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Wednesday, 22 February 2012

The Struggle for Religious Freedom 3. – 350th Anniversary of the Death of John Biddle in Prison 1662

This year also marks that 350th anniversary of the death in prison of John Biddle on 22 September 1662. Biddle is described as the “Father of English Unitarianism”. He was imprisoned six times for his faith being caught up in the religious turmoil of the Civil War, the Commonwealth and the Restoration. The Commonwealth period brought greater freedom despite formal legal restriction.

Born at Wooton-under-Edge, Gloucester, in 1615 he graduated at Magdalen Hall, Oxford in 1638 and took up a position as master of St Mary de Crypt Grammar School in Gloucester. Through personal study of the bible he reached the conclusion that the doctrine of the Trinity had no basis and composed a short theological statement in which he attempted to establish the unity of God by showing from Scripture that the Holy Spirit was not God but only a manifestation of God (1.)

He spoke freely and openly of the truth as he found it. In December 1645 he was committed to gaol to allow Parliament to be informed of his heresy  - the crime of denying the Trinity. In September 1647 it was ordered that his books be burnt by the common hangman.

He suffered intermittent imprisonment although with the Act of Oblivion of 1652 he had his freedom restored. He gathered a small religious society that met every Sunday for worship, which is regarded as the first avowedly anti-Trinitarian church in Britain. He published his “Twofold Catechism” which Smith describes as “the most radical attack on orthodox Christianity ever to have appeared in Great Britain”. He also published several articles from Polish Unitarians on the use of reason in religion.

He was imprisoned on two more occasions but escaped the death penalty when Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector, stopped the legal proceedings and exiled him to the Isles of Scilly in October 1655. He was a State Prisoner until 1658 and then returned to London and resumed his ministry. The restoration of the Monarchy and reinstatement of the Church of England posed a threat and in June 1662 he and followers were arrested and imprisoned. His friends were fined £20 each and released. He was fined £100 and ordered to be kept in prison until the money was paid. He died within five weeks as a result of disease contracted in gaol. His congregation did not long survive him with his successor, John Knowles being imprisoned.

John Farrington wrote in a memoir “that the aim of this reformer of religion in all his efforts was to promote holiness of life and manners. He valued not his doctrines for speculation but practice….he called upon his hearers to practise the truth as well as to study to find it out.”

(1. Smith, Leonard (2006), “The Unitarians: a short history”, Lensden Pubishing, Arnside p55-56).

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