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The Trinitarian Crisis in Church and State: Religious Controversy and the Making of the Postrevolutionary Church of England, 1687–1702

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 February 2013


This article sets the wide-ranging controversy over the doctrine of the Trinity that erupted in late seventeenth-century England firmly within the political context of the Glorious Revolution of 1688–1689. Against a voluminous historiography that confines the trinitarian controversy within the apolitical narrative of an incipient English enlightenment, this article considers the controversy as part of the broader political crisis that befell church and state in the final years of the century. The trinitarian controversy must be understood not simply as a doctrinal dispute but as a disciplinary crisis: a far-reaching debate over not only the content of orthodoxy but also the constitutional apportionment of responsibilities for its enforcement. As such, the controversy featured interventions from an unprecedented array of public authorities—Crown, Parliament, university, episcopate, and convocation—all claiming the preeminent custody of orthodoxy in an institutional landscape profoundly unsettled by revolutionary upheaval. This institutional dimension, long ignored by historians and theologians, placed the trinitarian controversy at the heart of civil and ecclesiastical politics during the reign of William and Mary. Indeed, the trinitarian controversy may be considered the defining event in church politics in the postrevolutionary era, exercising a prevailing influence on the content of Anglican ecclesiastical partisanship for much of the early eighteenth century. While recognizing the importance of these disputes to the emergence of an English enlightenment, this article insists that the trinitarian controversy is equally indispensable for understanding the rage of political parties in postrevolutionary England.

Copyright © The North American Conference on British Studies 2013

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101 Kolbrener, W., “The Charge of Socinianism: Charles Leslie's High Church Defense of ‘True Religion,” Journal of the Historical Society 3, no. 1 (2003): 123CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Cornwall, Robert D., Visible and Apostolic: The Constitution of the Church in High Church Anglican and Non-juror Thought (Newark, 1993), 5459Google Scholar.

102 One critic believed his works “smelled so strong of Jacobitism” that they seemed the work of some “non-swearing divine” rather than a beneficed clergyman. A Letter out of the Countrey to a Friend in the City concerning a late Book Entituled, Tritheism charged upon Dr. Sherlock's New Notion of the Trinity (London, 1695), 2Google Scholar.

103 South, Robert, Tritheism charged upon Dr. Sherlock's new notion of the Trinity (London, 1695), 304Google Scholar.

104 Somewhat unfairly, it should be noted, as Sherlock was hardly a proponent of comprehension; see Sherlock, Apology for writing against Socinians.

105 South, Animadversions, i–v.

106 Ibid., 374–77.

107 Dixon, Nice and Hot Disputes, 110, 135.

108 Leslie, Charles, The Charge of Socinianism against Dr. Tillotson considered (Edinburgh, 1695), 2, 31Google Scholar.

109 Hickes, George, Some Discourses upon Dr. Burnet and Dr. Tillotson, occasioned by the Late Funeral Sermon of the Former upon the Latter (London, 1695), 47, 6768Google Scholar; Samuel Hill, A Vindication of the Primitive Fathers against the imputations of Gilbert Lord Bishop of Sarum (1695); and see Allix, Pierre, Animadversions on Mr. Hill's Book entituled, A Vindication of the Primitive Fathers, &c. (London, 1695)Google Scholar.

110 Leslie, The Charge of Socinianism, 4–6, 9, 16, 23; and see Wagstaffe, Thomas, A Letter out of Suffolk to a Friend in London (London, 1694)Google Scholar.

111 Howard, Robert, A Twofold Vindication of the Late Arch-Bishop of Canterbury and of the Author of the History of Religion (London, 1696), 38, 49Google Scholar; and see also Williams, John, A Vindication of the Archbishop Tillotson's Sermons concerning the Divinity and Incarnation of our B. Saviour (London, 1695), 13Google Scholar.

112 Reflections on a Libel Printed, Entituled, The Charge of Socinianism against Dr. Tillotson Considered (London, 1696), 65Google Scholar.

113 South, “Christianity Mysterious,” 243.

114 Hickes, Some Discourses upon Dr. Burnet and Dr. Tillotson, 45–46; Leslie, The Charge of Socinianism, 31–32.

115 Henry Dodwell to Bp of Coventry & Lichfield, 15 Feb 1696, Add MS 4275, f. 192, BL.

116 Sherlock, William, A Modest Examination of the Authority and Reasons of the Late Decree of the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford (London, 1696), 3Google Scholar.

117 Bingham, Joseph, “A Sermon on the Trinity,” in The Works of the Rev. Joseph Bingham, M.A., 10 vols., ed. Bingham, Richard (Oxford, 1855), 10:361–83Google Scholar; the controversy surrounding the sermon is recounted in “The Life of the Author” in Works, 1: xviii–xx.

118 Arthur Charlett to Tanner, 25 November 1695, Tanner MS 24, f. 90, Bodleian Library; Reflections on the Poems made upon the Siege and Taking of Namur (London, 1696), 910Google Scholar.

119 An Account of the Decree of the University of Oxford, against Some Heretical Tenets (London, 1695)Google Scholar; Sherlock, Modest Examination, 3.

120 Joseph Bingham to Arthur Charlett, 21 January 1695/6, Ballard MS 15, f. 12, Bodleian Library; see also Bingham's lengthy self-defense in Joseph Bingham to Arthur Charlett, 12 December 1695, Ballard MS 15, ff. 9–10, Bodleian Library.

121 Abednego Seller to Arthur Charlett, 2 December [1695], Ballard MS 35, f. 38, Bodleian Library.

122 George Hickes to Arthur Charlett, 8 December 1695, Ballard MS 12, f. 109, Bodleian Library.

123 Sherlock, Modest Examination, 7; see also [Wright, William], A Letter to a Member of Parliament occasioned by a Letter to a Convocation Man (London 1697), 5360Google Scholar.

124 Wallis, John, An Answer to Dr. Sherlock's Examination of the Oxford Decree, 2nd ed. (1696), 3Google Scholar.

125 Edwards, Jonathan, Remarks upon a Book Lately Published by Dr. Will Sherlock Dean of St. Paul's, &c. Entituled A Modest Examination of the Oxford Decree (Oxford, 1695), 15, 1617Google Scholar.

126 Shower, Sir Bartholomew, The Master of the Temple as Bad a Lawyer as the Dean of Pauls is a Divine (London, 1696), 11Google Scholar.

127 Thomas Tenison to Fitzherbert Adams, 24 December 1695, MS 799, f. 149, BL; Adams to Tenison, 28 December 1695, MS 799, fol. 151, BL; Thomas Tension to Fitzherbert Adams, 24 December 1695, Ballard MS 9, ff. 28–29, Bodleian Library.

128 White Kennett, Ecclesiastical History Notes, Lansdowne 1024, f. 151, BL; Carpenter, Edward, Thomas Tenison, Archbishop of Canterbury (London, 1948), 299300Google Scholar.

129 Reflexions on the Good Temper, and Fair Dealing, of the Animadverter upon Dr. Sherlock's Vindication of the Holy Trinity (London, 1695)Google Scholar.

130 Directions to our Arch-bishops and Bishops for Preserving the Unity of the Church and the Purity of the Christian faith, concerning the Holy Trinity (London, 1695)Google Scholar.

131 But see Goldie, Mark, “The Nonjurors, Episcopacy, and the Origins of the Convocation Controversy,” in Ideology and Conspiracy: Aspects of Jacobitism, 1689–1759, ed. Cruickshanks, Eveline (Edinburgh, 1982), 1535Google Scholar.

132 Bennett, Tory Crisis in Church and State, 26–43, 48.

133 Atterbury, Francis, A Letter to a Convocation Man, Concerning the Rights, Powers and Privileges of that Body (London, 1697), 2, 6, 8–15, 29, 36Google Scholar.

134 Edmund Gibson to Thomas Tanner, Lambeth, 1 April 1697, Tanner MS 23, f. 1, Bodleian Library.

135 [Wright], Letter to a Member of Parliament, 9.

136 Tindal, Matthew, An Essay concerning the Power of the Magistrate and the Rights of Mankind in Matters of Religion (London, 1697), 193–94Google Scholar.

137 Wake, William, The Authority of Christian Princes over their Ecclesiastical Synods Asserted with particular respect to the Convocations of the Clergy of the Realm and Church of England (London, 1697), 328–30Google Scholar.

138 William Wake Diary, MS 2932, f. 80, Lambeth Palace Library; R. J. Smith, The Gothic Bequest: Medieval Institutions in British Thought, 1688–1813 (Cambridge, 1987), 28–38; Bennett, Tory Crisis in Church and State, 48–56; Douglass, David, English Scholars, 1660–1730, 2nd ed. (London, 1951), 195221Google Scholar; Kramnick, Isaac, “Augustan Politics and English Historiography: The Debate on the English Past, 1730–35,” History and Theory 6, no. 1 (1967): 3356CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

139 Wake, Authority of Christian Princes, 312–13, 341–42; and see Astbury, Raymond, “The Renewal of the Licensing Act in 1693 and its Lapse in 1695,” Library 5th ser., 33 (1978): 296322CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

140 Horwitz, Parliament, Policy and Politics, 234; 9 Gul. III, p. 6, n.4; and see Hayton, David, “Moral Reform and Country Politics in the Late-Seventeenth Century House of Commons,” Past and Present 128, no. 1 (August 1990): 4891CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

141 See, for instance, Sacheverell, Henry, The Character of a Low-Churchman (London, 1702)Google Scholar.

142 On the nature of Anglican high church opposition, see Sirota, Brent S., “‘The Leviathan Is Not Safely to Be Angered’: The Convocation Controversy, Country Ideology, and Anglican High Churchmanship, 1689–1702,” in Religion and the State: Europe and North America in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, ed. Stein, Joshua B. and Donabed, Sargon G. (Lanham, MD, 2012), 4162Google Scholar.

143 Bennett, G. V., “The Convocation of 1710: An Anglican Attempt at Counter-Revolution,” Studies in Church History 7 (Cambridge, 1971): 311–19Google Scholar.

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