Thomas Firmin

 

From OUR UNITARIAN HERITAGE, 1925 by Earl Morse Wilbur

Bidle, indeed, like many before him in England, might have remained but another sporadic prophet of Unitarianism, had not his influence been continued in another way by the printing press, and through the efforts of one of his disciples, Thomas Firmin, of whom we have now to speak. Firmin was born at Ipswich in 1632 of a family in the Puritan wing of the Church of England. In early manhood he came up to London to engage in business life, and here he soon fell under the influence of John Goodwin8 an Arminian minister who converted him from his Calvinism. It was at just this time that Bidle was preaching in London. Firmin made his acquaintance, became his devoted friend, and accepted his beliefs. He also supported him for a time at his own expense, and helped to secure from Cromwell a pension for him in exile.

Firmin was one of the leading philanthropists of his age. He became wealthy as a manufacturer and dealer in cloth, but Bidleís devotion to them roused his interest in the poor and unfortunate. When the Socinian exiles from Poland appealed to English sympathizers for relief in their distress,9 it was Firmin that raised a fund for them by private subscriptions from his friends, and by collections which his influence caused to be taken up in the churches. He procured similar aid for the orthodox Protestants of Poland when their turn came to suffer in 1681, for Huguenot refugees from France in the same year, and for Protestant refugees from Ireland under the oppressions of James II a few years later. He did much for sufferers by the great plague in 1665, and by the great fire in London the following year; established a warehouse where coal and grain were sold to the poor at cost, and set up factories where many hundreds of them when out of work might earn their living by making linen or woolen cloth; and besides giving generously for poor relief out of his own purse, he was given very large sums by others who trusted him so fully that they never asked for an accounting. Moreover, he was a pioneer in scientific charity, for, far ahead of his time, he devised a scheme for systematic employment of the poor, and used to investigate their needs by visiting in their homes. Finally, he took an active part in the reform of prisons, in behalf of those imprisoned for debt, in the work of hospitals, and in the reform of public manners. In all these ways he was the model for many a public-spirited Unitarian in later generations, who has like him been inspired to good works by the preaching and example of his minister.

It was Firminís especial services to the cause of Unitarianism, however, that bring him into this history. Although he attended Bidleís services as long as they lasted, he never withdrew from the Church of England, and until his death in 1697 he maintained with Archbishop Tillotson and with most of the prominent clergy an intimate friendship, which was never broken despite his known difference from them in matters of belief. As a convinced Unitarian, however, he sought every means to spread Unitarian teachings. He is said to have had an important Polish Socinian work translated and published in English not long after Bidleís death, and to have assisted later on in bringing out a work by a liberal Anglican clergyman leading to the view that the English Church should be made so broad that a Socinian might join it.10 He also carried on the influence of Bidle in another way, and thus kindled a fire which has never since gone out. In 1687 he got the Rev. Stephen Nye, a clergyman holding Unitarian beliefs, to prepare A Brief History of the Unitarians, called also Socinians. This led to controversy, and other tracts followed. These made so many converts that in 1691 Firmin, at his own expense, had these and others collected into a volume of Unitarian tracts, with Bidleís first three tracts reprinted and standing at the head. Other tracts were collected later, many or most of them written by clergymen in the Established Church, until at length there were five volumes of them, the last two published after Firminís death. These writings stirred up the celebrated Trinitarian Controversy in the Church of England, of which we shall speak in the next chapter, and they made sure that the truth to which Bidle had borne such brave witness did not fall to the ground. Unitarian beliefs thus came to be widely held in both pulpit and pew in the Church of England, and that with little concealment; so that for a time it was felt that the struggle for freedom of belief in the Church was won. No one had done more to bring about this result than Thomas Firmin.

      8 Goodwin had lately translated Aconzioís Stratagems of Satan into English. (Etc).
      9 See [Chapter XVIII] page 179.
      10 Respectively, John Crelliusís Two Books touching One God the Father 1665; and Dr. Arthur Buryís The Naked Gospel, 1690.

Boston : Beacon Press 1925, Chapter XXVIII, pp. 308-11.
On-line http://online.sksm.edu/ouh/book.html
by Starr King School for the Ministry
(Unitarian Universalist) in Berkeley, CA.

 

Bibliographic

Author Firmin, Thomas, 1632-1697. Title Some proposals for the imploying of the poor, especially in and about the city of London [microform] : and for the prevention of begging, a practice so dishonourable to the nation, and to the Christian religion : in a letter to a friend / by T.F. Publisher London : Printed for Brabazon Aylmer ..., 1678. Description 24 p.

Author Firmin, Thomas, 1632-1697. Title Some proposals for the imployment of the poor, and for the prevention of idleness and the consequence thereof, begging : a practice so dishonourable to the nation, and to the Christian religion : in a letter to a friend / by T.F. Publisher London : Printed by J. Grover, and are to be sold by Francis Smith ..., 1681. Description [3], 46 p. : ill. Series Early English books, 1641-1700 ;713:3. Note End of text signed: Tho. Firmin.

Title The faith of one God, who is only the Father; and of one mediator between God and men, who is only the man Christ Jesus; and of one Holy Spirit, the gift (and sent) of God; asserted and defended, in several tracts contained in this volume; the titles whereof the reader will find in the following leaf. And after that a preface to the whole, or an exhortation to an impartial and free enquiry into doctrines of religion. Publisher London, 1691. Description 10 pts. in 1 v. 20 cm. Note The first in a series of collections of antitrinitarian tracts; collections 2-5 are numbered ordinally. The first three collections were sponsored by Thomas Firmin. Contents (each pt. with separate signatures and paging and, except for pt. 7, special t.-p. dated 1690 or 1691): The apostolical and true opinion concerning the holy trinity, by John Bidle.--The acts of great Athanasius.--Some thoughts upon Dr. Sherlock's vindication of the doctrine of the holy trinity.--A brief history of the Unitarians, called also Socinians.--A defence of the brief history of the Unitarians, against Dr. Sherlock's answer.--An impartial account of the word mystery.--Dr. Wallis's letter touching the doctrine of the blessed trinity answer'd by his friend.--Observations on the four letters of Dr. John Wallis concerning the trinity. Language English

Author Firmin, Thomas, 1632-1697. Title Some proposals for the imploying of the poor, especially in and about the city of London [microform] : and for the prevention of begging, a practice so dishonourable to the nation, and to the Christian religion : in a letter to a friend / by T.F. Publisher London : Printed for Brabazon Aylmer ..., 1678. Description 24 p. [1970]

Author Nye, Stephen, 1648?-1719. Title The life of Mr. Thomas Firmin, late citizen of London. By one of his most intimate acquaintance. With a sermon on Luke x. 36, 37. occasioned by his death ... Publisher London, Printed and sold by A. Baldwin, 1698. Description 118 p. 18 cm.

Author Nye, Stephen, 1648?-1719. Title An account of Mr. Firmin's religion, and of the present state of the Unitarian controversy [microform] Publisher London : [s.n.], 1698. Description 83 p. Series Early English books, 1641-1700 ;747:5. Note Attributed to Stephen Nye. Cf. McAlpin Coll.

Author Firmin, Thomas, 1632-1697. Title Some proposals for the imployment of the poor, and for the prevention of idleness and the consequence thereof, begging [microform] : a practice so dishonourable to the nation, and to the Christian religion : in a letter to a friend / by T.F. Publisher London : Printed by J. Grover, and are to be sold by Francis Smith ..., 1681. Description [3], 46 p. : ill. Series Early English books, 1641-1700 ;713:3. Note End of text signed: Tho. Firmin. Author's only known publication--cf. DNB v. 7, p. 49. Listed in BM, v. 73, col. 436 with an earlier edition of 24 pages, 1678. Enlarged edition. Reproduction of original in Cambridge University Library. Language English

( Source : University of California http://melvyl.cdlib.org )

 

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