We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Reference group
Subscribers and non-subscribers at the Salters' Hall debate (act. 1719) were the 150 or so dissenting ministers who attended a series of meetings at Salters' Hall, London, between mid-February and early March 1719. The ministers initially came together to endorse the advice that was to be sent to Exeter to heal the doctrinal differences that had arisen among the leading ministers there. As the dispute widened to include dissenters in London and elsewhere, the debate came to be seen as a controversy over orthodoxy and the question of subscription to the doctrine of the Trinity.

The dispute that led to the Salters' Hall debate was the result of the growing doctrinal divisions within protestant dissent, and more specifically the result of the conflict between the leading dissenting ministers in Exeter. Before the second decade of the eighteenth century religious dissent was overwhelmingly orthodox. The leading defender of the principles of dissent, James Peirce, in his highly influential Vindiciæ fratrum dissentientium (1710), could claim that though it was well known there were Socinians (anti-trinitarians who denied the divinity of Christ) in the established church, there were none among the dissenters. Within a few years such a claim could no longer be made. The great debate for the Church of England during the early years of George I's reign was the Bangorian controversy (1717), but for dissenters it was an earlier dispute within the church over the Trinity that proved so disruptive. Many who studied the Bible for themselves came to have doubts about the doctrine of the Trinity as a result of Samuel Clarke's Scripture Doctrine of the Trinity (1712). John Locke's Paraphrase and Notes on the Epistles of St Paul (1707) and Jean Le Clerc's Five Letters Concerning the Inspiration of the Holy Scriptures (1690), together with William Whiston's Essay upon the Apostolical Constitution (1708), also challenged the assumption that orthodox doctrine was necessarily in accordance with scripture. In addition, the writings of the great seventeenth-century puritan Richard Baxter, who sought to lessen the disputed points dividing protestants by appealing to reason and scripture as the only guides to truth, was attractive to many eighteenth-century dissenters.

The Exeter controversy began when the heterodox opinions of a group of former ministerial students became public in November 1716, as a result of the indiscretion of one of their number, Hubert Stogdon. Some senior ministers, including Peirce and Stogdon's tutor, Joseph Hallett, came under suspicion. Alarmed at the apparent growth of Arianism (the non-trinitarian belief that the Son is subordinate to the Father though still divine) the orthodox party was determined to force ministers to clear themselves from the suspicion of heresy. After a debate at the Exeter assembly of ministers in September 1718, when feelings ran high, the orthodox party appealed to the authority of the London ministers for support, thereby widening the dispute.

The disputes at Exeter came at a crucial point politically for dissenters, during the parliamentary debates over the repeal of the Occasional Conformity (1711) and Schism (1714) Acts that took place between December 1718 and January 1719. After direct reference had been made during the debate to the trinitarian dispute at Exeter, there were attempts during the second reading of the bill in both the Lords and the Commons to introduce a clause to require a declaration in favour of the Trinity that might have proved fatal to repeal. Both clauses were rejected, and the bill itself passed in the Lords, only because of the votes of the Scottish peers in support of their co-religionists, the English Presbyterians. Contemporaries also noted that the Scottish MPs voted overwhelmingly for repeal.

Because of the damage caused by the dispute at Exeter, the managers of the dissenting interest in parliament appealed to the leading ministers in London ‘to put a Stop to such Differences’ (Account of the Late Proceedings, 3). The lead was taken by the dissenting MP John Shute Barrington, a lay member of the Committee of the Body of the Three Denominations, which managed the public affairs of the Presbyterians, Independents, and Baptists. In an attempt to defuse the dispute Barrington drew up a ‘Paper of advices for promoting peace’, which he laid before the committee on 5 February 1719, and which set out that any charge of heresy should be confirmed by witnesses, and the only test of faith should be according to scripture not human formulas. After making some amendments the committee, against Barrington's counsel, decided to lay the ‘Paper of advices’ before the full body of London ministers, ‘so that what was done might have more weight’ (Calamy, 2.407). The decision was to have fateful consequences. Instead of containing the dispute the controversy was opened up to debate, thereby exposing and exacerbating the divisions within dissent.

On 19 February Barrington's ‘Paper of advices’ was brought before a considerable body of ministers at Salters' Hall, the meeting place of one of the principal Presbyterian congregations in London. The strongly orthodox Thomas Bradbury, a leading Independent and Barrington's minister, proposed that they should send a delegation to Exeter to give advice to the parties there, but this was rejected. Instead it was resolved to consider the ‘Advices’ paragraph by paragraph, and it was said to have been undertaken ‘without any Division, or any considerable Appearance of Hands to the contrary’ (Authentick Account, 18).

The meeting was adjourned to 24 February, when the crucial vote took place. After a fractious debate lasting several hours, conducted amid ‘a great deal of Bustle, Heat, Invective, and over-bearing Treatment’ (Account of the Late Proceedings, 10), during which Bradbury complained he was hissed at, the question was put whether a declaration in favour of the Trinity should be inserted in the ‘Paper of advices’ to be sent to Exeter, for ‘it was pleaded that our adherence to the Doctrine of the Trinity had been call'd in Question in both Houses of Parliament’, and that it had been spread about that most of the London ministers were Arians (Bradbury, 17). ‘On the appearance of Hands’, those in favour of making the declaration ‘with great Triumph, assum'd the Majority; but a Division was insisted upon, and the Negatives were to go up into the Gallery’. As the ministers separated, ‘it was very indiscreetly called out by some Person, You that are against Persecution, come up Stairs!’ While those on the other side cried out ‘You that are for the Doctrine of the Trinity, stay below!’ (Account of the Late Proceedings, 10). When the vote was taken it was found that 53 were in favour of the motion and 57 against. It was therefore decided by a majority of 4 that the advice to be sent to Exeter should not include a declaration on the Trinity: according to the memorable though inaccurate phrase of Sir Joseph Jekyl, master of the rolls, ‘The Bible carried it by four’ (Whiston, 220). No division list survives for this vote.

Subsequently Bradbury questioned the qualification of those who voted, claiming that 26 of the 57 who voted with the majority against subscription were not London ministers compared with only 6 of the 53 in favour of subscription. But the meeting on 24 February had begun with a roll-call providing an opportunity for the qualification of each minister present to be challenged.

The meeting was again adjourned until 3 March. In the interval both parties canvassed for support. The debate opened with ‘loud Complaints’ by those who had voted against the declaration that they had been publicly misrepresented as being against the doctrine of the Trinity. They were told ‘all Grounds of Suspicion might be removed, and the World satisfied’, if they made an immediate declaration of their belief in the doctrine of the Trinity by subscribing the first article of the Church of England (Noble Stand, 6). Dissenting ministers were already obliged by the Toleration Act to make such a declaration before they could receive the benefit of the act, but Bradbury claimed that ‘it was commonly insinuated, that many whom the Law had oblig'd to subscribe this Doctrine did not believe it’ (Bradbury, 6). Bradbury also proposed that a declaration adopting the fourth and fifth clauses of the Westminister catechism should be made. This, however, was particularly resented as ‘a new and unwarrantable Regard to the Catechism of the Assembly of Divines’ (Authentick Account, 26). The non-subscribers also objected to the subscribers' failure to accept the decision of the majority and their attempt to renew the earlier debate on subscription, ‘which before was agreed should be laid aside 'till we had gone through the Advices’ (ibid., 16 [19]). The non-subscribers were to claim that
the Differences in their Debating about this Declaration which have been so much talk'd of, were only about the Time and Order wherein the Declaration against Arian Doctrines should be made, and in what Words, Scriptural or Humane, and not about the Doctrines themselves, as some have falsely reported. (Whitehall Evening Post, 14 March 1719)
The attempt to impose a subscription was opposed on several counts. Undoubtedly some ministers were too scrupulous to subscribe any form of words not contained in scripture, but opposition to all forms of compulsory subscription was the basis on which dissenters separated from the Church of England. Their supporters in parliament having defeated attempts to impose a religious test, how could the general body do anything that ‘look'd like giving up our Christian Liberty’? Many also feared that any declaration would be made a future test. In fact the refusal to make an open declaration led too easily to accusations of heresy and to condemnation by opponents both within and outside dissent.

More than sixty ministers then withdrew to the vestry ‘to subscribe their Names to a certain Roll of Paper’, which included the first article of the Church of England and the fifth and sixth answers to the assembly's catechism (Authentick Account, 16 [19]). A list of sixty-four ministers who signed these articles was published a month later, with the addition of the name of Zachariah Merril of Hampstead, who it was noted ‘has since signed it’ (Weekly Journal, 4 April 1719). The subscribers included many of the leading Presbyterian ministers, Jeremiah Smith, William Tong, Benjamin Robinson, Thomas Reynolds, Joseph Hill, John Newman, Jabez Earle, and John Barker, as well as Bradbury and his Independent colleagues John Nesbitt, Matthew Clarke, and Thomas Ridgley, and the Baptist Thomas Harrison. Later lists published as part of the controversy recorded the names of seventy-eight subscribers, suggesting that others who were not present at the meeting, like Merril, subsequently subscribed. The additional names included many country ministers, who were perhaps unable to attend on the day of the meeting, but also prominent London Presbyterian ministers, such as William Lorimer and Samuel Pomfret. The list published in the Weekly Journal does have the appearance of being carelessly copied and may not be complete.

The remaining ministers, according to the Weekly Journal, numbered fifty-four. They continued their examination of the ‘Paper of advices’ clause by clause. After completing the first three clauses they adjourned until Tuesday 10 March. Although notice of the meeting was sent to the ministers who had earlier withdrawn, the latter chose instead to meet on the day before, 9 March. Since the subscribers had withdrawn leaving the moderator, John Oldfield, in the chair, the non-subscribers considered themselves still to be the body of ministers authorized to conclude the business. The ‘Paper of advices’, signed by seventy-three ministers, was sent to Exeter on 17 March together with a letter in which care was taken to stress their belief in the doctrine of the Trinity and their rejection of Arianism. The ‘Advices’ arrived too late. By the time the letter from London was received Peirce and Hallett had already been ejected by the orthodox party.

Both parties in London carried the dispute to extremes, ignoring all attempts at reconciliation. Within twelve months more than thirty pamphlets as well as newspaper articles were issued. Accusation led to counter-accusation and charges of misrepresentation, and by mid-April 1719 ‘The Misunderstanding among the Ministers of London, that was but a Spark … is now blown up into a Flame. An open War is begun’ (Wilcox, Noble Stand: second part, 3).

Too often scruples over subscription have been seen as a mere cloak for Arianism or even Unitarianism. The issue that divided ministers at Salters' Hall was subscription not doctrine. Isaac Watts, who took no part in the debate because of the state of his health, while accepting that some ministers in the west country had undoubtedly ‘entered into Dr Clarks scheme or approached near to it’, claimed that even the subscribing ministers generally believed very few of their brethren in London ‘are chargeable with this; perhaps there may be three or four of which they have suspicions’, yet there were above seventy who signed the letter sent to Exeter. In Watts's opinion ‘The chief difference in short lyes here’: those who subscribed ‘generally believe the athanasian scheme necessary to salvation’, those who refused ‘do not think the Athanasian scheme so necessary, tho I know not one that was present in that meeting who is enclined to arianism, & I'me perswaded almost all of them believe the athanasian d[octrine] to be true’. But both sides pushed matters too far. Whereas the subscribers had ‘made the door of Communion perhaps too narrow’, the non-subscribers ‘have made it unreasonably wide’, by maintaining a mere declaration of the words of scripture to be sufficient. While Watts believed the latter did not wish to admit Socinians, ‘yet I think this door will certainly admit them with all other heretics’ (Watts to Mather, 11 Feb 1720). Likewise Calamy told George Chalmers, principal of King's College, Aberdeen, that the doctrine of the Trinity ‘was not the point in question’ (Calamy, 2.414).

The divisions were only determined in part on denominational grounds, for the Presbyterians, the largest body of dissenters, and the Baptists were divided. The majority of the non-subscribers were Presbyterians, together with most of the General Baptists but only a few Independents, including Jeremiah Hunt and David Jennings. The subscribers included nearly all the Independents, a nearly equal number of the older and doctrinally more conservative Presbyterians, and nearly all the Particular Baptists. One, the Independent John Conder, sided with the subscribers on 3 March, but later joined with the non-subscribers and signed the paper sent to Exeter on 17 March. It is possible to identify the breakdown of denominations between the 78 subscribers (taken from A True Relation) as 27 English Presbyterians, 3 Scottish Presbyterians, 31 Independents, 1 General Baptist, 11 Particular Baptists, and 5 whose denomination is uncertain. Of the 73 non-subscribers (taken from an Authentick Account), 49 were English Presbyterians (with no Scottish Presbyterian), 8 were Independents, with 12 General Baptists, 2 Particular Baptists, and 2 uncertain.

Virtually all the London ministers were forced to take sides; only a handful did not. Besides Watts they included Edmund Calamy and the historian Daniel Neal. Calamy, the leading minister of his generation, believed the breach was unavoidable and could see no good to be had by attending. Despite efforts by both parties to engage his support, he refused. His reputation undoubtedly suffered as a result.

Although the split between the subscribers and non-subscribers was only determined in part along denominational lines, the Salters' Hall debate was to prove a watershed. Those who were Calvinists and orthodox in matters of doctrine, especially on the Trinity, came to identify with the Independent interest, and those who prized freedom of enquiry and the exercise of reason increasingly with the Presbyterians. As a consequence several Presbyterians who were subscribers at Salters' Hall later renounced their subscription. Andrew Gray told the principal of Glasgow University in early 1725 that Jabez Earle, Daniel Mayo, and John Barker ‘have now disown'd their subscription and say they are sorry for what they did’ (Gray to Stirling, 16 Feb 1725). In turn Nathaniel Lardner and Moses Lowman, both Independents who had sided with the non-subscribers, became identified with the Presbyterians.

The Salters' Hall debate and the controversy it generated were to push doctrinal issues to the fore among dissenters in the decades after 1719. Many dissenting ministers were encouraged to study the arguments for themselves. The Westmorland Presbyterian Samuel Bourn (1689–1754) originally accepted the orthodox interpretation of the Trinity, but as a result of the debate was prompted to make a thorough examination of the issues and read Clarke's Scripture Doctrine together with the various replies. As a result of his reading he became an Arian. The controversy was felt in other parts of Britain, and even in America. Within a year Ireland was to experience similar disruption. From New England, Cotton Mather viewed the prevalence of the Arian heresy in England with horror but he alienated many of his former friends by taking sides. There is also a literary footnote. It has been suggested that the Salters' Hall debate influenced Daniel Defoe, himself a dissenter, in his first novel, Robinson Crusoe.

Other subscribers with entries in the Oxford DNB (listed in True Relation) are the Independents John Asty and Philip Gibbs, and the Scottish Presbyterian James Anderson.

Other non-subscribers with entries in the Oxford DNB (listed in Authentick Account) are the Presbyterians John Sheffield, William Harris, Simon Browne, John Evans, Samuel Wright, Benjamin Grosvenor, Samuel Rosewell, Samuel Chandler, Richard Biscoe, Samuel Clarke, Thomas Newman, Benjamin Avery, Daniel Burgess, John Billingsley, and Obadiah Hughes; and the General Baptists John Gale, Joseph Burroughs, Isaac Kimber, and Joseph Jenkins [see under Jenkins, Joseph].

David L. Wykes

Sources  

R. Thomas, ‘The non-subscription controversy amongst dissenters in 1719: the Salters' Hall debate’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 4 (1953), 162–86 · C. G. Bolam and others, The English Presbyterians: from Elizabethan puritanism to modern Unitarianism (1968), 151–72 · E. Calamy, An historical account of my own life, with some reflections on the times I have lived in, 1671–1731, ed. J. T. Rutt, 2 (1829), 401–18 · F. J. Powicke, ‘The Salters-Hall controversy’, Transactions of the Congregational Historical Society, 7 (1916–18), 110–24 · A. Brockett, Nonconformity in Exeter, 1650–1875 (1962) · [J. S. Barrington], An account of the late proceedings of the dissenting ministers at Salters-Hall, occasioned by the differences amongst their brethren in the country: with some thoughts concerning imposition of human forms for articles of faith, in a letter to the Reverend Dr Gale (1719) · The noble stand, or, A just vindication of these brave spirits who in the late memorable actions at Salters-Hall distinguished themselves (1719) · D. Wilcox, The noble stand: second part [1719] · T. Bradbury, An answer to the reproaches cast on those dissenting ministers who subscrib'd their belief of the eternal Trinity, in a letter to John Barrington-Shute, Esq (1719) · An authentick account of several things done and agreed upon by the dissenting ministers lately assembled at Salters-Hall · A true relation of some proceedings at Salters-Hall by those ministers who sign'd the first article of the Church of England (1719) · W. Whiston, Memoirs of the life and writings of Mr William Whiston: containing memoirs of several of his friends also (1749) · Isaac Watts [to Cotton Mather], 11 Feb 1720, Mass. Hist. Soc., MS N-1013, Benjamin Colman papers · U. Glas. L., MS Gen 207/106, Andrew Gray to John Stirling, 16 Feb 1725 · Flying Post (19–21 March 1719); (21–3 April 1719) · Whitehall Evening Post (14 March 1719); (18 April 1719) · Weekly Journal (4 April 1719); (11 April 1719)