The Road To Unitarianism (1)

Earl Morse Wilbur, the foremost historian of Unitarianism, identified the 1531 publication of Michael Servetus’s De Trinitatis Erroribus, which criticized orthodox Trinitarianism, as the start of the movement that developed into contemporary Unitarianism.1 After infiltrating Reformed, Presbyterian, Baptist, and Anglican churches in Europe, anti-Nicene theology initially surfaced in the New World in the Congregational churches of New England.2 Lax membership requirements enabled closeted anti-Nicenes to unite with congregations. Taking for granted that everyone believed the doctrine of the Westminster Confession (or the Savoy Declaration after 1680), the doctrinal standard of the Congregational churches, some congregations neglected to question new members about their beliefs. Typically, new members were required merely to assent to a covenant of obedience. The covenant of the Congregational church in Salem reads: “We covenant with the Lord, and one with another, and do bind ourselves in the presence of God, to walk together in all his ways, according as he is pleased to reveal himself unto us in his blessed word of truth.”3 Many congregations kept these same covenants after they officially transitioned from Congregational to Unitarian. Some churches attempted to impose a creed on members only after anti- Nicene theology had divided the congregation. Oftentimes, it was too late. The Half-Way Covenant, adopted in 1662, further diminished church membership with its allowance of the children of the unconverted to be baptized. After affirming the church’s covenant, the baptized became half-way members that could not vote or take communion. Once converted, they became full members. Many maintained their half-way status for the entirety of their lives.

Anti-Nicene theology increased in popularity in the years following the First Great Awakening. The enthusiasms of the revival drove some to seek a more reasonable faith. The impassioned pleas of the itinerant preachers turned many from Calvinism, which had become associated with the awakening, to Arminianism. Congregational churches divided between a liberal, anti-revival, Arminian branch and a conservative, pro-revival, Calvinistic branch. Some of the liberals even modified the catechism to mitigate its Calvinism. A reading of Scripture using reason alone as guide drove some to question the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. Matters intensified in 1756 after the anonymous reprinting of An Humble Inquiry into the Scripture Account of Jesus Christ by Thomas Emlyn, a Presbyterian minister in Dublin. The original publication of the work in 1702 resulted in Emlyn being tried and convicted of blasphemy for teaching Arianism. Needless to say, the reprinting of Emlyn’s scandalous work caused quite a stir in New England. Gradually, anti-Nicene ministers became bolder in their public pronouncements. Jonathan Mayhew and his fellow Congregationalist minister, Ebenezer Gay, known as the “Father of Unitarianism in America,” began preaching against Calvinism, the legitimacy of creeds, and the Trinity. More ministers and churches became convinced of anti-Nicene theology, so that by the close of the eighteenth century, the “Trinitarian Controversy” sharply divided Congregational churches.

What lessons does this brief account of Unitarianism’s origins in America provide for Reformed Christians today?

1. Creeds, confessions, and membership requirements are only as strong as the men tasked with imposing them. The Westminster Standards (or 3 Forms of Unity) cannot prevent our churches from becoming infected with anti-Nicene theology, or any other heresy, if ministers and elders sworn to uphold the Standards refuse to protect the flock by driving out aberrant theology.

2. Reformed Christians must strive to maintain the purity of our theology and practice by engaging in self-critique. The First Great Awakening contained many positive elements. There were excesses and abuses, however. Unfortunately for Calvinists, the excesses outweighed the positives in the eyes of the eyes of liberal-leaning Christians. They came to identify Calvinistic theology with the enthusiasms. Had more Calvinists been critical of the abuses, perhaps the entire movement would not have been stained. Of course, no efforts could persuade those absolutely convinced of liberal theology. More self-critique, however, might have maintained the integrity of Calvinism in the mind of some onlookers.


1. Earl Morse Wilbur, A History of Unitarianism: Socinianism and its Antecedents (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1945), 11.

2. Anti-Nicene theology rejects the rulings of the Council of Nicaea (325) and its creedal statement, later expanded at Constantinople in 381. Ante-Nicene Christianity allowed for a multiplicity of views concerning the Deity of Christ and the person of Jesus, according to the anti-Nicenes. Nicaea shifted Christianity from ethics to creeds, from following Jesus to learning principles about him. Anti-Nicene theology encompasses Arianism, Socinianism, Unitarianism, and other anti-Trinitarian positions.

3. Wilbur, Our Unitarian Heritage (Boston: Beacon Press, 1925), 236.

Part 2

    Post authored by:

  • Dan Borvan
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    Dan was educated at Westminster Seminary California and Oxford University. He wrote an MA thesis on Faustus Socinus (2011) and a DPhil. thesis (Oxford, 2019) on Pierre Du Moulin, “Fighting For The Faith: Pierre Du Moulin’s Polemical Quest.” Dan is chairman of the Heidelberg Reformation Association and pastor of Christ Reformed Church in Anaheim, CA.

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  1. You should track the replacement of the Psalms with man made counterfeits in NE in relationship to this. Can’t have the Psalms (which are inherently Trinitarian) countering the Unitarian preaching.

  2. Thank you so much, Dan, for your post. First, could we please just clarify what you mean by Unitarianism? In the UK it is basically Socinianism (The British Unitarians are degenerated British General Baptists), and since so much of your training and ministry seems to have been this side of the pond, it may be that that is what you mean – Certainly your post would suggest this. But I was told by someone from the Westminster Banner that American Unitarianism, as embraced by the likes of Emerson, Holmes, Whittier, etc., is a much subtler heresy, subtler even than Arianism. Could you please just clarify that this is not what you mean, and, perhaps, clarify what American Unitarianism is (I am a bit hazy)?
    As regards Wilbur’s assertion, surely “De Trinitatis … ” is the start of a revival of the movement, rather than of the movement itself? After all, isn’t what Servetus taught basically the same as what Arius taught, whose followers got powerful enough to execute atrocities, e.g., The Vandals? And, before Arius, is there any hard evidence about what the Ebionites believed?
    My line with JWs, etc. is generally to stress the infinite nature of the “smallest” sin, resulting in the absolute necessity for an infinite Saviour, if at the same time the elect are to be saved and the wicked to be justly punished.

  3. Hi John,

    Yes, you are correct in pointing out that British Unitarians are somewhat different than Unitarians in America. I cannot delineate accurately the nuances of American Unitarianism (or British or Transylvanian, etc.) in this comment or even in the post. The theology is much too complex. Hence, I use the broad “anti-Nicene” to encompass all radical theology (e.g. Arianism, Socinianism, anti-trinitarianism, etc.) and “Unitarian” to refer to the specific group that developed within the Congregational church in the eighteenth century. Wilbur details the subtle differences in both of his works that I cited. For anti-Nicenes, see George Huntston Williams, The Radical Reformation.
    Wilbur credits De Trinitatis as the start of the anti-Nicene movement that still exists today in global Unitarian Universalism. He sees a direct lineage. Of course, heterodox theology with regard to the Trinity has existed since the first century. It is difficult, however, to trace a direct line from the groups existing prior to the Council of Nicaea to today’s UUs. Everything gets fuzzy in the medieval period. Contemporary UUs look to the ante-Nicenes for inspiration but do not attempt to outline any form of unbroken succession of theology or office.

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