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Unitarianism was a theologically unorthodox liberal religious movement. In the early to mid-nineteenth century, most notable New England literary figures (especially those who lived and worked in eastern Massachusetts) identified themselves with Unitarianism, some throughout their lives, some as the faith they grew up in and left, some as the faith they joined. Unitarianism had few adherents when compared with the major forms of religion in America, evangelical Protestantism and Catholicism, yet it had a disproportionate influence on the New England "literary awakening."

Unitarian ideas had taken hold gradually in the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century principally in the Puritan congregational churches of eastern Massachusetts. (The first Unitarian church in New England, however, was not Puritan congregational but Anglican: King's Chapel, Boston, became Unitarian in 1785.) In 1819 the Boston minister William Ellery Channing (1780–1842) laid out the original Unitarian platform in his best-selling sermon "Unitarian Christianity," and in 1825 the American Unitarian Association was founded, marking the effective creation of a new denomination.

Unitarians had no creed. They generally preferred to call themselves "liberal Christians" because they proclaimed the right of individual private judgment in matters of theology and held that theological differences should not prevent Christian fellowship, which they wished to be as broad as possible. Yet as a group, they rejected as unscriptural and irrational certain traditional Puritan articles of faith, in particular the Trinity (hence the name "Unitarian") and, most importantly, original sin. Unitarians believed that humans had at least some power to effect their own salvation through spiritual and moral self-culture, which they placed at the core of religious experience. Unitarians believed in the miraculous authority of the Bible, but they denied it was miraculously inspired word for word and insisted that it be read in a historical and critical, not literal, way.

Unitarianism appealed especially to highly educated and successful urbanites who had faith in their own abilities and in human reasonableness. It became the dominant religion of the eastern Massachusetts elite, made up of closely intermarried merchant, manufacturing, and professional families. This elite was decidedly conservative in its politics, favoring the Federalist and, later, Whig Parties. For most of the antebellum period, it strongly opposed the movement to abolish slavery. When the Unitarian novelist Lydia Maria Child published her influential antislavery tract, An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans (1833), she was shut out of elite Unitarian society. Again, when the acclaimed Channing began to write moderate antislavery tracts starting in 1835, he alienated his own elite congregation. Although a few prominent Unitarian writers with elite connections, notably the poets James Russell Lowell and Julia Ward Howe, showed strong antislavery sympathies as early as the 1840s, the Unitarian elite as a group turned to antislavery only just prior to, and during, the Civil War (1861–1865). The elite even produced a notable proslavery writer in the domestic novelist Caroline Howard Gilman, who grew up in New England as member of an elite Unitarian family but lived most of her life in Charleston, South Carolina, where her husband, another New England expatriate, was for decades the Unitarian minister.

Elite Unitarians were also generally conservative in their literary tastes. Well into the nineteenth century, they favored moralistic and Augustan literature over Romantic writers, although by 1820 many of them had come to admire, among British Romantic poets, William Wordsworth and Felicia Dorothea Hemans, and, among novelists, Sir Walter Scott. By the 1850s their taste had broadened enough to admire the psychologically complex novels and stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who had grown up a Unitarian in Salem, yet they still rejected the experimental novels of Hawthorne's friend Herman Melville, even though Melville, a Unitarian convert, had married into an elite Unitarian family.

A number of the writers who were either of the elite or championed by them have enduring reputations. Among them are the poets William Cullen Bryant and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; the poet and essayist Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.; the historians George Bancroft, William Hickling Prescott, Richard Hildreth, John Lothrop Motley, and Francis Parkman Jr.; and the literary historian George Ticknor. None of these writers, except Longfellow in his later career, made his living entirely or even principally in letters; they either were independently wealthy or pursued other vocations alongside literature (e.g., Bryant as a journalist, Holmes as a physician, and Longfellow, for decades, as a language teacher). Some of these writers even lost status with the Unitarian elite because of their notable political and reform commitments: Bryant and Bancroft were prominent Democrats, not Whigs, whereas Bryant and Hildreth were conspicuously involved in anti-slavery politics.


The traditional Unitarianism of the elite received a transformative challenge in the 1830s and 1840s from transcendentalism. The transcendentalists were almost all Unitarians who came of age or who joined Unitarianism in the 1830s and 1840s. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Parker were both Unitarian ministers, although Emerson left the ministry for a literary career; George Ripley and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, meanwhile, left the Unitarian ministry for careers in reform and literature. Again, Henry David Thoreau grew up a Unitarian, although as an adult he ceased associating with any church; Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody were lifelong Unitarians; Amos Bronson Alcott joined Unitarianism in adulthood, married into a Unitarian family, and raised his children, among them Louisa May Alcott, as Unitarians.

Some of the transcendentalists had familial and other connections with the Unitarian elite, but they saw themselves as outsiders and in fact differed from the elite in theology, politics, and literary preferences. In theology, they dissented from the Unitarian claim that the Bible contained an authoritative, miraculous revelation. Instead, they held that divine inspiration was natural and universal and that anyone could potentially be the vehicle of a revelation as authoritative as that of scripture. Such views led more conservative, elite Unitarians, such as the biblical scholar Andrews Norton, to label the transcendentalists "infidels." The transcendentalists were far more sympathetic to social reform, especially antislavery and women's rights, than were elite Unitarians. They also were far more enthusiastic than the elite about European Romantic writers, especially Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas Carlyle, and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Finally, many of the transcendentalists, unlike most of their Unitarian elite counterparts, did make their livings principally in literature, as writers, literary critics, and lyceum lecturers: Emerson, Thoreau, Fuller, Ripley, Higginson, Louisa May Alcott.

The conflict between transcendentalists and elite Unitarians, which was quite sharp and bitter in the 1830s and 1840s, grew somewhat less intense by the 1850s, although the slavery controversy continued to aggravate it until the elite, like the transcendentalists, adopted an antislavery position. During this period, transcendentalist theology gradually gained acceptance. By 1865 most Unitarians still identified themselves as Christian, but a significant minority, under transcendentalist influence, now called themselves "theists." Also, among the younger generation of the elite, transcendentalist writers, especially Emerson, ceased to be regarded as dangerous radicals and became instead literary icons.


Unitarians developed such a rich literary culture in part because their theology, both in its traditional and transcendentalist forms, encouraged literary exploration and expression and in part because they developed a dense literary infrastructure. The effect of traditional Unitarian theology on literature can be seen in the Unitarian clergy, who played a leading role in founding "literary Boston" in the first two decades of the nineteenth century. Unitarian ministers, freed from having to preach traditional Calvinist doctrine from week to week, could express themselves in their sermons in creative new ways; they became known for their elegant yet affecting pulpit oratory. They also became notable for their belletristic productions. Literary criticism came naturally to them, as an extension of Unitarian views toward scripture. Strongly influenced by British examples, they began writing essays and poetry and helping establish literary journals, such as the Monthly Anthology (1803–1811).

This theological impulse toward literature received an even stronger push from transcendentalism. As the transcendentalists rejected the traditional distinction between natural and miraculous inspiration, regarding all inspiration as divine, they also blurred the line between the prophet and the poet. Poets, in their conception, became channels of divine information like prophets, who could be seen as poets of a specific sort. To the transcendentalist mind, literature became, at least potentially, an exalted, ecstatic calling, worthy of enormous sacrifice to pursue.

A significant Unitarian literary infrastructure, meanwhile, was in place by 1820. The most conspicuous piece of it was Harvard University. In 1805 Unitarians took control of this Puritan-founded school; soon afterward, they established a divinity school there. Unitarians also established, for the first time in any American university, professorial chairs in biblical criticism and modern languages. A large number of New England male writers went to college at Harvard (the school only admitted men), where they studied under Unitarian professors, including the influential professor of rhetoric, William Ellery Channing's younger brother Edward Tyrrell Channing (1790–1856).

Unitarians controlled all the large book collections in and around Boston and to some extent limited access to them. The Harvard library, with fifty-six thousand volumes in 1849, was the largest library in the Boston area, the largest college library in the United States, and the first American college library to collect literature. Yet use of the library was restricted principally to Harvard faculty, students, and alumni and some local ministers; all of these groups were made up almost entirely of Unitarians. The second largest library in the Boston area was the Boston Athenaeum, founded in 1807 by the same Unitarian-dominated group that established the Monthly Anthology; admission was by invitation only. Unitarians also owned the largest private book collections available, some with more than ten thousand volumes. Particularly notable were the personal libraries of George Ticknor; William Hickling Prescott; Theodore Parker; the Unitarian minister, classics scholar, and politician Edward Everett; and the lawyer and politician Rufus Choate.

Unitarians also controlled the leading literary periodicals of Boston. In the 1830s and 1840s, a distinction could be drawn between those affiliated with elite Unitarianism, notably the North American Review (founded 1821), and those affiliated with transcendentalism, such as The Dial (1840–1844), edited by Fuller and Emerson, and the Massachusetts Quarterly Review (1847–1850), edited by Parker. The distinction was blurred with the Atlantic Monthly (founded 1857), which had Lowell as its first editor and which was open to both elite and transcendentalist writers. Many of the leading Boston publishers were also Unitarians, the most well known being James T. Fields.

After 1865, the center of gravity of American literature shifted from Boston toward the new national center of publishing, New York, where Unitarians were less influential. Unitarian influence on American letters therefore began to diminish, at least proportionately. Many notable writers and critics, however, continued to be found in Unitarian pews through the twentieth century. Meanwhile, Unitarianism as a religion continued to evolve. Transcendentalist ideas became the norm by the early twentieth century, but by the mid-twentieth century, many Unitarians had rejected theism altogether. In 1961 the American Unitarian Association united with the Universalist Church of America, another theologically unorthodox liberal religious movement descended from New England Puritanism, to form the Unitarian Universalist Association.

See alsoAbolitionist Writing; An Appeal in the Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans;The Bible; Boston; Calvinism; English Literature; Periodicals; Proslavery Writing; Protestantism; Transcendentalism


Primary Works

Ahlstrom, Sydney E., with Jonathan Sinclair Carey, eds. AnAmerican Reformation: A Documentary History of Unitarian Christianity. 1985. San Francisco: International Scholars Publications, 1998.

Myerson, Joel, ed. Transcendentalism: A Reader. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Secondary Works

Brooks, Van Wyck. The Flowering of New England, 1815–1865. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1936.

Buell, Lawrence. New England Literary Culture: FromRevolution through Renaissance. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Capper, Charles, and Conrad Edick Wright, eds. Transient and Permanent: The Transcendentalist Movement and Its Contexts. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1999.

Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography.http://www.uua.org/uuhs/duub.

Robinson, David. The Unitarians and the Universalists. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985.

Wright, Conrad Edick, ed. American Unitarianism,1805–1865. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society and Northeastern University Press, 1989.

Dean Grodzins