The Meaning and Lesson of Unitarian History


    We have come to the end of our history. It has been a long story — nearly four centuries, almost as long as that of Protestantism itself. We have followed the course of a movement which has profoundly influenced the religious life of Poland and Transylvania, England and America, has furnished important episodes in that of Italy and Switzerland, Germany and Holland, and has left a lasting impression on the thought and tendencies of the Protestant world. The orthodox Protestantism of the twentieth century, in both its teachings and its spirit, is a far different thing from what it would have been if Servetus, Socinus and David, Lindsey, Priestley and Martineau, Channing and Parker had never lived, and if Calvin and Luther had been suffered to rule the thought and life of their followers unchallenged and uncriticized. In so far as the religious life of our time is comparatively free, reasonable, and tolerant, and lays greater stress upon personal character and lives of service than upon the doctrines of theology, the pioneers and prophets of the movement whose course we have been tracing deserve much more credit than has generally been given them.

    Now that we have heard the story, what is the real meaning of it all? It has not been merely a long attempt to substitute one set of doctrines for another. That has often been involved in it, it is true; but beneath all this has been something far deeper and more important. For if men are to change their beliefs from one age to another, as they get new light or discover new truth, their minds must be left free in their search, and not be barred in this direction or that; nor can their new beliefs be shared with others unless there is also freedom of speech and of press. Hence the first thing that has characterized this history has been its steady tendency toward perfect spiritual freedom. When creeds or dogmas were opposed, it was not more because they were disbelieved than because they stood in the way of freedom of thought in religion with a “thus far but no further,” and because free spirits were unwilling that other men should forbid them to judge for themselves as to the teachings of the Bible or of their own consciences. Unitarianism, then, has meant first of all religious freedom and escape from bondage to creeds; and throughout their whole history Unitarians have steadfastly refused to set up any creed, even the shortest, as a test which must be passed by those who would join them.

    Yet freedom may go wild unless it is guided by some wholesome principle. This principle Unitarians have found in the use of reason in religion; and this has been their second main point of emphasis. They have believed that God would most safely and surely lead them into more truth when they most used the faculties he has given them for discerning truth from error. They have therefore seen little cause to follow traditions from the past simply because they were old, unless they could show good reason for being. At first they were content to ask simply whether doctrines could be supported by Scripture; but at length they came to realize that even what the Bible teaches is merely what men of olden time thought and felt and did, and that reason and conscience must decide for us whether their ways must be ours, or whether we must come to fresh convictions, experiences, and principles for our own new time.

    Once again, Unitarians were not long in discovering that if they were to claim for themselves the right of full freedom of belief and of teaching in religion, they must of course grant similar freedom to others. It was at first hard for them to accept the consequences of this principle, and for a time they yielded to the temptation to repress or to cast out from their number those who seemed to them to go too far from familiar ways; but they eventually saw that there can be no perfect freedom in religion unless there is perfect mutual toleration. And this was well; for just as truth can be trusted in the long run and in a fair field to stand on its own merits without fear or favor, so it may be trusted that error will in the end be discovered, and will certainly perish of itself.

    It is the emphasis on these things, far more than on any mere Unitarian doctrines, that during nearly four centuries have more and more given Unitarianism its distinctive character; and perhaps the most that need be said about those doctrines is that they are the ones that men will be most likely to come to when their minds are left unbiased and free in relation to religion, when they make unhindered use of reason in thinking about religion, and when entire religious toleration is given them. Yet after these points are gained, something still remains. What is religion for, practically, any way, and what is the final test of it? The Unitarian answer has consistently been that the true test of a good religion is not orthodoxy of belief, but that it is to be found in the kind of characters it produces; and that we do not realize its whole purpose until we get beyond thought of ourselves, and give ourselves to the service of others, as all members of one great family of God.

    When the Unitarian movement began, the marks of true religion were commonly thought to be belief in the creeds, membership in the church, and participation in its rites and sacraments. To the Unitarian of today the marks of true religion are spiritual freedom, enlightened reason, broad and tolerant sympathy, upright character and unselfish service. These things, which go to the very heart of life, best express the meaning and lesson of Unitarian history. The difference between these two views of religion marks a great revolution, and it has been a costly one. To make it possible Servetus, Gentile, David, and a score or more of others suffered death; Gribaldo, Ochino, Socinus, and the Polish Brethren endured persecution or went into exile. For this Bidle and Emlyn were imprisoned; Lindsey and Priestley had obloquy heaped upon them; and numberless others in great ways or in small have sacrificed or suffered or been outcast for this faith. Without these and what they endured in their cause, we should now be enjoying but little of the liberty that is ours today. How can we better show appreciation of the free faith that inspires and comforts our lives today than by keeping it pure and handing it on stronger than ever to those that shall come after us?

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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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