Protestant Renewal: The Emergence of American Unitarianism

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Protestant Renewal: The Emergence of American Unitarianism


Appointment at Harvard . In 1805 a pamphlet war erupted in Boston among some of the citys leading clergymen. The war was vicious despite its elite origins. It had its start a few years before, with the death of two professors of divinity at Harvard College. The search for replacements

was complicated when Jedidiah Morse, the staunchly conservative pastor of the church in neighboring Charlestown, insisted that the new professors must be orthodox. He wanted them tested for the soundness of their theological ideas against the standard of traditional Calvinism. Morse was not alone in his struggle, but he was opposed by others with more liberal views who did not fear the new religious thinking coming into vogue in these late years of the Enlightenment. Instead of talking about human depravity and damnation, liberal Congre-gationalists emphasized a kindly God who had sent Jesus to redeem all people and encouraged good behavior as a means to salvation. Morse and his camp fought these unorthodox ideas strenuously but lost when Henry Ware Sr., the liberal minister from Hingham, Massachusetts, was appointed to the college. Other liberals soon followed Ware into teaching positions at Harvard, and by 1810 the college was securely in liberal hands.

The Unitarian Controversy. The debate about liberalism at Harvard was bruising and public, but Morse took it to a further level when he published True Reasons on Which the Election of a Hollis Professor of Divinity in Harvard College was Opposed in 1805. He then continued his attack on the liberals in The Panoplist, a periodical which featured news and opinions from the orthodox perspective. The controversy raged off and on for more than ten years. Along the way, Morse helped found An-dover Seminary (1808), as an orthodox counterpart to Harvard. In 1815 Morse charged his opponents with secretly being much more liberal than they publicly admitted. He went so far as to accuse them of denying the divinity of Christ. He did this by republishing the biography of an English Unitarian, Theophilus Lindsey, which included Lindseys correspondence with several Boston liberals about these radical and unpopular views. The liberals rose to the challenge. William Ellery Channing, a leading liberal clergyman, exchanged a lively series of open letters with his orthodox opponents. This phase of the Unitarian Controversy would not conclude until 1819, when Channing preached a sermon called Unitarian Christianity, a full defense of the liberal position. Today, it is hard to grasp the significance of this obscure struggle and to appreciate how it engaged the energy of several talented and busy men. The Unitarian Controversy was just one part of one of the most important divisions that emerged in American religion in the early national period, the division between liberalism and orthodoxy.

Unitarian Belief. Morse used the word Unitarian more for its shock value than as an accurate label. Unitarians denied the doctrine of the Trinity, that the one God is manifested in three divine personsthe Father, Son, and Spirit. This is such a fundamental part of Christianity, and so central to the interpretation of the Bible at that time, that orthodox Trinitarians saw Unitarianism as a radical attack on all religion. To people like Morse it was little better than deism or atheism. There had been Unitarians in Boston for some time before the Unitarian Controversy opened. Kings Chapel, Bostons Anglican Church before the Revolution, became a Unitarian church in the 1780s. In 1785 James Freeman, the churchs lay reader and de facto leader (the rector having left Boston with the British army in early 1776), introduced changes in the prayer book, including the removal of all references to the Trinity. In 1787 the congregation ordained Freeman and took the name of Unitarian, as had various liberal congregations in England. Morse was less concerned with these Unitarians than he was with a broader movement of liberal thinking and practice developing within New England Congregationalism. By 1805 some Congregational liberals had taken up Unitarian beliefs, but many remained committed Christians. They departed in several different ways from the orthodox Calvinist beliefs which Morse so forcefully defended. This religious liberalism, one branch of which became American Unitarianism, had deep roots in the American religious experience.

Free Will. The central themes of liberal religious thinking were a greater emphasis on free will and a confidence in the ability of individuals to affect their fate. The strictest Calvinists, like the Puritan settlers of Massachusetts, believed in the doctrine of predestination. This was the belief that God had already decided who would go to heaven and who would be damned to hell. Whether people were actually sinful or not in their lives had no effect on Gods decision. If a person was saved, it was a free gift of Gods mercy, not something earned by human effort.


The Sunday schools springing up from the 1790s onward used catechisms as their textbooks. A catechism uses a question and answer format to describe the beliefs and rituals of a religion. Teachers would drill their students in their knowledge of their faith by asking the questions and coaching them in understanding the correct answers. By far the most common text was the The Shorter Catechism, first compiled in 1648 by the Westminster Assembly and reprinted thousands of times over the following centuries. This orthodox catechism began by asking What is the chief end of man? The answer: Mans chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. The emphasis on glorifying God through obeying him and worshiping him was sustained throughout the catechism. After describing human sinfulness, it asked Did God leave all mankind to perish in this state of sin and misery? Answer: God out of his mere good pleasure from all eternity elected some to everlasting life. In the orthodox view, salvation was a gift to humans, but the ultimate beneficiary was still God.

In contrast William Ellery Channings catechism for use with Unitarian children exhibited the ways liberal religion departed from orthodox themes. The Unitarian catechism painted a more positive image of humanity, and showed a God interested in human welfare. This book started by asking Who made you? The answer was God, but added that God also made all things in heaven and earth. This God offered gifts to humans that were useful in this life: He gives me life and strength. He gives me power to see and hear, to speak and move. He gives me reason and conscience, and the means of improving in knowledge and goodness. Instead of knowing that all men are inherently sinful, the Unitarian child said I feel that I have sinned, and it followed that Jesus was not so much a redeemer as a moral guide.

Sources: Westminster Assembly, The Shorter Catechism (Cambridge, Mass., 1803), pp. 3, 5;

William Ellery Channing, Elements of Religion and Morality in the Form of a Catechism second edition (Boston, 1814), pp. 7, 12.

This was a difficult idea since it could easily lead to despair or to a sinful disregard for behavior. Free will was related to this doctrine because it was hard to incorporate human freedom into the Calvinist system, which could seem so fatalistic and deterministic. Yet the system demanded a free acceptance of Gods foreordained action, so people had to have free will, however contradictory that seemed.

New Images of God . By the mid 1700s more and more people were thinking that human behavior must matter and that one could lose a chance at heaven by sinning. This rethinking of the Puritan tradition went on in Boston and the other coastal cities of New England, where people were most aware of new trends in English thought and in the European Enlightenment. These intellectual trends emphasized the idea of freedom of the individual and gave it a wider scope in human life than it had ever had before. The ideas had their political effect in the American Revolution, but they had a religious aspect as well. Liberal ministers such as Charles Chauncy began to preach a new message about God. They began to picture him as benevolent, not wrathful, and concerned with saving all people, not just an elect few. Chauncy gave these ideas a highly polished form in his 1784 publication The Mystery Hid from Ages and Generations. Chauncy focused on universal salvation rather than ideas of the Trinity. He had written this book some thirty years earlier but feared to publish it until after the egalitarianism of the Revolution made it more likely to be appreciated. In many ways the liberals opponents were correct to see them as revolutionary in their own right.

Divisions and Evolution . Liberal ministers and lay people gradually became more influential in church matters after 1790. Many were leading citizens of New England towns, and their opinions mattered despite theological controversies. In some cases theological divisions were so intense in a church that liberal or orthodox members would break away and form new congregations. Family conflicts and lawsuits often followed such separations. More often, congregations would not especially notice the changes in their thinking and simply evolve into liberal Congregationalism or Unitarianism. In part this was because liberalism was less a break with the past than a development from the past. Even as some ideas about God and salvation developed, many other things did not change. For example, even the most radical thinkers never stopped wanting the church to be congregational, with each local church community largely independent of all others. Like other new developments in Protestantism, liberalism was the product of reform, one of the deepest impulses of Christianity. The desire to make things new, to bring them closer to Gods order, is a feature of all forms of Protestantism. Liberalism and orthodoxy were both products of the process of renewal, however different they looked on the surface.


Sidney Ahlstrom and Jonathan S. Carey, eds., An American Reformation (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1985);

William R. Hutchison, The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976);

Conrad Wright, The Beginnings of Unitarianism in America (Boston: Starr King Press, 1955);

Wright, ed., A Stream of Light (Boston: Skinner House, 1989).

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Protestant Renewal: The Emergence of American Unitarianism

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