Wednesday 24th April, 2019
Dr Williams's Library Seminar Series
The Lecture Hall, Dr Williams's Library, 14 Gordon Square, London, WC1H 0AR
A step too far: The 1808 Unitarian version of the most important book in Christendom.
The 1808 Unitarian New Testament confronted orthodoxy head on. Its ‘editors’ presented the first two chapters of the Gospels of Mathew and Luke entirely in italics on grounds of “dubious historical authority” – meaning they were not true. It immediately provoked charges of blasphemy, ignorance, wilful misrepresentation and anarchy.
John Issitt, lectures in philosophy of learning, School of Education, University of York.
Author of Jeremiah Joyce: radical, dissenter and writer (2006) and 'From Gregory's Dictionary to Nicholson's Encyclopedia : Intrigue and literary craft in the reshaping of knowledge', Publishing History (2009). More recently he has written Agents of Reason, a work of historical fiction based on archives.
The Unitarian New Testament’s five English editions and one US edition to 1821 provoked a storm of establishment reaction. Charges of blasphemy, ignorance, wilful misrepresentation, anarchy and of being the work of ‘the infidel’, were made in a series of books, journals, newspapers and public forums. Its frontispiece claim of offering an ‘improved’ version directly challenged the central tenets of orthodox Christianity - the trinity, the divinity of Christ, the doctrines of atonement, immaculate conception and the immortality of the soul and violated orthodox sentiment in multiple ways and on multiple levels. The claim of being ‘improved’ operated on the assumption that ‘improvement’ was both needed and possible. It carried the implication that the received version was deficient and that therefore adherents to received orthodoxy were also deficient in both their intellectual command and their faith. It challenged the scriptural account on which church authority was built, and by extension through the chain of causal reasoning that structured orthodox belief systems, it challenged, at least in the minds of defenders of the establishment, the hierarchical order of society.
Of the many crimes ‘The editors’ of the Unitarian New Testament were accused of, two in particular cut deep into orthodox sentiment. Firstly, the use of the typographical technique of italisation of the entire text of the first two chapters of the Gospels of Mathew and Luke and justified in a footnote on grounds that these chapters were of ‘dubious historical authority’, really asserted that the orthodox account of Christ’s miraculous conception was simply not true. But possibly of even more direct provocation was the offer of Unitarian scriptural heresy to the lower social orders in the form of relatively cheap and mass produced copies. The same radical networks and intentions that produced and distributed cheap copies of the works of Thomas Paine with all its destabilising implications, were recognisable in the personnel, production and distribution of the Unitarian New Testament. The main organiser and one of the editors of the project, was the Reverend Jeremiah Joyce famous as one of the accused in the treason trials of 1794.
The story of the Unitarian New Testament is cast against the backdrop of the shifting intellectual and cultural climate of the opening to the nineteenth century. Its editors, heavily implicated as having sympathies and connections with French revolutionary figures, were in a delicate position given the continuing Napoleonic wars. Furthermore, the intellectual authority underpinning the scientific rationalism associated with the deceased Joseph Priestley - the Unitarian figurehead and one of the originators of the Unitarian project - was beginning to lose ground. The effort to produce a version of the New Testament in line with Unitarian theology and scriptural interpretation, can be understood as one of the last expressions of the classic eighteenth century Enlightenment project. Its short life, the embarrassment it caused the community of Unitarians in the first half of the nineteenth century and its virtual silence in the historical record, suggests it was a project that aspired for something it could not achieve.
The Unitarian New Testament was conceived of as providing an uncorrupted, reasoned and true account of Christ’s gospel but it could not deliver. Its theological aspirations were to strip away the obfuscations of myth and the exercise of arbitrary power and render the gospel’s true meaning explicit. Its ‘editors’ – really an assemblage of Unitarian writers both dead and alive - failed to recognise that the language and meaning of the human condition as captured by any written text, does not completely yield to forensic scientism or the demand for material evidence. The intrinsic limitations of written language mean that words show but cannot state their whole meaning. The Unitarian New Testament attempted to state the meaning of its own story but in many ways it was a step too far.
John Issitt March 2019