Biddle, John

, a noted Socinian writer, was born in 1615, at Wotton-under-Edge, in Gloucestershire. He was educated at the free-school in that town and, being a promising youth, was noticed by George lord Berkeley, who made him an allowance of 10l. a year. While at this school, he translated Virgil’s eclogues, and the two first satires of Juvenal, into English verse, both which were printed at London in 1634, in 8vo. In 1634 he was sent to Oxford, and entered at Magdalen-hall. June 23, 1683, he took the degree of bachelor of arts, and soon after was invited to be master of the school of his native place, but declined it. May 20, 1691, he took his degree of master of arts; and the magistrates of Gloucester having chosen him master of the free-school of St. Mary de Crypt in that city, he went and settled there, and was much esteemed for his diligence. Falling, however, into some opinions concerning the Trinity, different from those commonly received, and having expressed his thoughts with too much freedom, he was accused of heresy: and being summoned before the magistrates, he exhibited in writing a confession, which not being thought satisfactory, he was obliged to make another more explicit than the former. When ha had fully considered this doctrine, he comprised it in twelve arguments drawn, as he pretended, froai the Scripture | wherein the commonly-received opinion, touching the deity of the Holy Spirit, is attempted to be refuted .*

*

These twelve arguments, &c. were first published in 1647, and reprinted in 1651, and lastly in 1691, 4to, in a eollection of Socinian tracts, entitled “The faith of one God, &c.” They were answered by Matthew Poole, M. A. the learned editor of Synopsis Criticorum, in his Plea for the Godhead of the Holy Ghost, &c. aud by others at home and abroad.

An acquaintance who had a copy of them, having shewed them, to the magistrates of Gloucester, and to the parliament committee then residing there, he was committed, Dec. 2, 1645, to the common gaol, till the parliament should take cognizance of the matter. However, an eminent person in Gloucester procured his enlargement, by giving security for his appearance when the parliament should send for him. June 1616, archbishop Usher, passing through Gloucester in his way to London, had a conference with our author, and endeavoured, but in vain, to convince him of his errors. Six months after he had been set at liberty he was summoned to appear at Westminster, and the parliament appointed a committee to examine him before whom he freely confessed, that he did not acknowledge the commonly-received notion of the divinity of the Holy Ghost, but, however, was ready to hear what could be opposed to him, and, if he could not make out his opinion to be true, honestly to own his error. But being wearied with tedious and expensive delays, he wrote a letter to sir Henry Vane, a member of the committee, requesting him either to procure his discharge, or to make a report of his case to the house of commons. The result of this was, his being committed to the custody of one of their officers, which restraint continued the five years following. He was at length referred to the assembly of divines then sitting at Westminster, before whom he often appeared, and gave them in writing his twelve arguments, which were published the same year. Upon their publication, he was summoned to appear at the bar of the house of commons j where being asked, “Whether he owned this treatise, and the opinions therein” he answered in the affirmative. Upon which he was committed to prison, and the house ordered, Sept. 6, 1747, that the book should be called in and burnt by the hangman, and the author be examined by the committee of plundered ministers. But Mr. Biddle drew a greater storm upon himself by two tracts he published in 1648, “A confession of faith touching the | Holy Trinity according to the Scripture” and “The testimonies of Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Novatianusy Theophilus, Origen, also of Arnobius, Lactantius, Eusebius, Hilary, and Brightman, concerning that one God, and the persons of the Holy Trinity, together with observations on the same.” As soon as they were published, the assembly of divines solicited the parliament, and procured an ordinance, inflicting death upon those that held opinions contrary to the received doctrine about the Trinity, and severe penalties upon those who differed in lesser matters. Biddle, however, escaped by a dissension in the parliament, part of which was joined by the army; many of whom, both officers and soldiers, being liable to the severities of the ordinance above-mentioned, it therefore from that time lay unregarded for several years. Biddle had now more liberty allowed him by his keepers who suffered him, upon security given, to go into Staffordshire, where he lived some time with a justice of peace, who entertained him with great hospitality, and at his death left him a legacy. Serjeant John Bradshaw, president of the council of state, having got intelligence of this indulgence granted him, caused him to be recalled, and more strictly confined. In this confinement he spent his whole substance, and was reduced to great indigence, till he was employed by Roger Daniel of London, to correct an impression of the Septuagint Bible, which that printer was about to publish and this gained him for some time a comfortable subsistence.

In 1654 the parliament published a general act of oblivion, when Biddle was restored to his liberty. This he improved among those friends he had gained in London, in meeting together every Sunday for expounding the Scripture, and discoursing thereupon; by which means his opinions concerning the unity of God, Christ his only son, and his holy spirit, were so propagated, that the presbyterian ministers became highly offended. The same year he published his “Twofold scripture catechism,” which was ably answered by Dr. Owen in his “Vindicise Evangelicae,Oxford, 1655; but a copy coming into the hands of some of the members of Cromwell’s parliament, meeting Sept. 3, 1654, a complaint was made against it in the house of commons. Upon this, the author being brought to the bar, and asked “Whether he wrote that book?” answered by asking, “Whether it seemed | reasonable, that one brought before a judgment seat as a criminal, should accuse himself?” After some debates and resolutions, he was, Dec. 13, committed close prisoner to the Gatehouse. A bill likewise was ordered to be brought in for punishing him but, after about six months imprisonment, he obtained his liberty at the court of king’s bench, by due course of law. About a year after, another no less formidable danger overtook him, by his engaging in a dispute with one Griffin, an anabaptist teacher. Many of Griffin’s congregation having embraced Biddle' s opinions concerning the Trinity, he thought the best way to stop the spreading of such errors would be openly to confute his tenets. For this purpose he challenges Biddle to a public disputation at his meeting in the Stone chapel in St. Paul’s cathedral, on this question, “Whether Jesus Christ be the most high, or almighty God?” Biddle would have declined the dispute, but was obliged to accept of it and the two antagonists having met amidst a ifumerous audience, Griffin repeats the question, asking “if any man there did deny that Christ was God most high” to which Biddle resolutely answered, “I do deny it” and by this open profession gave his adversaries the opportunity of a positive and clear accusation, which they soon laid hold of. But Griffin being baffled, the disputation was deferred till another day, when Biddle was to take his turn of proving the negative of the question. Meanwhile, Griffin and his party, not thinking themselves a match for our author, accused him of fresh blasphemies, and procured an order from the protector to apprehend him, July the 3d (being the day before the intended second disputation), and to commit him to the Compter. He was afterwards sent to Newgate, and ordered to be tried for his life the next sessions, on the ordinance against blasphemy. However, the protector not chusing to have him either condemned or absolved, took him out of the hands of the law, and detained him in prison; till at length, being wearied with receiving petitions for and against him, he banished him to St. Mary’s castle, in the isle of Scilly y where he was sent Oct. 1655. During this exile, he employed himself in studying several intricate matters, particularly the Revelation of St. John, and after his return to London, published an essay towards explaining it. In 1658, the protector, through the intercession of many friends, suffered a writ of habeas corpus to be granted out of the | king’s bench, whereby the prisoner was brought back, and, nothing being laid to his charge, was set at liberty. Upon his return to London, he became pastor of an independent meeting but did not continue long in town for, Cromwell dying Sept. 3, 1658, his son Richard called a parliament, consisting chiefly of presbyterians, whom, of all men, Biddle most dreaded he therefore retired privately into the country. This parliament being soon dissolved, he returned to his former employment till the restoration of king Charles the Second, when the liberty of dissenters was taken away, and their meetings punished as seditious. Biddle then restrained himself from public to more private assemblies, but, June 1, 1662, he was seized in his lodging, where he and some few of his friends had met for divine worship, and was, with them, carried before a justice of peace, who committed them all to prison, where they lay till the recorder took security for their answering to the charge brought against them at the next session. But the court not being then able to find a statute whereon to form, any criminal indictment, they were referred to the session following, and proceeded against at common law; each of the hearers was fined 20l. Biddle, 100l., and to lie in prison till paid. By his confinement, however, he contracted a disease which put an end to his life, Sept. 22, 1662, in the 47th year of his age. He was buried in the cemetery near Old Bethlem, in Moorfields and a monument was erected over his grave, with an inscription. His life was published in Latin at London, 1682, by Mr. Farrington, of the Inner Temple, who gives him a high character for piety and morals, and by the Rev. Joshua Toulmin, in 1789, 8vo, who styles him the Father of the English Unitarians. 1

1

Biog. Brit, and Lives above-mentioned. —Ath. Ox. vol. II.