In England the orthodox opponents of Unitarianism tried to oust the heterodox congregations of the old Meeting Houses. A suit for possession of endowment funds which was finally decided against the Unitarians of Wolverhampton began in 1817; and a strongly organized attack followed in 1825. A rich fund for ministerial support, Lady Hewley’s Charity, was, after actions carried to the highest court, declared not to be applicable to the assistance of Unitarians. This decision, in 1842, looked like the beginning of the end for the tenure of the Meeting Houses themselves, the Wolverhampton case being now decided on the lines of the Hewley judgment. But an Act of Parliament—the Dissenters’ Chapels Act—passed in 1844 (owing in some part to the powerful support of Mr. W.E. Gladstone), secured the congregations in undisturbed possession. The principle of this law applies to all places of worship held upon ‘Open,’ i.e. non-doctrinal Trusts; where the congregation can show that the present usage agrees substantially with that of the past twenty-five years, it is not to be ejected. At the time of this litigation the term ‘English Presbyterian’ came much into vogue among Unitarians, and for some time there was a marked abatement of propagandist zeal.
I. THE COMMUNITIES
Having now followed the fortunes of the Unitarians up to the point where they obtained a recognized position among religious organizations, we need not enter into the minute details of their denominational history. Less than seventy years have elapsed since the passing of the Dissenters’ Chapels Act, and less than a century since the judgment in the Dedham case. The congregational increase, though substantial, has not been great; Unitarians claim rather to have influenced the advance of thought in other denominations than to have created one more sect. At present their numerical strength may be estimated from the following particulars.
In the British Isles and colonial centres there are nearly four hundred places of worship, and a similar number of ministers; in many cases the congregations are small, and the list of ministers includes some that are retired and others who are regarded as ‘lay-workers’ only. There are about five hundred ministers and congregations in the United States. Two or three colleges in England and a similar number in America train students for the ministry, but many join the ranks from other denominations. Women are eligible as ministers, but actual instances are rare. Local unions exist to a fairly adequate extent. In England and America National Conferences meet at intervals; the Unitarian Associations continuously publish literature, send out lecturers, and promote new congregations. There are several periodicals. The most noteworthy in England is the Hibbert Journal, which follows in the line of other reviews of high