In Evangelical Times, August 2016, we looked at the historical and theological ethos of the nation after the restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1660. Our story proper begins in Exeter, Devon, in 1717. It involves two Presbyterian ministers, Joseph Hallett and James Peirce.
Joseph Hallett was principal of a dissenting academy in the city. Over a period of time, these two gentlemen became enamoured by William Whiston’s heterodox theories, especially his denial of the deity of Christ. Rather than give up their positions in their churches, Peirce and Hallett practised deception upon their congregations.
Peirce wrote: ‘In conversation, I had always avoided such intricate points, and might easily do so still. But my chief concern was about my preaching and praying.
‘Concerning the former, I was resolved to keep more close to the Scripture expressions than ever, and venture to say very little in my own words of a matter about which I was in such doubt myself. As to the latter, I could not find there was any occasion for making much alteration, whichever notion should appear like the truth.
‘I was by this time thoroughly convinced that the common doctrine was not according to the Scriptures, and was settled in my present opinion, and from my first coming I avoided the common doxology’.
Yet, at the same time, in a sermon on Presbyterian ordination, he declared: ‘Those who are admitted to the office should be believers. The necessity of this is very obvious — that which is necessary in a private Christian, to give him a right in the sight of God to the communion of the church, must be for those who are admitted into the ministry — a profession of faith’.
Peirce and Hallett were not allowed to carry on their deceptions for long. Indeed, Hallett and his students did not long conceal their admiration for the theories of Whiston. As for Peirce, ‘There was a vacuity in his ministrations felt by all who looked for spiritual nourishment … many freely expressed their doubts as to the soundness of [his] views’.
As a result, Peirce was requested to preach a sermon on the deity of Christ, in which his teaching was, to say the least, ambiguous. Suddenly suspicion fell upon all the dissenting ministers in Exeter and the surrounding areas. Only one pastor, John Lavington, ‘seemed to adhere firmly to the Trinitarian system’ (J. Waddington, Congregational history, Vol. II).
In the event, seven Presbyterian ministers were invited to attend a meeting in Exeter with 13 deputed laymen to establish the true state of affairs. The ministers were invited to declare their faith in the Trinity in the words of Article 1 — ‘Of Faith in the Holy Trinity’ — from the 39 Articles of the Church of England.
Now here is ‘going down to Egypt for help’ with a vengeance! What had happened to the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) that Nonconformists needed to go to an Anglican document to prove their orthodoxy? It seems that the WCF had already fallen into disuse.
Peirce, Hallett and some others declined this proposal, protesting that the Scriptures alone were the true rule of faith. ‘Fair enough’, replied their inquisitors, ‘but what doctrine do you deduce from the Scriptures? Do you draw from the Bible the teachings that have been held by the church from ancient times and taught by the Presbyterian church, of which you are ministers?’
When the ministers again refused to make an explicit declaration of their faith, the meeting drew to a close and the congregations served by these men were split. Some declined to listen any longer to their teaching, but others (whether unaware of or unconcerned by the controversy) continued to hear them.
Since the matter had now reached an impasse, both sides appealed for help to their colleagues in London. The debate had attracted the attention of the press and there began to be a general alarm among the dissenting churches at the spread of Unitarian doctrine.
Various London ministers drew up a paper on the matter and submitted it to the consideration of a committee, composed of members of the three dissenting denominations — Baptist, Congregational and Presbyterian.
After much debate and several revisions of the paper, it was decided that the committee was unauthorised to send it to Exeter in its own name; and it was determined to call a meeting of all Nonconformist ministers in London and invite representatives from further afield.
The meeting took place at Salters’ Hall, St Swithin’s Lane, London, on 19 and 24 February 1719. One hundred and ten ministers attended, of whom 32 were Baptists, the majority of these representing Arminian churches.
John Sharpe of Frome attended on behalf of the Particular Baptists in the West of England and told the meeting that, ‘If they broke up without coming to a declaration of their faith in the doctrine of the Trinity, it would be the greatest blow imaginable to the dissenting interest in the West Country’ (J. G. Fuller, A brief history of the Western Association, 1843). Many others, however, took a different view.
It was only a few years since the Nonconformist churches had been subject to persecution. As recently as 1714 a proposal had been put before Parliament to make anyone engaged as a schoolmaster or instructor of youth conform to the 39 Articles. This Schism Act was close to being passed, when Queen Anne died and parliamentary business was broken off.
Many dissenters, however orthodox in theology, objected to having to subscribe to a man-made document, especially Anglican. So the delegates at Salters’ Hall, instead of focusing on whether Unitarianism was scriptural, debated whether ministers of dissenting churches should be required to subscribe to a confession of faith.
In the course of the second day, it was proposed that the advice to be sent to Exeter should be accompanied by a declaration of the assembly’s faith in the Trinity. Shute Barrington, the Parliamentary advocate of the Nonconformists though a complete sceptic, wrote this account of what happened next: ‘After a great deal of bustle, heat, invective and overbearing treatment, the question was, with great difficulty … to be determined.
‘On the appearance of hands, the affirmative with great triumph assumed the majority. But a division was insisted upon, and the negatives were to go up to the gallery. While this was doing, it was very indiscreetly called out by some person, “You that are against persecution, come upstairs!” which was pretty evenly balanced by one on the other side crying out, “You that are for the doctrine of the Trinity, stay below!”’
When the votes were counted, it was found that the proposal had failed by 57 votes to 53. It was determined that, ‘No human compositions, or interpretations of the doctrine of the Trinity, should be made a part of these articles of advice’.
It should not be supposed that all 57 of those who voted against the proposal (the ‘non-subscribers’ as they came to be known) were Unitarians. Several were entirely orthodox, but could not bring themselves to impose a non-biblical creed upon their fellows. So the old saying was proved true, that ‘in order that evil may flourish, all that is required is for good men to do nothing’.
According to J. Waddington (ibid.), the non-subscribers celebrated their victory as ‘the triumph of liberty over oppression, of liberality over bigotry, of divine authority over human usurpation and of the sacred Scriptures over creeds and confessions’. Events soon proved otherwise.
It is recorded that twelve Particular Baptists voted for the proposal, three against. Most Congregationalists voted in favour; most Presbyterians and General Baptists, against.
To be concluded
Stephen Owen is a deacon at Scott Drive Church, Exmouth, and author of the Martin Marprelate blog (www.marprelate.wordpress.com).