[Please note that Spirit & Truth Fellowship International does not necessarily agree with the full content of this letter, however we think it is a very valuable and historical document that needs to be available online for all to read and study.]


You speak like yourself, and like an honest man, who is “the noblest work of God,” when you say, “I vastly prefer an honest Unitarian, who is so from conviction, however mistaken and even dangerous I may regard his sentiments, to men of pretended and even boasted orthodoxy, who hesitate not at prevarication, and even direct falsehood.” And yet, dear father, it almost seems to me, that in your anxiety lest I should go too far easily to retrace my steps, even if I wished to do so, you are advising me to a course, which, under other circumstances, you would not consider exactly open or honest. Let me quote your words. In reference to the metrical doxologies you ask, “Is there no sense, no consistent and proper sense, in which you can say or even sing ‘three in one.’ Must you necessarily carry in your mind the idea of three objects of worship?” In answer to these questions I will reply that there is a sense, in which I believe in a Trinity. I believe that the Father manifests himself to the world through the Son, and operates upon the hearts of men by the agency of his Holy Spirit. In this sense I can say “three in one.” But this is not exactly to the point. I cannot sing the doxology because it distinctly represents these three as one in another sense—as three persons in one God—each as God, and the three as one God. The singing of the Trinitarian doxology is the distinguishing mark of a Trinitarian Church—a concise and regularly repeated confession of faith—the Shibboleth of Trinitarianism. Until it shall be generally known that I am a Unitarian, and that when I sing the doxology I give to it a Unitarian construction, I see no possible way in which I can honestly use it. You have taught me, my father, to be honest and independent. It is from you that I have learned with Christian boldness to assert and defend what I believe to be the truth, and I know you would not have me act otherwise. In endeavoring to persuade me that I can still sing the doxology, your only object is to deter me from exciting general remark by ceasing now to do what I have always hitherto done; but I cannot conscientiously do it, and I know that you would not wish me to silence the clamors, or even the whispers of conscience. You would be gratified, I have no doubt, and so would I, if I could perfectly agree with you in sentiment; but as long as I cannot do so, I know you would prefer that I should be honest, and say so. “God’s truths,” as you so sweetly and so truly say, “whatever on examination they may be found to be, are ‘the same yesterday, to-day, and forever;’ whatever may be the contradictions, inconsistencies, and even the immoralities of those who profess to embrace them. To the law and to the testimony we must continually resort, saying, speak Lord, for thy servant heareth.” Yes, my dear father, that is the true Christian spirit, a spirit of filial reverence for God and for his word; and if I ever hereafter discover that I have mistaken the teachings of that word, I again honestly declare that no worldly reproach, no bitter taunts, no charges of instability or love of notoriety, will deter me from confessing my mistakes and errors, and acknowledging what I believe to be truth. If I can find hereafter that in giving up the faith of my fathers, I have gone astray, in the face of an assembled, mocking, jeering world, I should not hesitate to retrace my steps. [1]

But I will introduce another subject. You appear to feel exceedingly dissatisfied with the alterations which have been made by Unitarians in the psalms and hyms of Dr. Watts. “There are several important topics,” you remark, upon which the hymn-book you have examined, “is deplorably deficient.” And you add, that “in several instances they have so altered Watts, as to have weeded out portions and sentiments which he regarded as among the most vital and valuable. Unless,” you observe, “since he exchanged earth for Heaven, he has greatly altered opinions familiar and precious to him in this world, I am inclined to think that, could he now rise from his bed of dust, he would loudly complain of and protest against the use they have made of the pruning knife.”

It is asserted, my dear father, that before “he exchanged earth for Heaven” he had materially altered opinions once “familiar and precious to him.” The proof upon this subject I have found in a condensed form in Spark’s Inquiry, and shall quote at large what he says upon the subject. I leave it to your candor to decide with how much truth the assertion is made; and if it can be proved to your satisfaction that Watts was himself desirous of making alterations in his hymns, you will not be so apt to find fault with those who have done it for him. The quotation from Professor Sparks is as follows:—

“A letter is extant which was written by the Rev. Samuel Merivale to Dr. Priestley, in which the sentiments of Dr. Lardner on the subject of Watts’s opinions are expressed in the most unequivocal terms. In conversation with Mr. Merivale, as stated in the letter, this great man observed; ‘ I think Dr. Watts never was an Arian, to his honor be it spoken. When he first wrote of the Trinity, I reckon he believed three equal divine persons. But in the latter part of his life, and before he was seized with an imbecility of his faculties, he was a Unitarian. How he came to be so, I cannot certainly say; but I think it was the result of his own meditations on the Scriptures. He was very desirous to promote that opinion, and wrote a great deal upon the subject.’

“After this conversation, Mr. Merivale, wishing to obtain further information respecting Watts’s unpublished papers, wrote a letter of inquiry to Dr. Lardner, from whom he received the following reply:—

“‘I question whether you have any where in print Dr. Watts’s last thoughts upon the Trinity. They were known to very few. My nephew, Neal, an understanding gentleman, was intimate with Dr. Watts, and often with the family where he lived. Sometimes in an evening, when they were alone, he would talk to his friends in the family of his new thoughts concerning the person of Christ, and their great importance; and that, if he should be able to recommend them to the world, it would be the most considerable thing that ever he performed. My nephew, therefore, came to me and told me of it, and that the family was greatly concerned to hear him talk so much of the importance of these sentiments. I told my nephew, that Dr. Watts was right in saying they were important, but I was of opinion that he was unable to recommend them to the public, because he had never been used to a proper way of reasoning upon such a subject. So it proved. My nephew being executor, had the papers, and showed me some of them. Dr. Watts had written a good deal, but they were not fit to be published. Dr. Watts’s Last Thoughts were COMPLETELY UNITARIAN.’ [2]

“These facts,” continues Professor Sparks, “are too plain and conclusive to need comment. They rest on the authority of Lardner, and they could not rest on a higher. He barely stated what he saw and knew. Prove Lardner to have been guilty of a deliberate falsehood, or mistaken in a case where he had every possible opportunity of knowing the truth, and you will invalidate his testimony. Till this be done, no one can rightfully refuse his assent to the position it establishes; which is, that the unpublished papers of Watts clearly showed him to have been a Unitarian.

“But we need not recur to unpublished writings. Enough may be found in print to convince us, that he was not a Trinitarian, whatever else he may have been. In his Solemn Address to the Deity he speaks as follows: ‘Dear and blessed God, hadst thou been pleased, in any one plain Scripture, to have informed me which of the different opinions about the holy trinity, among the contending parties of Christians, had been true, thou knowest with how much zeal, satisfaction and joy, my unbiased heart would have opened itself to receive and embrace the divine discovery. Hadst thou told me plainly, in any single text, that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, are three real distinct persons in the divine nature, I had never suffered myself to be bewildered in so many doubts, nor embarrassed with so many strong fears of assenting to the mere inventions of men, instead of divine doctrine; but I should have humbly and immediately accepted thy words, so far as it was possible for me to understand them, as the only rule of my faith. Or hadst thou been pleased to express and include this proposition in the several scattered parts of thy book, from whence my reason and conscience might with ease find out, and with certainty infer this doctrine, I should have joyfully employed all my reasoning powers, with their utmost skill and activity, to have found out this inference, and engrafted it into my soul.

“‘But how can such weak creatures ever take in so strange, so difficult, and so abstruse a doctrine as this, in the explication and defence whereof, multitudes of men, even men of learning and piety, have lost themselves in infinite subtleties of disputes, and endless mazes of darkness. And can this strange and perplexing notion of three real persons going to make up one true God, be so necessary and so important a part of that Christian doctrine, which, in the Old Testament and the New, is represented as so plain and so easy, even to the meanest understandings?’

“Three things,” observes Mr. Sparks, “are obvious from these extracts. First, that Watts did not believe the Trinity, as usually understood, to be ‘plainly taught in any single text;’ secondly, that in his mind it was not so expressed in the Scriptures at large, as to be intelligible to ‘reason and conscience;’ and thirdly, that the ‘strange and perplexing notion of three real persons going to make up one true God,’ is not a ‘necessary and important part of the Christian doctrine,’ whatever may be thought of its reality. Is there a Trinitarian of the present day, who will assent to either of these propositions?”

Mr. Sparks goes on to give extracts from Dr. Watts’s own writings, which, I think fully prove him to have been a Unitarian when he wrote them, and they were written long after his psalms and hymns. The extracts are too long to be inserted here, but if you are curious upon the subject, you can consult the work of Professor Sparks, called An Inquiry into the comparative moral tendency of Trinitarian and Unitarian Doctrines; and in the chapter entitled Sentiments and Morals of English Unitarians, you will find all that he says in regard to Dr. Watts and others. But I intend, though I cannot quote the whole, still to give some further extracts.

“We have yet a testimony,” says Sparks, “from Dr. Watts’s own mouth. In a letter to the Rev. Dr. Colman of Boston, written in 1747, he speaks as follows. ‘I am glad my book of Useful Questions came safe to your hand. I think I have said everything concerning the Son of God, which Scripture says; but I could not go so far as to say, with some of our orthodox divines, that the Son is equal with the Father; because our Lord himself expressly says, The Father is greater than I.’ [3] Shall we still persist,” inquires Mr. Sparks, with good reason, “Shall we still persist, that Dr. Watts was a Trinitarian, and that when he said the Father and Son are not equal, he meant directly the contrary?”

We now come to the subject of Dr. Watts’s Psalms and Hymns. In regard to these, Mr. Sparks says: “They certainly contain sufficient evidence that he was a Trinitarian when he wrote them, but we know his mind was not stationary, for he afterwards ‘thanked God, that he had learned to retract his former sentiments, and change them, when, upon stricter search and review, they appeared less agreeable to the divine standard of faith.’ Now we have already seen, that this was the case in regard to the Trinity; and you are doubtless not ignorant of the fact, that he was desirous long before his death of suppressing or altering parts of his Psalms and Hymns, but was prevented by circumstances wholly beyond his control.”

“Mr. Tompkins had very freely pointed out to him the impropriety of sanctioning with his name doxologies to the Trinity, and especially to the Holy Spirit, since he had declared his belief, that the Spirit was not a separate being, and that such ascriptions of praise were not authorized in Scripture. In reply, Dr. Watts writes: ‘I freely answer, I wish some things were corrected. But the question with me is this. As I wrote them in sincerity at that time, is it not more for the edification of Christians, and the glory of God, to let them stand, than to ruin the usefulness of the whole book, by correcting them now, and perhaps bring further and false suspicions on my present opinions? Besides, I might tell you, that of all the books I have written, that particular copy is not mine. I sold it for a trifle to Mr. Lawrence near thirty years ago, and his posterity make money of it to this very day, and I can scarce claim a right to make any alteration in the book, which would injure the sale of it.’ [4] And again, he replied to Mr. Grove, who suggested alterations, that ‘he should be glad to do it, but it was out of his power, for he had parted with the copy, and the bookseller would not suffer any such alterations.’ These testimonies are enough to show why Watts should desist from an attempt to make such alterations, as his change of sentiments would seem to require. At least they are such reasons as he thought satisfactory.”

But, my dear father, they would not, the first of them at least, satisfy me, nor, unless I am much mistaken in my views of your character, would it satisfy you. It is about upon a par with the reason given by some of my friends why I should conceal my present opinions; namely, because the knowledge of such a change of sentiment would undo all the good which, by the blessing of God, I have ever been able to do by my writings. It sounds very much like advising me to do evil that good may come.

But to return. “It is evident through the whole,” says Sparks, “that Watts was searching for the best reasons to quiet his mind in a case of necessity. To alter his hymns was out of his power; he regretted this misfortune, but as it was not to be remedied, he was willing to contemplate it in its most favorable aspect. The main thing to our present purpose is, that he acknowledged a desire to make alterations, and never in any shape defended the Trinitarian parts of his hymns. In fact, had he believed in these parts, the discussion could not have commenced.”

[Please note that Spirit & Truth Fellowship International does not necessarily agree with the full content of this letter, however we think it is a very valuable and historical document that needs to be available online for all to read and study.]


1. See Appendix K. Back to top

2. See the whole of Mr. Merivale’s letter in Belsham’s Memoirs of Lindsey, p. 216. Back to top

3. Memoirs of Dr. Watts, Appendix, p. 19. The original of this letter I believe is retained among the files of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Back to top

4. Memoirs of Dr. Watts, Appendix, p. 144; as quoted from Palmer. Back to top

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