UU Minute #44

Britain's First Unitarian Church

Benjamin Franklin was 68 years old. It was the year 1774, and Franklin was in London. America had not declared its independence, and Franklin was in England in what we now know was the vain hope of influencing England to be more considerate of the needs of its settler-colonialists. While he was there, Franklin heard about a new church that was forming, the first of its kind, called Unitarian. The church’s opening had not been advertised, but word of mouth reached the American visitor, and when he showed up for the service on April 17, 1774, some 200 people were also in attendance – dissatisfied members of the Church of England (a.k.a. Anglican Church).

So it was that Benjamin Franklin was there for the first worship of the first avowedly Unitarian congregation in England – 200 years after Unitarian churches had been established in Transylvania and Poland.

Early Unitarianism in Britain is less a stream than “a series of unconnected whirlpools,” but it seems here to have at last found its footing. Theophilus and Hannah Lindsey and a few friends had rented an auction hall on Essex Street, fitted it as a chapel. Theophilus, then age 51, had just left the Anglican ministry, and he led the service using an unconventional liturgy and without wearing the customary clerical vestment. He preached about the need for a harmonious spirit in religion – which seems to be a particular concern of those who have recently split off.
“The congregation prospered from the start. Within three years they purchased and remodeled the Essex Street property to provide a large chapel above and living quarters below. The time, it seems, was ripe for just such an innovative institutional expression of Christian faith.” (Charles Howe, For Faith and Freedom)

NEXT: Theophilus Lindsey Takes the Next Antitrinitarian Step

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