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“Liberal Dissenters Unite to Form the Unitarian Church”

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Chapter XVII: “Liberal Dissenters Unite to Form the Unitarian Church”
(particularly pp. 316-25) Earl Morse Wilbur

A History of Unitarianism, vol. 2
(Harvard, 1952)

Earl Morse Wilbur

Earl Morse Wilbur

The usefulness of this chapter is to understand the different polity background of Unitarianism in Great Britain. To the everlasting confusion of American Unitarians, the name Presbyterian is associated with British Unitarian beginnings (and Irish Unitarians today are known as Non-Subscribing Presbyterians). Wilbur gives the gist of the development, but those who wish to follow in detail will need to turn to Chapter VIII – “The Unitarian Church Organizes, Expands, and Battles Determined Opposition”.

The organized Unitarian movement began simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic in the English speaking world and both movements were characterized by a fundamental fear of organization (see pages 352-3). American Unitarians represented by and large the elite, while British Unitarians were often from the rising mercantile class, who were striving for recognition.

Against state strictures, the major dissenting groups (Baptists, Independents [Congregationalists], and Presbyterians, increasingly called Unitarians) made common cause after the Revolution of 1688. Then, 50 years later, the coalition began to break up as Unitarians began to preach boldly their ideas and were subject to lawsuits over their right to hold ancient properties/trusts. Only in 1844, did the passage of the Dissenters’ Chapel Bill effectively end the court cases.

From a polity viewpoint, the surprising outcome is how American and British Unitarian movements came to similar ways of organization, even though this generalization must admit to qualification.  In recent decades, however, organized Unitarianism in Great Britain has stagnated; so the movement has been organizationally impoverished.

The full text is available online via Starr King School for the Ministry, here.  You will need to navigate to page 187 to find the starting point of the relevant chapter.