Dr. Leonard Smith was principal of the Unitarian College Manchester from 1991 to
2002, and Bishop Fraser Lecturer in Ecclesiastical History (part-time) in
the University of Manchester.
Overall this book is worth buying, it is well written , imaginatively illustrated. There are three broad sections, one on Europe, one on England (I am afraid that the rest of Britain is not particularly covered ) and North America.
Unitarianism focuses on the oneness of God, rejecting the Trinity. Nearly all Unitarians reject the notion of eternal damnation, and also tend to favour 'Universalism', and tolerance of all faiths. Though the first use of the term 'Unitarian' appears in 1672, Dr. Smith's approach is to start with the sixteenth century.The culmination of the Protestant Reformation, the rise of printing, and the emphasis on reading the Bible for oneself, led to a re-run of crucial debates that the Church had managed to avoid since the Council of Nicea of 325. The author traces the emergence of opposition to the concept of the Trinity in parts of Switzerland, then Poland and Hungary, particularly Transylvania, (now part of Romania), and shows how the new Protestant faith at times could be virulently against challenges to the Trinity, for example Calvin took a leading role in ensuring the Michel Servetus was convicted and sentenced to death in 1553 for his writings against the Trinity. The book then highlights other authors who challenged the Trinity such as Faustus Socinius and Francis David, and Dr. Smith presents a case that the Minor Reformed Church in Poland, established in 1565, was perhaps the first 'Unitarian' church.
The next section details England. The book flounders a little by trying to cast the 14th century 'heretics', the Lollards, as anti-Trinitarians with not enough evidence. But then the section perks up and traces the rise of the Dissenters and the Non-Conformists, the countless Protestant sects who were outside of Anglicanism , and the emergence of ' Arianism', a new interest in the original arguments presented against the Trinity by Arius in 325. The book highlights the overall struggle all the Non-Conformists faced to different degrees. Legal sanctions were in place to curb challenges to the Anglican Faith, and being able to challenge the Trinity in print was not permitted until 1813, Non-Conformists generally speaking were barred from holding many public offices until the repeal of the Test and Corporation Act of 1828. Unitarians were associated with political radicalism in the 1790s and the eminent Unitarian scientist Joseph Priestley, had his house wrecked by a 'Church and King' mob in 1791. Leading Unitarians are mentioned in some detail, Robert Aspland, James Martineau, Richard Wright, and the account of the great breakthrough Unitarians experienced in the 19th century is fascinating with a growing number of missions and congregations emerging, though the subsequent decline in UK Unitarianism in the 20th century is not dwelled on.
The third section of the book covers Unitarianism in the United States and Canada with a final chapter being a potted history of Universalism, following the merging of the US Unitarians and Universalists in 1960. Fascinating work indeed. The author's ability to examine the wider history of theological developments in American History such as the 'Great Awakening' of Evangelism in 1734, and the rise of 'Transcendentalism', is impressive.
Leonard Smiths's emphasis is on Theological debates, particularly on how Non Conformists stood in relation to the Trinity. Sometimes other debates got overlooked,. The history of the Brighton Unitarian Church is a prime example, being founded by individuals excommunicated from a Baptist congregation in 1793 for refusing to believe in everlasting damnation rather than any debate connected to the Trinity.
There is also surprising little about the class background of Unitarian converts, Perhaps- dare I say it- that a little bit of Political correctness could have been used. The ratio of men to women in congregations would have been interesting. Leonard's stresses that the first ordained woman minister in Britain was a Unitarian (Gertrude Von Petzold from Leicester in 1904), but I would have liked to know did the idea of women minister catch on in other Unitarian churches? Were there adverse reactions to women ministers within Unitarianism? There is a paragraph on India and a couple of paragraphs on the Philippines but Unitarianism outside North America and Europe is not featured.
But overall I can recommend this book. I am sure that it will be an important work for years to come.