Anti-Trinitarianism was practiced in sixteenth century Europe and was part of the Radical Reformation. It is a heresy of the Church which denies the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost, three coequal Persons of One Nature. A number of heretical [i.e. non-official views] of the Trinity have appeared since the early Church.
One such form of anti-Trinitarianism theology was prominent in Sixteenth and Seventeenth century Europe was known as Socinianism. Socinianism is based of the works of Faustus Socinus.
Socinus maintained that there was only God the Father, a single divine being. The Holy Ghost was not a person but a divine force, not God and not coequal to the Father. Jesus Christ was an exceptional man without sin, but not divine. Salvation required a holy life after the example of the man, Jesus Christ. The Scriptures were the only source of truth.
From 1578-79, Socinus attempted to moderate the radical theology of
A major religious center was established at Racow, Poland where Socinianism thrived until 1658. Socinus' moderate theology spread to Holland, Transylvania, and Lithuania. From Holland it made its way into England. It was also known as Unitarianism.
Socinianism had its roots in Europe, but developed somewhat independently on English soil. As with many other continental influences coming to England, these came from immigrating dissidents seeking their own religious freedom. Anabaptist and other radical groups also found this doctrine appealing which led to confusion and blurring on the part of the early English authorities between the various dissident sects, all voicing rather similar theologies of the Trinity. English authorities just treated them all as heretics.
Anti-Trinitarianism was one of the few heresies that were pursued consistently and vigorously from King Henry VIII to Charles I. There were a number of individuals who suffered death as heretics for their divergent views of the Trinity and of Christ in the eyes of the English Church.
It was under King James I (1603-1625) that public burning of heretics was ended, rather
that they would just rot in prison in private.
During the 1630's, there was a growing interest in religious toleration by some English theologians influenced by the Dutch theologian Jacobus Acontius' work Satanae Strategemata (1631). Socinianism was viewed favorably as a form of religious toleration during this period by the writers known as the "Oxford Latitudinarians" who attempted to promoted a broader Church view of religious practice and toleration.
Unfortunately growing intolerance by pro-presbyterian forces in Parliament led to the censorship of most non-calvinistic positions. This broader latitudinarian view would led to more open dissenting voices in the 1640's. Socinianism would become more closer linked with heretical anti-Trinitarianism in the 1640's.
Paul Best (1590?-1657) an English Socinian
During 1617, Best inherited the family estate which he sold, this allowed him to travel in Europe from the 1620's to the early 1630's. He was a Member of Parliament (MP) from Yorkshire. He travelled to Europe during the late 1630's into the early 1640's and may have during this period that he became influenced by the Polish Brethern Socinians ). He served in the Parliamentary Army during 1644.
In 1645, Paul Best was brought up on charges of anti-Trinitarianism views by the Long Parliament (1640-49). He was held in the Gatehouse Prison from 1645 at the Houses of Parliament (Westminster). In April 1646, he wrote A Letter of Advice unto the Ministers Assembled at Westminster, he was seeking reconsideration. This was followed by a petition in August 1646: To Certaine Honourable Persons of the House of Commons requesting a formal trial.
His major work on Socinianism was Mysteries Discovered (1647), one of the earliest books on Socinianism in England. His work was ceased and burned. He was sentenced to death, but a number of stays, he was released later that same year probably with the assistance of Oliver Cromwell.
There are some questions that Paul Best may have had some early influence on John Biddle while they were both together in the Gatehouse (Westminster). During 1647, Paul Best and John Biddle were condemned in the publication: A Testimony of the Truth of Jesus Christ issued by members of the London clergy.
After his release by Parliament in 1647, Best retired to his family estate at Emswell, and there spend his later years in writing. Best died on 17 September 1657 in Great Driffield, Yorkshire. Paul Best was a major voice in the early spread of Socinianism in England.
John Biddle (1615-1662) and the Biddlians
One of the most prominent figures in the development of English
Socinianism in Stuart England was
Biddle came from a working background. He received some early financial support from Lord Berkeley. Biddle graduated from Magdalen College (Oxford), a B.A. in 1638, and received a M.A. in 1641. He was known for his independence of mind, and scholarship in Greek. Biddle was offered the mastership of the Crypt Free Grammar School at Gloucester in May 1641.
John Biddle was known as a biblical scholar, and became well known for his translations of the Scriptures. In the course of his own scholarly research he became interested in early Church dogma and textual criticism. These studies would led Biddle to reevaluate the current Church theology against his own research based on the earlier Greek and Latin texts of the Scriptures.
Unfortunately for Biddle, he was not discrete about his own research, or his own personal views. In 1644, he was questioned by the local authorities at Gloucester to answer charges brought against him for anti-Trinitarianism views, but he was released on bail.
Biddle than wrote a manuscript entitled: XII Arguments drawn out of the Scriptures (1644) based on his own textual research. Copies of this manuscript fell into the wrong hands and it was traced back to Biddle. These were seized and burned. In 1645, he found himself in jail again, and probably out of a job. Biddle would find himself in and out of prison for most of the rest of his life.
Biddle was out on bail in 1647, but with the publication of his earlier manuscript Twelve Arguments drawn out of the Scriptures (1647), which brought him before the religious authorities again for questioning and jail. It was during 1647 that Paul Best (1590?-1657) a fellow prisoner was released from the Westminster Gatehouse, and retired to Emswell.
Biddle's second publication: A Confession of Faith touching the Holy Trinity (1648) on Jesus Christ the Man only enflamed his current situation. His work: The Testimonies of Irenaeus added historical weight to Biddle's arguments. His work came to the notice not only of the local authorities, but the growing conservative and anti-Socinian factions of Parliament.
Parliament had proposed and passed legislation directed at Anti-Trinitarianism heresy punishable by death. The legislation was directed against the growing interest in Socinianism including John Best and John Biddle in particular. Fortunately for Biddle the enforcement of the new legislation lacked any teeth and it soon took a back-seat to the larger political considerations of 1649.
Biddle found solace from 1649-52 in Strattfordshire with friends away from London. Biddle's translation of The Racovian catechisme (1652) was promptly seized and burned. Biddle was back in prison again.
Many religious prisoners were released under the Act of Oblivion (1651/52) which was passed by Oliver Cromwell. The new legislation provided John Biddle, his friends and others with a new found sense of religious freedom.
In 1652, John Biddle established a small Socinian congregation in London. His Sunday services soon brought criticism from other local ministers. His services were being disrupted by outside agitators. There was a great deal of effort expended by others to close his congregation. It was during this period that the term "Biddlians" came into vogue.
John Biddle and his Socinian friends were coming under greater public attacks for their anti-Trinitarian theology. Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector (1653-58) issued the Instrument of Government (1653) which guaranteed general freedom of worship to most Christian congregations. This helped establish the Biddlians on a firmer legal footing, and they resumed their regular Sunday services.
During 1653, Biddle was busy re-publishing some of his older texts, and some new works and translations. Biddle was making the most of his current freedom and time.
Biddle issued A Twofold Catechism (1654) which stated Biddle's basic socinian tenets based on his Bible research. This work was quickly confiscated and burned. The Council of State immediately responded with there own publications. Biddle was arrested and sentenced to six months in prison in Dec. 1654 under a threat of death by Parliament. Oliver Cromwell may have exercised his own personal influence on Biddle's behalf to lift the death threat against him.
Only just out of prison, Biddle was again brought up on new changes. This time he was charged under the old Draconian Ordinance (1648) for blasphemy which was thought to be invalid. In 1655, Parliament was still trying to sentence Biddle to death. As part of a political compromise with Parliament, Cromwell was forced to exile Biddle to the Scilly Isles off Lands End in Cornwall. Biddle spent the next three years there until he was released in 1658.
Once freed from his prison cell, Biddle returned to his London congregation that had remained loyal and active during his exile. But with the sudden death of his benefactor, Oliver Cromwell in 1658, Biddle decided it was more prudent to retreated back into the countryside away from the public scrutiny of London and Parliament. His congregation may have dissolved of its own accord at this time.
At the Restoration of King Charles II (1660) and the reestablishment of the Church of England, nonconformity was again being actively weeded out. The Act of Uniformity (1662) impacted all dissident clergy and sects many of whom went underground out of the public eye.
Charges of anti-Trinitarianism were being levelled against Biddle and his followers. Biddle was discovered conducting religious meetings in his home during 1662, He was hauled into court, charged and fined £100.00 under the Common Law, not on religious charges. Unable to pay the rather large fine, Biddle was sent to prison where he contracted a fatal illness and died there a short time later on 22 September 1662.
Biddlians did not display any of the radical dissident nature of many Interregnum sects, but their theology offended many groups including the Church of England. Imposed religious toleration during the Interregnum allowed the Biddlians, and others to practice their faith, but the conservative forces in Parliament kept them under tight control.
John Biddle was a biblical scholar and a quite man of principle. Biddle
with others were some of the first to sow the seeds of Unitarianism in
England. English Socinianism went underground in the 1660's. There was an new interest in Biddle's works in 1691. During the 1770's