Introduction and Thanks

This short account of Unitarianism in Northampton has been written to mark the 175th Anniversary of the first service held at King Street Chapel, on 21st September 1827. I have tried to convey some of my feelings, experienced in reading various archives, and to present an overview of our history. Theology has to be part of the story, but in order to make the text more readable; explanations of Arianism and Socinianism have been placed in an Appendix.

As my friends will know, I am new to Northampton and have only lived here since March 1999. My task would therefore have been impossible without the help of several friends. Martin Weiss has provided valuable documents, memories passed on through his parents, and has read the draft text of the script. Jon Small has also provided valuable documents and helped me in some of the sorting. Alan Ruston, an old friend, Unitarian historian, former member of the Northampton congregation and this year’s President of the General Assembly, has provided me with copies of local newspaper articles and his paper for the Unitarian Historical Society “Unitarianism in Northampton- Rev. John Horsey to Sir Philip Manfield”. To these three friends, I am deeply grateful.

Not surprisingly, it all began with the Rev. Dr Philip Doddridge, the great Nonconformist preacher and teacher, who became minister of the Castle Hill Congregational Church Northampton in 1729. He brought with him from Kibworth in Leicestershire; an “Academy of learning”, where he had himself studied and which had been founded in 1715 by the Rev. John Jennings. Such “Academies” were of vital importance to nonconformity in England up to the 1850s. At the time of the Restoration, the new government of King Charles II, seeking to end the Puritanism of Cromwell’s England, introduced legislation which imposed the theology of the new Book of Common Prayer and made the Anglican Church dominant. Consideration of these changes is beyond the scope of this short text, but we must recall that the Act of Uniformity of 1662 made it a legal requirement for all ministers of religion and all teachers to make a Declaration in support of the 39 Articles in the revised Prayer Book, which henceforth formed the requirement for membership of the Christian Church in England. The objections to the 39 Articles were many, but central to them, was the rejection of an authoritarian Church based on bishops and the desire for simplicity in modes of worship. Nearly 2,000 ministers were forced by this Act and their consciences to leave the church. Nonconformists were excluded from Oxford and Cambridge Universities, so there was a need for new institutions of higher education, for the clergy, for teachers and for others unwilling to accept the new regime. The Toleration Act of 1689 gave limited rights of worship to Protestant Dissenters, but excluded Roman Catholics and Unitarians. It had no affect on the basic regime.

During the twenty one years of Dr.Doddridge’s leadership, the Academy gained a reputation throughout the Midlands and the South of England. Nonconformist churches were sent a steady stream of well qualified ministers, some of them outstanding, who were to make their names in local history. The Rev. Ebenezer Johnston, minister of Westgate Chapel, Lewes, Sussex from 1742 – 1782, was one such example. In the eighteenth century, the traditional beliefs of the trinity, accepted since the fourth century, were being challenged by Arianism and Socinianism. When the first “Unitarian” service was held in London in 1772 a third “ism” was added. (Although the word was used well before this date to indicate the rejection of the Trinity. “Anti-Trinitarianism” was a common expression) (Please see Appendix). All three theologies related to the person of Jesus and at this time, were to some extent interchangeable.

Those who used them were often unaware of the precise differences in their meanings. Jesus was seen as being less than God: the equality of the trinity between God, the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost was not accepted. The doctrine of the redemption that Christ died on the cross as a pre-ordained sacrifice for all sins, past present and future was similarly not accepted. I use “not accepted” as being less offensive, to our traditional Christian friends, than “reject”, which would have been used in former times.

Dr Doddridge had been only too aware of these heresies, but took a middle position. For some time he had, “leaned to the Arian view”, but later modified his opinions. In his lifetime it was said that his church and academy were at the centre of England, and that he was at the centre of nonconformist theology. What concerns us most now in understanding the learned doctor’s role, is his statement that he would “lose my place and even my life, sooner than excommunicate a real Christian for Arian proclivities.” We have this from a short centenary article published in the Northampton Daily Echo in 1927, written by the Rev. Cellan Evans, our minister at the time. He was, wrote Mr. Evans, ”more concerned with a much greater problem: the secularisation of society and the consequent lack of a spiritual dimension to life”. Several historians have seen Dr. Doddridge as a key figure in the later eighteen century religious revival, which was to take wing under John Wesley, with the foundation of Methodism.

Dr. Doddridge died in 1751 and the Academy moved to Daventry. In 1775 the Rev.John Horsey was appointed to Castle Hill. The congregation was in decline and there were fears regarding the introduction of Arianism: his predecessor had been dismissed for “a want of orthodoxy”. Mr. Horsey was a great success, popular and able. His congregation grew and in 1789 the Academy was moved back to Northampton, as it had been “tainted” with Unitarianism in Daventry, and placed under his charge. Under his leadership the Academy became more liberal in its theology and strict trinitarianism began to be questioned. This seems to have been a result of the influences of both the students and John Horsey himself. In 1827, after more than half a century of dedicated and much loved service, he retired and was replaced by the Rev Charles James Hyatt, a traditionalist, who believed in the trinity and was determined to root out what he regarded as wicked heresies. Those of a Unitarian mind however, chose to act first. At the Rev. Hyatt’s first Church meeting held on 2nd November 1827, the following letter, which is quoted in full, was read.

“We the undersigned Members of The Church of Christ assembling in Castle Hill Meeting, having in accordance with the dictates of our consciences, united in the formation of a society of Christians, whose worship is directed to the one God the Father agreeably to the express injunctions of our Saviour, deem it proper to withdraw and hereby beg leave to announce our withdrawment from the worship and communion of the Church to which we have hitherto belonged on account of the discordance existing between the mode of worship there practised and that which we believe to have been enjoined by Christ and his apostles.”

Signed by:

Sarah Haynes Ann Wish Thomas Lawrence
Margaret Cotton William Causby Henry A. Dalb
Ann Horsey E. Causby Thomas Jones