American Unitarianism Organized and Expanding, 1865–1925


    The effects of the meeting referred to at the close of the preceding chapter began at once to appear. Some, indeed, having little faith that the plan so enthusiastically proposed could actually be carried out, held back from doing anything to realize it; while some even derided it as chimerical. But in the main the denomination fell in splendidly behind its leaders. The feeling was widespread that the whole country was now as ready to accept liberal Christianity as eastern Massachusetts had been fifty years before, and that Unitarians needed only to seize the opportunity which the time offered them in order to establish in America a genuine Broad Church. Whereas in 1864 the Association had received for its general work only $6,000, and that from only fifty of the churches, and in the previous year only half as much as even this, the new appeal for $100,000 for largely increasing the work of the denomination met with a response beyond all expectation. The old givers largely multiplied their gifts, while many churches now contributed for the first time. Well before the annual meeting of the Association in May the whole sum had been considerably oversubscribed.

    When therefore the national Convention of the churches met early in April in New York, the apathy and discouragement which had for twenty years hung over the denomination like a pall had already given way to buoyant enthusiasm and eager hope. The very time was propitious. The Civil War was evidently drawing to a close; indeed, it was but three days after the adjournment of the Convention that Lee’s army surrendered at Appomattox, thus virtually ending the war. It was the first time that an attempt had been made to organize all the churches of the denomination for a common purpose, for, as has been said, the Association had been only an organization of a comparatively small number of individuals; and although churches often gave to it, they had no direct voice in planning its work.1 Moreover, while the Association had been largely officered and managed by ministers, the Convention invited and received cooperation from the ablest laymen.

    A few of the extreme churches on either wing declined to take part in the Convention, but the attendance surpassed the fondest hopes. Over two hundred churches were represented by nearly four hundred delegates. Enthusiasm was deep and strong; for they realized that they had come together, as the call said, “for the more thorough organization of the Liberal Church of America; for the more generous support of” its various lines of work. John A. Andrew, the famous “War Governor” of Massachusetts, was chosen president; but Dr. Bellows of New York was the guiding spirit of the meeting. The Convention promptly settled down to work and heard reports of work done or to be done; and on the second day it permanently organized as the National Conference of Unitarian Churches.2 In the way of practical work it was resolved that $100,000 annually should be raised by the churches for the work of the denomination; that $100,000 be at once raised for the endowment of Antioch College; that the theological schools at Cambridge and Meadville be more amply endowed; and that missionary work in the West be generously supported.

    Active measures were at once taken for carrying these resolutions into effect. Antioch College in Ohio had been founded in 1852 on a nonsectarian basis. Its first president had been Horace Mann, a distinguished Massachusetts Unitarian, and Unitarians had from the beginning contributed to it generously, since it gave good promise of becoming as liberal an influence in the West as Harvard had been in New England. It was now in serious financial straits, and in danger of utter failure; but in less than two months after the Conference the entire sum asked for had been subscribed, and the college was saved. It was an important step toward religious freedom in American education, for there were as yet but three or four colleges in the country quite free from denominational control; and only a few years previously a distinguished chemist had failed of election to a chair at Columbia College in New York for the sole reason that he was a Unitarian. One of the most fruitful of the new plans was also to establish churches in college towns in order to reach students who might go forth and spread liberal religion widely. The first of these was at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1865, followed the next year by one at the newly founded Cornell University at Ithaca, New York, and later by others to the number of some twenty in all.

    Steps were at once taken to revive the churches in the South that had been closed during the war. A missionary was also sent to California, and within the next four or five years five new churches were planted in important towns on the Pacific Coast. Over a hundred ministers were sent into new territory for longer or shorter periods of missionary preaching, and in less than four years the number of churches had increased thirty per cent. Within a year the churches of the Western Conference had doubled in numbers and strength, support of the Sunday-school Society had largely increased, and the Association had received important legacies. Whereas the denomination had for many years before the close of the war made little progress, within eighteen months from the calling of the New York convention over forty churches and nearly forty ministers had been added to the roll. Unitarianism in America had almost at a bound come to realize itself as a national movement instead of merely “a Boston notion,” and to be united for aggressive work.

    All these reports of progress brought great cheer to the second meeting of the National Conference, held in 1866 at Syracuse, where further plans for organizing the denomination were matured. Of these the most important was to divide the whole country into districts, each with its local conference, which should draw neighboring churches together for closer fellowship and united work. Four such already existed, and fourteen more were now organized, which did much to unite the churches in sympathy, and especially in missionary work and the raising of money. A gesture was also made toward cultivating acquaintance and good feeling with liberal spirits in other denominations, and to this end the Conference voted to change its name so as to read, “Unitarian and other Christian Churches.” But although for a time a little progress seemed to be made in this direction, nothing permanent was achieved. Carrying out the plans made at the first meeting, the Conference now raised on the spot an endowment for a new chair at the Meadville school; and a new newspaper, “The Liberal Christian,” was soon established in New York.

    The next two years continued to be a time of rapid development. Unitarian theater meetings were held in most of the large cities of the country from Boston to San Francisco, and were attended by large crowds who eagerly listened to Unitarian views of religion. Week after week for four years the largest theater in Boston was crowded for such services; and as a result of these meetings, Young Men’s Christian Unions were organized in a number of cities. A new School for the Ministry was opened in Boston in 1867, to prepare men of incomplete education for rough and ready missionary work. The local conferences had a stimulating effect, and the individual churches were roused to great local activity. Large sums were raised for philanthropies, and generous aid was given toward elevating the condition of those lately freed from slavery in the South.

    This high tide of enthusiasm and united work, however, did not long remain at its first level. Reaction from the exultation over the ending of the war set in, and after a year the contributions for the general work of the Association fell back to less than $50,000. Worse than this, dissensions were again developing within the denomination. The radical controversy, which seemed to have died out during the war, reappeared in a new shape. It was now not so much a question of miracles, for perhaps half the denomination now sympathized with Parker on that point, and a hundred of the ministers looked up to him as one of the best of Christians; but when the National Conference came to organize it became necessary to define who might belong to it, for it was felt that it should be unmistakably a Christian conference. At first a persistent attempt was made by conservatives to set up a creed as a condition of membership in the Conference. This attempt failed, but the constitution adopted did refer to Jesus Christ as Lord and as son of God;3 and these expressions contained the seeds of thirty years’ trouble, for they were taken to imply beliefs which the radicals felt they could not with good conscience accept. Dissatisfaction over the matter steadily increased during the year, and it was well organized when the Conference met at Syracuse the next year, where the radicals proposed to amend the constitution so as to base its action rather on unity of spirit than on uniformity of belief,4 and to avoid the objectionable expressions. The subject was earnestly debated through a whole session, but the radicals were overwhelmingly defeated.

    It was said on the conservative side that the radicals ought to leave the denomination, and this some of them now proceeded to do. Before the next spring they had taken steps to form the Free Religious Association on a basis that should allow them the freedom which they felt that the National Conference had refused to grant. This new Association was organized in 1867 with much enthusiasm. About half its original members had been Unitarian ministers, and Emerson’s name was first on the list; yet not all were radicals, nor were all Unitarians, for half-a-dozen religious elements were represented in it. It offered hospitality to every form of religious thought, and cultivated sympathy with other religions than Christianity; but though it held annual conventions and issued various publications, it did not attempt to form new organizations, still less a new denomination. Indeed, though a very few of its members withdrew from the denomination, many of them still remained in the National Conference to agitate for broader freedom. For a quarter of a century it exercised an important influence in broadening religious sympathies, and it still continues its existence; but its mission was largely accomplished in its first twenty-five years.

    While the extreme conservatives were satisfied with the result of the vote at Syracuse, many others felt that the Conference had taken too narrow ground, thus unjustly excluding from it some deeply religious and conscientious men. Nearly a hundred of the ministers either had joined the Free Religious Association or were in sympathy with it. The result was that at the next meeting of the Conference in New York in 1868, with a larger attendance than ever before, an amendment5 was almost unanimously adopted which was calculated to ease the consciences of the radical members of the Conference. It was now the turn of the conservatives to feel aggrieved, for they interpreted this action as a virtual surrender of the Conference’s allegiance to Christianity, by yielding to the radicals nearly all that they had asked for. As radicalism was steadily spreading, and the majority of the recent graduates of the Divinity School and even a few from Meadville were given to it, the conservatives now began to agitate more than ever for some means of excluding from the denomination those who could not accept their definition of Christianity.

    The American Unitarian Association took broad ground, wishing to include both wings of the denomination, and recognizing both conservatives and radicals without prejudice. But the conservatives insisted that unless it would withhold recognition and aid from radicals, it would not deserve the support of the denomination, and they urged churches to cease contributing until the question was settled. As no satisfaction was given them., they early in 1870 proposed the forming of an Evangelical Unitarian Association, with a creed for its basis. Had this been formed, the denomination would have been split in two; but by the great majority it was strongly and successfully opposed.

    The leader in this “new movement,” as it was called, was the Rev. George H. Hepworth, a popular preacher of Boston, whose enthusiasm had launched the theater services and the new School for the Ministry. Removing to New York he had many requests from his hearers for some authorized statement of what Unitarians believed. As he and his friends were anxious both to exclude radicals from the denomination and to stand well in the eyes of the orthodox, they began an insistent agitation to get some such statement adopted, and they urged the Association at its meeting in 1870 to take steps in this direction. But Unitarians have ever been suspicious of anything that might be taken as a binding creed, and the motion was heavily defeated. At the National Conference in the autumn the attempt was renewed; and as the subject had for months been earnestly discussed in pulpit and in print, the very large number of delegates gathered in suppressed excitement. Mr. Hepworth moved to substitute for the amendment adopted at the last Conference a new one reaffirming allegiance to Jesus Christ.6 After being earnestly debated for a day and a half, it was finally carried by a vote of eight to one, while the minority were hissed. Thus the door was again shut against the radicals.7

    Cleavage between the two wings of the denomination now became sharper than ever, and the radical minority, though steadily increasing in number, naturally felt little enthusiasm about taking part in denominational enterprises. For twelve long years nothing was done to make them feel themselves welcome members of their own denomination. On the contrary, in what was known as the Year Book Controversy, the situation was emphasized anew. The President of the Free Religious Association had in 1873 asked that his name be removed from the list of ministers in the Unitarian Year Book, on the ground that he was no longer a Unitarian Christian. Upon this, the editor ventured to inquire of several other ministers supposed to believe as he did whether they wished their names to be retained. One of these was the Rev. William J. Potter of New Bedford, Secretary of the Free Religious Association. He replied that he did not call himself a Christian in the doctrinal sense of the word, but he placed upon the editor the responsibility of deciding whether to omit the name. The editor therefore omitted his name along with the others. As the case became public it attracted wide attention and severe criticism; for it was felt by many that a man of admitted Christian character had been virtually excluded from the denomination simply because he would not describe himself by a certain name. The conservatives applauded the action, while the liberals regretted it; but after full discussion in print and in debates it was approved at meetings of both the Association and the National Conference. Protests and criticisms continued to be made over what was felt by many to have been an act of narrow injustice, but it was not until 1883 that the omitted names were restored to the list of ministers, at first halfheartedly, and only in a supplementary list.8

    Time slowly did its work. Those who had been the strongest bulwarks of conservatism passed away, or ceased to be active, or softened in their feeling; while the younger men coming forward had most of them grown up in a liberal atmosphere. At length, at the National Conference in 1882, the liberal spirit prevailed, and with but one dissenting voice an amendment9 was adopted opening the door again to those who had felt themselves excluded by the action taken in 1870. Thus the cause for which Parker’s name had long before been omitted from the Year Book had, after forty years, won in the struggle for spiritual freedom. His name had now for some years been spoken with much respect and honor by leaders in the denomination as one of its great prophets; and the Association in 1885 finally set the seal of approval upon him by publishing a volume of his writings.

    Meanwhile the high hopes of a very rapid spread of the denomination, and the rosy dreams of $100,000 a year for general missionary purposes, which had been realized for a year or two after the organization of the National Conference, began to be disappointed. The lack of sympathy between conservatives and radicals was to no small degree responsible for this, for the national Association in trying to conciliate both wings of the denomination succeeded in winning the generous confidence of neither; so that many churches in both wings would not contribute to the support of its work liberally and generously, if at all. After the conservative victory at the National Conference in 1870, it is true, contributions for missionary work more than doubled for a single year; but on the whole there was a steady decline from the $100,000 of 1865 to less than a quarter of that sum in 1878. Church extension was steadily carried on, but it was at the cost of steady encroachment upon the capital of the general funds of the Association. This whole period was marked by lack of spirit, of enthusiasm, and of confidence.

    Other causes, however, contributed to this end. The period of inflation and extravagance following the Civil War was followed by one of financial depression which affected all enterprises. The great conflagration in Chicago in 1871 and in Boston the following year at once diminished the resources of many of the churches and increased the demands made upon them. The severe financial panic of 1873 laid its heavy hand for several years upon the whole country. Altogether it is surprising that the work of the denomination did not suffer more seriously than it did.

    In spite of all these unfavorable conditions, the main body of the churches remained stedfast to their cause. The National Conferences were largely attended, and continued to plan for carrying on the work of the denomination. If the general contributions to the Association fell off, yet large sums were given for special denominational causes. Generous endowments were raised for additional professorships at the Harvard Divinity School and the Meadville Theological School. Large subscriptions were raised for relief of the churches suffering in the Chicago fire, to erect a national church at Washington, and a Channing Memorial church at Newport on the centennial of Channing’s birth, and to raise crushing debts upon important churches in New York, New Orleans, and elsewhere. The denomination also supported important educational work for both the whites and the negroes in the South; prosecuted welfare work among the Indians in the West, and among seamen; continued its successful mission in India, for several years supported Unitarian preaching in Paris, and sent aid to the needy Unitarian Church in Hungary.

    At home aid was given to an increasing number of young or feeble churches, and many new churches were founded and many missionary preachers were employed, especially in the West; and a promising beginning was made of work among the Scandinavians of the Northwest. New churches were established in Washington Territory, Southern California, and the Southern States. The work in college towns was much extended. In 1876 a Ministers’ Institute was formed for stimulating scholarly interests among the ministers; and in 1880 a Women’s Auxiliary Conference was organized, which ten years later became the National Alliance of Unitarian and other Liberal Christian Women,10 and has been of the greatest service in uniting the women of the denomination for effective work. Thus, in spite of all interferences, the progress of organizing and extending the Unitarian movement in America, which began with the National Conference in 1865, made headway. In half a generation not only had many of the older churches gained in strength, but over a hundred additions had been made to the lists of churches and ministers. Nevertheless those unfriendly to Unitarianism still continued to repeat that the cause was dying.

    While the work of the American Unitarian Association had from the beginning been designed to cover the whole country, the Western Unitarian Conference, comprising a vast territory, became semi-national in its scope, and ran a more or less independent course, and for much of the time carried on an independent work west of the Alleghanies. Its parallel history therefore deserves particular attention. The Western Conference was organized at Cincinnati in 1852 when as yet there were not a dozen well-rooted churches in the whole West, separated by great distances and connected by scanty means of communication. In scores of promising young towns where orthodox religion had largely lost its hold upon the people and they were in danger of relapsing into irreligion, Unitarian preaching was eagerly welcomed. But ministers were hard to get, and new churches multiplied but slowly, while many prematurely formed soon died for want of competent leadership. The antislavery conflict also interfered with the growth of the movement in the West, and in the Civil War more than half of the ministers went to the front as chaplains or as soldiers; yet at the end of the war the Conference contained some thirty-five churches. In the revival following the organization of the National Conference, the Association kept a missionary Secretary in the West for some years, and many new churches were planted; while from 1875 on the Conference had its own Secretary in the field, and extension went on faster than ever. In due time a Women’s Conference, a Sunday-school Society, and various state conferences were established; a newspaper (Unity), many tracts, and series of Sunday-school lessons, were published; and Unity Clubs and Post-office Missions were formed in many of the churches. The conference had its own missionary funds and missionaries, and with the assistance of the Association denominational work was carried on with great zeal.

    Meantime doctrinal changes were going on even more rapidly than in the East. The churches established in the early days of the Conference were generally conservative, and in the Parker controversy they took ground against Parker’s views, though refusing to adopt an authoritative statement of belief. But radical views early appeared, and there was little in either tradition or environment to keep them in check. During the controversy in the National Conference over radicalism, sympathy in most of the churches went with the radicals, and any tendency toward a creed was strongly resisted. In 1875 resolutions were unanimously passed sympathizing with the Free Religious Association as well as with the American Unitarian Association, and a unanimous protest was also made against the action taken by the Association in the Year Book cases. As a further comment upon the conservative position of the National Conference, it was also unanimously resolved that “the Conference conditions its fellowship on no dogmatic tests, but welcomes all thereto who desire to work with it in advancing the Kingdom of God.” For ten years a steady movement went on to purge the constitutions of state conferences and local churches of everything that might seem to limit perfect freedom of belief.

    There were those, however, who saw that unlimited freedom brought with it grave dangers to the cause, and for this reason some ministers had already withdrawn from the Conference. It had been loosely organized, and in many places, in churches composed largely of come-outers, irreparable damage had been done by irresponsible freelances calling themselves Unitarians. As the growth of the churches had not kept pace with that of the population, the Secretary of the Conference became convinced that the trouble was that it had not stood definitely enough for certain fundamental beliefs, and that further mischief might be prevented, and the religious reputation of the Conference be redeemed, if it were to set forth a statement of the central religious beliefs it stood for. He strongly urged this action at the Conference at St. Louis in 1885, though no action was taken; but in the course of the following year the matter developed into what became known as “the issue in the West,” which reached its crisis at the meeting at Cincinnati in 1886.

    The Conference was sharply divided on the question. On the one hand were those who felt the time had come for the Conference clearly to indicate in a few simple words that it stood for Christian belief in God; and that without this there was danger that it might be vitally injured, if not overwhelmed, by unbelievers of every sort claiming to be Unitarians.11  On the other hand were those who felt that even the simplest statement or implication of theological beliefs would in effect be taken as a creed, and used to make certain beliefs obligatory upon the members of the Conference, and that this would be the end of the religious freedom of Unitarianism. It was not a division of believers against unbelievers, for both sides were equally devout, and held practically the same religious beliefs. It was the question whether the Conference should insist first upon the beliefs it stood for, or upon the work it aimed to do; and whether it was willing to shut out any one from joining in that work simply because he did not profess certain beliefs.

    The debate on the question was long, earnest, and painful; but at the end it was resolved by a decisive majority that “the Western Unitarian Conference conditions its fellowship on no dogmatic tests, but welcomes all who wish to join it to help establish Truth, Righteousness, and Love in the world.” The decision brought great grief to the conservatives, for the words Christianity, religion, and even God, had been deliberately left out of the constitution, and nothing seemed to be left but truth, righteousness, and love. If even an agnostic or an atheist claimed recognition as a Unitarian, the Conference would not close the door against him. A few weeks afterwards the conservatives resigned from the Conference and organized a Western Unitarian Association, to cooperate with the national Association in its missionary work. It was never much more than an organization on paper, and it did no missionary work of its own; but its leaders maintained their own periodical (The Unitarian), and did what they could to discourage the churches from cooperating with the Western Conference. The controversy rapidly spread east and west, and dragged on for half a dozen years, and it was also taken up vigorously even in the English Unitarian papers. Although the Conference at its next meeting (1887) published a noble statement of the beliefs commonly held by its members, it was repeatedly charged that the Western Conference had adopted an atheistic and non-Christian basis. The charge was so far believed that the national Association, reflecting the sentiment of the eastern churches, for several years refused to cooperate with the Western Conference in missionary work, and maintained its own western agent.

    The result of the controversy, in which for a long time neither side would yield any ground, was that there were for some years practically two denominations of Unitarians in the West, working separately, and critical of each other. The forces of the denomination were thus badly divided, and its missionary work severely crippled. In fact, the work in the West never quite returned to its former vigor.  In time, however, the two factions came to understand each other better, and in 1892 effective steps were taken to heal the breach. Finally at the meeting of the National Conference in 1894 the constitution was again revised12 in a way so broad as to satisfy both conservatives and radicals, and it was adopted unanimously by acclamation. With this action the doctrinal differences that had disturbed the peace and hindered the growth of the denomination for over half a century subsided, and have not again arisen; for it is realized that perfect spiritual freedom has been achieved.

    From that time on the life of the denomination has been healthy, and its progress in strength, though not rapid, has been steady. Many new churches have been planted in the far West and in the South, as well as on the eastern seaboard; an important missionary enterprise in Japan was undertaken in 1889, and more efficient organization of forces has been steadily won. The forming of the Young People’s Religious Union in 1896 was the beginning of a movement of great and increasing importance; and in 1919 the Laymen’s League took its place beside the Woman’s Alliance and brought undreamed of vigor into the life of the churches. The organization of the International Congress of Free Christians and Other Religious Liberals in 1900, and of the National Federation of Religious Liberals in 1908, have brought the denomination into active sympathy with kindred movements in other lands and other churches.

    At the end of the first hundred years of the American Unitarian Association the Unitarian churches of the country are more than twice as numerous and far more than twice as strong and well organized as they were when the National Conference was organized. They are far more united in spirit, more positive and wholesome in their thought, and more hopeful of their future than they then were. Their contributions for common work are now more in a single year than they formerly were for many years together, and their annual circulation of books and tracts has been multiplied by twenty. Their share in the work of education, philanthropy, reforms, and public leadership has always been far out of proportion to their numerical strength. Their thought has been so largely assimilated by other denominations that many churches calling themselves orthodox, and holding themselves quite aloof from Unitarians, are now much farther away from Calvinism than Channing was. Yet on the other hand they see great multitudes whose religion seems to belong rather to the eighteenth century than to the twentieth. Much as has been accomplished to spread the enlightenment and the inspiration of liberal Christianity, there seems as yet no end to the work for them still to do; and at the end of their first century’s history American Unitarians face the future with clearer vision of their opportunity, with stronger faith in their cause, and with firmer confidence in its destiny, than at any time in the past.

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