Chapter 14: Liberal Family
Consult the "Contents" pages to locate the entries in Part III, the Directory Listings Sections, that comprise this family.
The modern world has, along with its pluralism, been characterized by the rise of religious skepticism. Skepticism had two major thrusts. It first challenged the hegemony of orthodox forms of religion that dominated cultures through powerful inclusive religious organizations backed by the state's power. The separation of church and state thus became a standard element in the skeptic's program. In the Christian West, the skeptics also challenged ideas at the very heart of Christian thinking. Brought together in this chapter as the "liberal" family of churches and "religious" organizations are those groups that have challenged the orthodox Christian dominance of Western religious life: unitarianism, universalism, and infidelism. Unitarianism championed the idea of a unitary God over the Christian's trinitarian God. Unitarianism necessarily involved the additional denial of the divinity of Jesus. Closely related to Unitarianism, Universalism affirmed that God will save all humanity and thus denied the Christian belief in Hell.
The several forms of infidelism– deism, rationalism, humanism, atheism, etc.–moved in an even more radical direction, away from the religious life (and any need for piety, prayer, worship, or devotion) toward human-centered philosophies that tended to denounce all religion or at best paid lip service to a few abstract religious ideas. What are in this chapter termed liberals thus fit on a continuum between Unitarians, who still acknowledge the viability of the religious life, and the more radical atheist infidels.
The origin and much of the continuing life of liberalism lie in its attack upon the dictates of Christian orthodoxy. (Orthodoxy may be described as the mainline Christian faith that adheres to the authority of the Scriptures and the three ancients summaries of Christian truth–the Nicene, Chalcedonian, and Apostles' creeds.) Thus, the liberal tradition has a secondary nature, protesting existent churches. The differences within the tradition can be gauged by how far various liberal groups deviate from orthodox beliefs.
Most liberals defend the individual's right to believe as he or she wishes, and the privilege to not believe at all if reason leads to disbelief. Liberals therefore have been in the forefront of fights for religious liberty and have joined with persecuted minorities in the debates on religious freedom as those of the late eighteenth century in France and the United States.
In America, beginning in the eighteenth century, liberals dissented from the established orthodoxy primarily of New England Calvinism and to a lesser extent Protestantism in general. Before the Civil War, American liberals were judged by themselves and others only in relation to the creed from which they deviated. Therefore, they were called, by themselves and others, by such negative names as anti-trinitarian, atheist and infidel. After the Civil War, though, liberals began to see themselves in a new light and described themselves in such positive terms as secularists, humanists, and liberals.
As an intellectual movement, liberalism stresses the power of man's reason to perfect the world. This emphasis on reason is coupled with a high regard for the worth of each human being. Liberals hold the self-image of being on the progressive cutting edge of human history, striving for the freedom of the individual. Although never very numerous, liberals have had tremendous influence on society as the public accepted their ideals. The Bill of Rights in the United States Constitution, for example, stands as a landmark of the liberal tradition.
What is liberal for one generation may become conservative for another generation. For example, in the 1920s, to be a liberal meant to be in the labor movement. Today, though, to be a liberal often means to be against the labor movement because labor is seen as part of the establishment. Thus, liberalism takes on new meanings with time. Also, at any given moment in history, liberals tend to be more united by their opposition to the current orthodoxy than by any positive idea they might promote. They have lacked the positive thrust that builds such movements as Methodism or Calvinism. Their common history of protesting orthodoxy, however, does tie them together, so both Unitarians and atheists (infidels) can be seen as belonging to the liberal tradition, although both might be unhappy at being lumped together.
The Enlightenment of the eighteenth century identified liberals with the high regard for reason. As religion shifted away from God and supernaturalism, only two bases for religion were left: man's feelings and man's mind. An arational mysticism became the hallmark of the liberals who chose feelings as the base for their religion. The transcendentalists followed the arational path, developing an idealistic movement that emphasized the union of the individual with the spiritual reality underlying all life. Most liberals, however, opted for the rational. They said man was the product of a law-abiding nature and reasonable thinking could reveal the universal laws that permeated everything.
Science was the product of rationalism. Science discovered the tangible world of indestructible particles. What was real was what could be seen, felt, and, most importantly, measured. The lawabiding world could be observed and documented. From observation came knowledge, and, by extension, liberals concluded the only knowledge worth having was that produced by scientific observation. Scientific method, said liberals, could be applied to the study of religion and from it a scientific religion, acceptable to all, could emerge. Beneath the diversity of ideas and practices could be found the great religious values, some reasoned. Others reasoned that if those values were not found, religion could be destroyed altogether.
The scientist's emphasis on the visible world gave way to secularism as a worldview. The search for values in this world and this life became part of the lifestyle of the liberal tradition.
As comparative religion became a major study, its findings became a major factor in the development of liberalism. The study of the world's religions revealed that all of the major religions of the world were undergirded with a sophisticated theology and an educated intelligentsia. As more solid information on the major faiths filtered out of the scholarly enclaves, a search for a universal religion began. Liberals hoped such a religion, laying aside each religion's peculiarities and distinctive ideas and practices, and built upon "essentials" or common factors all shared (seen as the natural religious particles), could command the respect of all. Books such as The World's Sixteen Crucified Saviors provided ample material to attack Christianity's distinctiveness.
In the nineteenth century, many liberals adopted the four-fold creed of evolution, reason, science, and materialism. From Darwin and Herbert Spencer, liberals learned to think in terms of progress. Not only nature, but also human culture was progressing. For liberalism, the great stumbling block to progress was ignorance, and the great tool to aid progress was education. Thus the alliance of liberalism and the university was a natural one.
ETHICS. The anti-mystical intellectualism within the main body of the liberal tradition led to a dominance of ethical concerns. Liberals followed their triumphs in the Bill of Rights with active involvement in the great crusades of the pre-Civil War era. Always the liberals could be found standing with those issues that aimed at great freedom for the individual. They swelled the ranks of the abolition, peace, prison reform, and women's rights movements. In the liberal religion camp were Julia Ward Howe, Lucy Stone, Robert Dale Owen, and Lucretia Mott. In the twentieth century, liberals were prominent in the labor, sexual freedom, and civil rights movements.
Interestingly enough, ethics has also been a major point of Christianity's attack upon liberals, especially atheists. Christians have argued that in giving up a belief in revelation, God and the Bible, that a belief in absolute values and moral law has also been given away and that the attack upon traditional religion leads to amorality and immorality. Liberals have countered such assertions with the fact that atheism has in fact no track record of unethical activity; to the contrary, liberal leaders have been in the forefront of the advocacy of moral concerns, especially in the public sphere.
THE FORMS OF FAITH. The active revolt against specific religious forms, which eventuated in the atheists' attack upon religion itself, does not lead to worship, piety, and prayer. These occur only on the extreme right wing of the liberal movement. The dominant activity of liberalism has been the communication of information, at first in the sermon and, more frequently as time passed, in the lecture. Great emphasis has been placed upon the education of members and the public, particularly their sensitization on moral issues.
The efforts at education and sensitization have been carried on by the liberal press. Liberal periodicals, most of which were independently published, have been the backbone of the movement from the early nineteenth century. The liberals' oldest periodical still in existence is The Truth Seeker, founded in 1873. Books attacking orthodoxy and religion are subsidized and circulated. Some have become popular items.
HISTORICAL DEVELOPMENT. The liberals look to an amazing number of radicals in Christian history as precursors of their movements. Various liberals claim as precursors such figures as Origen, Pelagius, and Leonardo da Vinci. The real beginning of the line of descent, however, is generally conceded to be Michael Servetus, whose On the Errors of the Trinity (1532) challenged traditional notions of the triune god, which he compared to the three-headed hound of hell of ancient mythology. Fleeing from Spain, he arrived in Geneva expecting a welcome from the Protestants, only to discover that they were as vehemently opposed to his theological position as were the Roman Catholics. Martyred by John Calvin, Servetus has become a symbol of free religion fighting orthodox intolerance. However, other reformers of similar anti-trinitarian opinions led parts of Europe into a unitarian perspective. Socinius converted Poland, and Francis David converted a large segment of Transylvania. In 1568, the only Unitarian king in history, John Sigismund, issued the Western world's first edict of religious toleration.
In seventeenth century Europe, the Enlightenment offered liberal alternatives to traditional Christian beliefs. In particular, the Deists of England preached a religion stripped of orthodox accretions. Deists argued that the Creator does not interfere with the laws of the universe. Deists pictured God somewhat like a watchmaker who makes a watch, winds it up, and leaves it to run on its own. God, they said, leaves the world to follow its own course. The Deists advocated a natural religion based on human reason and morality rather than revelation. Deism found a ready audience among the educated and upper classes of both England and America. Many of the leaders of the American Revolution identified themselves with the Deist idea world, particularly Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, and Madison. By the time of the American Revolution, the three key ideas of the liberals–unitarianism, universalism, and infidelism–had matured and had come to dominate the liberals' dissenting orientation. With each of these three ideas was carried a fight for religious freedom and a battle against the abuses of clericalism.
Universalism had been preached in America as early as the 1740s by Dr. George de Bonneville in Pennsylvania. In 1770, major impetus was given to the movement by the arrival of John Murray from England. Murray had been raised a Methodist and had become a class leader. Impressed with George Whitefield, he left Methodism and associated himself with Whitefield's independent London tabernacle. While in London he became a universalist and was expelled from the tabernacle membership when he refused to "confine his sentiments to his own bosom." After his arrival in the new world, Murray itinerated and preached his universalism, which had by 1775 created such an impact that pamphlets were written against him. About this time universalist congregations began to appear. Murray's followers in Gloucester, Massachusetts, who had belonged to the Congregational Church, had their membership suspended. So, in 1779, they formed the Independent Church of Gloucester. The movement to form churches grew, and in 1786 the Articles of Association for Universalist Churches were promulgated, although the association itself was short-lived. In the 1790s Hosea Ballou appeared on the scene to continue the leadership of the aging John Murray. His newspaper, the Winchester Profession, became the standard for Universalist views. In 1790, at a convention in Philadelphia, Articles of Faith and a Plan of Government were adopted. Thus, universalism became the first of the liberal views to solidify into an organizational structure.
In the eighteenth century unitarianism was preached in England and America. Theophilus Lindsey founded the British Unitarian movement in 1774 after his resignation from the Anglican priesthood. In New England, unitarianism originated in the Congregational Church, but it was not until 1794, when Joseph Priestley migrated to America, that churches were founded that took the name Unitarian.
During the pre-Civil War nineteenth century, three men– William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Theodore Parker–in succession dominated unitarian thought. The liberal debate in America centered around them.
In the second decade of the nineteenth century William Ellery Channing, a congressional minister, was the leading intellectual among unitarians, which originally existed as a liberal wing in the Congregational Church. His 1819 sermon at the funeral of Jered Sparks became the unitarians' manifesto. In 1825 Channing led in founding the American Unitarian Association, a missionary group. Most members of Unitarian churches date their beginnings from one of these two events. Channing is credited with emphasizing ethics instead of theology, an emphasis that has become a hallmark of Unitarian churches.
In the 1830s, Ralph Waldo Emerson and the transcendentalists were at their intellectual apex. Emerson's efforts to sell his monist position, most notably through his famous speech to Harvard Divinity School in 1838, were rebuffed for the time. But Emerson, his colleagues at Brook Farm (an experimental, communitarian venture of the transcendentalists), and the raft of romantic literature flooding America from England could not long be denied.
Theodore Parker stands as the symbol of the union of unitarian thinking with transcendentalism. While unitarianism could not contain Emerson, it was forced to accept Parker. He combined three elements: the philosophical, which appealed to unitarians because of their emphasis on the mind; the mystical, which appealed to the transcendentalists; and the practical, which appealed to the liberals because of their desire to improve society. Parker, applying transcendental ideals in concrete situations, was an abolitionist and a spokesman against the fugitive slave law. His sermon at the ordination of Charles Shackford in 1841, entitled "The Transient and Permanent in Christianity," set the tone for liberal Christianity for his generation and served further to drive a wedge between the orthodox and liberal Congregationalists that was to result in the formal break between them after the Civil War.
For the origins of what in the nineteenth century was called infidelity (the complete rejection of theism, the church, and piety), one immediately turns to France and the works of Voltaire and his contemporaries. These perspectives reached their culmination in the radically anti-clerical, anti-religious aspect of the French Revolution. In its early days in America, the adjective French was often used to modify infidelity. The first exponent on the American scene was Ethan Allen, the revolutionary war hero, who published his Reason the Only Oracle of Man in 1784. This publication was essentially a restatement of deism, emphasizing man and his reason. For various reasons the work made little impact. But in 1794 Thomas Paine published his Age of Reason, which was an immediate success. The Age of Reason became the Bible of the free thought movement, and Paine quickly moved from being hero of the revolution to becoming the symbol of evil infidelity to the orthodox.
The free thought tradition gradually replaced the deist tradition of the eighteenth century. The transition can be marked in the 1790s by the leadership of Elihu Palmer and the beginnings of local free thought societies. The free thought movement stressed the importance of the inquiring mind, scientific methodology, and philosophical thinking. The movement opposed orthodoxy in religion, orthodoxy being the mainline Christian tradition based on Scripture and the creeds. Palmer, from 1791 until his death in 1806, was instrumental in the founding and leadership of at least three different radical societies, the most important being the Deistical Society of New York City. This society published the Temple of Reason, one of the first periodicals in America supporting an infidel tradition. After Palmer's death in 1806, there were about 20 years of silence from the free thought camp. Then in the 1820s Robert Owen founded his New Harmony experiment in Indiana, which gave the U.S. many of its firsts in education and community service.
In 1827, the free thought voice was heard again with the establishment of the Free Press Association in New York City. Before the end of the decade, societies were founded in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Woodstock, Vermont; Patterson, New Jersey; Schuylkill, Pennsylvania; Wilmington, Delaware; and St. Louis, Missouri. In the 1830s and 1840s societies were also founded in a number of other northern and Midwestern communities. Many adopted the name of Free Inquirers. Moral Philanthropists and Rationalists were also popular names. Attempts at national organization in 1828 and 1835 failed. A short-lived attempt to form The Infidel Society for the Promotion of Mental Liberty began in 1845 but died in 1848.
Other attempts waited until after the Civil War. Meanwhile, the liberals, both Christian and free thought, found themselves caught in circumstances that worked against organization. First, due to the Congregational Church's polity of local independency and the local nature of the infidel societies, leaders had no one but their local constituency to please. National organization tended to work against the very freedom that was so highly prized. Second, the decades before the Civil War were a period of intense social change; and involvement in the antislavery crusade, women's rights, and other social causes took much of the energy that could have gone into organizational building. The close of the war ended the era of social activism and two generations of existence had caused a shift of emphasis in liberal thought. It began to turn from its primary emphasis on a critique of its religious origins toward the development of a positive position, setting the stage for the solidification of the liberal forces.
The last four decades of the nineteenth century were a time of organization of liberal churchmen. On April 7, 1865, just five days before the surrender of Lee at Appomattox, a National Convention of Unitarian Churches met in New York City to organize a National Conference of Unitarian Churches. Transcendentalists, not happy with the overly orthodox position of the National Conference, organized the Free Religious Association in 1867. Among the leaders of the FRA were John Weiss, Samuel Johnson, Octavius Brooks Frothingham, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and David Wasson. The radicals who formed the FRA in turn found themselves divided between the mystical transcendentalists and the scientifically oriented members. The latter organized as the National Liberal League in 1875. The issue around which they organized was a movement in the 1860s by evangelicals for a constitutional amendment that would wed church and state. Specifically, the amendment would tie the Protestant churches closely to national political institutions, from the president and Congress on down. The Liberal League countered with a program to achieve complete separation of church and state. The Liberal League itself divided over support of obscenity laws, and the group favoring a complete lifting of censorship formed the National Liberal League of America.
The thrust of most of these organizations lasted only one generation. As the issues that gave them birth died, they passed from the scene and were often absorbed by more stable bodies such as the Unitarian churches. This absorption liberalized the stable groups. Replacing the organizations that died were new associations that gathered to respond to new issues. One such association was the Union of Liberal Clergymen, formed following the Parliament of Religions in 1893. The Union of Liberal Clergymen promoted progress, reverence for law, science, and an openness to new knowledge, and contended that the church should be a school of the humanities.
ATHEISM. Increasingly, since the Renaissance, some people have denied the very existence of a God. Many atheists were intellectuals–scholars and university professors–giants in their own particular disciplines. Included are such figures as Thomas Hariot, Christopher Marlowe, and Pierre Bayle. It was not, however, until the nineteenth century that atheism became a force with significant support.
Many Deists walked a tightrope between belief in a God who did not act upon his world and outright denial of his existence. In the nineteenth century the university provided a haven for those who wished to declare themselves as atheists. Like its deistic predecessor, atheism was built upon an attack of the Christian churches in the nineteenth century. Primarily, however, it was an intellectual movement that launched an attack on theology and natural religion. The movement's perspective was that of scientific materialism, the theory that the basic reality of the universe is material and is therefore observable and scientifically measurable.
Among the major atheists in the nineteenth century are Karl Marx, Ludwig Feuerbach, Auguste Comte, Annie Besant, and Charles Bradlaugh. Often forgotten, but important in any history of atheism, is poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Shelley was expelled from Oxford in 1811 for writing The Necessity of Atheism. Hislengthy poem Queen Mab became a poetic reinforcement to his earlier essay. Reflecting on the death of an atheist, he cries:
There is no God! Nature confirms the faith this death-groan sealed: Let heaven and earth, let man's revolving race, His ceaseless generations tell the tale. The Spirit of Nature was posed as an alternative to God. In the twentieth century Bertrand Russell, A. J. Ayer, and Julian Huxley were among the outspoken atheists. As a whole, however, the atheists mentioned above were isolated individuals who served as background for the organized movements that began to emerge in the years after the Civil War. The Truth Seeker, a liberal periodical, while not atheist oriented to begin with, allowed atheist notices to be printed and served as a means of communication. Only after World War I were efforts to affiliate atheist bodies in larger organizations successful. As they have emerged in the twentieth century, atheists insist that first and foremost they are people with a positive approach to life that find no need to assert the existence of a deity. Their popular designation as people who deny the existence of God is an image created by their necessary attempts to explain their position in the face of a more dominant theistic population.
In the last generation, American humanists and atheists have found a noteworthy issue in pseudoscience. In the 1970s, an association of people concerned about the growing popularity of astrology and other psychic/occult activities formed the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of the Claims of the Paranormal. This organization generated a public campaign against scientific claims being perpetuated within the general population that were based on methodologically flawed research, fraud, or inadequate evidence. While originally focused upon psychic and occult practices, the movement expanded to include a variety of questionable scientific claims and concerns from various alternative medical practices to cultic brainwashing to denial of the Jewish Holocaust in World War II. A parallel concern to debunk claims of religious miracles (apparition of the Virgin Mary, the Shroud of Turin, etc.) became part of the movement.
CSICOP has grown to several other societies including the James Randi Educational Foundation and the Skeptics Society. CSICOP has been closely linked to the Society for Secular Humanism, both including philosopher Paul Kurtz among its founders. Kurtz also heads Prometheus Books, which has grown into a major publisher of atheist humanist and anti-pseudoscience books in North America. The Skeptics Society is headed by Michael Shermer, a self-described agnostic, who had developed a popular television show on pseudosceicne and has authored several books including Why People Believe Weird Things and Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why do They Say It?
Sources–The Liberal Family
The study of the unitarian and universalist traditions is carried forth by the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society, 25 Beacon St., Boston, MA02108. The society published the UUHS Proceedings biennially. There is no comparable structure for the study of the more radical humanist, atheist, and rationalist traditions.
Baumer, Franklin L. Religion and the Rise of Skepticism. New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1960. 308 pp.
Bratton, Fred Gladstone. The Legacy of the Liberal Spirit. Boston: Beacon Press, 1943. 319 pp.
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Sheldon, Henry C. Unbelief in the Nineteenth Century. New York: Eaton & Mains, 1907. 399 pp.
Shermer, Michael. How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science New York: W. H. Freeman and Co., 2000. 302 pp.
Stein, Gordon. Robert G. Ingersoll, A Checklist. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1969. 128 pp.
Unitarianism and Universalism
Albee, Ernest. A History of English Unitarianism. New York: Collier Books, 1962. 383 pp.
Bueherns, John A., and F. Forrester Church. A Chosen Faith : An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism. Boston: Beacon Press. Revised edition, June 1998. 240 pp.
Bumbaugh, David E. Unitarian Universalism : A Narrative History. Chicago: Meadville Lombard Theological Seminary, 2001. 226 pp.
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Parke, David B. The Epic of Unitarianism. Boston: Beacon Press, 1957. 164 pp.
Scott, Clinton Lee. The Universalist Church of America, A Short History. Boston: Universalist Historical Society, 1957. 124 pp.
Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism: Channing, Emerson, Parker. Boston: Beacon Press, 1961. 152 pp.
Wilbur, Earl Morse. A History of Unitarianism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1946. 617 pp.
Williams, George Huntston. American Universalism. Boston: Beacon Press, 1971. 94 pp.
Deism and Freethought
Darrow, Clarence, and Wallace Rice. Infidels and Heretics. Boston: Stratford Co., 1929. 293 pp.
Hawke, David Freeman. Paine. New York: Harper & Row. 1974. 500 pp.
Ingersoll, Robert G. Ingersoll's Greatest Lectures. New York: The Free-thought Press Association, 1944. 419 pp.
Koch, G. Adolf. Republican Religion. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1933. 334 pp.
Morais, Herbert M. Deism in Eighteenth Century America. New York: Russell & Russell, 1960. 203 pp.
Persons, Stow. Free Religion. Boston: Beacon Press, 1947. 162 pp.
Tribe, David. 100 Years of Free thought. London: Elek, 1967. 259 pp.
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Walker, Joseph. Humanism as a Way of Life. New York: Macmillan, 1932. 83 pp.
Angeles, Peter A., ed. Critiques of God: Making the Case Against Belief in God. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1997. 371 pp.
Brooks, David M. The Necessity of Atheism. New York: The Free-thought Press Association, 1933. 322 pp.
Martin, Michael. Atheism : A Philosophical Justification. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992.
Stein, Gordon. The Encyclopedia of Unbelief. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1985. 2 Vols.
——, ed. An Anthology of Atheism and Rationalism. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1980. 354 pp.
Blackie, John Stuart. The Natural History of Atheism. New York: Scribner, Armstrong & Co., 1878. 253 pp.
Graham, Lloyd M. Deceptions and Myths of the Bible. New York: Bell, 1979. 484 pp.
Lewis, Joseph. The Bible Unmasked. New York: The Free thought Press Association, 1926. 236 pp.
McCabe, Joseph. The Sources of the Morality of the Gospels. London: Watts, 1914. 315 pp.
Marty, Martin E. The Infidel: Free thought and American Religion. Cleveland: World Publishing Co., 1961. 224 pp.
Micelli, Vincent P. The Gods of Atheism. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1973. 490 pp.
Wheless, Joseph. Forgery in Christianity. Moscow, ID: Psychiana, 1930. 428 pp.
"Chapter 14: Liberal Family." Encyclopedia of American Religions. . Encyclopedia.com. (April 18, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/chapter-14-liberal-family
"Chapter 14: Liberal Family." Encyclopedia of American Religions. . Retrieved April 18, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/chapter-14-liberal-family
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