Emlyn was born at Stamford, Lincolnshire and served as chaplain to the presbyterian Letitia, countess of Donegal, and then to Sir Robert Rich, afterwards (1691) becoming colleague to Joseph Boyse, presbyterian minister in Dublin. From this office he was virtually dismissed on his own confession of unitarianism, and for publishing An Humble Inquiry into the Scripture Account of Jesus Christ (1702) was sentenced to a year's imprisonment for blasphemy and a fine of £1000. More than two years later (thanks to the intervention of Boyse), he was released in 1705 on payment of £90.
He is said to have been the first English preacher definitely to describe himself as "unitarian," and writes in his diary, "I thank God that He did not call me to this lot of suffering till I had arrived at maturity of judgment and firmness of resolution, arid that He did not desert me when my friends did. He never let me be so cast down as to renounce the truth or to waver in my faith." Of Christ he writes, "We may regard with fervent gratitude so great a benefactor, but our esteem and rational love must ascend higher and not rest till it centre in his God and ours."
Emlyn preached a good deal in Paul's Alley, Barbican, in his later years, and died in London in 1741.
Emlyn's ‘Works’ were collected by his son Sollom Emlyn in 1746, 3 vols., called the ‘fourth edition,’ but this refers only to the included ‘Collection of Tracts’ (1719; 1731, 2 vols.; 1742, 2 vols.). His first publication was ‘The Suppression of Public Vice,’ Dublin, 1698, (sermon on 1 Sam. ii. 30). Among his other pieces are:
- ‘The Case of Mr. E—— in relation to the Difference between him and some Dissenting Ministers of the City of Dublin,’ &c., London [August] 1702, Dublin, 1703.
- ‘An Humble Inquiry into the Scripture Account of Jesus Christ,’ &c., Dublin, 1702 (anon.; the printer, Laurence, swore ‘he knew not whose writing it was’).
- ‘A Vindication of the Worship of the Lord Jesus Christ, on Unitarian Principles,’ &c., 1706 (anon.; written 1704).
- ‘General Remarks on Mr. Boyse's Vindication of the True Deity of our Blessed Saviour,’ &c. (written 1704; sent to England and mislaid; first printed in ‘Works’).
- ‘Remarks on Mr. Charles Leslie's First Dialogue,’ &c., 1708 (anon.; in this, anticipating Clarke, he calls himself ‘a true scriptural trinitarian;’ he wrote two other tracts against Charles Leslie in the same year).
- ‘The Previous Question to the Several Questions about … Baptism,’ &c., 1710 (anon.; answered by Grantham Killingworth and Caleb Fleming).
- ‘A Full Inquiry into the Original Authority of that Text, 1 John v. 7,’ &c., 1715 (the controversy with Martin lasted till 1722; each wrote three pieces).
- ‘A True Narrative of the Proceedings … against Mr. Thomas Emlyn; and of his Prosecution,’ &c., 1719 (dated September 1718); latest edition, 1829.
- ‘Sermons,’ 8vo, 1742 (with new title-page, forms vol. iii. of ‘Works’).
- ‘Memoirs of the Life and Sentiments of the Reverend Dr. Samuel Clarke’ (written 1731; first printed in ‘Works’). Also controversial tracts against Willis (1705), Sherlock (1707), Bennet (1718), Tong and others (1719), George Trosse (1719), and Daniel Waterland (1731).
In 1823 Jared Sparks published at Boston, U.S., a selection from Emlyn's works, with memoir. Answers to Emlyn's positions were furnished by Stephen Nye (1715), Jacques Abbadie (1719), C. Alexander (1791), and Aaron Burr, president of the college in New Jersey (1791), on occasion of an American edition (1790) of extracts from the ‘Humble Inquiry.’
This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: "Emlyn, Thomas". Dictionary of National Biography. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1885–1900. This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.