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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

XVI. The Literature of Dissent

§ 7. The spread of Arianism and the First Socinian Controversy

To this controversy succeeded that concerning occasional conformity which has been already mentioned above. But all these pale in their significance before the Subscription controversy—the doctrinal dispute aroused by the spread of Arianism. Under the commonwealth, Socinianism (represented by Paul Best and John Biddle), Sabellianism (by John Fry), Arianism (by John Knowles, Thomas Collier and Paul Hobson) and universalism (by Richard Coppin, John Reeve and Ludowicke Muggleton), had been alike banned and persecuted. The intolerant attitude of both presbyterians and independents was continued after the restoration; and to this was now added the rigour of the re-established English church. To Richard Baxter, not less than to John Owen or to Stillingfleet, the Socinians were on a par with Mohammedans, Turks, atheists and papists. But, in spite of persecution, the discrete strands of varying anti-Trinitarian thought remained unbroken. Gilbert Clerke of Northamptonshire, a mathematician and, in a sense, a teacher of Whiston, Noval of Tydd St. Giles near Wisbech, Thomas Firmin (Sabellian), William Penn, Stephen Nye (Sabellian), William Freke (Arian), John Smith, the philomath, of St. Augustine’s, London (Socinian), Henry Hedworth, the disciple of Biddle, and William Manning, minister of Peasenhall (1630–1711) (independent), form a direct and unbroken, though irregular, chain of anti-Trinitarian thought, extending from the commonwealth days to those of toleration—not to mention the more covert but still demonstrable anti-Trinitarianism of Milton and Locke.

With the passing of the Toleration act of 1689, the leaven of this long train of anti-Trinitarian thought made itself strongly felt. It first appeared in the bosom of the church of England itself, in the so-called Socinian controversy. In 1690, Arthur Bury, a latitudinarian divine, was deprived of the rectorship of Lincoln college, Oxford, for publishing his Naked Gospel. The proceedings gave rise to a stream of pamphlet literature on both sides. In the same year, 1690, John Wallis, Savilian professor of mathematics at Oxford, was involved in a controversy with a succession of anonymous Arian and Socinian writers (among them William Jones) by the publication of his Doctrine of the Blessed Trinity briefly Explained. Simultaneously, Sherlock’s Vindication of the Holy and ever Blessed Trinity, although directed against the same group of writers, called forth another outburst of pamphleteering from quite another quarter, South leading the attack with his Animadversions upon Dr. Sherlock’s Vindication. The first portion of the anti-Trinitarian literature produced in this triangular contest is collected in The Faith of one God Who is only the Father (1691). In the ranks of dissent, the same controversy manifested itself in the disputes which wrecked the independent and presbyterian “happy union” and, contemporaneously, it appeared in the baptist body. In 1693, Matthew Caffyn, baptist minister at Horsham, Sussex, was for a second time accused before the “Baptist General Assembly” of denying Christ’s divinity; and, when the assembly refused to vote his expulsion, a secession took place, and the rival “Baptist General Association” was formed. In the same year, the anti-Trinitarians published a Second collection of tracts proving the God, and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the only true God (1693). The tenth, and last, tract in this volume was a reply to South’s Animadversions on Sherlock’s Vindication. In the following year (1694), the presbyterian John Howe entered the field with his Calm and sober Inquiry directed against the above tract, and, to make the fight triangular, Sherlock replied to South and Howe together in A Defence of Dr. Sherlock’s notion of a Trinity in Unity. The anti-Trinitarians’ Third collection of Tracts, which followed immediately, was a reply at once to Howe, on the one hand, and to Sherlock, on the other.

This first Trinitarian or so-called Socinian controversy, practically, came to an end in 1708. It received its deathblow, in 1698, by the act for the more effectual suppression of blasphemy and profaneness, which remained on the statute book till 1813. With the exception of John Smith’s Designed End to the Socinian Controversy (1695), the whole of the anti-Trinitarian contributions to it had been anonymous (both Locke and Sir Isaac Newton are supposed to have contributed under the cover of this anonymity); and, with the exception of Howe, no representatives of the professed dissenting denominations had joined in the fray. It is therefore to be regarded, primarily, as a church of England controversy, in which the churchmen had weakened the Trinitarian cause by a triangular and virtually conflicting defence: Sherlock versus South versus Tillotson and Burnet, and all four versus the enemy. The agitation which the controversy produced among the dissenters was mainly reflex, and is apparent more in their domestic quarrels, noted above, than in their published literature. But, disproportionately small as was the dissenting share of the combatants in mere point of literature, the intellectual ferment which ensued in following years showed itself more in the bosom of dissent than in the life and thought of the church of England. Thomas Emlyn, a presbyterian, who was tried at Dublin, in 1693, for publishing his Humble Inquiry into the Scripture account of Jesus Christ, attributed his own Arianism to Sherlock’s Vindication of the Doctrine of the Trinity.