The era from 1835 to 1865 might well be called “the golden age” of American Unitarianism. Boston and its nearby towns, where the young denomination remained centered, nurtured the most intellectually exciting life in the country at the time. There the major publishing houses were located; there the most adventurous philosophical and spiritual speculation in the United States went on; there the most advanced social reform projects were proposed. To all this activity Unitarianism contributed in ways that were important, probably even indispensable. Organized religion and religious currents of thought exerted a compelling power in shaping the outlook of Americans during the years culminating in the Civil War. Most aspects of culture including education, literature, politics, and reform were intimately bound up with religion; and Unitarian religion seems to have provided a powerful stimulus for innovative thought and action in the period to which we now turn.
After 1835 Unitarians found themselves no longer so involved in debating theological issues against other Protestant groups. The chief explanation for this lies in the gradual loss of dedication to Calvinist rigor on the part of the orthodox. The principal Trinitarian spokesmen of the mid-nineteenth century and later, Horace Bushnell, Phillips Brooks, and Henry Ward Beecher, were ecumenical-minded theological moderates. Their views on predestination, atonement, and original sin actually had less in common with their orthodox predecessors than with their Unitarian contemporaries. Slowly adopting many attitudes that were more or less liberal themselves, such churchmen did not share Jedidiah Morses determination to expose heresy and root it out. Since most Unitarians had never found the controversies very congenial, when their adversaries lost interest they were only too happy to discontinue them. The disestablishment of religion in Massachusetts removed the principal occasion for disputes over property, such as the one at Dedham. Other issues seemed more pressing, concerns that were to remain of central importance to Unitarians until the present day. One of these was how to implement liberal religion in the world. The other was the quest for its proper philosophical foundation.
“Now that we are a community by ourselves, it behooves us to consider what we shall do,” Henry Ware, Jr., told his fellow Unitarians in 1835._1_ Among the secular activities reflecting Unitarian religious commitments were many relating to the promotion of literacy and learning. A religion teaching that people should think for themselves, Unitarianism accorded an important place to education. New Englanders had a long tradition of support for the common schools, but the Unitarians of the middle third of the nineteenth century were remarkable even among Yankees for their devotion to education. The younger Ware called education “the business of life.” The proper development of ones talents and potential was a duty to God as well as to oneself, he asserted; a well-rounded liberal education was not a mere ornament for the well-to-do, but a necessity for every person._2_ William Ellery Channing and the other prominent Unitarian clergy concurred fully with Ware. All human powers (“faculties,” as they were termed) required careful training if they were to fulfill the purpose God intended. It is no exaggeration to say that such Unitarian religious leaders considered the school as sacred an institution as the church. After the end of public support for the churches in 1833, it became more important than ever that public support for education be put on an effective basis._3_
The most famous of Unitarian educational reformers was Horace Mann. Converted to Unitarianism from orthodoxy by Channing, Mann put into practice the doctrines he learned from the great preacher of Federal Street. “If republican institutions wake up unexampled energies in the whole mass of a people,” Mann insisted, “these same institutions ought also to confer upon that people unexampled wisdom and rectitude.”_4_ Mann served as secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education from 1837 to 1848, during which time he virtually created the first statewide system of public schools and the first teachers college (at Lexington in 1839) in the United States. He sought not only to rationalize educational administration and improve teaching, but also to restrict religious instruction in the schools to a nonsectarian core of principles common to all Protestants. The orthodox, accustomed to prescribing Calvinist tenets in many public schools, complained that Manns “nonsectarian” principles were equivalent to Unitarianism. Mann, like most Massachusetts Unitarians of his time, was a member of the Whig party; hence he met with partisan opposition from Democrats. The debates over Manns educational reforms show how religious rivalries carried over into politics._5_ In many ways, indeed, social, cultural, and political controversy replaced theological controversy as arenas of competition between Unitarians and others after 1835.
Besides Horace Manns school system, a host of other institutions for the promotion of learning flourished under predominantly Unitarian auspices in mid-nineteenth-century Massachusetts. The Library of the Boston Athenaeum (founded in 1807), the Lowell Institute (founded in 1836), and the Boston Public Library (founded in 1854) are among the best known of many. The Athenaeums facilities were used by a rather select clientele, but most of the other institutions served a wider public. The endowment of these institutions by affluent Unitarian laymen shows that the injunctions of Unitarian clergy regarding the importance of learning were taken seriously and heeded. The organization and support of the institutions served a social function as well as an intellectual one. Their interlocking network, along with Harvard University and the Unitarian churches, knit the business and professional families of Boston together, giving them a sense of common purpose and identity._6_
Of course Harvard continued to be the most important center of Unitarian learning. The composition of the faculty, to be sure, was not exclusive: at one point in the 1830s the staff of fourteen included, along with six Unitarians, three Roman Catholics, a Calvinist, a Lutheran, an Episcopalian, a Quaker, and a “Sandemanian.”_7_ Despite such attempts at ecumenicity, however, Harvard remained in the public mind a Unitarian academy, and not without reason. The Divinity School was uniformly Unitarian in point of view and student body, and the presidents of the university throughout this period were all Unitarians._8_ When Frederic Dan Huntington, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals in the College, converted from Unitarianism to the Episcopal church in 1860, he felt constrained to resign his chair. Since Harvard was still in some respects affiliated with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, non-Unitarian citizens, especially the staunch Calvinists, resented all this. Identification with Unitarianism exposed the university to harassment from Democratic politicians in Massachusetts, who courted Calvinist votes by denouncing Harvard or even by interfering with its academic freedom (in 1851 the Democratic politicians on the Board of Overseers denied a professorship to an especially outspoken Unitarian Whig). The problem was relieved as Harvard gradually eliminated its ties to the government of the Commonwealth, until by 1865 it had become a totally private university._9_
The curriculum at Harvard College was intended to provide a liberal education that would develop the moral and intellectual powers of the student. This educational objective was typical of most institutions of higher learning in the Western world, but nowhere else was the development of human potential invested with such religious significance. The capstone of the curriculum was a course in moral philosophy, usually taken in the senior year. “Moral philosophy,” as it was then broadly defined, included the application as well as the theory of value judgments; thus it treated all of what we consider the social sciences and even literary criticism, as well as abstract ethics. The moral philosophy taught at Harvard had largely been created by Arminian philosophers in Scotland during the eighteenth century. While Scottish moral philosophy was also taught at “orthodox” religious colleges in the United States, its emphasis on human morality and human ability synthesized more readily with Unitarian than Calvinistic theology. At Harvard, Scottish moral philosophy and liberal Christianity provided a comprehensive and integrated world-view centered on the proper cultivation of human nature.10
Unitarianism came to exert more influence in America through its humanistic and cultural concerns than through sectarian proselytizing. The Boston Monthly Anthology of Joseph Stevens Buckminster and his friends (published 1803–1811) had shown how literature could substitute for theology as a means of moral influence.11 William Ellery Channings essay on “National Literature” (1830) exhorted Americans to define themselves as a people through the creation of a body of writing expressing their ideals.12 The ministers brother, Edward Tyrell Channing, professor of oratory and rhetoric at Harvard from 1819 to 1852, did much to achieve this end by training many students who later became leading writers of the New England literary “renaissance.” The principal Unitarian magazine between 1824 and 1869, the Christian Examiner, displayed a “broad and catholic” taste in belles lettres as well as religion, while the more famous North American Review conveyed predominantly Unitarian views on a variety of subjects to the general reading public.
This highly literate New England Unitarianism produced a disproportionate number of Americas writers and scholars during the period before the Civil War. Among them were George Ticknor, first professor of modern foreign languages in the United States, and the narrative historians William Hickling Prescott and John Lothrop Motley. All three wrote on the rise and fall of the Spanish empire, a subject that fascinated them because of the moral lessons they drew from it, lessons vindicating their own nineteenth-century liberalism in politics and religion. Through their monumental studies of the evils that brought Catholic, autocratic Spain to ruin, Ticknor, Prescott, and Motley applied the ethical ideals of Unitarianism, as they understood them, to history.13
Even more widely read than the Unitarian historians were the classic Unitarian poets: Oliver Wendell Holmes the elder, William Cullen Bryant, James Russell Lowell, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Their work has become such an integral part of our heritage that, together with the Quaker John Greenleaf Whittier, they are often called the “household poets.” Holmess love for Harvard and dislike for Calvinism both come out in his poetry. His satire “The Deacons Masterpiece” (1858), in which a wonderful “one-hoss shay” falls apart just as Holmes believed Calvinist theology had done, was probably the most effective retort (on a popular level) to the logic of orthodox dogma Unitarians ever produced.14 Bryant, one of the few Unitarians of this period to belong to the Democratic rather than the Whig party, combined his gift for enduring verse with a career as editor of the New York Evening Post. Lowell consecrated much of his poetic talent to propagandizing against slavery, since it was axiomatic among Unitarians of his generation that art should serve the cause of social morality and righteousness. Like Lowell and George Ticknor, Longfellow taught Romance languages at Harvard for part of his career. In his lifetime Longfellow was the best-loved poet in the English language, but in the twentieth century literary critics have sometimes treated him with unwarranted contempt. His poems provide a gold mine for anyone exploring the Unitarian mind; their calmness, sense of human dignity, and appreciation for nature endure even though their didacticism and sentimentality now seem quaint. The Unitarian poets transcended the limits of their numerically small denomination to transmit the values of liberal religion to the largest possible audience.15
Unitarians sought to put their religion into practice in many other spheres besides education and literature during the generation before the Civil War. Nineteenth-century Unitarians were probably the most convinced believers in progress the world has ever known, and many of them were eager to help in the improvement of mankind that God willed. Prison reform, the founding of orphanages, the abolition of dueling and of capital punishment these and other causes found favor among many Liberal Christians. The peace movement, pioneered by Noah Worcester (Unitarian brother of the Calvinist who debated Channing), took on renewed life during the Mexican War, which was intensely unpopular among Unitarians and most other northern Whigs. Temperance, especially during its early phases when it literally espoused moderation in the use of alcohol, rather than prohibition, did not lack Unitarian advocates. Certain crusades of the time, like sabbatarianism and missions, were, so closely identified with evangelical orthodoxy that Unitarians participated little in them. But in humanitarian philanthropy and reform, it would be hard for any other denomination, even the Quakers, to equal the record of Unitarianism in mid-nineteenth-century America.
Because of the emphasis of the Unitarians on human dignity, it was fitting that they should contribute two of the greatest crusaders on behalf of the handicapped: Samuel Gridley Howe and Dorothea Dix. Howe served as director of the New England Asylum for the Blind from 1829 to 1873; Dix began in 1843 a crusade for the establishment of asylums for the mentally ill that achieved remarkable success not only in the northern states but in the South and Europe as well. Howes work in training the blind and Dixs with the retarded and disturbed complemented that of their friend Horace Mann in educating normal children. Even more than he, they were impelled by a vision of human perfectibility. No matter how disadvantaged or seemingly limited, every human being was designed by God for indefinite improvement, Unitarian ministers like Channing and Ware preached, and the achievements of Samuel Gridley Howe and Dorothea Dix were built upon this faith.
One of the most interesting social causes undertaken by Unitarians before the Civil War was the ministry to the poor of Boston. This was initiated by the American Unitarian Association in 1826, the year after its founding. Joseph Tuckerman, previously minister of the church in Chelsea, answered the call. He styled himself “minister-at-large” to the city, and concerned himself with the temporal, as well as spiritual, welfare of the urban poor. His first chapel was a room above a warehouse. With financial backing from the A.U.A. supplemented by donations from well-wishers, Tuckerman was able to set up a farm school outside the city to rehabilitate juvenile delinquents and a sewing school to help young girls in the black community get jobs. He also made grants more often loans to individuals. His practice of visiting troubled families in their homes and discussing their problems has caused Tuckerman to be considered a pioneer social worker.16
Tuckerman accounted carefully to his sponsors with semiannual reports describing both the conditions of poverty he encountered and the methods through which he sought to cope with them. An examination of the reports reveals the limitations as well as the aspirations of his old-fashioned philanthropy.17 Tuckerman firmly opposed the unionization of labor and all government activity on behalf of social justice, believing that private charity could handle problems more effectively. He considered the material well-being of his clients as a means to improving their spiritual condition, rather than as an end in itself, though he defined “spiritual condition” broadly. Like so many other Unitarians of his day, Tuckerman proved an effective organizer: in 1834, with encouragement from Ezra Stiles Gannett and the younger Ware, nine Boston Unitarian parishes formed a Benevolent Fraternity of Churches for the support of the ministry-at-large. By 1838 other denominations had entered the enterprise, and there were ten ministers to the poor of the city, of whom four were Unitarians. One of the first people to try to awaken the American bourgeoisie to the plight of the urban lower class, Tuckerman was clearly a precursor of what later became known as the “social gospel.”
Of all the humanitarian efforts of the mid-nineteenth century, none occasioned more anguish and internal strife among Unitarians than the crusade against slavery. Slavery was, of course, the ultimate denial of Christian humanismthe doctrine, which Unitarians emphasized, that “a man, be his nation, complexion, condition, or capacity what it may, is an image of God.”18 The same dedication to developing human potential which impelled Unitarians to foster education also dictated opposition to slavery. In theory Unitarians were quite clear that religion confirmed the Declaration of Independence: “all men are created equal.” Conduct sometimes fell short of principle, for a variety of reasons. Some of the most prominent Unitarian laymen, such as the Appletons and the Lowells, were textile-mill owners, members of an agricultural-industrial complex that felt threatened by attacks on the southern cotton planters and their mode of production. Thus antislavery had more profoundly disturbing social consequences than other contemporary reform movements.
Unitarians in politics found the slavery question pitting them against each other. President Millard Fillmore and the eloquent Daniel Webster proved willing to compromise with the South in hopes of preserving the Union. Governor Edward Everett, having turned from the ministry and scholarship to a succession of high political offices, followed Websters lead. Other Unitarian political leaders, however, were strong in the cause of freedom. Former President John Quincy Adams, who served in the federal House of Representatives from 1831 to 1848, vigorously championed the civil liberties of abolitionists whom the South tried to silence. Charles Sumner, a close friend of William Ellery Channing and later senator from Massachusetts, denounced not only “the barbarism of slavery” in the South but also racial segregation in the North.19 During the 184os the rivalry between Webster-Everett moderates and the more militantly antislavery group became so marked they earned the respective names “cotton” Whigs and “conscience” Whigs. Finally, in the 185os, the Whig party to which most Unitarians had belonged disintegrated altogether under the pressures of continued disagreement. Because the Unitarians of this generation were such a closely knit community, they keenly regretted the divisions among them engendered by the slavery issue.
The Unitarian clergy, like the politicians, felt conflicting pressures. As moral leaders of their people, the clergy acknowledged a duty to stand up and be counted on a moral issue. On the other hand, to speak out strongly against slavery did not come easily. Few Unitarian ministers were temperamentally combative men; many were no more inclined to rush into controversy with slave-holders and their northern apologists than they had been to attack the Calvinists. Most ministers considered themselves primarily pastors rather than social critics, and wondered how hard they could press their congregations on a matter where there was no consensus. The records of Unitarian clergymen in the North on slavery vary from abstract disapproval coupled with practical acquiescence all the way to the most dedicated devotion to abolition. The few Unitarian ministers in the South usually tried to avoid the subject.20
Two clerical exemplars of “cotton” Whiggery were Orville Dewey, minister of the Church of the Messiah in New York City from 1835 to 1848, and Ezra Stiles Gannett, assistant and successor to Channing at the Federal Street Church (which became the Arlington Street Church in 1859). Dewey admitted that “it cannot possibly be right to hold down and bind to earth the faculties of an immortal creature” in bondage; Gannett went so far as to call slavery “the greatest evil under which our nation labors.”21 Both men believed the best ultimate solution lay in sending American blacks to Africa. When it became clear that colonization was not a viable solution, neither found an effective alternative mode of opposition to slavery. Dewey and Gannett went along with Webster in supporting the Compromise of 1850, including its Fugitive Slave Law, as regrettable but necessary to keep the Union intact. “I would consent that my own brother, my own son, should go” into slavery rather than sacrifice the Union, Dewey emphatically declared. However, when extradition of the fugitive Anthony Burns from Massachusetts to Virginia in 1854 provoked riots and required two thousand troops to enforce, Gannett could bear it no longer. “The Union may cost too much,” he concluded ruefully.22 Mounting tensions and violence brought out differences between the two moderates. Dewey gradually became more solidly northern in sympathies and justified a “holy war” to preserve the Union after all attempts to placate the South had failed. Gannett, however, did not relish the war or urge support of it except by denouncing the New York City anti-draft riots.
Probably the most influential leadership against slavery to come from the Unitarian clergy was provided by William Ellery Channing. A person of refined sensibilities, Channing had initially been put off by the abolitionists “piercing tones of passion.” Apparently these reminded him too much of the methods of itinerant revivalists, which religious liberals had deplored for generations.23 Channing was persuaded to enter the lists on behalf of freedom by the example of John Quincy Adams and the urgings of a tactful Unitarian abolitionist, Samuel J. May. In 1835 Channing published a short book, Slavery, which summed up effectively the ethical argument against the institution. More than that, it carefully considered the consequences of emancipation, advocating that the government assume the cost of both compensating slaveowners and educating the freedmen. (In this respect Channing distinguished himself from the abolitionists proper, who were unwilling to see compensation paid for ending a sin.) Almost forgotten today, Channings Slavery remains one of the clearest and most judicious treatments of its subject ever written by an American.
Despite its careful calm, however, Channings discussion of slavery encountered angry denunciations from southerners and even some resentment among Channings own congregation. James T. Austin, attorney general of Massachusetts and one of Channings parishioners, accused his minister of inciting race war.24 In 1840 the Federal Street Standing Committee refused permission for a memorial service to he held for their ministers friend Karl Follen (a distinguished German émigré who had taught at Harvard and become a Unitarian minister) because of the latters antislavery sentiments. Channing, by then in semi-retirement, was wounded by this insensitivity of the people he had served so long. Though Ezra Gannett loyally supported Channings request in this matter, one suspects there were members of the congregation who found Gannetts generally conservative views a relief after his great predecessor died in 1842.
Another variant of clerical moral leadership is illustrated by John Gorham Palfrey. Palfrey had spent twelve years as minister to the Church in Brattle Square and five years as dean of Harvard Divinity School when he decided to try his hand at journalism by becoming editor and owner of the North American Review in 1835. Eventually he resigned the deanship (1839) and resolved to follow the example of Edward Everett by entering politics. During 1842 and 43 he served annual terms in the Massachusetts General Court (legislature), where he supported the educational reforms of Horace Mann. Palfrey went on to become secretary of state for the Commonwealth, and in 1846 was elected to Congress. There he quickly established himself as an opponent of Everetts moderation and a member of a small band of determined and resourceful “conscience” Whigs. Palfreys credentials as an advocate of freedom were the more impressive for his having manumitted, when he could ill afford it financially, twenty slaves he inherited, whom he brought north and helped to find jobs.25 His political activity did not prevent this versatile man from establishing reputations as a biblical scholar and a historian of colonial New England. It was a fitting compliment when, in 1865, the American Unitarian Association elected Palfrey its president.
The application of moral concern to the world through reform was not the only important set of religious problems with which Unitarians grappled during the eventful thirty years before 1865. The other was, in a way, even more fundamental; it dealt with the very question of what religion is all about. The matter at issue was this: should religionspecifically, liberal religionbe ultimately rational? The conventional Unitarian answer had been an emphatic “Yes.” Then a “New School” of religious liberals called Transcendentalists began to insist otherwise. Religion, they proclaimed, was properly a matter of intuition, emotion, and faith. In the highly sensitive and articulate Unitarian community of the 1830s and 40s, this dispute attracted wider attention than we today can readily imagine. Passions ran high, and for a time the split threatened to become permanent. Though some Transcendentalists left the Unitarian churches, schism was ultimately avoided and Unitarians of the present look back upon both parties to the debate as predecessors. The lasting importance of the Transcendentalist controversy lies in the clarity with which two sides of a major philosophical problem were presented. The controversy was no “tempest in a Boston teacup” (as it has been condescendingly termed),26 but one of the memorable debates in the history of religious thought.
Transcendentalism was not a “mass” movement, but it made up in quality what it lacked in quantity. The Transcendentalists include some of the greatest names in American literary and intellectual history: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Theodore Parker, George Bancroft, and Margaret Fuller among them. All the Transcendentalists except James Marsh of Vermont emerged from a Unitarian context. Of the twenty-six members of the “Transcendental Club” (the closest thing to comprehensive institutionalization this highly individualistic group achieved), seventeen were Unitarian ministers.27 The principal though not the only center of the “New School” was Concord, Massachusetts. How the Transcendentalists viewed their cause is best described by Emerson: “There are always two parties, the party of the Past and the party of the Future; the Establishment and the Movement.” The Transcendentalists considered themselves “the Movement” of the 1830s, invoking what they called “a new consciousness.”28 To a number of bright young people educated since Channings Baltimore Sermon of 1819, that formulation of Unitarianism no longer seemed liberal enough. While they always honored Channings own open-mindedness, the Transcendentalists worried lest his views settle into a new Unitarian orthodoxy in the hands of his successors.
Defining the beliefs common to the Transcendentalists that distinguished them from more conservative (or less radical) Unitarians is difficult. Such a definition is precisely the sort of enterprise the Transcendentalists deplored, for they hated codifications. Indeed, their desire to “transcend” just this kind of thinking gave them their name. The Transcendentalists were essentially pantheists, people who saw and felt God everywherein all creation and especially in themselves. They read considerably in Hindu mysticism, which attracted them because of its insistence on the immanence of divinity in the universe. Material things they were inclined to treat as symbols of divine things. Christopher Cranch, Unitarian-minister-turned-Transcendental-poet, wrote: “Every object that speaks to the senses was meant for the spirit. Nature is but a scroll, God’s hand-writing thereon.”29 Even more than Oriental seers, European romantics like Goethe, Coleridge, and Carlyle stimulated American Transcendentalism. The Transcendentalists admired not only the romantics love of nature but also their glorification of passion. Ever since the time of Chauncy, New England religious liberals had insisted that the emotions ought to be guided by the intellect; now Emerson complained this had left the standard Unitarianism of his day “corpse-cold.”30 Emerson had a gift for pithy remarks, and his characterization, while not altogether accurate, has haunted Unitarians ever since.
In many ways Transcendentalism was a logical outgrowth of Unitarianism. An insistence on human freedom and dignity that had been maintained against Calvinism led quite naturally to an exultation in spontaneity and self-expression. The Unitarian emphasis on literature rather than on dogmatic theology as a medium for expressing religious concerns obviously prepared the way for the amazing “flowering” of Transcendental writings that suddenly burst forth in 1836 and the years following. The liberals jealously guarded right of private judgment in matters religious culminated in Transcendental faith in personal communion with the divine spirit. Yet for all the continuities between Transcendentalism and the Unitarianism that preceded it, the differences were also real. There is a distinction between rejoicing in mankinds “likeness to God,” as Channing did, and declaring, as Emerson did, “I am part or parcel of God.”31
We may recognize in the Transcendentalist controversy something of a generational conflict, in which those who had won the struggles of liberalism in their day found themselves suddenly confronted by sons and daughters for whom this liberalism was inadequate and outmoded. The Transcendentalists disparaged not only the religion of conventional Unitarians but also their lifestyle. The bourgeois, commercial values of cities like Boston and New York seemed tame and restrictive to them. One profound interpreter of the Transcendentalist controversy (the late Perry Miller) proposed that the “New School” could actually be viewed as a rebirth of old-time Puritan piety and zeal, struggling against the bonds of a Unitarianism grown stale and complacent.32 It is probably true that some youthful intellectuals of New England in the 1830s were rediscovering an emotional immediacy in their religious experience comparable to that of the Puritan Reformers or of evangelicals like Jonathan Edwards. For this reason, the appearance of Transcendentalism is appropriately conceived as a religious awakening, or a movement for “church reform.”33
Although there had been earlier rumblings, the opening shot in the Transcendentalist controversy was fired by Emerson in an address to the graduating class at Harvard Divinity School, July 15, 1838. Emerson, himself once a student at the Divinity School, had served as assistant to Henry Ware, Jr., in the Second Church in Boston and then succeeded him when Ware left to become a professor at Harvard. Emerson came to feel even the minimal ritual of Unitarian services irksome, and he particularly objected to the Lords Supper as an obsolete formality. “Most men find the bread and wine no aid to devotion, and to some it is a painful impediment.”34 Rather than continue to administer the rite, he had resigned in 1832. However, he continued to preach for several years on a substitute basis in neighboring parishes and was still addressed as “reverend” when the Divinity School invited him to speak. Emerson took advantage of the forum thus offered to give vent to frustrations that had long been building up inside him. Probably he was reacting against the dull sermons of the minister in Concord to whom he had had to listen recently, and, on a deeper level, against his father, the deceased William Emerson, minister of the First Church in Boston, whom the son had always undervalued.35 But Emersons audience was interested in the substance of his views, not in accounting for them psychologically.
Organized religion had degenerated into the custodian of a dead faith, Emerson charged, and he did not exempt Unitarianism from the indictment. Unitarianism was still relying upon the supernatural rationalism that had been a prominent feature of eighteenth-century liberal religion, the doctrine that Christs teachings had been authenticated by the miracles he performed. For Emerson this supernatural rationalism was a grotesque distortion of religion. “To aim to convert a man by miracles is a profanation of the soul. A true conversion, a true Christ, is now, as always, to be made by the reception of beautiful sentiments.”36 What the times needed was the spirit of poetic intuition that would give people direct access to the divine instead of the “second-hand” religion taught in the churches. God was perceived in the beauty of nature around us and in the moral law within ourselves. Defying the importance most Unitarians then accorded to Christian revelation, Emerson declared that scripture and accounts of ancient miracles were irrelevant. Instead of a historic faith in Christ, Emerson called upon his hearers to espouse a “faith like Christ’s in the infinitude of man.” Commune with nature and “dare to love God without mediator or veil,” he urged.37
While some younger listeners rejoiced in what Emerson had to say, most of their teachers were appalled. They felt Emerson had betrayed the spirit of the occasion by criticizing the basic premises of traditional Unitarianism within the very citadel of Unitarian theology. After the students returned in September, Henry Ware, Jr., wasted no time in delivering a sermon to them entitled “The Personality of the Deity.” While not mentioning Emerson by name, Ware was unmistakably referring to the latters recent address when he declared that God must not be equated with the universe he had created, nor with abstractions like “beauty” and “virtue.” Either God was a personality who took a personal interest in each of us, or else the whole of religion was a waste of time. Emersons position, divested of its lyrical rhetoric, came down to atheism, Ware concluded.38 Since the two men had been friends and colleagues for so long, Ware privately invited Emerson to issue a rebuttal or clarification, but Emerson demurred.39 He was in the process of making a new career as lecturer and poet, moving away from the ministry and denominational affairs. From then on the controversy would be carried on by others.
The two most active critics of Emersonianism were Francis Bowen and Andrews Norton. Scholars of formidable intellect and indefatigable energy, they were not inclined to pull punches in debate. Bowen was a universally learned man, but his principal distinctions lay in economics and philosophy. His contribution to the Transcendentalist controversy took the form of a series of articles in the Christian Examiner and the North American Review.40 Together, they constituted a thorough and lucid exposition of traditional theism, placed in a broad context of the history of philosophy. Bowen concluded that the Transcendentalists were giving the appearance of Christianity to views that were in actuality either mere nature-worship or tautologies devoid of content.
While Bowen was rejecting Emersonian pantheism, Andrews Norton assaulted the other half of Transcendentalism, the substitution of personal inspiration for revelation contained in the Bible. In 1838 Norton had published the first volume of his Evidences of the Genuineness of the Gospels. This ambitious work employed the recent methods of “higher criticism” developed in Germany to justify the four gospels as authentic. Massive as it was, the study was dismissed by its Transcendentalist reviewer, Orestes Brownson, as dealing with “a matter of comparative indifference.”41 Transcendentalists “have in themselves a witness for God,” and do not require either scripture or scriptural scholarship to confirm it. Nortons answer to this contention was delivered in an address to the alumni of Harvard Divinity School on July 19, 1839.
“The latest form of infidelity is distinguished by assuming the Christian name, while it strikes directly at the root of faith in Christianity, and indirectly of all religion, by denying the miracles attesting the divine mission of Christ,” he told his audience.42 The term “infidelity” implied that the “New School” was but another version of eighteenth-century deism, the denial of revealed religion. The miracles were essential to Norton because if they had really occurred, they provided solid evidence that Jesus Christ was what he claimed to be: the Son of God, a divinely appointed messenger whose teachings were true. It was not enough to look within ones own heart, or at the wonders of nature, to find religion; too many dangers of wishful thinking lay that way. “Religious principle and feeling, however important,” Norton insisted, “are necessarily founded on the belief of certain facts.”43 A true liberal in religion relied upon evidence for his convictions. What better evidence of special divine interposition could there be than the raising of the dead or the performance of other normally impossible feats?
The merit in Nortons position may not be easy to recognize today, because the “evidence” he invoked is no longer credible to most. But taken as a defense of empirical inquiry, his argument is admirable. Rational evidence should be the basis for belief or disbelief in any proposition, he was saying, and religious propositions are no different from others. To make up our minds on any issue in this case the truth of Christianity we must examine the evidence. Behind this assertion lay the full weight of Lockean philosophy, natural science, and the Enlightenment. Nortons research confirmed for him that the facts bore out the miracles, and the miracles bore out Unitarian Christianity. But this conclusion was less significant philosophically than his statement: “there is, then, no mode of establishing religious belief, but by the exercise of reason, by investigation.”44
The Transcendentalist party was not without its own learned expositors. Their response came quickly, in a pamphlet by George Ripley, minister of the Church in Purchase Street, Boston.45 A former student of Nortons, Ripley was almost as erudite (and almost as forbidding) as he.46 Ripley did not dispute whether Christ had walked on water, healed the sick, or come back from the dead; he was willing to affirm that these miracles occurred. Instead, Ripley attacked the philosophical foundation of Nortons position. Ripley maintained that one did not arrive at religious conviction by evaluating evidence. Instead, one made what would later be called an initial “leap of faith,” an inner response to the call of a divine power outside. Ripley did not mean that religious knowledge was not real, substantive knowledge, but that it was apprehended through a different faculty than was mundane data. Transcendentalists believed human powers of cognition included not only the “understanding,” through which secular information was assimilated, but also what they called the “reason,” by which they meant an intuitive power to discern divine things. Nortons process of weighing evidence applied only to things of the “understanding,” they claimed. If Nortons argument was that of the Enlightenment, Ripleys reply was that of the Romantic era.
Ripley’s perspective on religion had its advantages, though in the eyes of Norton it was irresponsible “mystagogy.”47 The trouble with relying upon miracles as evidence for religion is that few people credit miracles unless they first accept religion. People believe in the Christian miracles because they believe in the Gospels, Ripley observed, not the other way around. Faith, then, has priority in religion. Norton and Ripley each issued three long statements in the course of their debate, for they canvassed contemporary European writings to illustrate their points. The true nature of religion will perhaps always remain a subject of controversy, but some of the fundamental issues have never been drawn with greater precision on both sides than in this confrontation.48
Before the Transcendentalist controversy was over, it had become almost as bitter and personal as the Unitarian-Calvinist controversy that preceded it. The conservative Unitarians accused the “New School” of hiding dangerously anarchic and blasphemous implications in coptic utterances much as the orthodox had accused the early religious liberals of doing. The Transcendentalists accused their adversaries of snobbery. It was undemocratic to rely upon historical accounts, such as the miracle stories, for authentication of religion, they complained, because only a few scholars had the expertise necessary to evaluate such evidence. The egalitarian spirit of the age and the needs of ordinary churchmen required that religion be placed on a basis which all could know first-hand: the promptings of their own souls.49 To this the answer was that if religion contains a body of knowledge like other knowledge, there ought to be nothing objectionable in the existence of trained experts in it.50 Indeed, conventional Unitarian opinion had always maintained the necessity for proper training in morality as well as religion. In a significant private exchange, Channing told Theodore Parker the conscience needed educating, but the Transcendentalist minister objected, calling the moral faculty “infallible” in all people.51
It was Parker who provoked the next stage in the controversy. Despite his disparagement of the moral usefulness of education, Parker was a man of vast learning and still vaster energies. The eleventh child of a poor farmer, he had learned twenty languages and assimilated German “higher criticism” at first hand. He ministered to the Unitarian church in West Roxbury, then a small rural community. When the Hawes Place Church in South Boston invited him to preach for the ordination of their new minister (Charles C. Shackford) on May 19, 1841, Parker startled everyone by turning his sermon into a general proclamation of Transcendentalist principles. He entitled it “The Transient and Permanent in Christianity.”
The essence of Christianity is of “permanent” validity, Parker declared, but many aspects of the religion are merely “transient,” varying from age to age. Liberals had long employed such a doctrine of “progressive revelation” to explain passages in the Old Testament that seemed ethically primitive.52 But when Parker came to identify that which was transient in religion, he did not stop with early Jewish misapprehensions; he included all “creeds, confessions, and collections of doctrines.”53 More bothersome, Parker placed all the scriptures in the “transient” category. He pointed out that the biblical criticism Unitarians like Norton were promoting would inevitably undercut the authority of the New as well as the Old Testament, making both look less like timeless oracles and more like historical texts of limited applicability to the present. Most disturbing of all, Parker denied “permanent” status to the personal authority of Christ. He went so far as to declare that if “Jesus of Nazareth had never lived, still Christianity would stand firm.”54
What was the Christianity that could exist independently of Christ? For Parker it was pure morality, as known to the individual conscience, or what Transcendentalists termed “Reason.” Parkers sermon is at once iconoclastic and humble. “No doubt an age will come in which ours shall be reckoned a period of darkness — like the sixth century — when men groped for the wall but stumbled and fell, because they trusted a transient notion, not an eternal truth.” His doctrine is the ultimate logic of religious individualism. The most famous of these was Brook Farm in West Roxbury, organized by Ripley just before he left his parish. Many intellectuals of the day spent varying periods in this little utopia, immortalized by Nathaniel Hawthornes novel The Blithedale Romance. In 1844 Brook Farm adopted a socialistic plan devised by the Frenchman Charles Fourier, but the commune came to an end in 1847 after a fire had destroyed some of its newest facilities.55 The greatest of all Transcendental experiments in perfecting the individual, however, was the one-man utopia of Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond outside Concord.
Transcendental efforts to remake society were regarded at the time as radical. Orestes Brownson, an eccentric and impetuous man ordained successively to the Universalist and Unitarian ministries, founded the Boston Quarterly Review in 1838. Through this organ he proclaimed Transcendental religious principles combined with working-class political agitation until 1844, when he suddenly abandoned both for proslavery conservatism and the Roman Catholic Church.56 A more persistent radical was Margaret Fuller, editor of The Dial from 1840 to 1844. This Transcendentalist periodical had a circulation of three hundred or less, and contemporaries dismissed it as representing a lunatic fringe; today it is more highly regarded than any other American magazine of its era. A child prodigy who became in adulthood one of Americas leading feminists, Margaret Fuller was accepted only in the most avant-garde circles. (The Transcendental Club included five women.) She was generally regarded as aggressive a trait considered ludicrously inappropriate in a woman. Her most influential book, Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845), manifested her quest for a more positive feminine identity. While in Italy reporting on the revolution of Mazzini, she fell in love with young Giovanni Ossoli and bore him a child before their marriage, scandalizing her countrymen. In 1850 all three Ossolis were drowned in a shipwreck.57
Having cast aside most institutions and conventions, the Transcendentalists were more unreservedly antislavery than most other Unitarians. Parker was in the forefront of militant abolitionism, a confidant of Sumner and other antislavery politicians. It is more than coincidental that Ezra Stiles Gannett, one of the most conservative Unitarian ministers on the slavery issue, took a major part in mobilizing opposition to Parker’s theology.58 Transcendentalists placed moral intuition above written law, as they placed religious intuition above written scripture. Parker helped fugitive slaves to freedom and conspired with John Brown regarding his raid.
Unlike William Lloyd Garrison (who joined his Twenty-Eighth Congregational Society), Parker felt no scruples about employing violence in a just cause. Among those associated with Parker in civil disobedience was Thomas . . . . his added to their resentment.59 Parker posed a more difficult problem for the clerical conservatives than Emerson (or Ripley, who resigned his pastorate in 1841) because he would not leave the ministry. Refusal to exchange pulpits was a weapon the orthodox had earlier used against liberals, and Parker reminded the Boston Association of Ministers that “some of you are pursuing the same course you once complained of.”60 Yet they persisted in their course. “No principle of liberality or charity can require any one to aid in the diffusion of what he accounts error, especially if he thinks it pernicious error,” Ezra Stiles Gannett correctly observed.61 To acknowledge the conservatives right to oppose Parker should not, of course, detract from the recognition of his courage in the face of their opposition.
At the time the American Unitarian Association had been formed, religious liberals had taken for granted a dual commitment to freedom of inquiry and Christian revelation. But in 1853, annoyed that Parkers Transcendental ideas were continuing to attract some younger ministers, the Executive Committee of the A.U.A. issued a “declaration of opinion” emphasizing revelation at the expense of freedom. “The divine authority of the Gospel, as founded on a special and miraculous interposition of God for the redemption of mankind, is the basis of the action of this Association,” it read. The declaration blamed the slow growth of Unitarianism on the Transcendentalists and the “odium” they were bringing upon liberals.62 While there was no way to enforce conformity to its precepts, this statement must stand as the closest American Unitarians have ever come to creed-making. Though the Unitarian denomination has honored him since his death, in his lifetime Parker and his views were repudiated by organized Unitarianism. As he lay dying in Italy in 1859–60, prematurely exhausted from his labors, the alumni of the Harvard Divinity School refused to adopt a resolution of sympathy for him.63
Transcendentalist efforts to put their principles into practice sometimes compounded their difficulties with other Unitarians. The Transcendentalists applied their principles in two different, one might say opposite, directions. One route lay in perfecting the individual, drawing out his authentic self and placing him in harmony with nature. The other lay in perfecting society at large, so as to make it more conducive to the self-realization of its members. Several notable Transcendentalists conducted experiments of the first sort. Bronson Alcotts Temple School, founded in Boston in 1834, pioneered what would later be called progressive education. If spiritual awareness was intuitive and innate, as Transcendentalists insisted, it must be manifested in children. Accordingly, there was no corporal punishment at Temple School, and children were encouraged to express themselves, even on controversial subjects. After only three years, Alcotts school collapsed when parents discovered he was mentioning (in ways that seem mild and abstract today) sex in the classroom.64 Other Transcendental enterprises included communities that attempted to develop alternative life-styles where the individual could commune with God through nature. The most famous of these was Brook Farm in West Roxbury, organized by Ripley just before he left his parish. Many intellectuals of the day spent varying periods in this little utopia, immortalized by Nathaniel Hawthornes novel The Blithedale Romance. In 1844 Brook Farm adopted a socialistic plan devised by the Frenchman Charles Fourier, but the commune came to an end in 1847 after a fire had destroyed some of its newest facilities.65 The greatest of all Transcendental experiments in perfecting the individual, however, was the one-man utopia of Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond outside Concord.
Transcendental efforts to remake society were regarded at the time as radical. Orestes Brownson, an eccentric and impetuous man ordained successively to the Universalist and Unitarian ministries, founded the Boston Quarterly Review in 1838. Through this organ he proclaimed Transcendental religious principles combined with working-class political agitation until 1844, when he suddenly abandoned both for proslavery conservatism and the Roman Catholic Church.66 A more persistent radical was Margaret Fuller, editor of The Dial from 1840 to 1844. This Transcendentalist periodical had a circulation of three hundred or less, and contemporaries dismissed it as representing a lunatic fringe; today it is more highly regarded than any other American magazine of its era. A child prodigy who became in adulthood one of Americas leading feminists, Margaret Fuller was accepted only in the most avant-garde circles. (The Transcendental Club included five women.) She was generally regarded as aggressive a trait considered ludicrously inappropriate in a woman. Her most influential book, Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845), manifested her quest for a more positive feminine identity. While in Italy reporting on the revolution of Mazzini, she fell in love with young Giovanni Ossoli and bore him a child before their marriage, scandalizing her countrymen. In 1850 all three Ossolis were drowned in a shipwreck.67
Having cast aside most institutions and conventions, the Transcendentalists were more unreservedly antislavery than most other Unitarians. Parker was in the forefront of militant abolitionism, a confidant of Sumner and other antislavery politicians. It is more than coincidental that Ezra Stiles Gannett, one of the most conservative Unitarian ministers on the slavery issue, took a major part in mobilizing opposition to Parkers theology. Transcendentalists placed moral intuition above written law, as they placed religious intuition above written scripture. Parker helped fugitive slaves to freedom and conspired with John Brown regarding his raid.
Unlike William Lloyd Garrison (who joined his Twenty-Eighth Congregational Society), Parker felt no scruples about employing violence in a just cause. Among those associated with Parker in civil disobedience was Thomas Wentworth Higginson. After a ministry to the First Religious Society of Newburyport (1847–50), this Transcendental activist found a congregation more in tune with his religious and political views at the Free Church in Worcester, Massachusetts (1852–58). There he openly boasted of harboring fugitive slaves: “Let the Underground Railroad stop here!” he cried. “Henceforth Worcester is Canada to the slave!”68 Higginson and Parker played prominent roles in the unsuccessful attempt to rescue Anthony Burns, but the ensuing prosecution of them was unsuccessful. During the Civil War Higginson became celebrated as one of the white officers who commanded black troops in the Union army. Both Parker and Higginson combined their abolitionism with resolute support for the cause of womens rights.
The spectacle of Unitarians bitterly disagreeing with each other during the Transcendentalist controversy gave aid and comfort to orthodox churchmen who had never wished the liberal community well. This, plus the strong ties of fellowship and consanguinity among Unitarians, explains why a significant number of clergymen sought to mediate between the two sides to the controversy. Channing managed to stay on good personal terms with most of the Transcendentalists until his death in 1842, though his firm adherence to the views of Norton and Ware keenly disappointed them. James Walker, editor of the Christian Examiner and later president of Harvard, tried to play a conciliatory role, as did Convers Francis, professor in the Divinity School. Among the most noteworthy of the moderates was Frederic Henry Hedge, pastor of churches in Bangor, Maine (1835–50), and Providence, Rhode Island (1850–56). A deeply learned and sensitive man, his concerns went beyond mere ecclesiastical faction-balancing. He forged a Unitarian theology that blended traditional Protestant and contemporary Transcendental elements in ways analogous to the Christian romanticism of Coleridge.69 The strength of his faith is indicated in his familiar translation of Luthers hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”
In the long run Transcendentalism, or at least the memory of it, was destined to be reabsorbed within Unitarianism. This rapprochement owes more to James Freeman Clarke than to any other single person. Clarke had been reared by his fathers stepfather, James Freeman of Kings Chapel; he was also a distant cousin and close platonic friend of Margaret Fuller. These relationships illustrate the intimacy he preserved with both traditional and Transcendental Unitarians all his life. During the 1830s Clarke headed a new Unitarian church in Louisville, Kentucky, edited a Transcendental magazine called the Western Messenger, and supported Ripley in the debate with Norton. In 1841 he established the Church of the Disciples in Boston, which served as an example of possible reconciliation between Transcendentalism and something like conventional Unitarian parish life. Like Hedge, Clarke found the terminology of traditional Christianity a congenial mode of expression. Though he exchanged with Parker and was energetically antislavery, Clarke served on the Executive Committee of the A.U.A., becoming its secretary in 1859.70
As Clarkes service in Kentucky attests, there were occasional efforts throughout the middle third of the nineteenth century to turn Unitarianism into a truly national, rather than local, movement. Unitarian churches began to appear outside New England as colonies of migrating New Englanders undertook to maintain familiar ties. The Unitarians of New York City, who included such prominent figures as Bryant, Dewey, the merchant-philanthropist Moses Grinnell, and Henry W. Bellows, minister of the First Church (after 1855 called All Souls), became especially important in broadening the geographical perspectives of the liberal community.71 Unitarianism also extended into upstate New York: President Fillmore and his wife belonged to the congregation in Buffalo; Samuel J. May combined a conventional Unitarian pastorate at Syracuse with some of the most effective abolitionist and womens rights agitation conducted anywhere. The growth of Unitarianism in the southern states, however, was inhibited by its antislavery tendencies and general reputation for innovation. Despite the faithful labors of Samuel Gilman in Charleston, South Carolina, Unitarianism endured but a precarious existence in a few commercial centers below the Mason-Dixon line.72
Wherever Unitarian churches sprang up, they generally served a constituency that was urban, prosperous, and well educated. It inevitably took a while before such constituencies appeared on the western frontier, and Harvard Divinity School graduates were often reluctant to leave familiar surroundings to take up ministries there. For some years most of the effort to propagate liberal religion in the trans-Allegheny West was undertaken not by Unitarians but by two other small denominations, the Universalists and the Christian Connection. But in 1844 Unitarians established a theological seminary at Meadville, Pennsylvania, under the patronage of James Freeman Clarkes father-in-law, a wealthy Dutch-American immigrant named Harm Jan Huidekoper. From the beginning Meadville graduates took an interest in missionary work, and a Western Unitarian Conference was organized in 1852. The same year the Christian Connection founded Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Horace Mann became its first president, and in 1865 the young college was turned over to the Unitarians.
The greatest of Unitarian emissaries in the West was Thomas Starr King. Originally a Universalist clergyman, he accepted a call from the Hollis Street Unitarian Church, Boston, in 1848. King had a reputation for wit; he apparently originated the oft repeated distinction between Universalists and Unitarians: “the one thinks God is too good to damn them forever, the other thinks they are too good to be damned forever.”73 A successful lecturer as well as preacher, King was second only to Parker as a popular pulpit orator. He enjoyed good relations with both conservative and Transcendental Unitarians. In 186o King left New England to lead the new Unitarian congregation in San Francisco. There he played an important role in binding California to the cause of the Union during the crucial opening months of the Civil War and in promoting the work of the Sanitary Commission (the medical supply agency for the northern army).
The Civil War proved an important turning point in Unitarian history. Transcendentalist haters of slavery like Higginson and conservative Union-lovers like Dewey found themselves together supporting the new Republican party and the northern war effort. At James Freeman Clarkes suggestion, the author and feminist Julia Ward Howe (wife of Samuel) wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”74 Out of the stirring experiences of the war came increased appreciation for the virtues of discipline and unity. Henry W. Bellows of New York, long a convinced believer in what he called “the doctrine of institutions,”75 took advantage of this mood to press for stronger organizational ties among Unitarians. His efforts came to fruition in 1865, when the National Conference of Unitarian Churches was established, and Unitarianism in the United States took on structured denominational form for the first time.
With this development a new chapter in the history of Unitarianism began. Unitarians of the era before 1865 had placed their trust not in such a national institution but primarily in the force of their ideas and example. They lavished their considerable organizational talents upon philanthropic and cultural enterprises, but not upon their sect. “Our object is not to convert men to our party, but to our principles,” they had declared.76 Emphasis upon matters of principle had led Unitarians into social, philosophical, and political controversy, it had even produced internal strife among them. Perhaps men like Bellows were right in feeling that preoccupation with ideology and its implementation had hampered denominational expansion. But if the Unitarians of the middle third of the nineteenth century had neglected ecclesiastical empire-building, they had contributed enormously where they had made their efforts: in the realm of social, literary, and religious ideas.