This brief biography has been extracted from Bible Digest No 49 - "The Development of Biblical Unitarianism in Europe England and America". It has been reproduced here to accompany the release of a year 2001 retyped version of Biddle's "Twofold Scripture Catechism" of 1654.
In the English speaking world, every believer in the one God of Abraham owes a very great debt to John Biddle (1615-62).
He was imprisoned several times for his rejection of the Trinity. He can be regarded as one of the Martyrs for the faith, dying (at home) at only 47 years of age, from an illness contracted during his fourth term in prison.
John Biddle is probably one of the best known names amongst the pioneers of "Biblical Unitarianism",(1)in the English speaking world. In his generation, he laboured long, and hard, and patiently, in the face of severe persecution from the bigots who would tolerate no divergence from the Trinitarian position, and who sought by all possible means to destroy him.
Biddle was a scholar of no mean ability. At the age of 26 he became Headmaster of Crypt Grammar School which was attached to the Cathedral at Gloucester. In pursuance of his duties of teaching his students the Catechism of the Church of England, he immersed himself in study of the Bible.
A few years later he knew the whole English New Testament by heart, and most of it in Greek. (although he did confess to being a little "shaky" in the Greek after the early chapters of the Revelation!)
He also came to reject the doctrine of the Trinity. By his own testimony he reached this conclusion without having read any of the literature of the Socinians. He did however become well acquainted with it in later years.
By 1644 he was sharing his new faith with others, and was promptly called before the magistrates to answer charges of heresy.
He escaped on this occasion by writing a less than totally honest «confession of faith», in which under pressure, he was allowed to "pass" at the second attempt, when he managed to frame his words in a way which concealed his true beliefs. However this left him with an uneasy conscience, and he subsequently wrote a much more explicit article in which there could be no mistake about his meaning. This second article was intended for use by friends, but one of them betrayed him to the Magistrate. He was again briefly imprisoned, but was released on the security of a friend pending a hearing before Parliament.
Six months later in 1646, he was called to London where the Parliament referred his case to an Assembly of Divines for consideration. The case dragged on without resolution and he spent the next 5 years confined to the Gatehouse at Westminster. He continued to write in prison. While there he actually put into print, for public consumption, the private article which had brought him before the Parliament!
Naturally this caused an uproar, and the pamphlet was seized and burnt by the hangman. However demand for it was so great that it was reprinted before the end of the year.
These events led to a call for Biddle's death, and this was one of the major factors which led to the hurried enactment of the 1648 "Ordinance for Punishing Heresies and Blasphemies" mentioned above.
However Cromwell's "Act of Oblivion", (also mentioned above), worked to Biddle's advantage, and in 1652 he was released from prison.
That same year an English translation of the Racovian Catechism (2)appeared, which has been ascribed by some, to Biddle.
Over the next two years Biddle wrote prolifically, as well as translating several works by Polish Socinian authors.
In 1654 he produced his own "Twofold Catechism".(3) When this book was drawn to the attention of Parliament, he was again imprisoned, this time in Newgate, and his book was burnt by the hangman. However Parliament was dissolved before his case was resolved. Six months after his arrest the charges were abandoned and he was again released.
Freedom was shortlived. Less than a month later he was again arrested on the capital charge of Blasphemy and Heresy. The 1648 Ordinance against Heresies, which had been thought to be dormant and replaced by Cromwell's pledge of religious freedom, was used against him.
This time he again escaped the death sentence, but was banished to St Mary's Castle in the Scilly Isles, where he remained in prison until 1658.
After his release he returned to London, where he remained free for a further four years, though in ill health for much of the time.
In 1662, he and several friends were arrested while holding a Bible Class at his home, and imprisoned without bail. At first no suitable charges could be found, but eventually a way was found to impose a fine which Biddle could not pay.
Five weeks later he fell ill with "prison fever", and was released, but died two days later at the age of 47.
Biddle left no denomination to bear his name. The small band of immediate followers disappears from history shortly after his death.
However there can be little doubt that all of us today, who hold Abrahamic faith in the One God, owe this man a great debt. The influence of his teachings has long survived his death.
Biddle did not aim to be merely a reformer of Christian doctrine. For Biddle, religion without a moral dimension was no religion at all. He was not concerned with doctrine as an end in itself, but as a foundation for the holiness of character to which it should lead.
Unlike many others engaged in controversy, he was not by nature quarrelsome or opinionated, but modest and self effacing. He was tolerant of others who differed. His personal character was beyond reproach. His reputation indicates that he lived what he preached.
In the 20th century also, this remains the principal goal of true Biblical Unitarianism, for all who follow Jesus in worshipping His Father as the ONLY TRUE GOD.
1. We use the term "Unitarian" to describe those who reject the doctrine of the Trinity, in favour of belief in God as one person only. «Biblical Unitarianism» draws a further distinction to avoid confusion with another stream of Unitarians who are commonly known as "Rationalist Unitarians" or "Universalist Unitarians".
2. The Racovian Catechism is the Confession of Faith of the Polish Brethren, a Unitarian Group who flourished in Poland in the 16th and 17th centuries. See Bible Digest No 45 for a review of this document.
3. Biddle's "Twofold Catechism" was collected and burnt by the Hangman, shortly after its appearance in 1654. Only two copies are known to have survived. A photocopy of the original held in Edinburgh, was kindly provided by John James, a brother in Christ, who lives in England.
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