A new place of worship

Westborough Unitarian Church
Westborough Unitarian Church

by Dr Jack Binns

On Thursday, August 5, 1875, the Scarborough Gazette announced that during the next few months there would be a new place of worship for a denomination not previously associated with the town – the Unitarians. Only four years previously, mainly for the benefit of summer visitors, sermons were preached by Unitarian ministers twice a Sunday in the Temperance Hall, North Street. So successful was the experiment that it was decided to make the mission permanent and the Rev Joseph Crowther-Hirst was appointed to take charge of the growing congregation. But it was soon evident that the Temperance Hall was too small to accommodate both resident and visitor numbers and the search began for a suitable site for a Unitarian church.

Accordingly, Albert Edwin Hick, a Scarborough solicitor, arranged the purchase of 800 square yards on the south side of Falsgrave Road opposite Hinderwell Place. The land belonged to Captain Porrit Webster, a shipowner, who lived in Lawrence House next to it.

On Tuesday, October 17, 1876, the foundation stone was laid by Joseph Lupton, JP, of Leeds and within less than 12 months Scarborough’s Unitarian church opened its doors for the first time.

The event provoked a heated but interesting controversy. Two days after Lupton had laid the stone, the Gazette published in unprecedented fullness a sermon delivered at harvest festival by the vicar of All Saints’, only a “stones’s throw away”. He was glad, he said, that the Unitarian church was going to be built, but he “deeply deplored its erection”. Though the Rev R Brown-Borthwick was pleased that in England all Christians could now practise their faith in freedom, he told his parishioners, who included the mayor, that by denying the Trinity the Unitarians were guilty of “a terrible heresy” and “a deadly error”.

If the congregation at All Saints’ that day expected to hear a learned and historical explanation of the origins and content of this “heresy”, they would have been disappointed. The vicar’s sermon lacked both Biblical authority and theological logic.

However, readers of the Gazette were privileged to read a full reply from Crowther-Hirst a week later. Unlike Anglicans, Catholics and some Nonconformists, Unitarians were not saddled with a ready-made creed: “a man’s belief concerns himself and God alone”, he wrote. Secondly, it was a fundamental Protestant principle that faith in God and not belief in any particular dogma was an essential condition of salvation. As for the “mystery” of the Trinity, this was by self-definition unintelligible and incredible. The word Trinity, he concluded, was not to be found “in the Holy Scriptures”. Yet neither Brown-Borthwick nor Crowther-Hirst explained that their debate was more than 1,500 years old.

After Constantine had adopted Christianity as the official, only faith of his empire, he soon found it torn by a series of internal disputes amongst the clergy, principally over the nature and identity of Jesus. Was he part of God’s later order or simply of the same substance with God the father? A priest of Alexandria, Arius, won a sympathetic following for his contention that Jesus came after and was other than the one supreme God.

To resolve this fundamental issue, Constantine called a synod of bishops to Nicaea (now Iznik in Turkey) in 325. Overwhelmingly, they rejected Arianism and declared it a heresy. However, though it was outlawed in the imperial church by the Constantinople council of 381, Arianism flourished amongst the Christian Goths and Vandals. It might well have become the basis of western Christianity if one “barbarian”, King Clovis of the Franks, had not married a Catholic wife and become a devotee of St Martin of Tours.

Under a variety of names, from Arianism to Socianism, Unitarianism emerged in different parts of Europe from the Reformation onwards. A Spanish radical, Miguel Serveto, who rejected the Trinity, was burned at the stake in 1553 at Geneva. Even Calvinists there would not tolerate such a departure from what had become mainstream Christianity. Anti-Trinitarian belief took root only in eastern Europe in places such as Lithuania, Poland and Transylvania. During the 1650s in England, John Bidle was one of many extremists who denied the existence of hell and rejected original sin.

Even after the Toleration Act of 1689 permitted all public expressions of Protestant worship, an exception was made in the case of Unitarianism. Between the Blasphemy Act of 1698 and the Trinity Act of 1813, Unitarians could be imprisoned and were legally persecuted. Joseph Priestley, scientist and preacher, had his house in Birmingham burned down by a mob and found refuge in Pennsylvania.

During the 18th century Unitarianism existed in Presbyterian chapels. For instance in Whitby, the Presbyterian chapel in Flowergate established in 1715, after re-building was re-named Unitarian in 1825.

Yet even after the emancipation of 1813, Unitarianism never won widespread popular support in England: its appeal was mainly to the literary and intellectual urban elite. During the 1800s Unitarian converts included William Hazlitt, Robert Browning, George Eliot and the Chamberlains of Birmingham.

To its credit, the Scarborough Gazette did not endorse the condemnation declared from All Saints’ pulpit: instead it reported factually the opening of Scarborough’s newest church on September 1, 1877, and at length the sermon given there by the Rev J Page-Hopps. The Unitarians had chosen “an early-English style of Gothic architecture”, using red brick with Cloughton stone dressings. Over the north side porch they had raised a spiral tower 100 feet high. Inside the church there were seats for 300 and next to it was a schoolroom. With communion table, deal pews and pulpit and later organ and a stained glass window depicting the virgin mother and child and Mary Magdalene, there was nothing outwardly to suggest unorthodoxy, even less “heresy”. Only the sermon that day was unmistakably Unitarian.