "our God, by reason of his divine sovereignty over us" God the Father should be worshipped through him.  2  Biddle was acquainted with Socinianism from at least 1648, and his publications included a very free English version of the Racovian Catechism.

After Biddle's death in 1662 his small group of followers continued to meet in London. From 1666 onwards a much respected figure among them was the former Arian preacher John Knowles (c. 1625-1677); it is not clear whether he retained his earlier views. Two other members were notable: Thomas Firmin, who also worshipped at the Anglican church of St. Mary Woolnoth; and Henry Hedworth, a gentleman from the North who kept in touch with Socinians and their sympathisers at home and abroad. Biddle's crudely literal belief (similar to John Milton's) that God was "in the heavens", where he felt affections and passions and had a "likeness, similitude, person and shape" remained with Finnin and Hedworth until they became friendly with the Anglican clergyman Stephen Nye (1648? -1719).  3 

Nye's views on Christology show the loosening hold of orthodoxy on the English churches. A gentlemanly, scientific climate of opinion was developing in which the "enthusiasm" of an earlier age was regarded with distaste. Rough approximations to the ancient heresies of Arianism and Sabellianism appeared among the clergy, while the philosopher John Locke believed that, in order to be a Christian, it was enough to have faith in Jesus as the Messiah. Firmin's friend John Tillotson, a leader of the tolerant "latitudinarian" party in the Church of England and Archbishop of Canterbury from 1691-4, privately wrote of the so-called Athanasian Creed: "I wish we were well

2. John Biddle, A Confession of Faith Touching The Holy Trinity (London, 1648), p. 29. The spelling and punctuation of quotations have been amended.

3. John Biddle, A Twofold Catechism (London, 1654), pp. 7, 9, 11; Stephen Nye, The Explication of the Articles of the Divine Unity... (London, 1715), pp. 181-192.

[page 29 becomes page 30] rid of it."  4  It was perhaps not surprising, then, that a series of Unitarian Tracts should have been published in the 1690s. Firmin was their main promoter, and Nye (under cover of anonymity) their main writer.

The tracts were lively, sarcastic productions which aimed to spread the belief that "the Son is but a man" without luring people out of the established church. They used the word "Unitarian" to describe those who agreed that there was "but one who is God" thus both Arians and Socinians were Unitarians, "and esteem of one another as Christians and true believers."  5  One tract remarked of the Trinity: "A good life is of absolute necessity to salvation;  but a right belief in these points that have been always controverted in the churches of God is is no degree necessary."  6  Maintaining, nevertheless, that the Trinitarians were mistaken, the tracts insisted that Jesus had only a human nature. The Socinians honoured, "or, if we must use that word, they  worship the Lord Christ" only as one highly exalted by God, "to whom God hath given to be head over all things to the church."  7 

None of the leading "orthodox" rejoinders managed not to be accused of heresy. Williarn Sherlock, for example, was widely thought to have argued that there were three Gods;  John Wallis and Robert Smith, on the other hand, laid themselves open to the charge of Sabellianisrn (the belief that there is only one personality in the Godhead, of which the Father, the Son and thd Holy Spirit are three aspects). The tracts claimed that Wallis and Smith differed only in words from the Socinians; if it was below Wallis's dignity to let himself be called a Socinian or a Sabellian, "the Socinians and Sabellians, in honour of him, are content to be called Wallisians." They granted that there

4. Quoted in McLachlan, op. cit., p. 335. The creed was composed between 440 and 520 A.D., rather than by Athanasius.

5. A Brief History of the Unitarians, called also Socinians (London, 1691), p. 34.

6. The Acts of Great Athanasius (London, 1690), p. 10.

7. Considerations on the Explications of the Doctrine of the Trinity (London, 1693), pp. 32-3

[page 30 becomes page 31] were senses in which God could be rightly styled the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. He was the Son in his capacity as the Redeemer, "because he redeemed us by his Son Lord Christ"; the Socinians found this "a harsh way of speaking" but would accept it for the sake of peace.  8  Thus, by putting an heretical interpretation on the Trinity, Nye and his friends remained within the church. Indeed, in his later days Nye took issue with Arianism, approvingly quoted from the Athanasian Creed and presented himself as a Trinitarian in the tradition of St. Augustine.

By that time Deism had emerged as a new kind of unorthodoxy. Nye, Hedworth and the Polish Socinians had thought there was no such thing as natural religion: man lacked any natural knowledge of God or immortality and consequently needed revelation. In contrast, thinkers like Locke and Tillotson had reduced the difference between natural and revealed religion almost to vanishing point. The Deists carried the process further. Reason, unaided by grace, led man to God; the Bible's prophecies had been disproved; miracles never happened. As disbelievers in the Trinity who saw Jesus as simply a man the Deists were technically Unitarians, and some of them, such as Thomas Chubb (1679-1747), described themselves as Christians. For the Deists who admired him Jesus was a great precursor of eighteenth century morality. Another view came from the anti-Christian German Deist H. S. Reimarus (1694-1768), who argued that he had expected to establish an earthly Messianic kingdom. A century and a half later Albert Schweitzer was to write that Reimarus's work marked "the first time that a really historical mind, thoroughly conversant with the sources," had turned to New Testament criticism;  but during Reimarus's lifetime it was only circulated anonymously and in manuscript.  9 

8. Observations on the Four Letters of Dr. John Wallis (London, 1691), p. 10.

9. Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (Third Edition, London, 1963), p. 15. Extracts from Reimarus were published by Lessing in the 1770s.

[page 31 becomes page 32] English Deism was thought to have been crushingly refuted by Joseph Butler, whose The Analogy of Religion appeared in 1736. Arianism had established itself among clergymen as the main Christological heresy. Its popularity suggests, perhaps, that for those who have believed that Christ was a God-man it is easier to see him as a God than a man. Arian references to Christ as "this glorious Being" are likely to strike modern readers as carrying odd overtones of fairy stories and science fiction, made all the odder by their context of complacent reasonableness. The most influential of the Arians, however, had a high reputation as a philosopher. Samuel Clarke (1675-1729) was a latitudinarian divine of courtly manners who is said to have amused himself at home by jumping over chairs and tables. In The Scripture-Doctrine of the Trinity, published in 1712, Clarke denied the contention of the original Arians that "there was a time when the Son was not," arguing that Christ had existed with the Father from the beginning. During the Incarnation he had emptied himself of the glory he had with the Father, to whom he was evidently subordinate. Prayers and praises were "made in and by the guidance and assistance of the Holy Spirit, through the meidation of the Son, to the Supreme Father and Author of all things."  10 

In 1710 Clarke's friend, Willam Whiston, Newton's successor as professor of mathematics at Cambridge, had been banished from the University for his blatant Arianism. A scholarly eccentric who may have been in Goldsmith's mind when he wrote The Vicar of Wakefield, Whiston announced at Tunbridge Wells in 1746 that the Millennium would begin in twenty years. The more cautious and conservative Clarke managed to avoid falling into disgrace, although he never obtained a bishopric. He was orthodox enough to have been approved of by Samuel Johnson, who on his deathbed in 1784 recommended Clarke's

10. Samuel Clarke, The Scripture-Doctrine of the Trinity (London, 1712), pp. 364-5.

[page 32 becomes page 33] sermons because "he is fullest on the propitiatory sacrifice."  11  Similar views to his own were starting to spread among the Dissenters. Thomas Emlyn, for example, who became a close friend of Clarke's, had been converted to Arianism by William Sherlock's defence of orthodoxy in 1690. After spending over two years in Irish prisons from 1703 to 1705 for the Arian blasphemies of his An Humble Inquiry into the Scripture Account of Jesus Christ he led a small London congregation until about 1711. Like Whiston, he held that Christ was the first and greatest of created beings; but although he described himself as a Unitarian he never dealt with the subject in the pulpit.

In 1719 a major rift in Dissent was hastened by the views of Whiston's friend James Peirce (1673-1726). The suspected Clarkean heresies of Peirce and his fellow minister at Exeter, Joseph Hallet, were the catalyst of a conference in London held at Salters' Hall. There the body of London Ministers, comprised of Presbyterians, Independents and Baptists, disagreed over whether or not to declare that Christ "is one God with the Father".  12  Those opposed to the step carried the day by four votes. As a result the General Body split into two factions: the Subscribers, who had been in favour of the declaration, and the Non-Subscribers who, while for their own part disowning Arianism, had not. The latter group consisted mainly of Presbyterians.

Despite Peirce's discretion about what his views actually were, his unorthodoxy was made clear in his A Paraphrase and Notes On the Epistle To The Hebrews. He held that originally Christ had been Israel's guardian angel, of equal but not superior rank to other such guardian angels. Since the Incarnation, however, he had been promoted. He was annointed with the oil of gladness above, or more than his fellows, because he then

11. James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson L.l.D (Everyman Edition, London, 2 vols., 1946), II, 608.

12. Quoted in C. Gordon Bolam, Jeremy Goring, H. L. Short and Roger Thomas, The English Presbyterians (London, 1968), p. 160.

[page 33 becomes page 34] received such an authority, dominion, or kingdom, as was never conferred upon any one of them, he being then made prince, not of a small province, but of the whole world."  13 

After the Salters' Hall Conference the doctrinal freedom among the Presbyterians attracted the heretically inclined. One of these was Nathaniel Lardner (1684-1768), who, having been an Independent, attached himself to the Presbyterians in 1729. A respected New Testament scholar, Lardner abandoned Arianism in favour of the belief that Jesus was simply a man. His Letter on the Logos, written in 1730 and published anonymously in 1759, argued that the Father alone was God. Jesus was the Messiah: "a man, appointed, annointed, beloved, honoured and exalted by God, above all other beings." He was an exemplar for the human race, whereas man was unable to feel kinship with an Arian Christ who had created the visible world, the angels and the hosts of heaven, and in whose resurrection there was nothing extraordinary.  14  Similar views were held by Lardner's friend Caleb Fleming (1698-1779), who, like Lardner, defended the claims of revealed religion against the Deists whilst agreeing with the pro-Christian Deists that the Christian revelation amounted to a republication of the natural moral law. In his A Survey of the Search after Souls in 1758 Fleming took the bold step of denying the resurrection of the body.

The same development from an Arian to a "humanitarian" Christology can be traced among Anglican heretics. In 1753 the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Herring, privately expressed approval of Samuel Clarke's Arian revision of the Prayer Book.  15   The extreme latitudinarian, Benjamin Hoadly (1676-1761), who died as Bishop of Winchester, was one of the most. -prominent of the Clarkean Arians. Many of the clergy avoided

13. James Peirce, A Paraphrase And Notes On the Epistles of St. Paul To The Colossians, Philippians, and Hebrews (London, 1727), p. 23  of "A Paraphrase and Notes On The Epistle To The Hebrews."

14. Nathaniel Lardner, A Letter Written in the Year 1730... (London, 1759), pp. 37, 39, 43-4.

15. Quoted in Dennis G. Wigmore-Beddoes, Yesterday's Radicals (Cambridge and London, 1971), p. 22.

[page 34 becomes page 35] using the Athanasian Creed and felt uneasy about the Thirty-Nine Articles. (There were at least fourteen different senses in which they tried to justify subscription to them). However, Theophilus Lindsey (723- 1808), who resigned his living in 1773 and founded Essex Street Chapel in London in the following year, was one of the few who decided to leave the church. Lindsey had arrived at his belief in the simple humanity of Christ without passing through an Arian phase. He had rejected offers of Dissenting pulpits, and at Essex Street used a modified version of the Book of Common Prayer, based on Clarke's revision, in the vain hope of stimulating reforms within Anglicanism.

In 1769 Lindsey had made friends with the Dissenting minister, Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), and to a large extent he followed where Priestley led. Lardner's Letter on the Logos had converted Priestley from Arianism to being "what is called a Socinian" soon after he had moved to Leeds in 1767.  16  Notable in the scientific field as a chemist and the discoverer of oxygen, Priestley became the first spiritual leader of the Unitarian denomination which emerged from Presbyterianism. He and Lindsey agreed with the Socinians that Jesus had been authorised to reveal to his fellow men that immortality was the reward of righteousness, but differed from them in not being prepared to pray to him. Although Priestley saw himself as preaching the Christianity of the early church, his Jesus had a distinctly eighteenth century air: he was "a man of no enthusiasm or extravagance of temper; who affected no singularity or austerity of behaviour, but was rather of a cheerful and social turn of mind, and who taught nothing but the dictates of sound morality and good sense." As his business, "like that of any other prophet", was "nothing more than to deliver a message from, God, and to confirm it by miracles, it was not, in reality, of any consequence whatever, who or what he himself was."

16. Memoirs of Dr. Joseph Priestley, Written by himself... (London, 1904), p. 38.

[page 35 becomes page 36] He was greater than any other men: but because he was a man he "could not, naturally, be either infallible or impeccable." "It appears to me that we lose more than we gain, by contending for absolute perfection of character in Christ... If he was so perfect, it is impossible not to conclude that notwithstanding his appearance 'in fashion as a man', he was, in reality, some-thing more than a man." Speculating a little, Priestley continued: "Christ must also, no doubt, be more perfect now than at any time during his ministry here; and, like other good men, must improve in virtue as long as he continues to exist, and still fall infinitely short of that perfection of moral character which belongs to God".  17 

Priestley's belief in miracles did not extend to the Virgin Birth: he thought the likelier hypothesis was that Jesus was the child of Joseph and Mary. This soon became accepted among Unitarians, who were so rationalistically inclined that in the 1790s their ministers felt it necessary to launch frequent attacks on the Deist Thomas Paine's Age of Reason. However, in his later days Priestley looked forward to a literal Second Coming. In 1794, before he left England to live in America, he told a friend that in his judgment the great event could not be more than twenty years away. He expected Jesus would literally come in the clouds, raise martyrs and confessors from the dead, restore the Jews to their own country and "govern the world for a thousand prophetic years of peace and prosperity, virtue and happiness."  18  Hopes like these were also expressed by the Unitarian ex-Anglican Edward Evanson, but they failed to appeal to Unitarians in general.

17. Joseph Priestley, Theological and Miscellaneous Works, Ed. John Towil Rutt (London, 25 vols., 1817-32), VII, 213, 175, 347, 356, 357.

18. Thornas Belsham, A Calm Inquiry Into The Scripture Doctrine Concerning The Person Of Christ (London, 1811), p. 319. Priestley conjectured that every prophetic day of the Millennium represented a natural year. See also Joseph Priestley, Notes on All The Books of Scripture (Northumberland, Pennsylvania, 4 vols., 1804), IV, 648-657.

[page 36 becomes page 37] Although personally very tolerant, Priestley inaugurated a period in which the doctrine of the simple humanity of Christ was preached with great aggression;  Arianism declined among Dissenters as a result. After Priestley's departure for America his mantle fell on Thomas Belsham (1750-1829). A lesser man than Priestley, Belsham had his feet more firmly on the ground. He defended the Priestleyan view that "Jesus of Nazareth was a man constituted in all respects like other man, subject to the same infirmities, the same ignorance, prejudice and frailties." Jesus's public moral character, as recorded by the evangelists, was "pure and unimpeachable in every particular", although -whether this should suggest that "through the whole course of his private life he was completely exempt from all the errors and failings of human nature, is a question of no great intrinsic moment, and concerning which we have no sufficient data to lead to a satisfactory conclusion." He died simply "as a martyr to the faith, and as a necessary preliminary to the resurrection"; by the resurrection "he not only confirmed the truth and divinity of his mission, but exhibited in his own person a pattern and a pledge of a resurrection to immortal life. "  19  Belsham was ready to welcome German higher criticism of the Bible. He rejected the creation story in Genesis as irreconcilable with science, and believed that, although the Gospels had been written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, they had been corrupted by inserted narratives.

Arianism survived (especially in Ireland) until well on into the nineteenth century, but the Unitarianism of Belsham and Priestley was the dominant variety until the 1840s. It was allied to a deterministic and materialistic world-view inherited from the eighteenth century philosopher David Hartley (1705-1757), and was open to the charge of being dry and unimaginative. New inspiration came from the United States, where by 1825 a Unitarian denomination had emerged from Congregationalism. Among those who wished it well was the former President Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), an old-fashioned Deist

19. Belsham, op. cit., pp. 447, 190, 450

[page 37 becomes page 38] in whose opinion Jesus "fell an early victim to the jealousy and combination of the altar and the throne" before "the course of his preaching... presented occasions for developing a complete system of morals."  20  But the leading Unitarian was an Arian, William Ellery Channing (1780-1842), whose preaching was marked by a tone of even-tempered Romanticism. To some extent Channing's Christology confirmed the Socinian criticism that Arianism had the effect of rendering Jesus non-human rather than superhuman. Channing wrote, for example, that in order that people should understand Christ's virtues and his precepts he appeared in the form of the lowliest man, "divested of everything that might overpower the senses" so that "men should be encouraged to approach him nearly... . . To this end, I conceive, the miracles of Jesus were studiously performed in the most unostentatious way."  21  This sort of language recalls the present-day folk belief that Jesus might have been a visitor from Outer Space. However, although Channing accepted Christ's pre-existence, his conviction that "All minds are of one family" enabled him to deny that Jesus was "an august stranger, belonging to an entirely different class of existence from myself". Indeed, he objected to orthodoxy that there was "not a more effectual method of hiding Jesus from us, of keeping us strangers to him," than inculcating the doctrine that he was God himself.  22  On the other hand, Channing could write: "With Dr. Priestley, a good and great man... I have less sympathy than with many of the orthodox."  23  Not only did he emphasise Christ's "spotless purity", but he attacked Priestley's distinction between what Christ was and what he revealed. Christianity could not be known without Christ: it was "his conversation, his character, his history, his life, his death, his resurrection. He pervades it throughout. In

20. Quoted in Henry Wilder Foote, The Religion of Thomas Jefferson (Boston, Mass., 1960), p. 55.

21. W. E. Channing, The Complete Works... (London, 1884), p. 40.

22. W. E. Channing, The Works... (Boston, 1875), pp. 313, 315, 319.

23. Ouoted in James Martineau, Essays, Reviews and Addresses (London, 4 vols., 1890-91), I, 119.

[page 38 becomes page 39] loving him, we love his religion". "Jesus Christ came to reveal the Father"; he was "the brightest image of God". It was "to make us his children in the highest sense of that word, to make us more and more the partakers of his own nature, not to multiply slaves," that God had revealed himself in Christ. But "this purpose has been more than overlooked. It has been reversed. The very religion given to exalt human nature has been used to make it abject."  24 

Channing's Christ resembled Priestley's in being a man of the eighteenth century Enlightenment. He was born a Jew, "and yet we find him escaping every influence of education and society." "The truth is that, remarkable as was the character of Jesus, it was distinguished by nothing more than by calmness and self-possession... How calm was his piety! Point me, if you can, to one vehement, passionate expression of his religious feelings." And with obvious and perhaps rather disquieting sincerity Channing said that, when he read the Gospels, he had "a feeling of the reality of Christ's character which I cannot express."  25 

Channing was widely respected. Samuel Coleridge, who in his younger days as a Unitarian lay preacher had incongruously combined high achievement as a Romantic poet with a great admiration for Priestley, had turned harshly against Priestleyan Unitarianism and become a liberal Anglican sage;  but he wrote of Channing : "I feel convinced that the few differences in opinion between Mr Channing and myself, not only are, but would by him be found to be apparent, not real - the same truth seen in different relations."  26  Coleridge himself was among the men who influenced Channing's one-time admirer Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), who had already left the active ministry when in 1838 he gave an Address at the Unitarian-controlled Harvard Divinity School which caused a Unitarian

24. Channing, Works, pp. 318, 323, 248, 395, 249, 253.

25. Ibid., pp. 304, 306, 305.

26. Quoted in Martineau, Essays, I, 119.

[page 39 becomes page 40] furore. Channing, while still believing in miracles, had said that "Christians have yet to learn that inspiration, and miracles, and outward dignities are nothing compared with the soul." Emerson (for whom the remedy for empty formalism in churches was "first, soul, and second, soul, and evermore, soul") went further: "the word Miracle, as pronounced by the Christian churches, gives a false impression;  it is Monster... To aim to convert a man by miracles, is a profanation of the soul." For Channing, the "great principle" on which Christ's powers of sympathy were founded "was his conviction of the greatness of the human soul." Emerson thought the same (Christ "saw with open eye the mystery of the soul... Alone in all history, he estimated the greatness of man"), but again he went further. "The true Christianity" was "a faith like Christ's in the infinitude of man"; therefore it was necessary "to refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination of men, and dare to love God without mediator or veil... Imitation cannot go above its model. The imitator dooms himself to hopeless mediocrity." Emerson linked Christianity with Stoicism: society needed "nothing so much as a stern, high, stoical, Christian discipline, to make it know itself and the divinity that speaks through it."  27  Moreover, although he began the Address with a glitteringly artificial evocation of nature, it was not at all clear that he worshipped a personal God. For many Unitarians it was scandalous enough that Emerson should have denied the evidential value of miracles, let alone implied that in order to be a Christian it was necessary to dispense with Christ. Emerson himself kept silent in the uproar;  it was not in his style to engage in debate, and his livelihood, after all, no longer depended on Unitarianism. A different fate awaited his admirer Theodore Parker (1818-1860), whose sharp tongue and theological and political radicalism made him an

27. Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Works... (London, 6 vols., 1884), I, 122, 105, 107, 104-5, 117, 118, 115. The quotations from Channing are from his Works, pp. 321, 309.

[page 40 becomes page 41] outcast among most of his fellow ministers. Parker became, nonetheless, an influential figure in Boston and beyond. (His faith in "direct self-government, over all the people, by all the people, for all the people" was echoed by Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address). Convinced that man had intuitive knowledge of God, of a moral law and of immortality, he offered a form of self-reliant theism as the true religion of Jesus. In 1845 he said of the virgin birth, the miracles, the resurrection and the assumption: "Believe men of these things as they will. To me they are not truth and fact - but mythic, symbols and poetry;  the Psalm of praise with which the world's rude heart extols and magnifies its King." Jesus was "the greatest person of the ages; the proudest achievement of the human race - he taught the Absolute Religion - Love to God and Man. "With a touch of ostentation in his vehement generosity Parker proclaimed: "I do not know that he did not teach some errors, also, along with it. I care not if he did. It is by his truths that I know him..." "That God has yet greater men in store I doubt not;  to say this is not to detract from the mystic character of Christ, but to affirm the omnipotence of God."  28  In the eyes of Unitarian orthodoxy all this amounted to "infidelity" and "Deism": true Christianity required a miraculously guaranteed revelation of God through Christ. As for Trinitarian orthodoxy, when Parker's health broke in 1859 daily prayers were offered that he might be silenced.

Within English Unitarianism the influence of Channing helped to stimulate a process which bore some resemblances to the American one. Here the leading figure was James Martineau (1805-1900), who was probably the greatest theologian that Unitarianism has ever produced. Martineau entered the ministry in 1828. Originally he was a Priestleyan, and in 1836 he was still denying that disbelievers in miracles could be called Christians; but his mature Christology was inspired by Channing. He was far from accepting Channing's Arianism

28 Theodore Parker, The Relation of Jesus to his Age and the Ages (Boston, 1845), pp. 12, 14, 12.

[page 41 becomes page 42] (indeed, his friend J. H. Thom actually abandoned Arianism as one of the liberating effects of reading Channing);  he thought that "the New-England prophet... brought a new language" to Unitarian theology because he emphasised "The greatness of human capacity, not so much for intellectual training, as for voluntary righteousness, for victory over temptation, for resemblance to God". For Martineau as for Channing, Christ's nature was a revelation of God's nature, "performing the function of awakener to our sleeping perceptions of the highest good."  29  It was "an idle question for sceptical criticism to raise, whether the religion of Christ comprised in its teachings any ethical element absolutely new. If genius had conceived it all before, life had not produced it till now."  30  "The exhibition of Christ as (God's) Moral Image has maintained in the souls of men a common spiritual type... to merge all minds into one family". God dwelt perennially in man and the universe. Expressing a long-held belief, Martineau wrote in 1861: "The Incarnation is true, not of Christ exclusively, but of Man universally, and God everlastingly."  31 

On this view, the main evidence for Christianity lay in the soul. Hence Martineau attached decreasing importance to miracles, until he finally stopped believing in them altogether. Furthermore, accepting as he did a humanitarian rather than an Arian Christology he was able to admit that Jesus was fallible. But he took issue with Theodore Parker (whom he admired) for making the moral perfection of Jesus "not an essential, but a subsidiary, support to Christianity... No revelation of duty is possible except through the Conscience; and Conscience cannot be effectually reached but by the presence of a holier life and a higher spirit."  32 

29 Martineau, Essays, IV, 576;  I, 116.

30 James Martineau, Studies of Christianity (London, 1858), p. 302.

31 Martineau, Essays, III, 51;  II, 443.

32 Ibid., I, 183.

[page 42 becomes page 43] Holding such views as these, Martineau might have been expected to have seen without difficulty that Jesus was a nineteenth century liberal; but in fact his ideas about the historical Jesus were sufficiently untypical of his time to be worth tracing in some detail. In 1840, listing the points in D. F. Strauss's Leben Jesu which he had been delighted to find there because he had long been convinced of their truth, he included the theory that Jesus believed in "a personal return to reign". Two years later he wrote in a letter: "It is, in my opinion, quite clear that Jesus largely partook of the Messianic notions of his country, and applied them to himself -that he expected to return in person to this world during that generation and close the system of human things, and establish in its place a terrestial theocracy."  33  Despite Martineau's claim that this was "quite clear" to him it was actually a question on which he wavered for many vears. In 1847, for instance, he wrote to his friend F. W. Newman that he had "long been convinced" that Jesus's expectations of a speedy Second Coming "must be taken literally; and, if truly reported (which we have no right, perhaps, to question), must be dealt with as mistakes... I grant you that, if such claims and promises were to be put forth by anyone in Europe now, they would prove him to be too much tinctured with fanaticism to be safely followed." Things were different in first century Palestine, with its "universal prevalence of theocratical ideas and Messianic anticipation". Nevertheless, by the end of the paragraph Martineau was finding it "very dbubtful whether Jesus really identified himself with the Messiah at all."  34 

In 1851 he still thought that Jesus had claimed to be the Messiah. However, it was surely no bad thing "if for Messiah's tame millenium [sic] we have the grand and struggling life of Christendom... There is no reason for the common assump-

33. J. Estlin Carpenter, James Martineau (London, 1905), pp. 231-2, 197.

34. James Drummond and C. B. Upton, The Life and Letters of James Martineau (London, 2 vols., 1902), I, 139-40.

[page 43 becomes page 44] -tion that a religion must be purest in its infancy."  35  Writing on "The Ethics of Christendom" in 1852, Martineau insisted that the principle of not resisting evil "meant no more in the early Church than that the disciples were not to anticipate the hour, fast approaching, of Messiah's descent to claim his throne... 'My kingdom', said Jesus, 'is not of this world; else would my servants fight'; - an expression which implies that no kingdom of this world can dispense with arms, and that he himself, were he head of a human polity, would not forbid the sword;  but while 'legions of angels' stood ready for his word, and only waited till the Scripture was fulfilled and the hour of darkness was passed, to obey the signal of heavenly invasion, the weapon of earthly temper might remain within the sheath." Martineau therefore condemned the "amiable enthusiasts who propose to conduct the affairs of nations on principles of brotherly love.  36  He argued that, while the values of the early church remained as relevant as ever, their practical consequences must be very different once the expectation of a Second Coming had been given up. Even by German standards, this was an "advanced" view to take in the 1850s. Within the Church of England, orthodoxy still maintained what Benjamin Jowett called an "abominable system of terrorism which prevents the statement of the plainest facts and makes true theology or theological education impossible".  37  Among Unitarians, Martineau was widely believed to combine an unwholesome sympathy for orthodoxy with a weakness for destructive scholarship. In 1851 The Inquirer, which was usually well disposed towards him, gave a hostile review to his sermon "The God of Revelation his own Interpreter." Claiming that to accept that Jesus was the Messiah was to "set up the chief Judaic error as the chief Christian verity," Martineau regretted that Christians were taught to call Jesus "our Lord": like the Apostles' description of themselves

35. Studies of Christianity, p. 296. For his belief in 1851 that Jesus wrongly claimed to be the Messiah, see Essays, III, 28.

36. Studies of Christianity, pp. 344, 345, 351-2.

37. Quoted in Dennis G. Wigmore-Beddoes, op. cit., p. 28.

[page 44 becomes page 45] as his "slaves" this was an obsolete product of Messianic ideas. To obey God "as slaves, in fear and with an eye upon his power, is, with all our punctuality and anxiety, simply and entirely to disobey him... Still less can we be slaves to Christ, who is no Autocrat to us, but our freely followed leader towards God".  38  The Priestleyan Christian Reformer tried to refute ''this foolish sermon" by pointing out that Locke had proved by reason and the scriptures that it was the primary article of Christianity that Jesus was the Messiah.  39  Martineau had given an offence which lasted for years.

At the same time he was fighting on another front. His friend Francis Newman, whose elder brother became Cardinal Newman, had argued against the sinlessness of Christ. Martineau replied that, although Christ was no doubt intrinsically capable of sin, he must be presumed perfect until proved imperfect. However, "That no higher being can ever appear on earth we would by no means venture to affirm." Admitting that he shared "the dependent temper of those who correct and confirm themselves by reference to the past," Martineau appealed to "the common consciousness of Christendom" in support of Christ's greatness.  40  But in a letter to his friend R. H. Hutton, after mentioning Newman's reluctance to let a "mediating object of reverence" stand between himself and God, he commented: "I am far from being convinced that this characteristic is not rather a perfection of mind and that the clinging to objects of extreme admiration may not be a weakness. If so, it is a weakness in which, for my own part, I find it indispensable to live".  41 . Nevertheless, he showed some restiveness with his "image of extreme admiration." His dislike of the term "Lord" has already been mentioned;  and he once remarked to a colleague :"If Jesus were here, would you do straight off anything he told you?  42 

38. Martineau, Essays, IV, 478-80.

39. Carpenter; Martineau, pp. 359, 361.

40. Martineau, Essays, III, 60 (written in 1853), 37.

41. Drummond and Upton, Martineau, I, 339.

42. Carpenter, Martineau, p. 588, n

[page 45 becomes page 46] Jane Welsh Carlyle, then, may have been on the mark when she wrote after hearing Martineau preach that he looked "a picture of conscientious anguish while he was overlaying his Christ with similes and metaphors, that people might not see what a wooden puppet he had made of him to himself."  43  Despite his pronouncement in 1851 that the problem of whether Jesus "was such as the Gospels and Paul represent" was non-existent, his belief in Christ's sinlessness drove him, with the help of the German Tubingen school of critics, to the final position that "measured by quantity alone, the residuary treasure of the Gospel... does not bulk large".  44  In 1890 he argued in The Seat of Authority in Religion that, while there was "no reason to doubt that Jesus shared, under whatever personal modifications, the Messianic expectations of his contemporaries," he had never applied them to himself. Armed with the principle that our sense of what was beautiful, deep and true in the Gospels could tell us what he had really been like, Martineau unearthed what proved to be a rather brooding version of gentle Jesus, meek and mild. But this Jesus had the advantage, for Martineau, of being morally pure: his "very susceptibility to possible repentance and consciousness of something short of  'Good', rather lifts him for us nearer to the standard of holiness, than detains him, in the precincts of sin."  45 

By 1890 Martineau had long enjoyed a high reputation outside as well as within Unitarianism. In 1886 his denomination had given a respectful hearing to his attempt to find "A Way Out of the Trinitarian Controversy," in which he had argued that only "the snare of words" prevented the recognition that Unitarians, like other Christians, centred their worship not on the Father of the orthodox creeds, but the Son-God as "Creative Thought, guiding Providence, redeeming grace".  46 

43. Ibid., p. 262.

44. Martineau, Essays, III, 34;  Carpenter, Martineau, p. 590.

45. James Martineau, The Seat of Authority in Religion (London, 1890), pp. 589, 651. See pp. 188-9 for his critical method with the Synoptic Gospels, and Carpenter, Martineau, pp. 590-1 for his attitude to John.

46. Martineau, Essays, II, pp. 525-38.

[page 46 becomes page 47] However, his rejection of the Messianic claims met with widespread disagreement. Others were less alive than he to the need to take this step in order to save the liberal, sinless Jesus. It is not surprising, of course, that Martineau's preconceptions should have gained the upper hand (the sweetly reasonable Jesus of Matthew Arnold, after all, was another "wooden puppet");  it is more remarkable that, even before reading Strauss, he should have thought that Jesus was mistaken about his Messiahship.

In sharp contrast to Martineau's were the views of his friend Francis Newman (1805-1897). For most of his professional life Newman was Professor of Latin at University College, London, where one of his achievements was to produce a Latin translation of "Hiawatha". Despite a simplicity of manner which charmed his friends he was no simpleton: his distinction between "once-born" characters, knowing little of sin in God's "beautiful and harmonious world", and the more complex "twice-born," whose spiritual life is attained through despair, was adopted by William James in his classic study The Varieties of Religious Experience. Newman had a long association with Unitarianism, although he only joined the denomination in 1876. (His brother wrote: "Is this an, improvement? Perhaps, but he does not believe in Revelation.")  47  His intuition-based theism was very similar to Martineau's. On the subject of Jesus, however, he wrote in 1881: "To correct, cancel or re-write documents of the past until a character depicted in them is made ideally perfect according to our notion of perfection, certainly cannot aid or exalt our morality: what historian of repute will admit that it can aid us to historic truth ?" The plain fact was "that the character of Jesus, as actually depicted in the gospels, abounds with manifest and grievous blots." He was "a religi-ous mendicant" who reasoned evasively, scolded impotently and escaped from the scene of life furtively. Not only was he not perfect, but he was "one whose good behaviour was lower than the average," as he made clear when"he uttered condem-

47. Quoted in S. R. D. Middleton, Newman and Bloxam (London, 1947), p. 205.

[page 47 becomes page 48] nations which nothing could. justify but a divine insight into men's hearts... It would be utterly wrong for one of us to fling at men in authority and clergymen, without proof, without ceremony, and without discrimination, such epithets as fools and blind, hypocrites, children of hell, vipers, whited sepulchres and so on... it would shock them all". It was shocking, too, that "in Luke even a harlot's affection for him is avowed to earn forgiveness for her sins." Jesus brought his crucifixion on himself "by refusing to explain an ambiguous phrase and ambiguous acts." Newman found it clear that "Paul's morality rose high above that attributed by Church tradition to Jesus". Fortunately, "Christianity will remain without Christ.  48 

Whatever else can be said about Newman's Christ, he has the advantage over Martineau's of being more visible in the Gospels. Newman faced up to the fact that, by the standards of nineteenth century liberal Christianity, the Gospels do indeed present us with "one whose good behaviour was below the average". However, he was an extreme case. When he joined the Unitarians in 1876 he wrote "I have not changed towards them; they have moved towards me,"  49  and he became a Vice-President of the British and Foreign Unitarian Association in 1879; but in 1881 an article in The Inquirer, dealing amicably with another critic of Jesus, Charles Voysey, said that although Unitarians readily admitted that Jesus "was not infallible, that he might have made mistakes, might have sometimes said unwise things, we still claim for him the character of a true and noble religious reformer."  50  Unitarianism finally ceased to attract Newman;  but when he died in 1897 an appreciative Inquirer editorial remarked of his controversy with Martineau about Jesus : "It is singular how modern the discussion reads that is carried on in those pages."  51  In 1876 Martineau had written

48. Francis W. Newman, What Is Christianity Without Christ? (London, 1881), pp. 18, 9, 12, 15, 21, 23.

49. Quoted in William Robbins, The Newman Brothers (London, 1966), p. 164.

50. The Inquirer, 29th October, 1881.

51. Ibid., 9th October, 1897.

[page 48 becomes page 49] despondently :"Religion, once drifting away from the Personality of God and resolved into a Moral Idealism (and this is the growing tendency with our young men), loses all that is distinctive and melts into general culture... we are falling, I fear, into far more serious errors than those which other churches still retain."  52  In America, it was being argued that in the interests of "moving on" Unitarianism should establish itself on an ethical rather than a theistic basis. To this the Rev. Jabez T. Sunderland replied in 1886: "a religious body may move on for a time toward the edge of religion - nearer and nearer to the edge - but what if it moves off?"  53 

When Martineau died in 1900 The Inquirer was bordered in black. In the opening years of the new century his disciple James Drummond magisteridy expounded a Christology much like his. Jesus remained the pre-eminent Son of God "whatever blots some may suppose they detect in his character, whatever limitations there undoubtedly are in his teaching".  54  Unlike Martineau, Drummond was ready to call Jesus Lord and Saviour (Martineau had rejected "Saviour" as Messianic);  he also believed that Jesus "thought of himself, in his own spiritual sense, as the Messiah". However, "Nothing could have been more repugnant to his whole tone of thought than the assumption of the power and trappings of royalty".  55  But in 1909, a year after Drurnmond had published this, the Congregational minister K. C. Anderson was proclaiming "The Collapse of Liberal Christianity": "For some decades now, liberal theology has been engaged in the search for the historical Jesus, and the conviction is being slowly forced on all candid inquirers that very little can be known of Him."  56  In the

52. Drummond and Upton, Martineau, II, 32.

53. Quoted in David B. Parke (Ed.), The Epic of Unitarianism (Boston, 1957), pp. 128-9.

54. James Drummond, Some Thoughts On Christology (London, 1902), p. 55.

55. James Drummond, Studies in Christian Doctrine (London, 1908), p. 364.

56. The Hibbert Journal, Vol. VIII, No. 2, p. 301.

[page 49 becomes page 50] same year The Hibbert Journal produced a supplement entitled Jesus Or Christ ? a collection of essays, chosen to include a large variety of Christian opinion, provoked by another Congregationalist who had persisted in detecting blots on Jesus. A contribution from Drummond waved aside these claims, but had no difficulty in detecting blots on such other candidates for human admiration as Plato and the Stoic philosopher Epictetus (the latter of whom told us "not to be too hard upon men who are unchaste before marriage, thus containing in advance all the horrors of the white slave-trade.")  57  The other Unitarian contributor, Joseph Estlin Carpenter, maintained that "With force enough in his faith and elevation enough in his ideals to inspire the best thought of the world and create the noblest character ever since, Jesus remains for us a man of his country, race and time."  58 

Jesus Or Christ? was referred to the next year in the preface to the English translation of Albert Schweitzer's The Quest of the Historical Jesus. Notoriously, Schweitzer's theory that Jesus' preaching was dominated by a mistaken belief that God was about to break into human affairs to establish him at the head of a supernatural Messianic kingdom gave a damaging blow to liberal theology. Unitarian reactions varied. Schweitzer was conspicuous by his absence from S. H. Mellone's The New Testament and Modern Life, which appeared in 1921; but Mellone conceded, in contrast to his teacher Drummond, that Jesus' teaching contained the "fundamental thought of the present world-order quickly passing away and giving place to a coming Kingdom of God on earth, to be inaugurated by his own return in power and glory."  59  In 1945 the impact of Schweitzer and subsequent form-critics was acknowledged in the Unitarian theological report A Free Religious Faith. However, the report's ideas about Jesus resembled Martineau's in

57. Jesus Or Christ? (the Hibbert Journal Supplement for 1909), p. 203.

58. Ibid., pp. 234-5.

59 Sidney Herbert Mellone, The New Testament and Modern Life (London, 1921), p. 65.

[page 50 becomes page 51] 1845. "Jesus may have conceived of himself as the promised Messiah," and it"may well be true that the expectation of the imminent end coloured the moral teaching which Jesus enunciated, but did not condition its essential outlines." The admission that he "cannot have been unfailingly 'sinless' throughout his whole life" is made in rather more guarded tones than Belsham's verdict in 1811 that Jesus was "subject to the same infirmities, the same ignorance, prejudice and frailties" as other men. Finally, "the sublime teacher of Nazareth" is presented, like the Buddha and Socrates, as one of the "light-bringers": "he saw the image of God in every human face, and inspired with new hope even the most sinful and friendless in his own age.  60 

Unlike its American counterpart, English Unitarianism has remained predominantly Christian and theistic. Unitarian scholars - and there are considerably less of them than there used to be - still tend to be optimistic about the chances of recovering a "liberal" Jesus from the New Testament. At the time of writing (September, 1972) the most recent denominational discussion about Jesus was occasioned by two articles in The Inquirer in which the protagonists took up attitudes very similar to those of Newman and Martineau in 1851. Jesus' critic (this time a humanist) argued that "If Jesus taught all the things attributed to him in the New Testament, then he must have been an extremely odd character indeed", while his defender appealed, as Martineau had done, to the common consciousness of Christendom.  61 

It is not necessary to hold a doctrinaire belief in "moving on" in order to see something unsatisfactory about this situation. There are some Unitarians, of course, who feel it would

60. Raymond V. Holt (Ed.), A Free Religious Faith (London, 1945), pp. 157, 166, 169, 171.

61. "Beyond Jesus," by Derek Stirman, and "The Continuing Quest," by John Midgley, in The Inquirer, 20th September, 1969. See Kenneth Twinn (Ed.), Essays In Unitarian Theology (London, 1959), for mid-century attitudes by Christian Unitarians.

[page 51 becomes page 52] be a step in the right direction if their brethren stopped being obsessed with Jesus. Christian Unitarians are bound to take a different view. Traditionalists as they are, it would be surprising if they ignored the Christology of their predecessors: often its very strangeness throws enduring Unitarian traits into sharper relief. But their main difficulty is clear enough. Until the nineteenth century, in common with other Christians, Unitarians unwittingly made Jesus in their own image. As the scholarly problems grew, so did a crisis of confidence from which Christian Unitarians are still suffering. If they are ever to recover from it, they stand badly in need of a new Christology.


The history of Unitarian Christology is inseparable from the history of Unitarianism, the best study of which is Earl Morse Wilbur's two-volume A History of Unitarianism: Socinianism and its Antecedents and In Transylvania, England and America (first published by the Harvard University Press in 1945 and 1952 respectively). For an interesting selection of documents, see David B. Parke (Ed.), The Epic of Unitarianism, available in paperback from the Beacon Press, Boston. More detailed studies of successive stages of development include: George Huntston Williams, The Radical Reformation (London, 1962); H. John McLachlan, Socinianism in Seventeenth-century England (Oxford, 1951);  C. Gordon Bolam, Jeremy Goring, H. L. Short and Roger Thornas, The English Presbyterians (London, 1968);  and Dennis G. Wigmore-Beddoes, Yesterday's Radicals (Cambridge and London, 1971). For general readers wishing to consult original material for themselves there are, in addition to David Parke's anthology, Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism: Channing - Emerson - Parker (Beacon paperback, 1961), introduced by Conrad Wright; and Alfred Hall's James Martineau: Selections, published by The Lindsey Press.


Duncan McGuffie, Adrian Worsfold (webpage)

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful