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‘The extirpation of Athanasianism’: The Considerable Doubts of Francis Stone (1738–1813)

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 June 2016

Colin Haydon*
University of Winchester
*Department of History, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Winchester, Winchester, SO22 4NR. E-mail:


This essay examines the doubts of Francis Stone, rector of Cold Norton, Essex – doubts which brought him notoriety and ruin. In 1806, Stone preached a sermon, four editions of which appeared by 1809, expressing doubts about Anglican doctrine and the Thirty-Nine Articles. He maintained that Christ, though God's ‘great messenger’, was merely human, and that the Virgin Birth was a myth. Moreover, he also doubted the ‘Athanasian trinity in unity’ and the doctrine of the atonement. Stone's doubts were far from new. He had expressed various concerns forcibly in print and had played a major part in the raising of the anti-subscription Feathers Tavern petition. He was determined to teach only ‘that, which . . . [might] be concluded and proved by the Scripture’. But the storm provoked by the sermon was terrible. In 1808, Stone was arraigned before the bishop of London's consistory court. There he declared that the Church of England had no authority to override his conscience. Nevertheless, the court rejected his arguments and deprived him of his living; when he appealed to the Court of Arches, it upheld the sentence. Stone's doubts produced an important test case and a powerful warning for Anglican clerics holding heterodox opinions (and, indeed, liberal churchmen wanting just ‘free’ and ‘candid' theological debate) in the conservative 1800s. Moreover, the issues Stone raised foreshadowed controversies which erupted long after his death.

Research Article
Copyright © Ecclesiastical History Society 2016 

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1 ODNB, s.nn. ‘Bentley, Richard (1662–1742)’; ‘Porson, Richard (1759–1808)’.

2 Kelly, J. N. D., The Athanasian Creed (London, 1964)Google Scholar.

3 9 Will. III c. 35, §1; 1 Will. & Mar. c. 18, §14.

4 Arianism – from the Alexandrian priest Arius (d. 336) – represented Christ as a subordinate deity to the Father but upheld the former's pre-existence and the doctrine of the atonement. Socinians – from the Sienese Fausto Sozzini or Faustus Socinus (1539–1604) – denied Christ's divinity, his pre-existence and the atonement.

5 Watts, Michael R., The Dissenters: From the Reformation to the French Revolution (Oxford, 1978), 375Google Scholar–6.

6 ODNB, s.n. ‘Newton, Sir Isaac (1642–1727)’.

7 Oxford, Merton College Archive, E.2.42, Autobiography of Edward Nares, 54.

8 Stone, Francis, Jewish Prophecy, the Sole Criterion to Distinguish between Genuine and Spurious Christian Scripture, 4th edn (London, 1809), 49Google Scholar.

9 Ibid. 25–9.

10 Ibid. 32.

11 Ibid. 39.

12 Ibid. 41, 38.

13 Ibid. 46.

14 ‘[T]he Mahometan’, Stone contended, ‘entertains more rational and consistent ideas of the unity of the Supreme Being than many Christians’: ibid. 56.

16 Lindsey, Theophilus, The Letters of Theophilus Lindsey (1723–1808), ed. Ditchfield, G. M., 2 vols, CERS 15, 19 (Woodbridge, 2007Google Scholar, 2012), 2: 637.

17 Stone, Jewish Prophecy, 32.

18 Ibid. 48.

19 [Francis Stone], Tyro-Theologus, A Short and Seasonable Application to the Public, in Behalf of a Respectful Address to the Parliament, to Procure a Legal Redress of Notorious, Religious Grievances (London, 1768), 69Google Scholar.

20 Ibid. 12.

21 Ibid. 11, 13–14, 16.

22 Ibid. 8, 21.

23 For an incomplete list of the signatories, see V. M. H., ‘List of Petitioning Clergy, 1772’, Monthly Repository 13 (1818), 15–18.

24 It was reintroduced in 1774, and rejected without a division: Ditchfield, G. M., ‘The Subscription Issue in British Parliamentary Politics 1772–79’, Parliamentary History 7 (1988), 4580CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

25 Tyro-Theologus, Short and Seasonable Application, 22. As a correspondent later wrote to the Monthly Repository, Stone had ‘many more opportunities, by preaching in a Trinitarian church, of making converts to Unitarianism, than if he preached to Unitarians themselves’: C. G., ‘Defence of Mr. Stone: To the Editor of the Monthly Repository’, Monthly Repository 2 (1807), 20–1, at 20.

26 Blackburne accordingly regretted the secessions of Disney and Lindsey, who were his sons-in-law.

27 Stone, Jewish Prophecy, v.

28 Morning Chronicle, 2 September 1806.

29 Lindsey, Letters, ed. Ditchfield, 1: 384.

30 [Francis Stone], A Call to the Jews: By a Friend to the Jews (London, 1783), 37, 44–5, 60, 99–100.

31 Ibid. 20, 65, 238.

32 Ibid. 9, 98, 133.

33 Ibid. 15, 59.

34 Ibid. 40–1, 123, 125.

35 For other examples, see below, 371. Stone believed that Providence had made him an instrument for the Jews’ conversion: Call to the Jews, 235.

36 Ibid. 169, 234–5; Watson, Robert, The Life of Lord George Gordon (London, 1795), 79Google Scholar; Schuchard, Marsha Keith, ‘Lord George Gordon and Cabalistic Freemasonry: Beating Jacobite Swords into Jacobin Ploughshares’, in Mulsow, Martin and Popkin, Richard H., eds, Secret Conversions to Judaism in Early Modern Europe (Leiden, 2004), 183232Google Scholar; McCalman, Iain, ‘New Jerusalems: Prophecy, Dissent and Radical Culture in England 1786–1830’, in Haakonssen, Knud, ed., Enlightenment and Religion: Rational Dissent in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Cambridge, 1996), 312Google Scholar–35.

37 ‘Review of New Publications’, Review of Stone, Jewish Prophecy, Orthodox Churchman's Magazine and Review 11 (1806), 296–306, at 300; Jonathan Drapier, ‘On the State of the Church’, ibid. 370–3, at 371; Clericus, ‘On Stone's Visitation Sermon’, ibid. 428–33, at 432.

38 Ibid. 431; Observator, ‘To the Editor of the Orthodox Churchman's Magazine’, and ‘To the Worshipful the Archdeacon of Essex’, ibid. 12 (1807), 28–33, at 28, 29; Clericus, ‘On Stone's Visitation Sermon’, ibid. 120–5, at 121.

39 ‘To the Archdeacon’, 28. Other periodicals were more sympathetic. The Critical Review, championing freedom of theological discussion, praised Stone for his ‘truly christian frankness and intrepidity’, and claimed that he had ‘evinced a freedom of research, and a boldness of inference, which the ministers of the establishment have seldom manifested in any of their publications’: ‘Monthly Catalogue, Religion’, Critical Review 3rd ser. 11 (1807), 93–4. The Monthly Review was astonished by, but gingerly admired, his courage: ‘The magnanimity of the preacher of this discourse is more striking than his worldly prudence. Such a visitation sermon has, we believe, been rarely delivered': ‘Monthly Catalogue, Single Sermons’, Monthly Review 53 (1807), 333–4, at 333.

40 Nares, Edward, A Letter to the Rev. Francis Stone, M.A. (London, 1807)Google Scholar, 2, 44, 66.

41 ODNB, s.n. ‘Mann, Nicholas (bap. 1680?, d. 1753)’. Mann anonymously attacked the Creed, Athanasian in Critical Notes on Some Passages of Scripture (London, 1747), 8792Google Scholar, emphasizing, like Stone, that it alienated pagans, Jews and Mahometans: ibid. 92. Stone, perhaps nostalgically envisaging the Charterhouse's mastership as a heterodox refuge, applied for it in 1804: Morning Post, 1 December 1804.

42 Stone, F., ‘Brief Account of the Rev. Henry Taylor’, Monthly Repository 8 (1813), 285Google Scholar–7, at 287; ODNB, s.n. ‘Taylor, Henry (1711–1785)’. Taylor notoriously trumpeted his heterodoxy in the 1770s in The Apology of Benjamin Ben Mordecai. For Gibbon, he was ‘Taylor the Arian’: Miscellaneous Works of Edward Gibbon, Esquire, ed. John, Lord Sheffield, 2 vols (London, 1796), 1: 154. Taylor provided testimonials when Stone sought ordination both as deacon and priest: Winchester, Hampshire Record Office, 21M65/E1/4/807, 825.

43 ODNB, s.n. ‘Stone, Francis (bap. 1738, d. 1813)’.

44 Lindsey, Letters, ed. Ditchfield, 1: 384.

45 London, LPL, Microfiche 10854–86, Records of the Court of Arches, Process Books, D2002, Stone v. Bishop (1808), 1446–7.

46 Ibid. 1038–9.

47 Lindsey, Letters, ed. Ditchfield, 1: 384; Ditchfield, G. M., ‘Varieties of Heterodoxy: The Career of Edward Evanson (1731–1805)’, in Cornwall, Robert D. and Gibson, William, eds, Religion, Politics and Dissent 1660–1832 (Farnham, 2010), 111Google Scholar–26.

48 Nares, Letter, 68.

49 Stone, Francis, A Letter to the Right Rev. Dr. Beilby Porteus, Lord Bishop of London (London, 1807), 4Google Scholar.

50 London, LMA, DL/C/191, Consistory Court of London, Allegations, Libels and Sentence Book, May 1807 – December 1817, fols 25r–38r.

51 Stone, Jewish Prophecy, viii.

52 Stone, Letter, 6, 10.

53 Ibid. 9. However, seemingly inconsistently, Stone stated that, to secure advancement in the Church, he would resubscribe: Stone, Francis, An Unitarian Christian Minister's Plea for Adherence to the Church of England (London, 1808), 41Google Scholar. By contrast, Blackburne had resolved not to resubscribe, thereby precluding his promotion.

54 Stone, Letter, 6, 7, 10, 22–3, 40.

55 ‘Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein; nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an Article of the faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation’: ibid. 28–9 (Stone's italics). Stone's rejection of some biblical passages qualified the principle, however.

56 Clericus, ‘On the Second Edition of Stone's Sermon: To the Editor of the Orthodox Churchman's Magazine’, Orthodox Churchman's Magazine and Review 12 (1807), 359–65, at 359.

57 Libels and Sentence Book, May 1807 – December 1817, fol. 41v.

58 Ibid., fols 42rv. On the day of the sentence, Stone wrote to Sir William Scott, the consistory court's judge. He had not appreciated, he stated, his preaching's violation of 13 Eliz. I c. 12, the 1571 Act for the Ministers of the Church to Be of Sound Religion, which, inter alia, enjoined the clergy's conformity to the Thirty-Nine Articles (§§1, 2). He therefore undertook ‘not to offend again in like manner’. However, he reiterated his conviction that his ordination promises sanctioned him to preach as he had: Process Books, D2002, Stone v. Bishop (1808), 1823–5. That raised inconvenient questions about the respective jurisdictions of Church and state, and presumably ensured the compromise's rejection.

59 Process Books, D2002, Stone v. Bishop (1808).

60 Ibid. 1084, 1131–2, 1369. One noted that Stone spoke of one doctrine he attacked ‘in the most contemptuous manner’: ibid. 1359.

61 Ibid. 1656–99.

62 London, BL, Add. MS 38321, Liverpool Papers 132, fol. 85r.

63 Morning Chronicle, 12 April 1809; DNB, s.n. ‘Stone, Francis (1738?–1813)’.

64 BL, Add. MS 36527, J. Hunter, Notices of Contemporaries 1827–36, fol. 89r.

65 Stone, Unitarian Christian Minister's Plea, 40; ODNB, s.n. ‘Stone’; Kew, The National Archives, PROB 11/1554/127, Will of Francis Stone, 15 February 1813.

66 Hunter, Notices, fol. 89r.

67 Northallerton, North Yorkshire County Record Office [hereafter: NYCRO], Wyvill of Constable Burton Records, ZFW 7/2/215/9. I owe this and the other references to this collection to Grayson Ditchfield.

68 Lindsey, Letters, ed. Ditchfield, 2: 637; NYCRO, ZFW 7/2/215/7, 19; 7/2/243/1; ODNB, s.n. ‘Stone’. After Stone's death, provision was made for his widow and children: Monthly Repository 9 (1814), 133.

69 Autobiography of Nares, 56.

70 Young, B. W., Religion and Enlightenment in Eighteenth-Century England (Oxford, 1998)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

71 Stone, Jewish Prophecy, 22, 23, 25, 42, 47–8, 50.

72 Nancy Uhlar Murray, ‘The Influence of the French Revolution on the Church of England and its Rivals 1789–1802’ (DPhil thesis, University of Oxford, 1975), 80.

73 BL, Add. MS 37683, P. A. Taylor Papers 2, fol. 45r. On Cumberland's victory at Culloden, Stone wrote: ‘The impious Rage of foul Rebellion quell'd; | And the hideous Hydra-headed Monster slew, | With all her viperous Brood; dire Foes to Freedom's Reign’: ibid., fol. 40r.

74 Stone, Francis, A New, Easy, and Expeditious Method of Discharging the National Debt (London, 1776), 21Google Scholar–6. Stone wanted the ‘entire subversion of the constitution in church, as it now stands, established by law’: ibid. 23. He had long disliked and distrusted bishops: Tyro-Theologus, Short and Seasonable Application, 18–19.

75 Stone, Francis, Political Reformation, on a Large Scale (London, 1789), 153Google Scholar.

76 Stone, Francis, Thoughts in Favour of the Abolition of the Slave Trade, and the Emancipation of the Negroes (London, 1792)Google Scholar.

77 Stone, Political Reformation, 63.

78 Stone, Francis, An Examination of the Right Hon. Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (London, 1792)Google Scholar.

79 Orthodox Churchman's Magazine and Review 11 (1806), 301, 431. On the wider links between religious heterodoxy and political radicalism, see Clark, J. C. D., English Society, 1660–1832: Ideology, Structure and Political Practice during the Ancien Regime, 2nd edn (Cambridge, 2000), 318422;Google Scholar A. M. C. Waterman, ‘The Nexus between Theology and Political Doctrine in Church and Dissent’, in Haakonssen, ed., Enlightenment and Religion, 193–218.

80 Stone, Jewish Prophecy, 46, 48.

81 Ibid. ix. Stone believed that ‘the affection of modesty is more disgusting than the display of vanity’(!): Political Reformation, 60.

82 ‘The length of title, and the name of the author, forbid our entering into a close examination of the plan. We fear Mr. S. is not the Hercules who can cleanse the Augean stable, which has baffled the wisdom of the legislature, and the wisest patriots’: ‘Review of New Publications’, Gentleman's Magazine 59 (1789), 341.

83 ‘British Catalogue: Divinity’, Review of Stone, Jewish Prophecy, British Critic 29 (1807), 211–12, at 211.

84 Taylor, Peter Alfred, ed., Some Account of the Taylor Family (London, 1875), 294Google Scholar, 295.

85 Aberdeen Journal, 1 June 1808.

86 Hunter, Notices, fol. 89r.

87 Ibid. The Monthly Review criticized Stone's Thoughts in Favour of the Abolition of the Slave Trade for some levity on the subject: ‘Monthly Catalogue, Slave Trade’, Monthly Review 8 (1792), 447.

88 Hunter, Notices, fol. 89r.

89 A List of the Society of Antiquaries of London, April 24, MDCCXCIII [London, 1793], 6, col. 2; Francis Stone, ‘Copies of an Original Letter . . . Communicated by the Rev. Francis Stone, F.A.S.’, Archaeologia 16 (1812), 181–93.

90 Stone, Letter, 21; idem, Unitarian Christian Minister's Plea, 50–1.

91 F. Stone, ‘A Brief Account of the Rev. W. Hopkins’, Monthly Repository 8 (1813), 425–7, at 426. William Chambers, rector of Achurch, Northamptonshire, did this, as did Disney before his secession: ODNB, s.nn. ‘Chambers, William (1724?–1777)’; ‘Disney, John (1746–1816)’.

92 LPL, MS Film 31, Diocese of London, Visitation Returns 1766, fol. 349v. This was repeated in the 1790 visitation return: LPL, MS Film 37, Diocese of London, Visitation Returns 1790, No. 58/2. The explanation for non-residence was a common one: Barrie-Curien, Viviane, Clergé et pastorale en Angleterre au XVIIIe siècle. Le Diocèse de Londres (Paris, 1992), 266Google Scholar–9.

93 Lindsey, Letters, ed. Ditchfield, 1: 384. In the proceedings against Stone, one of Cold Norton's churchwardens testified that the rector preached in the parish church ‘about four times a year’, and an Essex clergyman observed that he ‘hardly ever’ attended archdiaconal visitations: Process Books, D2002, Stone v. Bishop (1808), 1343, 1749.

94 ODNB, s.n. ‘Wyvill, Christopher (1738–1822)’.

95 NYCRO, ZFW 7/2/215/7, 19; 7/2/243/1.

96 See Lindsey's criticisms of Call to the Jews: Lindsey, Letters, ed. Ditchfield, 1: 383. Stone directly attacked Arianism and Socinianism, besides Athanasianism, in the work: Call to the Jews, 21, 105, 107, 248.

97 William Turner, for example, did not include Stone in his Lives of Eminent Unitarians, 2 vols (London, 1840–3), although he included Edward Evanson.

98 Sufficient sources survive to make possible the writing of a full biography of Stone; and certainly his ODNB entry needs further revision.

99 Hampden, R. D., The Scholastic Philosophy considered in its Relation to Christian Theology, 2nd edn (London, 1837)Google Scholar, 544 n. H.

100 Ibid. 378.

101 A less rigid form was introduced in 1975.

102 Jasper, R. C. D., Prayer Book Revision in England 1800–1900 (London, 1954), 103Google Scholar–14.

103 Kelly, Athanasian Creed, 49.

104 Burns, Arthur, ‘From 1830 to the Present’, in Keene, Derek, Burns, Arthur and Saint, Andrew, eds, St Paul's: The Cathedral Church of London, 604–2004 (New Haven, CT, 2004), 84110Google Scholar, at 97.

105 Sadly, he here resembled Luther less than K. B. McFarlane's Wycliffe, who ‘did little or nothing to inspire [the English Reformation] and in effect everything possible to delay’ it: John Wycliffe and the Beginnings of English Nonconformity (London, 1952), 186. Ironically, in the year of Stone's death, Parliament formally legalized Unitarianism by the Doctrine of the Trinity Act, 53 Geo. III c. 160 (an attempt to do so in 1792 had failed). Stone's plans for reform of the Church prefigured some debated in the 1830s (although they more strikingly resemble the ecclesiastical reforms implemented in France in 1789 and 1790). Parts of his political and social vision were gradually realized.

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