A sermon by Rev. James Ishmael Ford delivered at the First Unitarian Church in Providence, RI, April 15, 2012
A TRUE FAITH & VIRTUE
A Reflection on Theophilus Lindsey & the Origins of Rational Religion
The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and You—beside—
The Brain is deeper than the sea—
For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
The one the other will absorb—
The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound—
Today I want to talk about Unitarian origins. Or, more specifically, about the beginnings of English speaking Unitarianism, of what it was that burst forth in the eighteenth century and early nineteenth as the organized, if barely organized spiritual communities in England and North America. I want to speak of Unitarianism and the intellectual, spiritual and institutional origins of our community of liberal faith. We have both English and American roots, but today, I want to take us to England, to the eighteenth century, to that part of our shared story.
Theophilus Lindsey was born in Cheshire, England on the 20th of June 1723. His father Robert was a merchant and investor, who by the time Theophilus was born had been reduced to severely straightened circumstances. Theophilius was Robert’s third child by his second wife. As a child he was described as having “amiable manners, (a) cheerful disposition and (an) unaffected humility.” Later his “prudent and exemplary conduct” would be noted, as well as, interestingly, a “suavity of… manners.” While his father’s fortunes had declined, the family remained well connected and he was sent to university, where he proved an able scholar.
He earned his degree at St John’s College in Cambridge and following graduation was elected a fellow. However his passion was religion applied and instead of remaining and teaching he ordained. Lindsey served a number of parishes and as a domestic chaplain for the Duke of Somerset. According to one biographer he declined an appointment that almost certainly would have led to his becoming a bishop. While he appreciated advancement, he seemed always more interested in practical ministry than high rank.
In 1753, at the age of thirty he accepted appointment to St John the Baptist at Kirby Whiske in Yorkshire. This would affect the whole course of his life. Lindsey fell under the influence of the remarkable liberal theologian, the Archdeacon Francis Blackburne. The two quickly became friends, and the older man’s developed thought inspired the younger man in his own spiritual reflections. As Joan Richards describes in her forthcoming study, “Lindsey was at first shocked, then intrigued and finally captivated by the older man’s conviction that freedom from human religious formulations… constituted the essence of Christ’s message.” This freedom was the freedom to think things through, to fully use the great gift of rationality.
Lindsey eventually married the archdeacon’s step-daughter Hannah Elsworth, who brought a natural ability as a teacher, medical skills, a deep care for the poor and disenfranchised as well as a fervent rationalist ideology to her tasks as more than a helpmeet, but rather as his co-worker in ministry. Also, thanks to the archdeacon Lindsey met Joseph Priestley, the scientist and nonconformist minister who would remain one of his closest friends until Priestley was driven from the country to America for his radical politics.
Unitarian positions had been articulated within the Church of England for some time. For instance the seventeenth century poet John Milton held clear Unitarian views, although he presented his understanding through poetry. Also in the seventeenth century John Biddle a Gloucester schoolmaster, wrote Twelve Arguments Drawn Out of Scripture, publicly calling for an understanding of the pure humanity of Jesus and the unitary nature of God. For his efforts he died in prison.
While dangerous, within a half century there were a number of clerics advocating Unitarian positions, perhaps most notably the priest Samuel Clarke, who wrote a devastating 1712 Unitarian analysis, The Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity. Another critical document for Lindsey was a study by his mentor, Francis Blackburne, Confessional, in which the archdeacon extolled the right of individual conscience over the any authority. Through Lindsey it was eventually published, in 1766.
Joan Richards writes, “For Blackburne, as for most others in the eighteenth century, the major voice undercutting the hierarchical structures of the world in which he was bound, was that of John Locke. In 1690 John Locke published his Essay Concerning Human Understanding in which he described humans as epistemologically powerful beings, endowed with a faculty of reason that was adequate to knowing the truth. In his world, people had no need for authoritarian structures to tell them about their world.” It was in fact the assumptions that allowed critical analysis that would become rational religion. The belief we have within ourselves the ability to know and to think is what led inexorably to Unitarianism.
As Joan notes, for Blackburne and the other rationalists, this all was “was rooted in Locke’s last published book, the 1695 Reasonableness of Christianity. In this work Locke followed his rational human being beyond the worlds of science and of politics into a Christian world that rested on the relationship between a reasonable God and his rational creatures.” While it was in part a defense of divine revelation, its very points would lead eventually to a purely naturalist argument. And it was from this premise all that we are as religious liberals would follow.
The practical comprehensiveness of the Anglican Church allowed any number of views to be held, so long, as has been oft repeated, you don’t do it in the streets and frighten the horses. Rationalists were tolerated so long as they conformed outwardly. But there were places where that creative hypocrisy didn’t fully work. Chief among these were the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion. Formulated during Elizabeth’s reign they were essentially a Calvinist exposition of faith counter balancing the Catholic hierarchy and style of the new Anglican Church as a middle way between Catholicism and Protestantism. Affirmation of the Articles were required for admission to university and prior to ordination and again at any transfer or promotion within the church.
Blackburne and others insisted requiring assent to the Articles was tantamount to requiring assent to a creed in violation of conscience. Within the spirit of Anglicanism’s comprehensiveness many liberals, including Blackburne himself for a number of years would apply a private re-interpretation of the Articles as they entered and advanced within the church. At some point Blackburne felt he could no longer do this, but he was also at a good place in his career, where he could spend the rest of his life.
However, for many, including Lindsey, this private reservation while making a different public affirmation eventually became untenable. And finally over the summer of 1771, led by Lindsey and two others, including another of Blackburne’s sons in law, a number of clergy met and talked at the Feathers Tavern in in the Strand, in London. There they drew up a petition to parliament to end compulsory subscription to the Thirty-nine articles. Two hundred clergy signed the petition.
Lindsey wrote to a friend how “The debate lasted (a) full eight hours, from half past two to eleven. Lord North declared, and it plainly appeared, that it was resolved to receive our Petition, treat it and us civilly, but move to have it lie on the table for six months, ie for ever...” The vote to table was two hundred, seventeen in favor and seventy-one against. A significant minority, it is worth noting, supported this liberal reform.
Following the failure of the Feathers Tavern Petition, Lindsey resigned his ministry in the Church of England, and the family moved to London. Here according to Thomas Belsham, his eventual successor at the Essex Unitarian church, he was “visited by many respectable persons, who expressed their earnest desire for the opening of a place of worship upon principles avowedly Unitarian.”
Historian Will Frank described what then happened. “Lindsey and his friends searched through London in the winter of 1773-74 for a suitable hall to serve as a chapel. In time they stood in front of an awkward and nondescript building on Essex Street, just off the Strand, and leading toward the Thames only a five- minute walk away. It bore the proud name of "Essex House", for it stood on the site of the residence of the Earl of Essex, executed by Queen Elizabeth two centuries before. Lindsey was ushered into a large and simple hall that could seat 300. Mr. Paterson, a book auctioneer, had just vacated the premises, and a lease could be had. Lindsey had found his chapel.”
Frank continues how on the 17th of April 1774, as if inexorably, all that had come before was now fulfilled. “No public notice was given for fear of opposition, but the word spread among the Dissenters of London. Even the neighborhood was buzzing with the report of a lady's maid that ‘a gentleman was going to open a room and preach a new religion.’ On the appointed Sunday, two hundred souls filled the former auction room. Lindsey preached that first sermon on ‘The Unity of the Spirit and the Bond of Peace.’ He was pleased, as he reported, to see ‘a much larger and more respectable audience than I could have expected.’” And with this, “organized Unitarianism in Britain was now launched.” Lindsey would serve Essex House for twenty years, retiring in July 1793.
Some part of me simply delights in the fact that the events, which would lead to the establishment of a Unitarian church in England, took its genesis at an English bar. But there are more important things to hold up. For me there are two points in particular to consider in the life and ministry of Theophilus Lindsey.
The lesser, perhaps, but very important, is that when he took off the priestly alb, put on the black gown and preached that sermon in 1774 he gave liberal religion, rational religion its English institutional origins. What he began would continue down to this day as the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches. These people are Unitarian Universalism’s closest relatives.
And, so that second, and more important point, Lindsey held the very same ideas and spiritual intuitions that were being articulated across the ocean in New England. And if we want to know who we are, where we stand, and how we engage the interior life and from there, how we make our decisions on how to act in this world, we should attend to Theopholius Lindsey and our other founders.
Now Lindsey was deeply concerned with the Christian faith, and believed that it was a path to eternal life. I think many of us here no longer feel quite so connected, and for most of us who do, the Christian story is a lovely myth, a powerful expression of the human mind and heart, which can be a path to wisdom in this life, giving it the cast of eternity. But many of us today, perhaps most, do not believe in a literal eternal life. We have followed our own evolution trusting in the miracle of the human mind, informed, reminded along the way of the miracle of the human heart, as well; and with both, mind and heart as one, we have come to a rational and naturalistic spirituality as our touchstone.
But, and this is so important, to arrive at where we are we followed much the same method as Lindsey did. We are without a doubt inheritors of the way of rational religion. The only differences lie in time, in how we have continued to critically examine our premises, continuing ever deeper into where a liberal faith, a rational religion will take us.
Still we are children of the Enlightenment. So, like when we read that great Enlightenment document the American Declaration of Independence, we feel a stirring in our hearts. We know in our bones it is something true. And we know those principles must be applied, over and over again.
And so, as a spiritual community, our Enlightenment inspired faith has shifted from any belief in external authorities, or at least in external authorities alone, to a confidence that the human mind can know enough, and if we’re willing to explore relentlessly what we find within our minds and hearts, and are willing to check them against the findings of our sisters and brothers who are also walking the same way, we can find a great healing, we can find a sense of eternity that is profound and healing.
And there have been changes. We’re a bit different than Theopholius Lindsey and the other founders of our way. They expressed a belief in the orderliness of the universe and the human mind. We, in general, are a tad more cautious. They also expressed a belief in the eternal goodness of the human heart. Here, again, we, in general, are a bit more cautious.
The questions of God as a human like consciousness and will have long been open for discussion among us, while they were not really so much so at our beginning. Today some, many of us, perhaps, feel some sense of goodness and goodwill in the universe, and can name that intuition God. Many of us find this universe wildly open, where meaning and meaninglessness are strictly the concerns of humans, but not of the universe writ large. There is room enough within our own comprehensive faith for both premises. The rule is that we keep our hearts and minds open about what we consider axioms, even as we critically examine how we live out of those primary intuitions.
And so, here we are, you and I, ordinary people not separate from this world, flesh of this world, children of this universe, opening our hearts and our minds, facing what is. And in so doing, we’ve found a wonder and a miracle, a healing path, allowing us, to use an image from old China, to walk in this world with bliss bestowing hands.
Our faith. Our virtue.