THE YEARS JUST PRECEDING the outbreak of the Civil War may be regarded as marking the lowest period in the history of Unitarianism in America. The funds of the national Association reached their lowest ebb, field work was suspended, and practically no aggressive missionary work was undertaken. Toward the end of 1863 the number of churches with settled ministers was said to be 205, showing a net increase of only four in the past fifteen years. In addition to any other causes affecting church activities, the energies of churches and people were more and more absorbed by the war. Every parish had sent men to the front. The women of every church were occupied in making bandages and scraping lint for the wounded soldiers. At least sixty Unitarian ministers entered the army as chaplains, officers, privates, or members of the Sanitary Commission,1 and the Association itself sent into some sort of service ten or a dozen men. To supply the special needs of soldiers in the field, and of the wounded or convalescent in hospitals, books and a special series of army tracts were published, and current religious periodicals were supplied. All these services were greatly increased as the war went on, so that at the end the Association had as many as seventy workers in the field.2
The part played in the prosecution of the war by the Unitarians in the United States Sanitary Commission and the Western Sanitary Commission was of such great importance that it deserves to be taken into account in this history; for though these were in no sense Unitarian organizations, yet Unitarians were so active in the leadership and so prominent in the conduct and support of the work that it would be unfair not to mention their connection with the life of the denomination. Early in the first year of the war, Dr. H. W. Bellows, minister of All Souls’ Unitarian Church in New York, joined with others in calling a meeting in New York to consult how citizens, in addition to what the government might provide, might by volunteer effort contribute to the comfort of those sick or wounded in the war. The result was that after tedious delays the United States Sanitary Commission was organized, with the sanction of the government though independent of it. The idea of it was first suggested by Dr. Bellows, who was its leader throughout, and was its President.3 In its services to the sick and wounded the Commission was of incalculable value all through the war, but its support was from voluntary contributions which, though generous, were promising to be insufficient as expenses rapidly arose, until in October, 1862 the funds were almost exhausted, when an unexpected gift of $100,000 from citizens of San Francisco saved the Commission from dissolution. Two weeks later the gift was duplicated, and so long as the war lasted abundant funds were furnished from the Pacific Coast, which was too remote to furnish any troops. For this magnificent support, to which California alone contributed more than all the rest of the world put together,4 no small credit was due to the personal effort of the Rev. Thomas Starr King, minister of the First Unitarian Church in San Francisco. He had come to California a year before the outbreak of the war, and in its first year he labored indefatigably in lecturing throughout the State to stimulate and strengthen the wavering patriotism; and in 1862 he lectured from end to end of the Pacific Coast for the support of the Sanitary Commission. A similar work was carried on in the Mississippi Valley by the Western Sanitary Commission,5 which was organized and largely directed by Dr. William G. Eliot of the First Unitarian Church at St. Louis. Both these organizations throughout the war did a work similar to that of the Red Cross in more recent times, and were largely supported by Unitarians; while the orthodox churches, criticizing these movements for not being sufficiently religious for churches to undertake, preferred to give their support to the Christian Commission, which devoted itself to religious work corresponding to that later carried on by the Young Men’s Christian Association. Indeed, when the army hospitals were greatly in want of assistance, the authorities in this Commission declined to accept helpers offered from Unitarian sources, and took all pains to publish unfriendly comment on any defects discovered in the conduct of the Sanitary Commission.6
Though the conduct of the war seriously interfered with the missionary work of the Association, yet the enthusiasm and corporate spirit of the churches were greatly increased. The Autumnal Conventions of 1862 and 1863 were the largest, most enthusiastic and united ever held. The churches had learned the joy of working together for a common cause, and began to appreciate as never before the importance of having an efficient organization instead of a mere aggregation of individual contributors. By tacit agreement no meeting of the Convention was called in 1864, and instead a special meeting of the Association was called in December by the Executive Committee to awaken interest in the work of the Association, and in the need of funds to answer the demands made upon it. The tone of the large meeting showed hope and enthusiasm, and Dr. Bellows, whose work in organizing the Sanitary Commission had been so effective, now urged a like organization of Unitarians in support of liberal religion. A motion to raise $25,000 during the year was amended to $100,000 and was unanimously adopted; .and a committee of ten was appointed7 to call a convention consisting of the pastor and two delegates from each church, to meet in New York.
Before the convention met in April nearly all the money voted had been raised, and many of the churches had contributed for the first time. A few of the extreme churches on either wing refrained from joining in the convention, but the attendance surpassed all expectations. Over two hundred churches were represented by nearly four hundred delegates, including a large number of laymen. It was the first time that the Unitarian churches had been directly represented in a general meeting, and they proceeded with enthusiasm to a thorough organization of the Liberal Church of America. It was well realized by those that had most to do with arranging the preliminaries of the convention that this would probably be a meeting of great importance for the churches concerned. The danger most feared was that the radicals, though not organized as a party, might alienate the conservative majority, and so split the denomination at the start, and on the other hand that they might feel so much suppressed that they would withdraw in resentment at the treatment they had received. It was a situation calling for skilful parliamentary management and tactful treatment lest the whole plan be wrecked before it had even been tried, and it is evident from the proceedings that there had been previous consultations and a general agreement as to the officers to be chosen and the policies to be adopted, in order that serious divisions might be prevented and that the main purposes of the convention might not fail of being realized.
The convention met in All Souls’ Church on April 5, 1865. John A. Andrew, the famous war-governor of Massachusetts, was elected President; and Dr. Bellows was named chairman of the Committee, and was the guiding spirit. The very air was propitious, for it was evident that the Civil War was drawing to a close, and in four days Lee’s surrender at Appomattox was to bring the end. The first day was to be spent in preliminary business and in surveying reports of work done or to be done. But at the very outset the specter of the radical appeared, and before any other business could be introduced a prominent layman, as if to warn him against hoping for any share in the convention proceedings, offered a preamble and resolutions designed to commit the convention in advance to what was in effect a conservative creed, accepting Scripture as a revelation, and belief in Christ as our Saviour and a worker of miracles; and in the Resurrection of the dead. Fortunately this resolution was laid on the table, and was not again taken up; and to avoid further danger the length of speeches was closely limited, and it was resolved that in the interest of unity and of the widest cooperation all the resolutions and declarations of the Convention are expressions only of its majority not binding those that object to them. Further consideration of the details of organization was then deferred until the following day, while the remainder of the day and evening was devoted to minor details of business, the missionary work of the denomination, and the subject of education.
The Constitution and the organization of the Conference was the chief matter considered on the second day.8 It is apparent from the proceedings that the committee had met the night before and decided upon the course to be pursued in order to prevent endless discussion of disputable points, which might defeat the main purpose of the convention; for speakers were limited to five minutes, tactics were resorted to that might have been thought high-handed, and action upon the preamble, where most opposition was anticipated, was deferred until the articles had been adopted. The Constitution presented by the committee was then, after some debate on one article, adopted, leaving some points unsolved that were to disturb Unitarian counsels for thirty years. In two respects the result was disappointing. It had been Dr. Bellows’s great dream that the opportunity had come for organizing a broad Liberal Church of America, which should attract the liberal element in all churches, admitting all that for reasons satisfactory to themselves claim to be Christians.9 But this dream evidently found no wide acceptance, and was not realized, for it does not appear in the discussions, and the name adopted was frankly that of a denomination, The National Conference of Unitarian Churches. It had also been hoped by many progressive spirits that the conditions of membership might be such as to admit both conservatives and radicals on equal terms, on a basis of common aims and sympathies without regard to differences of belief. But it soon became evident that the convention was not ripe for this.
The time was ripe, however, for the young Conference to give its attention to matters of practical effort. Leaving to the American Unitarian Association details of ways and means, the Conference at once approved the effort to raise $100,000 for denominational causes this year; advised a like sum for Antioch College;10 called attention to the need of a denominational organ to be called the Liberal Christian, and proposed union with the Universalists.
The stimulating effect of the new Conference was at once felt in the work of the Association. It began to establish churches in college towns, in order to reach students who were likely to become leaders in their own communities. The first of these was at the seat of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, followed the next year by one at the new Cornell University at Ithaca, New York, and eventually by others to the number of twenty in all. Steps were at once taken to revive churches in the South that had been obliged to suspend during the war; and a missionary was sent to California, who planted several churches in growing towns. In the territory of the Western Conference the number of churches had doubled within a year; in less than four years the total number of churches increased thirty per cent; and within a year and a half some forty ministers and churches had been added to the roll. The Association at once attacked its work with a self-confidence hitherto unknown. The desired sum of $100,000 had been more than raised before the annual meeting of the Association at the end of May;11 many of the parishes had put their churches in repair, paid off their indebtedness, and increased their minister’s salary; laymen had taken a more active part in the affairs of the denomination, and the number of contributing churches had more than trebled. The most serious complaint was that of the lack of ministers enough to supply the urgent demands of the many new churches. Nearly a score of missionary preachers visited more than a hundred fields, in eight of which new churches were established, and a large number of promising openings were discovered, provided competent ministers for them could be furnished, and in general a strong missionary spirit pervaded the churches.
But beneath these signs there was a smoldering discontent among the radicals. Though not organized for concerted action, their leaders had come to the convention in 1865 full of hope that when the organization was formed, it would be on such a basis that they might feel at home in it without compromise of conscience. But when the Constitution was presented for adoption, it was seen that the language of the preamble implied that the members were all “disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ,” and devoted “to the service of God and the building-up of the kingdom of his Son”; and the limitation of debate gave them no opportunity to express their views. In fact, free discussion of the Constitution had been adroitly stifled, doubtless because the Committee of Business saw that this would call for more time than could be had at this session, or perhaps even more out of fear that factional controversy might rend the Conference at its very outset. Dr. Bellows stated, however, that the whole broad-church basis would be open for discussion at a future convention.
The second meeting of the Conference was held at Syracuse in October, 1866. In the interval radicals and conservatives had freely debated the questions at issue between them in denominational periodicals, pamphlets and sermons. The radicals had plans for revising the Constitution, and one of them offered a substitute for the preamble and first article, omitting the doctrinal terms that had proved objectionable, and asserting the right and duty of freedom of thought, while it sought to base organization for practical work not on uniformity of belief but on unity of spirit. In the proposed amendment there was nothing in itself objectionable, and it was earnestly and very ably debated through most of an afternoon, and in the best spirit. But it was urged that the omission of the words, “disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ” which had once been adopted would be construed as disowning a previously adopted confession of allegiance to Jesus. Hence the amendment was defeated by a vote of two to one, although the name of the Conference was amended to read, ‘Unitarian and Independent Churches.’12
The result of this refusal to grant the radicals relief of conscience was that the radical delegates returning home resolved to organize an association that would assure them the liberty denied them by the Unitarians. Several meetings of radicals were held privately in Boston within the next few months, at which it was felt that there should be some kind of organization outside of Unitarianism to furnish them religious fellowship, with unrestricted liberty allowed each member. As a result, a public meeting ‘to consider the conditions, wants and prospects of Free Religion in America’ was held in Boston May 30, 1867, attended by a large crowd, and addressed by distinguished speakers, representing a variety of different views. After the addresses a constitution was adopted and officers were elected, and thus the Free Religious Association was launched.13 Its declared purposes were ‘to promote the interests of pure religion, to encourage the scientific study of theology, and to increase fellowship in the spirit.’ The new Association was formed with much enthusiasm. About half its original members, beginning with Emerson, had been Unitarian ministers, but not all were radicals, and very few of them withdrew from the denomination. Most preferred to remain in the Conference to continue the agitation for broader freedom, and until the end of the century they had an important influence in broadening religious sympathies. The Free Religious Association had an indefinite membership of perhaps 500, but it did not attempt to organize churches, and only two or three independent ones were formed, nor had it a definite program of action. It was happily characterized as ‘a voice without a hand.’ But it had significant periodicals,14 the Index (1870–86) and the Radical (1886–72), and besides its annual meetings, at which notable addresses were often made, it held Sunday afternoon meetings in Boston for several winters, as well as a few courses of lectures. The Free Religious Association had a gradually diminishing influence for twenty-five or thirty years, but eventually the conditions that gave rise to it had largely ceased to exist, and radical members felt at ease in the old denomination. Annual meetings were still held, however, till well on in the twentieth century.15
While the question at issue between radicals and conservatives excited warm interest at the meetings of the Conference, it by no means monopolized the attention of the members. In its first year a larger number of churches than ever before had given for denominational causes nearly $100,000, and for the next year it was voted to raise a like sum. The sum of $100,000 also voted for Antioch College was nearly made up, and $150,000 was set as the goal for the coming year. The urgent need of further endowment for the theological schools was emphasized, and $34,000 for Meadville was pledged on the spot. The need for increasing the salaries of the ministers was also brought to the attention of the churches. The coherence of the denomination was immensely increased by the reported formation of fourteen new local conferences (eventually there were more than thirty), in which it was proposed to enroll every church in the country. A new Unitarian newspaper, the Liberal Christian, supplanting the Christian Inquirer, was established in New York. With a view to interesting the large number of those that seldom attended the existing churches, the Rev. George H. Hepworth, a Unitarian preacher with great popular gifts, held a series of religious meetings in Boston that for several years crowded the largest theater; and similar meetings were held in many of the larger cities of the country, although as the novelty wore off they declined and were abandoned. In 1867 the Boston School for the Ministry was organized, with local ministers as teachers, designed to receive students of limited education but of good promise, and to prepare them for work in smaller stations.16 More than forty ministers were sent into the field for service as missionaries for limited periods. All in all the few years following the organization of the National Conference were a period of vigorous life and activity among the churches, apparently little affected by the disaffection of the radicals.
But while the conservatives, it is true, were well content with the vote at the Syracuse Conference, many soon came to feel that the Conference had been hasty in taking a narrow ground, unjustly excluding some conscientious and deeply religious men; for nearly a hundred of the ministers either had joined the new Free Religious Association or were known to be in sympathy with it. Hence at the next meeting of the Conference in New York in 1868, with a larger attendance than ever before, an amendment calculated to ease the consciences of the radical members of the Conference, was almost unanimously adopted.17 It was now the conservatives that felt aggrieved, for they had not shifted a step from the position taken by the Association in 1853, and they took this to be practically a surrender of the Conference’s allegiance to Christianity, since it yielded to the radicals nearly all that they had asked for. They perceived that radicalism was steadily spreading, and that most of the recent graduates of the divinity schools were inclined to it, while they were more than ever concerned to exclude from the denomination those that did not agree to their conception of Christianity. As the Conference had given the conservatives no satisfaction, they now, under the leadership of Mr. Hepworth, determined to seek some action through the American Unitarian Association. They made repeated complaints that the policy of the Association had been too complaisant toward the radicals, and that its funds had been given to support radical ministers; and in the face of such complaints the Association’s Secretary at its annual meeting in 1870 made a lengthy statement as to the unpartisan policy that he had pursued.18
His address had general approval, but Mr. Hepworth moved that a committee of five be appointed to prepare a statement of faith representing the religious opinions of the Unitarian denomination.19 A long debate ensued, but the motion was heavily defeated. Nevertheless the conservatives sent abroad a circular letter and an Address to, Unitarian Churches urging them to mass forces at the coming Conference, and intimating that the formation of an Evangelical Unitarian Association might be found advisable as a counter to the Free Religious Association.20 It was insisted that unless the Association withheld recognition and assistance from the radicals, it would not deserve the support of the denomination, and they urged churches to cease contributing until the question was settled.
At the National Conference in the autumn of 1870 the strife was renewed. As the subject had for months been earnestly discussed in pulpit and in print, the very large number of delegates present gathered in suppressed excitement. After an earnest debate lasting a day and a half, a substitute amendment was adopted21 reaffirming allegiance to Jesus Christ. The majority was decisive, 267 to 33, and the tense feeling of the majority was shown in the fact that the minority were hissed! Thus matters rested for twelve years. But the radical wing steadily grew, though quiescent and little inclined to take part in denominational affairs. The Rev. F. E. Abbot, indeed, heartbroken at the defeat of the amendment he had championed at the Syracuse conference, after two years withdrew from the Unitarian ministry; but while many of the radicals joined the Free Religious Association, few withdrew from the Unitarian Association, though they could hardly feel welcome as members in it.
In 1873, however, fresh attention was called to their position by what was called the Year-book Controversy. The denomination had for some twenty-five years been accustomed to print an annual year book, including in it, for the convenience of those concerned, a list of Unitarian ministers and congregations. The list was not official, and depended solely on the judgment of the compiler. Now in 1873 the President of the Free Religious Association, the Rev. O. B. Frothingham, expressed surprise that his name should have been continued in the Year-book list of ministers, and asked that it be removed, since the editor of the Christian Register had invited those ‘who have ceased to accept Jesus as pre-eminently their spiritual leader and teacher’ to withdraw from the Unitarian body. The Secretary of the Association22 therefore addressed the editor saying that though he was theologically a Unitarian he no longer considered himself a Christian, and he left it to the editor to determine whether his name should be included in the list. The editor decided that it did not belong there; and he also ventured to inquire of several other ministers as to whom there was similar question, whether they wished to have their names included. In the end six names were thus, with the approval of the Directors, dropped from the list.23 When the case became known it attracted severe criticism, that men of acknowledged Christian character should be excluded from the denomination on such a technical ground. Conservatives approved the action, radicals condemned it; but after nearly ten years’ discussion, oral and printed, the names, after having been for one year relegated to a supplementary list, were restored in 1884, with the approval of both Association and Conference.
The finances of the denomination experienced a great revival after the forming of the National Conference, and in its first year, besides $175,000 contributed for the general purposes of the Association, over $210,000 was given for religious, educational and philanthropic purposes. There was a little falling off after the first spurt, especially during the uncertainty over radicalism; but after the overwhelming victory of the conservative element in 1870, enthusiasm revived, more churches contributed than ever before, and in 1871 more than twice as many as in 1870. The attendance at the National Conferences was very large, especially at the meetings held at Saratoga (with three exceptions) from 1874 to 1901. Yet, from extraneous causes, a serious decline began early in the seventies. First of these was the great Chicago fire in 1871, after which, apart from other contributions in relief, the denomination contributed $60,000 toward rebuilding Robert Collyer’s church. This was soon followed by a great fire in the business district of Boston in 1872, which struck a crushing blow at the financial center of the denomination. In that year, when the Association had confidently looked for $150,000for use in its church work, it received only $42,000. Close upon this was the severe panic of 1873, in consequence of which contributions for general purposes fell in 1875 to less than $26,000. Add to this the fact of the long-continuing post-war depression, which crippled many churches that in the prosperous years following the war incurred debts in building. Nevertheless the Directors of the Association managed its affairs economically and efficiently and maintained its extension better than could have been expected. In its efforts to cultivate fraternal relations with other denominations, however, of which good hopes had been entertained, little headway was made except with the Universalists and the African Methodist Church. The latter were fraternally assisted for several years, and demonstrated the possibility of union in work for good causes in spite of difference in doctrine. The other churches approached received the Unitarian deputies with formal civility, but refrained from any act of cooperation.
In this period the periodicals of the denomination were made more efficient. The Christian Examiner, which had held an honorable place as a scholarly journal for over half a century, and had fallen behind the times and lost support, in 1870 gave way to Old and New, a more popular monthly, aided by the denomination; and this in turn in 1875 to the Unitarian Review; to which the Monthly Religious Magazine, which had served since 1844 as less scholarly than the Christian Examiner, likewise gave way; and when this ceased in 1891 it was succeeded by the New World, which ran until 1900, as the last attempt to maintain a magazine with denominational support. The divinity schools also were duly attended to, that the supply of ministers might be assured. The Harvard Divinity School was aided by a fund of $90,000 in 1879, and the sum of $50,000 for Meadville was asked for in 1879, though it was not promptly received. Finally the Young Men’s Christian Union, which had been founded in 1851 to offset the Young Men’s Christian Association with its doctrinal bars, and had lately been revived, in 1879 was given $100,000.
In its policy of thus strengthening weak strategic points in the denominational structure, instead of multiplying new and feeble infant churches on the frontier, the denomination in 1876 contributed $30,000 toward building a worthy national Unitarian Church which had long been urgently needed at the national Capital in Washington; in 1879 it contributed a like sum toward erecting a memorial church at Newport in honor of Channing on the centenary of his birth; assumed a mortgage which threatened ruin to the enfeebled church at New Orleans; helped to raise the debt of $125,000which was about to ruin the Church of the Messiah in New York; provided with suitable church homes the promising college-town churches at Ann Arbor and Madison; and finally in 1886 erected a handsome building, long and urgently wanted, as Unitarian headquarters in Boston. Besides all these causes at home the American Unitarians faithfully sustained their mission in India; supported important educational projects for both whites and Negroes in the South, and carried on welfare work among Indians in the West; and sent aid to the needy Unitarian Church in Hungary. Work in college-town churches was enlarged. A Ministers’ Institute was established in 1876 to stimulate the pursuit of scholarly studies among the ministers through biennial meetings alternating with those of the National Conference; and in 1880 was organized a Women’s Auxiliary Conference, to furnish the women of the churches avenues of working together for the interests they have in common, which afterwards became the National (later the General) Alliance of Unitarian and other Liberal Christian Women, and has been of incalculable value in uniting the women of the denomination for service to their common cause. One of the most useful branches of its splendidly organized membership is the Post-office Mission, which conducts a widespread missionary work through the post office.
It is clear from this long list of activities carried on during a quarter-century after the formation of the National Conference that the life of the churches was not declining, but was becoming steadily more thoroughly and efficiently organized. But since the income of the Association steadily fell short of the demands of its work, there was a steady encroachment upon its invested funds, so that it became yearly more evident that there must be a change of policy. It should be noted, however, that though contributions for the general purposes of the denomination habitually fell short of the amount asked for as necessary, yet when an appeal was made for a particular case of need, members generally answered it with generous gifts, so that the amount was usually obtained. Meanwhile, ever since the overwhelming conservative victory at the Syracuse Conference, affairs within the denomination had proceeded without open conflict, although continued agitation in private circles showed that the question was still alive, and was bound eventually to come up again. At the Conference in 1874 a cautious attempt at conciliation was made, when a friendly resolution of good-will with the Free Religious Association was tabled by a decisive majority, although a resolution of fraternal sympathy with the Congregationalists had just been passed; and a committee appointed to report on revising the Constitution reported that it was unable to make any progress. A resolution approving an invitation to the New Bedford church to join in the meetings of the Conference was also tabled. The conservative element was evidently still firm and implacable. But time exerted its influence. The radicals grew milder, and were discovered to be less dangerous than had been feared, and their opponents somewhat softened their tone. It was found that it was possible for both to work together in harmony for common ends. The question of miracles had ceased to be crucial; and what was most important of all, within nine years after 1876 seven of the most influential conservatives of the old school had died, while the younger men coming forward had most of them grown up in a liberal atmosphere. At length, at the National Conference in 1882 a liberal spirit prevailed, and with but a single dissenting voice an additional article was adopted opening the door again to those that had felt excluded by the action taken in 1870.24
Before continuing the account of developments in the denomination at large, it is necessary now to turn back and speak of the largely separate course of events in the Western Unitarian Conference.25 This was the earliest of the conferences to be formed; for it antedated the National Conference by thirteen years, being organized at Cincinnati in 1852, when as yet there were not a dozen churches in the whole West, and those widely separated over a great territory with scanty means of intercommunication. Of necessity therefore the western churches led a more or less independent life, and developed their own characteristics. They occupied a singularly attractive missionary field, which was rapidly being occupied by a new population who having broken home ties and familiar traditions were ready to strike out new lines, and needed nothing more than competent leadership. In scores of promising young towns where their inherited religion had largely lost its hold upon the people and they were in danger of lapsing into irreligion, or even into active hostility to all the churches they knew, as supporters of outgrown superstitions, Unitarian preaching was eagerly welcomed.26 But it was very difficult to get competent ministers for the many new openings, so that new churches were slowly established, and those prematurely formed were liable to fall to pieces for want of leaders. The rising anti-slavery feeling also distracted men from church activities, and after the war began more than half the ministers of churches already existing left their charges and went to the front, some as chaplains and some as soldiers; yet in spite of all the Conference still had some thirty-five churches at the war’s end.
The Conference was organized on a broad, unsectarian Christian basis, and at once began vigorous work and sent three missionaries into the field; but already at the second meeting of the Conference it was deemed important, in order to prevent misunderstandings as to what Unitarians believe, to issue a statement of Unitarian views. Accordingly there was published a ‘Report on Unitarian Views of Christ,’ which was widely circulated as a basis for church extension.27 The views, while not issued as a creed, were of course conservative; but early in the history of the Conference echoes of the Parker controversy appeared, though they were soon lost in the tumult of the war. The period immediately after the war showed great activity in organizing new churches and opening missionary stations, in which the western churches largely depended on themselves, though after the organization of the National Conference the Association kept a missionary Secretary in the West for nearly ten years, and all executive work was left to the Association, with a great falling off in local interest. But in 1875 the Conference had its own Secretary and again administered its own affairs with great energy. A Women’s Conference, a Sundayschool Society and various state conferences were established; a western newspaper (the Unity) and a series of tracts were published. By this time doctrinal changes had taken place, in which it was evident that the West had moved faster than the East, and in the controversy over radicalism its sympathy went strongly with the radicals. In the Yearbook episode the Conference unanimously protested against the policy pursued; and in 1875 it was unanimously resolved that ‘the Western Conference conditions its fellowship on no dogmatic tests, but welcomes all thereto who desire to work with it in advancing the Kingdom of God’; and resolutions of good-will to both the Free Religious Association and the national Association were also passed. For some ten years after this 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.
Some, however, were convinced that unlimited freedom involved grave danger to the cause, and one or two ministers had for this reason already withdrawn from the Conference. In some places, in fact, churches made up largely of come-outers had done the cause irreparable damage through irresponsible freelances who had been accepted as Unitarian ministers. The new Secretary of the Conference had come to feel that the reason why the growth of the churches had not kept pace with the population was that they had not stood definitely enough for a few fundamental beliefs, but had been too hospitable to agnosticism, then the heresy most feared. He felt that the work in the West had suffered much from public misapprehension of the Unitarian position, and that the cure of the situation lay in committing the Conference to a platform which should make its basis clear, and thus deter agnostics, materialists and Spiritualists from its churches. He strongly urged this action at the St. Louis Conference in 1885, though no immediate action was taken; but in the course of the following year the matter developed into what came to be known as ‘the issue in the West.’ As the date of the next Conference approached, the Secretary wrote and widely distributed among the churches an elaborate statement concerning the existing situation, and the matter claimed much attention at the Conference at Cincinnati in 1886. Only about a third of the churches sent delegates, but the division was sharp, and the debate was long, earnest and painful. Those on the one hand felt that the Conference should now clearly say in a few plain words that it stood for Christian belief in God, lest it be vitally weakened by unbelievers of every sort claiming the name of Unitarians.28 On the other hand were some that felt that even the simplest statement or implication of theological beliefs was wrong in principle, and would in effect be a creed binding on all members of the Conference, and that this would mean the end of religious freedom for Unitarians. Both sides were equally devout, both held practically the same beliefs. It was the question whether to insist first of all upon beliefs, and whether it was willing to shut out any one from joining in its work simply because he did not profess certain beliefs. 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 and Righteousness and Love in the world.’29 The adoption of this resolution grievously disappointed the conservatives, who observed that the crucial religious words had been deliberately left out of the constitution, and the ethical words truth, righteousness and love had been substituted, so that even if an agnostic or an atheist sought admission as a Unitarian, the Conference would admit him. A few weeks later, therefore, the conservatives resigned from the Conference and organized a Western Unitarian Association to cooperate with the national Association in its missionary work: It had its own staff, opened a Chicago office, held a convention in Chicago with over thirty churches represented; maintained a monthly periodical, the Unitarian, and did what it could to discourage churches from cooperating with the Western Conference; though as it left all its executive work to the national Association it was for practical purposes hardly more than an organization on paper.
The Conference at its next meeting in 1887 voted by a strong majority to publish a noble statement of the beliefs generally held by its members, complementing the resolution passed the previous year, and carefully avoiding any doctrinal terms liable to be found objectionable. Despite this, controversy spread widely both east and west, and even to England, where the ‘western issue’ agitated the English Unitarian newspapers even more than the American; and it was repeatedly charged that the Western Conference had adopted an atheistic and non-Christian basis. In fact this charge was so far credited that the national Association for several years declined to cooperate with the Western Conference in missionary work, and had its own western agent. The controversy went on for several years with neither side yielding an inch. To both it seemed at the time to involve a fundamental principle of vital importance, though in time they came to understand and trust each other; and in 1896 the western churches were all again united in the Western Conference, whose Secretary has since been a Superintendent for the national Association. Meanwhile the National Conference had widened its constitution in 1882 in the direction of freedom;30 and the Western Conference in 1892 had at length declared its purpose to promulgate a religion in harmony with the statement referred to above. Thus the grave danger was averted which for some time had threatened that there might be two denominations of Unitarians in the West. The final sequel was that at the National Conference meeting in 1894 the Constitution was so revised as to satisfy both conservatives and radicals, and the action was taken unanimously by acclamation.31
From this point on there promised, after two generations of internal discord, to be a long period of wholesome growth. Under conditions thus guaranteeing full spiritual freedom, the life of the denomination bid fair to be healthy and its progress steady. New projects could now be undertaken with good heart. An important and promising missionary enterprise in Japan was undertaken in 1889, to be sustained by funds previously used for work in India, until the death of its leader made it necessary to discontinue the mission there. In 1896 a work of great and growing importance among the younger generation was begun in the formation of the Young People’s Religious Union, later named the American Unitarian Youth. Finally at the end of the century came a notable celebration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the American Unitarian Association. The attendance was large and enthusiastic, not only of Unitarians from all parts of the country, but also of representatives from nearly all countries abroad where liberal Christianity had been organized. This occasion brought to full realization the fact that the Unitarian movement had found its mission, and that its adherents in all lands are united by a common faith and devoted to a common purpose.
At this point, where American Unitarianism had attained more than double the strength it had when the National Conference was formed in 1865, it is convenient to conclude for the present our survey of its history. It was, indeed, at first intended to carry the history through the first quarter of the twentieth century, ending with the centenary of the British and American Associations. But real history has to be written in the past tense, and if it attempts to deal with the present it is liable to be merely a chronicle of what is still in process, whose setting in the whole historical stream is not yet clear, inasmuch as we are not yet in a position to see it in proper focus, and to judge its pregnant meanings fairly. However, we may at least glance at current developments, and ask what they seem to hint for the future. We see the body at last becoming efficiently organized with a broader outlook, the National Conference rechristened as the General Conference, and the National Alliance as the General Alliance; and the circle made complete by the organization of the Unitarian Laymen’s League; the national Association transformed into a delegate body, truly representative of the churches, with its policies reorganized and its invested funds greatly increased. We see Unitarianism extend its interest to the world at large in the organization in 1900 of the International Council of Unitarian and Other Liberal Religious Thinkers and Workers, later reorganized as the International Association for Liberal Christianity and Religious Freedom, whose purpose is to unite those in all lands who are striving to unite pure religion and perfect liberty; and when wars devastate half the world, we see the Unitarian Service Committee, joined by many from other bodies, take a leading part in relieving distress without regard to race or creed or nation. Thus, if we may venture from the tendencies it is manifesting in the twentieth century to infer how Unitarianism may be expected to develop in the future, we may hazard the judgment that while it shows no signs of reverting to forms of doctrine that it has outgrown, the present tendency seems to be to attach less importance to theological doctrines or ecclesiastical traditions, and to place increasing emphasis on the application of the principles and spirit of Christianity to the life of man in his social relations, while it tends to ever broader interpretations of its Christian inheritance as it advances toward an ideal goal of universal religion and universal ethics.32
Before taking final leave of our subject, it is proper that we should give a brief retrospective glance and ask how far this history has succeeded in accomplishing its purpose. As stated at the beginning, the undertaking was not to present a history of Unitarianism as a doctrinal system, but to trace the development of three controlling principles that have characterized the movement, namely: complete mental freedom, unrestricted reason, and generous tolerance of differences, in religion. The movement began by calling in question the authority of the creeds that restricted the thinking of men in religion. But this step did allow complete freedom to religious thought; for men abandoned the authority of the creeds only to substitute that of Scripture as supreme. The Socinians in Poland came to realize that in at least some cases even Scripture had to be submitted to the test of reason. In England, indeed, this transition came slowly, and it was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that Unitarians, following the leadership of Martineau, reluctantly began to abandon scripture as the prime source of religious truth; and the Americans, stimulated by the influence of Emerson and Parker, took the same step, and the leaders of their thought have now for two generations ceased to seek for prooftexts as authority for their religious beliefs. Acceptance of mutual tolerance as a guiding principle in religious thinking has been last to be achieved. Of course it is inevitable that free minds guided by the individual reason and conscience, and influenced by different factors, should often reach differing conclusions, and it is natural that having reached them they should conflict with each other. Hence have arisen most of the quarrels that have distracted Christendom. Now there are but two ways in which such conflicts may be resolved. The parties may abandon the hope of mental freedom and submit to the judgment of another, or else they may waive the effort to think alike as futile, or at all events incidental, while they agree nevertheless in working for the ends they have in common. This is the way of tolerance, in which men, though disagreeing in incidental matters, allow each other equal liberty of belief, and unite happily for practical ends which they have in common.
Freedom, reason and tolerance then are not the final goals to be aimed at in religion, but only conditions under which the true ends may best be attained. The ultimate ends proper to a religious movement are two, personal and social; the elevation of personal character, and the perfecting of the social organism, and the success of a religious body may best be judged by the degree to which it attains these ends. Only if the Unitarian movement, true to its principles of freedom, reason, and tolerance, goes on through them and finds its fulfillment in helping men to live worthily as children of God, and to make their institutions worthy of the Kingdom of Heaven, will its mission be accomplished.
Click here to open the frame set built to read this document.
This page was last modified
Sunday 12 November 2006.