The Beginnings of Unitarianism in America, 17501805


    Thus far we have followed the story of the Unitarian movement on the Continent from its organized beginnings about 1565, and in England from the gathering of the first avowedly Unitarian church in 1774.  The movement in America, however, did not begin to take a form distinct from orthodoxy until something like two centuries and a half after the first antitrinitarian churches were organized in Poland and Transylvania, and not until well over forty years after Lindsey began to preach in London.  It would be natural to expect, therefore, that American Unitarianism would as a matter of course prove to be simply an outgrowth of these earlier movements across the Atlantic; yet this does not appear to have been the case.

    It is true that two Polish Socinians are said to have been among the earliest immigrants from England to the new colony of Georgia;1 but no trace has been discovered of them or of their influence there.  In fact, the only American church in which anything like direct Socinian influence may have been felt is one organized in 1803 on the frontier of the wilderness in central New York2 by two liberal exiles from Holland— a church which later on adhered to the Unitarian movement.  No Socinian books were in the libraries of Harvard or Yale before the nineteenth century, and there is almost no evidence that such books reached America at all until the Unitarian movement had become well launched here.

    Nor, close as was the connection between the mother country and the colonies, was American Unitarianism to any large extent an importation of that in England.  Though the Episcopal King's Chapel in Boston had followed Lindsey's example in revising its Prayer Book in 1785, and though Priestley soon after his arrival in America had organized two Unitarian churches of the English sort in Pennsylvania, yet the liberal American churches shrank from going as far as these had gone, and were little influenced by them.  Only one English antitrinitarian work was reprinted in America in the eighteenth century, and that was the only mildly Arian Humble Inquiry by Emlyn.  Few if any English Unitarian books were in the Harvard library before 1800, and the works of Priestley and Lindsey were as yet read only by the most daring; for, as we shall see, few of the New England clergy had any sympathy with their views.  The roots of American Unitarianism go much further back into English religious history; so that the English and the American movement are related to each other not as mother and daughter, but as aunt and niece, since both trace descent from a common English ancestry early in the eighteenth century.  This, however, is not to deny that the aunt had some influence in finally shaping the character of the niece.

    The Unitarian movement in America, then, was largely native to American soil; and as the Socinianism of Poland and the Unitarianism of Transylvania sprang up in the Reformed churches, and as English Unitarianism first developed mainly in the Presbyterian churches, so in New England it was in the Congregational churches that American Unitarianism first arose.  Indeed, many of the older Unitarian churches of Massachusetts still retain their original Congregational name.

    These New England churches had had a twofold origin.  The Pilgrim church at Plymouth and its neighbors in that colony were Separatists.3  Their earliest members had sojourned in Holland when Socinianism was just coming to make some impression there, and they must have imbibed some of the Dutch spirit of religious toleration; and while they would doubtless have opposed Socinian doctrines with heart and soul, yet from their first settlement in 1620 they showed a tolerant spirit which made progress easy when the time should be ripe.  The churches of Boston, Salem, and the Massachusetts Bay Colony in general, on the other hand, were founded by Puritans of the period when the Puritan party still remained within the Church of England.  Yet the great distance from the mother country practically forced these churches too to enter a separate existence almost from the start, and thus the churches of both colonies were Congregational by 1629.

    The belief of these churches, was Calvinism of the strictest sort, and it was long before the slightest tendency toward Unitarian views could have been detected.  For many years only church members had the right to vote, and heresy laws, aimed, however, at Catholics and Episcopalians, Baptists and Quakers, existed until the time of the American Revolution.4  In fact, universal belief in the doctrines of the Westminster Confession was so much taken for granted that it was not demanded even upon joining the church, and members were usually admitted upon assenting to a simple, undogmatic covenant, or promise to lead a Christian life.  The covenant of the church at Salem, the first Congregational church to be formed in America, may serve as an example: We covenant with the Lord, and one with another, and do bind ourselves in the presence of God, to walk together in all his ways, according as he is pleased to reveal himself unto us in his blessed word of truth. The result was that when the old beliefs gradually fell away, it was not necessary for the churches to make any change.  The same covenant could still be used as before, and in some of the churches it is used to this day; while in many of them the change was so gradual that it is impossible to say just when they ceased to be orthodox and became Unitarian.  It was not until heresies became a source of real danger that creeds were imposed upon members, in order to keep the churches pure in doctrine.

    Strict in belief as the churches had been, they were not able long to keep their first intensity of faith.  Within a generation beliefs began to grow lax, as some of the early liberal books from England were received and read, and as people compared the teachings of Calvin with those of the Bible.  Thus in 1650 William Pynchon, one of the founders of Springfield, published a little book protesting against Calvins doctrine of the atonement.  The General Court was scandalized, and ordered that the book be burned in the market place at Boston, and that a refutation be published by one of the ministers.  Pynchon was called to account and, though he may have escaped the heavy fine imposed, he soon afterwards thought it safer to return to England.  A little later it was complained that there were Arminians and Arians in the colony.  Calvinism was beginning to break down.

    It was not until the eighteenth century, however, that the matter began to look serious.  Echoes of the controversies in the Church of England5 over the doctrine of the Trinity were reaching Massachusetts, and the works of Sherlock and South, Whiston and Clarke, Tillotson and Emlyn found many readers, and influenced not a few.   The Arian controversy at Exeter and in Ireland6 was also heard of with solemn apprehension.  Cotton Mather, leader of the Puritan clergy, lamented that Whiston and Clarke were being so much read; and the North Church at Boston took measures to guard its pulpit from Arminians, Arians, and Socinians.  Two of the clergy were suspected, and charged with being unsound on the Trinity or the atonement.  Graduates at Harvard proposed to prove that the Trinity is not taught in the Old Testament, and appeared to have the sympathy of the faculty.  English Arians were in correspondence with the Massachusetts clergy, and their books and views kept slowly spreading.  Sermons of the time were often in defense of the Trinity, the deity of Christ, or the doctrines of Calvin, which were considered in danger.  “Arminianism was found to be in the air — a vague term, applied to any manner of departure from strict Calvinism; and before 1750 over thirty ministers were known as having become unsound in the faith.

    A little before the middle of the eighteenth century occurred a religious movement which caused the beginning of a split in the churches.  The Great Awakening, one of the most remarkable revivals of religion in Christian history, began in western Massachusetts under the preaching of the Rev. Jonathan Edwards, who must still be reckoned as perhaps the greatest theologian America has produced, although later generations have insisted on remembering him chiefly for the lurid way in which he preached the terrible fate of sinners in the bands of an angry God. The revival spread far and wide, continued for several years, and excited attention even in England.   The consequence was that in 1740 the Rev. George Whitefield, a young English revivalist of the most extraordinary eloquence, was invited to come to New England to preach.  Everywhere he went he preached to crowds too great for the churches to hold them, and on Boston Common, it was estimated, to more than 20,000 at one time.  Together with all the good that resulted from it (from 25,000 to 40,000 were said to have been converted), the revival was marked by great emotional excitement, intense fanaticism, narrow bigotry, and extreme Calvinism.  These things became worse under preachers who followed Whitefield.  People of education and refinement were scandalized, and many of the leading clergy felt bound to oppose the revivalists and their methods.  It was no wonder, for Whitefield had spoken of the New England clergy as dumb dogs, half devils and half beasts, spiritually blind, and leading people to hell.  He so bitterly attacked Harvard and Yale Colleges for their growing liberality, that when he made a second visit four years later they opposed him as uncharitable, censorious, a slanderer, deluder, and dreamer, and did not invite him to preach before them again.  The pulpits of many churches also were closed to him, and for this he bitterly criticized their ministers.

    This reaction from the Great Awakening cost Edwards his pulpit; while many independent thinkers in pulpit and in pew set their faces against the strict Calvinism which he and Whitefield had sought to revive.  There was as yet no controversy about the Trinity, but the orthodox doctrine of the atonement was increasingly criticized, “Armininianism” was on the increase and there was a growing demand for more simplicity, reason, and tolerance in religious beliefs.  The works of the English liberals, both Anglican and Presbyterian, were widely read and in good repute; and though to counteract their influence Edwards wrote two of his most powerful works, he could not stem the tide that kept steadily undermining Calvinism.  In 1756 an anonymous “Layman” at Boston had Emlyn’s Humble Inquiry reprinted, and challenged any one to disprove its Arian teachings from the Scriptures if he could.  It was the first antitrinitarian book published in America.  In the following year liberals in New Hampshire went so far as to revise their catechism and soften down its Calvinism.  From now on until the Revolutionary War the doctrine of the Trinity was more and more called in question.  Of course there was as yet no Unitarianism in America, or hardly even in England; but Arian views were becoming fairly common.  As early as 1758 the Rev. John Rogers of Leominster was dismissed from his pulpit for disbelieving in the divinity of Christ, and several replies to Emlyn’s book had been sent forth.  Ten years later orthodox ministers were complaining that the divinity of Christ was even being laughed at as antiquated and unfashionable, and was neglected or disbelieved by a number of the Boston ministers, and that the heresy was rapidly spreading.

    Out of this ferment of religious thought before the Revolution four names rise above others as leaders in our movement— Arians, not Unitarians, yet rightly to be regarded as the advance heralds of the Unitarian movement, and hence deserving especially to be remembered.  First of these is Dr. Charles Chauncy, minister of the First Church, Boston, for sixty years, 1727–1787.  As a patriot he was ardent for the cause of the colonies, and as a minister he had led the opposition to Whitefield and his revivalism. His favorite authors were the English liberals, he corresponded with English Arians, and he was one of the first in America to preach against the doctrine of eternal punishment.  A bolder thinker and writer was Dr. Jonathan Mayhew, minister of the West Church, Boston, from 1747 to 1766, for his outspoken stand against all oppression called “the father of civil and religious liberty in Massachusetts and America.”  Even at the beginning of his ministry he was known for so much of a heretic that the Boston ministers would not assist in ordaining him, and they never admitted him to their Association.  He went his way little heeding, corresponded with English Arians and read their books, with pungent phrases held up the doctrines of Calvinism to scorn, expressed his doctrinal views without disguise or timidity, opposed the use of creeds on principle, preached against the Trinity in 1753, and two years later urged in print the strict unity of God.  As he was the first preacher in America to come out squarely in speech and in print against the doctrine of the Trinity, and as his people heartily supported him, and as all his successors in the pulpit held similar views, it may fairly be said that the West Church was the earliest church in America to abandon Trinitarianism.

    Another minister who during his unparalleled pastorate of almost seventy years at Hingham had great influence in spreading liberal views in a quiet way was Dr. Ebenezer Gay.  Although he did not come out boldly like Mayhew, who had studied under him and been influenced by his intimate friendship, he strongly opposed the use of creeds, and is said to have ceased to believe in the Trinity by soon after the middle of the century.  The same is said of his neighbor, the Rev. Lemuel Briant of North Braintree (now Quincy).  Briant had graduated from Harvard at seventeen, was a bold and fearless thinker, expressed himself with vigor, and was an intimate friend of Mayhew.  While yet in his twenties he preached against Calvin’s doctrine a sermon of great boldness, which made him a marked man, and brought upon him many attacks.  He was charged with being not only Arminian but Socinian, and his opponents had a council of churches called to consider the complaints against him; the final result of which was that his church, after investigating the case for themselves, supported him strongly.  This was in 1753, and is the first clear case of a church formally taking the liberal position.  Though the doctrine of the Trinity was not involved in this action, the church at Quincy ever afterwards remained on the liberal side.

    Though the conservatives regarded them with grave apprehension, the liberal views of these and other ministers were well known, and no particular attempt was made to conceal them.  They were simply the progressives in the Congregational Church, in which there was as yet not the remotest thought of a division, though liberal views were progressing rapidly and spreading far.  The American Revolution for a time checked the progress of the movement by diverting men’s thoughts from question of theology to those of patriotism, though even then, with orthodox vigilance against heresy for a time relaxed, influence came from an unexpected quarter.  For Priestley and Price,7 the latter a strong Arian, and the former by now a decided Unitarian, were outspoken in behalf of the colonies, and so to a less marked degree were Lindsey and many of the liberal English Dissenters;8 and along with their political writings their religious works were brought over from England, and were the more attentively read as being the words of friends of America.  Although they went too far for most of the New England liberals, on a few of them they produced a lasting impression; and thus they advanced the outposts of the liberal movement yet further.

    Thus far, as we have noted, none of the Congregational ministers or churches was Unitarian, or would have been at all willing to go further than Arianism.  Hence it happened that the first American church to take a distinct position and make its belief and form of worship positively Unitarian was not Congregational but Episcopal.  King’s Chapel, Boston, established in 1686 as the first Episcopal church in New England, found itself at the end of the Revolution without a minister, or any hope of securing one from England.  It therefore invited a young layman, James Freeman, in 1783 to conduct its worship, and to preach when inclined.  The views of Samuel Clarke9 were widespread in America, and the Athanasian Creed had never been popular here, so that from the start Freeman was given leave to omit it.  It was at about this time that an Episcopal clergyman of Salem, when asked why he still read the Creed if he did not believe it, replied, “I read it as if I did not believe it.”  Indeed, when the American Episcopal Church came to organize after the Revolution, it was at first proposed thoroughly to revise the Prayer Book, omitting among other things both the Nicene and the Athanasian Creeds; and there was for a time a prospect that this would become the liberal Church of America.10

    It was not long before Freeman began to feel uneasy about other parts of the liturgy, especially those relating to the Trinity.  He reported his difficulties to his people, and proposed to resign.  They asked him rather to preach a series of sermons on the subject, and the result of his doing so was that most of them accepted his views.  An English Unitarian minister, William Hazlitt, who was at that time visiting Boston, gave him much light, and showed him a copy of Lindsey’s revised Prayer Book; and not long afterwards the proprietors of the Chapel voted to follow Lindsey’s example, and omitted from their liturgy all references to the Trinity, and all prayers to Christ.11  Thus in 1785 King’s Chapel, though it did not become Unitarian in name, became in fact a Unitarian church nearly a generation before other liberal churches in New England would own that name or adopt really Unitarian views.  Freeman had not meant to withdraw from the Episcopal Church, a considerable number of whose clergy sympathized with him; but he could now find no bishop willing to seem to approve his course by ordaining him, and hence he had to be ordained as a minister by his own congregation in 1787.  Upon this, other Episcopal clergymen in New England went as far as they were able toward excommunicating him, and thus his relations with their church came to an end.  He later had an active correspondence with Priestley, Lindsey, and Belsham, and circulated their works; but though some of the more liberal ministers sympathized with him, he had little immediate effect upon the liberal movement in the Congregational churches.

    At almost the same time a clear movement toward Unitarian views was taking place at Salem.  This town was largely devoted to commerce with India, and most of the men in the three oldest parishes were connected with the foreign trade.  Their contact with high-minded men in the Orient made them disbelieve Calvin’s doctrine that human nature apart from Christ is totally depraved, and thus they were prepared for more liberal teaching.  In this direction they readily followed the lead of their ministers.  Of these, the Rev. John Prince of the First Church, like Priestley much given to scientific experiments, read and circulated English Unitarian books.  Like him, Dr. Thomas Barnard of the North Church avoided controverted doctrines in his pulpit; but when one of his orthodox parishioners observing this said to him, “Dr. Barnard, I never heard you preach a sermon on the Trinity,” he promptly replied, “No; and you never will.”  The Rev. William Bentley (Freeman’s college classmate) of the East Church was more outspoken.  From the beginning of his ministry in 1783 he sympathized with the views of Priestley and other English Unitarians, and he openly preached them in 1791, earlier than any one else in New England except Freeman; and his church was practically Unitarian almost as early as King’s Chapel.  The influence of English Unitarianism was also felt in Maine.  In 1792 the rector of the Episcopal Church at Portland, having become convinced by the writings of Priestley and Lindsey, sought to reform its liturgy as Freeman had done; and when influential persons opposed this, the majority of the congregation withdrew with their rector and formed a separate Unitarian church, which continued for several years, as did a similar movement at Saco.

    At Boston the movement proceeded more slowly.  While the ministers there had generally given up much of their Calvinism, they liked the teaching of Priestley perhaps even less; for they were not Unitarians, as the term was then understood, but Arians, since they still looked upon Christ as a divine being far above man, inspired of God, sinless, and an object of religious faith.  However, the doctrines of the Trinity and the deity of Christ were being called in question more and more.  The trinitarian doxology was falling out of use.  Emlyn’s book was again reprinted, and made new converts.  Dr. Belknap of the Federal Street Church issued in 1795 a hymnbook which omitted all trinitarian hymns.  Confessions of faith, and doctrinal examinations of ministers at their ordination, began to be opposed and disused.  There was no religious controversy, for the liberals would not allow themselves to be drawn into one, and they themselves avoided preaching on disputed points; yet by the end of the century only one minister at Boston, only two in Plymouth County, and only three in eight of those east of Worcester remained trinitarian; while at Harvard College all the talented young men were said to be Unitarians, and orthodox views were said to be generally ridiculed.  It began to look as though Massachusetts Congregationalism were to become a simple, undogmatic form of faith, which laid little stress upon creeds, and left each person free to be as liberal as be pleased, while all together strove to cultivate reverent, positive Christian character.

    The conservatives, however, were not willing to have it rest thus, but wished to lay strong emphasis upon the doctrines which their fathers had held.  Even before the Revolution warning voices had begun to be raised against departing from the old faith, and from about 1790 they had grown more frequent.  A new revival of Calvinism broke out, like a belated echo of the Great Awakening, and with much the same sort of result.  For its fresh insistence upon the Trinity and the deity of Christ only made many realize how far they had departed from these doctrines, as the former revival had made them realize how far they had departed from the sterner doctrines of Calvin.  The liberal cause now gained strength faster than ever before, and feeling fresh assurance the liberals began to reprint more English books to spread liberal views, to print new ones of their own, and to introduce hymnbooks without the familiar trinitarian hymns and doxologies.  In another quarter also the early Universalist were attacking the doctrine of eternal punishment, and their leader, the Rev. Hosea Ballou, published in 1805 a Treatise on the Atonement which was (unless we except the brief reference in Mayhew’s book12) the first by an American writer to deny the doctrine of the Trinity.  Liberal views of Christianity seemed everywhere to be in the air.

    The movement also spread into Connecticut, although here it was soon checked because the churches there, unlike those in Massachusetts, were organized into “consociations,” which had the power of deposing a minister whose beliefs were not considered sound, even though his own congregation might wish to keep him.13  Hence when the Rev. John Sherman of Mansfield, who had adopted the views of Priestley and Lindsey, made them known to his people, he was practically forced to leave them although they desired him to stay.  This led him to publish in that same year (1805) a book on One God in One Person Only, which was the first full defense of Antitrinitarianism to come from an American writer.  Removing to the western frontier the next year, he became the first minister of the liberal church at Oldenbarnevelt, N.Y., which has been already referred to.14  Five years later his friend, the Rev. Abiel Abbot of Coventry, also fell under suspicion of heresy, and was similarly forced from his parish.  With one exception, that of Brooklyn (1817), these are the only churches in Connecticut in which Antitrinitarianism gained any footing at the time when it was rapidly spreading in Massachusetts; and those who felt oppressed by the strict orthodoxy of the Congregational churches mostly sought the freer fellowship of the Episcopal Church.

    In Pennsylvania, Unitarianism started quite independently of the liberal movement among the Congregationalists in Massachusetts.  In 1783 the Rev. William Hazlitt, an English Unitarian minister who had strongly sympathized with the colonists during the late war, came to America hoping to find a settlement.  It was he that encouraged Freeman in the action he took at King’s Chapel.15  Though he failed to find a pulpit, and had at length to return to England, he preached at various places from Maryland to Maine, including Philadelphia, where he found a number of English Unitarians living and in 1784 reprinted a number of Priestley’s tracts.  These doubtless helped pave the way for a church there.  When Priestley reached America in 1794,16 though he was heartily welcomed as a distinguished man of science and friend of America, his religious opinions were dreaded, and he was nowhere invited by the ministers to preach save at Princeton.  Even from the liberals at Boston no word of welcome came to him in his exile.  He found, however, many not connected with the existing orthodox churches who would have welcomed Unitarian preaching.  He was thus invited to establish a church at New York, and for a time he cherished a scheme for getting ministers sent out from England to gather congregations there and at Philadelphia.  Upon settling at Northumberland he founded a church in 1794, which must be called the first in America both to hold the Unitarian faith and to bear the Unitarian name.17  Many English Unitarians came to America soon after the Revolution, and there was a considerable group of them at Philadelphia, where they had made an unsuccessful attempt to settle a minister of their faith in 1792.  In 1796, however, while Priestley was visiting there he encouraged them to organize a church which should hold services with lay preachers.  The members were all English Unitarians, mostly young men, and they maintained lay services with some interruption until they were able, in 1812, with the aid of English friends, to erect the first Unitarian church building in America.18  Their first regular minister was not settled until 1825.

    In New England after the Revolution liberal tendencies in the Congregational churches kept steadily growing.  Thus at Worcester in 1785 the liberals in the First Church withdrew and formed a new society with Aaron Bancroft, then an Arian, as their minister.  At Taunton in 1792 the orthodox withdrew and formed a new church because the First Church was controlled by liberals.  In Plymouth a similar division took place in 1800.  At Fitchburg two years later his strong Calvinism caused the dismissal of the Rev. Samuel Worcester, later to become a leading opponent of the Unitarians.  Nevertheless in most places the liberals could not easily be identified as such, for they had engaged in no controversy, had formed no party, and had neither platform, policy nor leader.  Though they no longer adhered to the old Calvinism of their fathers, they agreed upon hardly any new position except disbelief in the Trinity.  Generous toleration of difference in beliefs existed; and although, in order to keep liberal views from spreading further, some of the churches now began to require their members to assent to orthodox creeds, except for a few such instances as have been named above, the two wings of the Congregational Church still lived together in harmony as of old.  This was the situation at the end of the eighteenth century; but the nineteenth century was still very young when this peace was destroyed by a period of sharp controversy of the conservatives against, the liberals, which was to divide the Congregational Church, and to force the Unitarians to form a separate denomination.  That unhappy story will form the theme of the next chapter.

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Text taken from a 1925 original copy of Earl Morse Wilbur's Our Unitarian Heritage.
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