UU Minute #39

John Biddle

What happened in Britain in 1615? John Biddle was born, known as the father of English Unitarianism.

Queen Elizabeth’s 45-year reign had ended a dozen years before. She was succeeded by King James. The ground for Unitarianism had been laid by four key influences.

1. The Bible – in English translation. 230 years before Biddle’s birth John Wycliffe produced the first English translation of the Bible. The slow, seeping influence of English translation Bibles bolstered the idea that the only authoritative reliable guide to doctrine was the Bible itself – and thus that doctrinal matters not specifically dictated in the Bible – such as the Trinity, the precise nature of the communion bread and wine, infant versus adult Baptism – ought not to be subject to persecution, but rather, diverse persuasion should be tolerated.

2. Influx of Anabaptists and other Protestants. 80 years before Biddle’s birth, Henry VIII made himself head of the Church of England – a break from Papal authority that led to this influx.

3. The Stranger Churches. Begun 65 years before Biddle’s birth, Stranger Churches grew to 5,000 members with branches in eleven towns, propagating ideas of Italian Humanists.

4. Socinian books and tracts, despite attempts to ban them, had been circulating underground urging reason in religion and tolerance of diversity.

Into this context, John Biddle was born, grew up, became a scholar convinced through his study of scripture that the Doctrine of the Trinity was not supported. For this heresy he was repeatedly imprisoned, and when he wasn’t, spent years under house arrest, during which he worked on his theological manuscripts and English translations of Fausto Sozzini works.

Imprisoned again in 1652, then released by the Oliver Cromwell government, Biddle and his adherents began to meet for Sunday worship. They were sometimes called Biddellians, sometimes Socinians, and sometimes Unitarians.

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