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Emergence of modern Unitarianism

It was however among this environment of extreme suppression that the modern Unitarian movements arose. Simultaneously and independently organised churches arose in Poland and Hungary around 1550. In 1565 the Polish diet of Piotrkow excluded anti-Trinitarians leading to them developing independently as “the Minor Church”, or more popularly, “the Polish brethren”. Originally Arian, in 1579 they adopted the views of Fausto Sozzini and in 1602 established the only printing press from which came the Racovian Catechism in 1605. Less than five years laters a Catholic reaction began, led by Jesuits. The Polish Brethren were thoroughly suppressed after 1638, when two boys pelted a crucifix with rocks outside Raków. Soon afterwards the Polish Diet gave anti-Trinitarians the option of conformity or exile.

Many of the Polish exiles moved to Hungary where the discovered an independent Unitarian Church had been established, largely by the work of Francis David (1510-1579), who moved from Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Calvinism before settling down as a Unitarian. In 1564 he was elected by the Calvinists as “bishop of the Hungarian churches in Translyvania” and was appointed to the court to John Sigismund, prince of Translyvania. Over a debate on the nature of the trinity, the now King Sigismund, issued an edict of religious liberty and allowed which allowed David to transfer his episcopate from the Calvinists to the Unitarians. Apart from the minor honours of being the one and only Unitarian king in history, Sigismund’s edict was the first proclamation of religious freedom in Europe. Sigismund was however succeeded by a Catholic and Francis David was imprisoned as an “innovator” and died in prison.

In the mid-seventeenth century an abortive fourth canon against Socinian books and the intervention of Cromwell in the cases of Paul Best (1590-1657) and John Biddle (1616-1662) led to greater openness in discussing religious matters. The philanthropist Thomas Frimin (1632-1697) was particularly active and it is from Frimin that the word “Unitarian” makes its first appearance and appearence in a historical study of the thought (1687). Shortly afterwards a preacher, Thomas Emlyn, took up the title in 1705, although this was contrary to the misnamed “Toleration Act”, which excluded preaching or writing against the doctrine of the trinity. Around this time liberal Presbyterians and Independents coalesced with many transforming themselves into congregationalist and Unitarian churches. The formation of a distinct Unitarian denomination in the English speaking world can be noted in the succession of Theophilus Lindsey in 1773 from the Anglican Church. In 1813, the penal acts against deniers of the trinity was finally repealed and in 1825 the British and Foreign Unitarian Association was formed.

In the United States, Harvard College was providing advanced theological studies and more than a score of clergy in New England were essentially Unitarian. Both the influences of the British Unitarian rationalist interpretation of the scriptures and French-influenced Deism was strong during the American Revolution. The first official congregational acceptance of Unitarianism was at King’s Chapel in Boston in 1782 and by 1785 Unitarians were also noted in Philadelphia, Charleston, Pittsburgh, Hallowell, Cape Cod and elsewhere. Along with Joseph Priestley’s immigration in 1794 and the inauguration of Henry Ware as professor of divinity at Harvard College in 1805, the liberal faith found great impetus and at one stage in the early 19th century all the churches in Boston bar one were occupied by Unitarian preachers.

With a flavour that was extremely spiritualistic, and even somewhat mystical, the Transcendentalists of the United States made enormous headway and were significantly aided in friendly competition by their more rationalistic critics, the Free Religious Association. With key leaders in Dr. William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson and ultimately Theodore Parker, and with the formation of the American Unitarian Association in 1825, missionaries were sent throughout the new country, poor churches were supported and new ones established in nearly all the states. The Harvard Divinity School was distinctly Unitarian from its formation in 1816 to 1870, when it became a department of Harvard University. Other Unitarian schools established in this period include the Meadville Theological School (1844) and the Unitarian Theological Schook in Berkeley, California, in 1904.