Unitarians - Their Wholesome Beginnings
Whether Unitarians are mostly theologically liberal today should not influence us to assess how they began. Theologically conservative Bible-believing Unitarians, like Anthony Buzzard, still remain.
The Unitarians appear to have begun in a completely orthodox manner to refute the trinity notion of “three persons” in One God. They cited the Bible principle that God is one, and they did specialized word studies. The movement began with a friend of Martin Luther and Melancthon -- a man named Martin Cellarius (1499-1564). He was the first to write in 1527 against the trinity concept in a work entitled De Operibus Dei (Concerning the Workings of God).
The unitarian movement then first appeared in Poland under the name of Arians or the Polish brethren. In 1660, they were then offered to repent or be exiled from Poland. When this law was executed, this spread the movement first to Holland. Some landed in Transylvania where the Unitarian movement had already formed congregations, and from which the modern Unitarians trace their origin. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unitarianism (May 15, 2004).
In England, the leading proponent was John Biddle. The Britannica Online discusses his role in English Unitarianism. It appears the Bible was still the central reason for Unitarian dissent, not liberal theology:
“John Biddle (1615-62), an English Socinian, whose knowledge of the Greek text of the New Testament convinced him that the doctrine of the Trinity was not of scriptural origin, published his Unitarian convictions in Twelve Arguments Drawn out of Scripture . . . (1647).”
Biddle’s arguments were zealous for God, but perhaps too confident in use of sillogistic deduction from Scripture. For example, based on logic, he deduced even the Holy Spirit is not God, e.g., since God is the giver of all things (Acts 17:25), and God gives the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit being given cannot be God. For his sillogistic argument, see http://www.bismikaallahuma.org/Doctrine/biddle.htm. Please note the centrality of Scripture in Biddle’s argument, something that later among many Unitarians would change.
More on Cellarius
Cellarius' birthname was Martin Borrhaus. As many scholars did in that day, he latinized his last name, which for him was "Cellarius."
Cellarius, interestingly, courageously believed that Jews had to be restored to their homeland for the restoration prophecies in the Bible to become fulfilled. See Hebrew Bible / Old Testament: The History of Its Interpretation 2: From the Renaissance to the Enlightenment (ed. Magne Saebo)(Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 2008) at 475. This is now well accepted among Christians now that the prophecy has actually been fulfilled. But in that day, Bucer contended that those prophecies all belonged to Christians, and not Israel specifically. Hence, they were to be taken allegorically, not literally. Id., at 480.
Cellarius interestingly contended Christians could no longer look down on Jews because Christians had likewise now been long under the influence of the Anti-Christ. By that, Cellarius meant the Roman Catholic Church. Id., at 475.
Of note, Cellarius was reputedly professor of theology at Geneva during the trial of Servetus. (Robert Wallace, Antitrinitarian Biography (Whitfield, 1850) Vol. 1 at 396.)