Unitarianism and Universalism

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In 1961 the Unitarians and Universalists merged to form a single denomination, recognizing that their views on religious, social, and political matters had become virtually identical. This was not the case in the era of the American Revolution, when each had its American beginnings. The idea of a universal salvation had occurred to one or another Christian in the Old World as well as the new, and had been advanced on the eve of the Revolution by the liberal Congregationalist Charles Chauncy (1705–1787). But the organized Universalists were originally led by itinerant revivalists, and drew their members from the Baptists and Congregationalists, or from the unchurched. By contrast, New England Unitarianism emerged quietly and gracefully among the wealthiest and best-educated Bostonians as a further extension of Chauncy's Arminian Congregationalism (Arminianism, named for a sixteenth-century Dutch theologian, Jacobus Arminius, may be briefly described as free-will Calvinism).

Even in the beginning, however, Unitarians and Universalists had important things in common. Most of their churches arose and persisted in New England, where throughout their formative years—approximately the 1770s to the 1820s—the Congregational Church continued its regional dominance in Uoverall wealth and numbers. It did this in spite of disestablishment (1818 in Connecticut, 1832 in Massachusetts) and the vigorous growth of competing denominations. Those Congregationalists who had not themselves become Unitarians vigorously opposed the central idea that the Creator was one and indivisible and not a Trinity—Three Persons of one Divine Substance. Similarly the Congregationalists joined with other Christian denominations in being scandalized by the Universalists' defining principle: that the Atonement of Jesus extended to all souls. Critics argued that this was an open invitation to sin; Universalists saw it as divine encouragement to piety and virtue.

The first Unitarian congregation had previously been Anglican: the venerable King's Chapel in Boston. In 1787 it ordained the Reverend James Freeman, an avowed Unitarian, as minister. Unitarian principles quietly spread until 1805, when Harvard appointed Henry Ware (1764–1845) Hollis Professor of Divinity. After several further similar appointments, Harvard's faculty was firmly Unitarian, and a number of Congregational churches had proclaimed themselves Unitarian as well. Most famous among these was the Federal Street Church in Boston, whose minister was William Ellery Channing (1780–1842). Channing preached an inspiring and perhaps intoxicating message of the perfectibility of human nature. His sermon "Unitarian Christianity" (1819) is perhaps the defining text of the whole movement.

The Unitarian culture of eastern Massachusetts encouraged literature, science, and the fine arts, becoming the basis of a genuine New England Renaissance. It also prepared the ground for its precocious, if somewhat rebellious, spiritual child, the transcendentalism of the editor and essayist Margaret Fuller, the clergymen George Ripley and Theodore Parker, and the writer and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. At their most radical, as in Emerson's case, the transcendentalists denied all traditional religious dogma, including the authority of the Bible, and exalted nature as the direct manifestation of the divine. Compared to the transcendentalists, however, the first generation of Unitarians remained theologically conservative in many respects. They avowed the holy inspiration and truth of Christian Scripture, the existence of miracles, and the immortality of the soul. Unitarians were not indifferent to the world around them but chiefly aimed to improve it by cultivating the individual. In "Likeness to God," Channing wrote of Christianity:

This whole religion expresses an infinite concern of God for the human soul, and teaches that he deems no methods too expensive for its recovery and exaltation. Christianity, with one voice, calls me to turn my regards and care to the spirit within me, as of more worth than the whole outward world. It calls us to "be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect"; and everywhere, in the sublimity of its precepts, it implies and recognizes the sublime capacities of the being to whom they are addressed. (Selected Writings, p. 149)

The first important Universalist minister in Revolutionary North America was John Murray (1741–1815), who arrived in New Jersey in 1770. Raised as an English Calvinist, Murray joined the London church of the evangelical Anglican George Whitefield and subsequently converted to the Universalism of the Methodist James Relly. An itinerant for several years in America, Murray accepted the invitation of a small congregation in the seaport town of Gloucester, Massachusetts, in 1779, where his ministry attracted considerable interest and more than a little hostility. He also married a devout widow, Judith Sargent Murray (1751–1820), who proved to be a gifted and prolific author. Another founding father of Universalism was Elhanan Winchester (1751–1797), born in Brookline, Massachusetts, widely traveled as a young Baptist itinerant, and founder of the Society of Universal Baptists in Philadelphia in 1781. Benjamin Rush, a celebrated physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence, joined that society while maintaining his membership in the Presbyterian Church.

Hosea Ballou (1771–1852) established himself as Universalism's leading theologian with the publication in 1804 of his Treatise on the Atonement. Ballou was born and raised in rural New Hampshire, the eleventh child of a theologically severe, but personally warm, Baptist minister. His conversion to Universalism came when the movement had grown sufficiently to have some organization; he was ordained a minister at the Universalist General Convention of 1794. After preaching successfully in several towns, he settled permanently as pastor of the School Street Church in Boston in 1816. For the next quarter of a century he labored but a few blocks from William Ellery Channing's Federal Street Church, but Channing seems never to have sought his fellowship. Ballou's Treatise combined the optimistic rationalism of the Enlightenment with a determinism reminiscent of Jonathan Edwards. God had ordained that Christ should work the salvation of all humankind. The individual soul had but little choice: one could assent to divine grace either now or later. Death would speed the sinner to Heaven as swiftly as the saint. Many of the earlier Universalists had believed that unrepentant sinners would experience some discipline or punishment between death and Heaven, a notion that never entirely disappeared. Indeed, it regained currency after 1830.

Widely different in their origins, and appealing mostly to quite different segments of American society, the Unitarians and the Universalists both exhibited the idealism and optimism of the newly free and democratic United States. If the Unitarians were somewhat condescending and aristocratic in manner, they lived according to a high code of ethical behavior and greatly enriched the national culture. The Universalists, the foremost spiritual equalitarians, made democracy eternal.

See alsoCongregationalists; Disestablishment; Religion: Overview; Revivals and Revivalism .


Bressler, Ann Lee. The Universalist Movement in America, 1770–1880. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Channing, William Ellery. William Ellery Channing: Selected Writings. Edited by David Robinson. Mahwah, N.J.: Paulist Press, 1985.

Howe, Daniel Walker. The Unitarian Conscience: Harvard Moral Philosophy, 1805–1861. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1970.

Wright, Conrad. The Beginnings of Unitarianism. Boston: Beacon Press, 1955.

Robert McColley