UU Minute #46

The Friendship of Theophilus Lindsey and Joseph Priestley

As we have seen, Unitarian history from its beginning has been the intertwining of its two fundamental principles: critique of the doctrine of the trinity, and support of religious toleration. We get our name from the first part, but it’s the second point that’s most central to who we are.

Theophilus Lindsey, took the critique of the Trinity a further step forward, declaring not only with Arius that Christ was not the equal of God, and, with Sozzini, that Christ not divine, but that Christ was not a proper object of worship.

Lindsey was also strong on the second point: the first Unitarian church in England, which Lindsey began in 1774, was remarkable for upholding freedom of belief.

Five years earlier, in 1769, Lindsey had begun a close friendship with Joseph Priestley. Lindsey was then age 46 and was an Anglican Priest serving as Vicar of Catterick; and Priestley was 36 and minister of Mill Hill Chapel, a dissenting congregation in Leeds, 75 kilometers south. Under each other’s influence, the two friends had become more anti-trinitarian, and more committed to religious toleration.

So when, five years later, Theophilus founded a church committed to not restricting its members’ beliefs, his friend Joseph hurried to his aid. When Lindsey’s new liturgy was criticized, Priestley wrote a pamphlet defending it. Priestley attended Lindsey's church regularly in the 1770s and occasionally preached there.

In 1780, Priestley moved to Birmingham, and before long, there were two Unitarian churches in England – Lindsey’s in London, and Priestley’s in Birmingham.

Theophilus Lindsey and Joseph Priestley belong among the great friendships of Unitarian history, along with Giorgio Biandrata and Ferenc David, and as we shall see later, Curtis Reese and John Dietrich – and Mary Safford and Eleanor Gordon.

NEXT: Joseph Priestley, part 1

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