William Vidler (May 4, 1758-August 23, 1816), a British Universalist and Unitarian preacher and publisher, was a disciple and colleague of Elhanan Winchester. Together with Unitarian missionary Richard Wright, Vidler played a significant role in establishing institutional features British Unitarians continue to use.
Born at Battle, Sussex, inland from Hastings on the south coast of England, William was the youngest of ten children born to John Vidler and Elizabeth Bowling. He was apprenticed to his father, a stonemason. As he was asthmatic and of a studious disposition, he was hardly suited for the trade. The evangelist George Gilbert came to Battle in 1776 and preached at revival services. Afterward, William joined an independent Calvinist church, quickly organized in response to the revival services, and the next year started preaching. In 1780, persuaded of the correctness of believer's baptism (as opposed to infant baptism), he was baptised by Thomas Purdy, a minister in Rye. As a result, the majority of the Battle church re-organised as a Particular Baptist Church and called Vidler as its minister.
Under Vidlerís ministry, while he still worked as a stonemason, the number of members rose rapidly from 15 to 150. The church members took over and pulled down a disused Presbyterian Meeting House and erected a new building which left them £160 in debt.
In 1791 Vidler offered to travel afield to collect funds. While away he took the opportunity to test "serious thoughts of the Godhead of Christ and the eternity of hell torments." These matters had concerned him as early as 1784, but he doubted orthodox doctrine even more after he read Elhanan Winchester's Dialogues on The Universal Restoration, published in 1788. At a conference in Northampton of the principal supporters of the Baptist Missionary Society, he met Andrew Fuller whose moderated Calvinism appealed to him. But as Vidler's theology changed more radically, however, Fuller's patience with him ran out. Vidler continued his journey into Lincolnshire where he found followers of Winchester among the General Baptists of Fleet and Lutton. He returned to Battle a strong believer in the universal restoration of all humankind. "It is long since I wrote anything of the state of my soul" he wrote in his diary on 22 August 1792. "I have lately been much stirred up again by reading Mr. Winchester on the final restoration of all things, which doctrine . . . I am constrained to say I believe."
A minority of his church withdrew, but the majority loyally remained. Vidler and his universalist congregation were expelled from the local Particular Baptist association in 1793.
Vidler strengthened his ties with Winchester. In early 1794 he became Winchester's assistant at the Universalist Chapel in Parliament Court, Artillery Lane, London (now Sandys Row Synagogue). When Winchester returned to America later that year, Vidler became his successor. He maintained a part-time ministry at his old church in Battle until the end of 1796.
John Teulon and Vidler opened a London book shop in the Strand in 1796. They also started in 1797 a periodical, The Universalists' Miscellany (from 1805, The Monthly Repository), among whose readers was the Unitarian missionary Richard Wright. Wright became Vidler's friend and convinced him of the truth of Unitarianism. This new development divided the Parliament Court congregation. The unresolved division was extended to the General Baptist Assembly which the Parliament Court congregation had joined in 1803.
Vidler was an enthusiastic promoter of both Universalist and Unitarian views. He fostered a number of new Universalist and Unitarian societies: Northiam, Rye, and Steyning in Sussex; Reading in Berkshire; Boston; and several in the North Marches of Lincolnshire. With Richard Wright he established The Unitarian Evangelical Society, in 1804, and The Unitarian Fund, in 1806, which from 1825 were amalgamated into The British and Foreign Unitarian Association (and from 1928, into The General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches). Their evangelical fervour helped transform late-eighteenth-century rational dissent into the vigorous Unitarian movement of the 19th century.
Meanwhile, the Parliament Court congregation moved, in 1824, to South Place Chapel, Finsbury (near the present Liverpool Street Station). Later the church moved out of mainstream British Unitarianism and changed its name to The South Place Ethical Society. The Society has been located, since 1927, at Conway Hall, Red Lion Square.
Vidler wrote and published two tracts. In God's Love to his Creatures, 1799, he held that God's love extends to animals. Letters to Mr. Fuller on the Universal Restoration, 1803, is the record of a controversy on universal salvation. He edited and published new editions of Paul Siegvolk's The Everlasting Gospel, 1795, and Winchester's Dialogues on The Universal Restoration with a Memoir of its author, 1799. He also published Nathaniel Scarlett's A translation of the New Testament from the original Greek, in 1798.
In 1780 Vidler married Charity Sweetingham. They had five children, three of whom survived him, a daughter who married William Smith, the Parliament Court organist; Ebenezer, a sailor; and William, missioner at Chapel Street Domestic Mission, London.
Vidler was exceedingly corpulent. He always booked two seats when journeying by coach. Returning to London from Wisbech in 1808 to see his dying wife, the coach in which he was traveling fell down a steep bank. He never fully recovered and preached thereafter sitting down. He died 23 August 1816 and is buried in the graveyard of the former Unitarian Chapel at Hackney in east London.
The Church Books of Baptist Church (later Battle Unitarian Chapel) are at the East Sussex Record Office. The Minutes of the Parliament Court Chapel, 1807-20, are in the keeping of the South Place Ethical Society in London. Vidler wrote A Short Account of the Planting of the Particular Baptist Church at Battle in Sussex which was reprinted in the Monthly Repository (1817). Beside the works mentioned above, he wrote prefaces for Winchesterís A Defence of Revelation etc. (1796) and a number of other works by and about Winchester. Also in the Monthly Repository (1817) are "Memoir of the Late Rev. W. Vidler" and Richard Wright, "Religious History and Character of the Late Rev. William Vidler". There is a short account of Vidler in the Dictionary of National Biography and one by Andrew Hill in the New Dictionary of National Biography (2004). The image was kindly provided by Liz Lawson.
Article by Andrew Hill