Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Anti-Trinitarianism and the Republican Tradition in Enlightenment Britain

That's the title of an article by Matthew Kadane, Assistant Professor of History at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, featured in, Republics of Letters: A Journal for the Study of Knowledge, Politics, and the Arts 2, no. 1 (December 15, 2010).

A taste:
WRITING IN THE OPENING MONTHS OF THE French Revolution and in response to the accusation of anti-monarchical republicanism, Joseph Priestley explained in self-defense that if he was a “unitarian in religion” he remained “a trinitarian in politics.”1 The republican-leaning Priestley was  making a subtle distinction, but if the image of a political Trinitarian who held faith in Commons, Lords, and monarch could concisely illustrate what was surprising, if not paradoxical,  about the political outlook of a religious Unitarian, it was because the link between republicanism and anti-Trinitarianism was so common.2  Milton had embodied it in the mid-seventeenth  century; so had the classicist John Biddle, the “father of English Unitarianism,” who crossed over with Harringtonian republicanism, as Nigel Smith has recently written, in his disdain of priestcraft, his “vision of an exemplary Son and a life of virtuous action.”3 Probably more active in late  eighteenth-century memories was the anti-Trinitarian moment of the late 1680s and 1690s. A  “Unitarian controversy,” triggered by a relaxation of censorship at the end of James II’s reign and by the publication of Stephen Nye’s Brief History of the Unitarians (1689), raged amid a revolutionary settlement with republican implications.4 These same implications could be drawn from  the revolution’s anti-Trinitarian ideologues, Locke and Newton.5 And as Restoration Tories seemed to foresee when they linked Whig-republicanism and Socinianism, what would the reduction of monarchical power suggest—a reduction like that the Glorious Revolution brought  about—if not a diminution of some degree of the monarch’s divinity?6 This may not have been Priestley’s idiosyncratic view in 1790, but it was implied by the mix of anti-Trinitarianism, republicanism, and appreciation for the Glorious Revolution that could be found in a group of his contemporaries: Richard Price, John Jebb, Theophilus Lindsey, Samuel Rogers, Charles James Fox, one-time subjects of the crown like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, and so on.7

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