John Biddle (Unitarian)

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John Biddle or Bidle (14 January 1615 – 22 September 1662)[1] was an influential English nontrinitarian, and Unitarian. He is often called "the Father of English Unitarianism".[2][3]


Biddle was born at Wotton-under-Edge, Gloucestershire. He studied at Magdalen Hall, Oxford, taking an M. A. in 1641.[4] At the age of 26, he became headmaster of the Crypt Grammar School, Gloucester. The school had links to Gloucester Cathedral, and since he was obliged to teach his pupils according to the Catechism of the Church of England, he immersed himself in the study of the Bible. He concluded from his studies that the doctrine of the Trinity was not supported by the Bible, and set about publishing his own views on the nature of God.[4]

He was imprisoned in Gloucester in 1645 for his views,[4] but released on bail. He was imprisoned again by Parliament in 1646 and, in 1647, while he was still a prisoner, his tract Twelve Arguments Drawn Out of Scripture was published. Henry Vane defended Biddle in the House of Commons, and he was released on bail in 1648.[2][5] After a short while he was again imprisoned, in Newgate, where he remained until amnestied by the 1662 Act of Oblivion.[4] Biddle and the MP John Fry, who had tried to aid him, were supported by the 1649 Leveller pamphlet Englands New Chaines Discovered.[6] Biddle was strongly attacked by John Owen,[citation needed] in his massive work Vindiciae Evangelicae; or, The Mystery of the Gospel Vindicated and Socinianism Examined.

He was again in trouble with the Parliament of 1654–55, which ordered his book A Two-fold Catechism seized.[7] Motions were made against Biddle as a part of the Commons’ debate on the Instrument of Government's provisions for religious liberty. They marked the moment when the house's attempts to suppress sectarian radicalism faltered.[note 1] Parliament was dissolved in January 1655, which ended the proceedings against Biddle, and he was released in May of that year. Biddle found himself in trouble only weeks later when the City Presbyterians decided to prosecute him using the Blasphemy Ordinance of 1648. This scared the sects (especially the Baptists) who, seeing a worrying precedent that could lead to them also being prosecuted, then rallied to his side. Oliver Cromwell exiled him to the Scilly Isles, out of the jurisdiction of any hostile English Parliaments. By exiling Biddle, Cromwell avoided a test case that could have put significant numbers of the sects at risk of prosecution.[9] He was released in 1658.[10] He was imprisoned once more, and became ill, leading to his death.[4] His body was "conveyed to the burial place joyning to Old Bedlam in Moorfields near London, was there deposited by the Brethren, who soon after took care that an altar monument of stone should be erected over his grave with an inscription thereon."[11][12]

A biography of Biddle by Joshua Toulmin was published in 1789.[13]


He is believed to have translated the Polish Racovian Catechism into English.[14]


He denounced original sin,[15] denied eternal punishment,[16] and translated a mortalist tract.[17] He condemned the Ranters.[18] He affirmed that the Bible was the Word of God and his Christology appears to be Socinian, denying the pre-existence of Christ but accepting the virgin birth.[19] Biddle's denial of the pre-existence of Christ was the main target of works including Puritan theologian John Owen's A Brief Declaration and Vindication of the Doctrine of the Trinity (1669).[20]


Biddle's appeal for conscience was one of the major milestones of the establishment of religious freedom in England. More recently Biddle's combination of Socinian Christology and millennialism has led to a rediscovery of his work among Christadelphians and other non-Trinitarian groups in the 1970s and 1980s.[21][22]

Explanatory notes[edit]

  1. ^ The case against Biddle was as significant as the better known case against the Quaker James Nayler in the following parliament, but is now less well known because the Biddle case was recorded in much less detail in the parliamentary diary.[8]


  1. ^ "John Biddle". Britannica. Retrieved 21 September 2018.
  2. ^ a b Christopher Hill, Milton and the English Revolution, p. 290.
  3. ^ mentioned in: A Liberal Religious Heritage Archived 29 June 2007 at the Wayback Machine, Bartleby Archived 30 April 2007 at the Wayback Machine, The Role of the Fourth Commandment in the Historical Sabbath-keeping Churches of God – Christian Churches of God, Woden Australia, History A SHORT UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST HISTORY By Dr. John W. Baros-Johnson April, 2003, Exlibris "Socinians" Archived 24 June 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  4. ^ a b c d e Grosart, Alexander Balloch (1886). "Biddle, John" . In Stephen, Leslie (ed.). Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. 5. London: Smith, Elder & Co.
  5. ^ Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Biddle, John" . Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 3 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  6. ^ Hill, Milton, p. 293.
  7. ^ "Guibon Goddard's Journal: January 1654–5". British History Online. Retrieved 28 November 2017.
  8. ^ Worden, Blair (2012). God's Instruments: Political Conduct in the England of Oliver Cromwell. OUP. p.79. ISBN 9780199570492
  9. ^ Blair Worden (2012). God's Instruments: Political Conduct in the England of Oliver Cromwell. OUP. pp. 79–81. ISBN 9780199570492
  10. ^ Hill, Change and Continuity in Seventeenth-Century England, p. 267.
  11. ^ Wood, Anthony, 1691 Athenae Oxoniense, Vol.2, London, p. 202.
  12. ^ Robert Hartle, 2017 The New Churchyard: from Moorfields marsh to Bethlem burial ground, Brokers Row and Liverpool Street, Crossrail: London, p. 37.
  13. ^ Toulmin, Joshua (1789). A Review of the Life, Character and Writings of the Rev. John Biddle, M.A. London: J. Johnson, Bookseller.
  14. ^ Hill, Milton p. 294, thinks this is probably the case, but adds that Biddle was not exactly a Socinian, something he was often accused of being.
  15. ^ Hill, Milton, p. 313.
  16. ^ Hill, The World Turned Upside Down, p. 177.
  17. ^ Milton Hill, p. 320.
  18. ^ Hill, A Nation of Change and Novelty, p. 189.
  19. ^ Biddle's TWOFOLD SCRIPTURE CATECHISM, Chapter 4. Online Archived 12 June 2011 at the Wayback Machine.
  20. ^ Kevin Giles The Eternal Generation of the Son: Maintaining Orthodoxy in Trinitarian Theology 0830839658 2012 p. 188 "John Owen (1616–1683) is widely recognized as the greatest of the seventeenth-century Puritan theologians.... A Brief Declaration and Vindication of the Doctrine of the Trinity, as also of the Person and Satisfaction of Christ (1699).81 In these two works, one of Owen's primary concerns is to establish by appeal to Scripture the preexistence and eternity of the Son.82 He directs most of his arguments to John Biddle, a Socinian who is often called 'the father of English Unitarianism'."
  21. ^ John Botten, The Captive Conscience, Birmingham.
  22. ^ A. Eyre. The Protestors Birmingham

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