HAVING IN THE PREVIOUS DIVISIONS of this work treated of the rise and development of the Unitarian movement or its equivalent in Socinianism in its two parent countries of Poland and Transylvania, and of its sequel in England, we are now to trace the history of its latest phase in the New World. Nothing would be more natural at first thought than to expect that here we should find American Unitarianism merely a transplantation into a fresh field of a religion already fully developed and organized in other countries, much as Socinianism in Holland was only a continuation of teachings and customs that religious exiles had brought with them from Poland. Such an expectation, however, would not be confirmed by the facts; for there is no evidence that the Socinianism of the Continent had more than the slightest influence, if any, on the development of Unitarianism in America, or that Socinianbooks were known or read in New England by any one at the time when Unitarianism was first taking shape there.1 Still less can Unitarianism in Massachusetts be accounted for as something brought over from England by the colonists that settled New England in the seventeenth century, for at that period the Unitarian movement had not yet arisen in England. Nor even when the Unitarian movement was becoming coherent here were there more than two or three places (besides perhaps three instances of abortive movements)2 in which there was any direct influence exercised by leaders of the Unitarian movement that at the end of the eighteenth century was slowly groping towards organized form in England. For the leaders of the nascent Unitarian church there were advocating views of Christ that made the very name Unitarian repugnant to most of the liberal Congregationalists in America.
Our movement, then, in the main sprang independently from native roots in the soil of New England Congregationalism, which in its turn had arisen from a fusion of the Pilgrim Colony of Plymouth and the Puritan Colonies of Salem and Massachusetts Bay, whose religion was a strict form of the Calvinism that their fathers had adopted in England. This was so far taken for granted that for a long time no assent to anything like a creed was required for admission to membership in the church. Instead, the Covenants which were accepted as their bond of union were simply voluntary mutual agreements with God's help to lead a Christian life.3 It is true that the candidate was sometimes requested to give an account of his personal religious experience, and that occasionally there was a confession of faith, though this was considered quite unnecessary; but it was well over a century before assent to a formal creed became the accepted tradition of the orthodox churches. There was of course a body of doctrine generally accepted among the colonial churches, and creeds or confessions of faith were sometimes adopted (as by the ‘Reforming Synod’ in 1680) as a sort of recognized standard, though they were not imposed as binding the churches. There were indeed laws to restrain ‘heresy,’ passed in 1646 and 1697, which remained on the books until 1780; but these were aimed not at spreaders of false doctrine, but at Catholics and Episcopalians, Baptists and Quakers, regarded as persons dangerous to public order or to peace in the community.
This use of undogmatic Covenants instead of Creeds in the admission of members to churches was of course not designed to encourage easy changes of belief, for orthodoxy was assumed without question, yet it undesignedly left the door wide open. For in a community where religion was a topic of all-absorbing interest, though most would accept a traditional system of belief without question, the more active minds, while perhaps not inclined to publish their doubts, would tend to regard some points as debatable. Hence within a generation or two the Calvinistic system had in a good many minds insensibly begun to dissolve, and in (Edward Johnson's) Wonder Working Providence (1654) there is already an early complaint of Arminians and Arians in the Colony.4
The Liberal movement whose origins we are now tracing was not at first concerned with the doctrine of the Trinity nor that of the Deity of Christ, though its progress is to be seen in efforts to soften down same of the articles so as to make them more agreeable to reason and Scripture. The first clear word to be spoken in this direction was by William Pynchon, gent, a wealthy Puritan of high standing who had come to New England in 1630 as one of the officers of the Massachusetts Company.5 In 1636 he removed to the Connecticut River and became founder of a new Colony later known as Springfield, of which he was Magistrate until 1651. In 1650 he published a small volume that produced great excitement at Boston,6 where the General Court at its next session solemnly protested against its many errors and heresies, and condemned it to be burned by the common hangman in the marketplace at Boston. The author, long a highly honored gentleman, now sixty years old, was ordered to appear before the General Court and answer for his book. It is not to the purpose to review the book here, beyond saying that while moderately Calvinistic it presented a view of the Atonement differing from the dominant orthodoxy of the day. The General Court, however, requested the Rev. John Norton of Ipswich, reputed for his scholarship, to prepare a reply to Pynchon's book.7 Pynchon presented to the Court a mollifying statement, which caused it somewhat to relax its attitude, and the case was allowed to drop. In the course of the year Pynchon returned to England, where in 1655 he published a rejoinder to Norton, with the original title expanded, and a text of three times the original length. He found sympathizers among the liberal Dissenters in England.
For well-nigh a generation after Pynchon's case there was no particular doctrinal disturbance in the Massachusetts churches. By the Cambridge Platform in 1648 their organization had been definitely settled, and the congregational polity established against threatened aggression of Presbyterianism; but the doctrine set forth in the Westminster and Savoy Confessions was not ratified until the “Reformed Synod” in 1680. However, pressure for broader civil liberty and more religious freedom had been silently growing; and when in 1684 the English Court of Chancery declared the charter of the Colony vacated, and when a new government directly subject to the Crown was chartered in 1691, the Puritan regime with its restricted liberties was at an end. Meanwhile the writings of the more liberal thinkers in England were freely circulated and read in Massachusetts, and were quietly influencing colonial thought — the rational and broad-minded Chillingworth, Locke, Milton, Baxter, Jeremy Taylor, Hutcheson, Tillotson; and the figures in the Trinitarian Controversy in the Church, Sherlock and South, Whiston and Clarke, all these mellowed the hard soil of the old Calvinism. The persecution of Emlyn at Dublin in 1703 was also noted, and called forth wide sympathy in Massachusetts; and echoes of the Arian controversy at Exeter, and of the doings at Salters’ Hall in 1719 were eagerly followed. As Arianism spread in England correspondence grew up between Arian preachers and writers there and some of the more independent spirits in Massachusetts.
Despite the earnest efforts of the ministers, therefore, the first intensity of religious faith could not be maintained. Leading ministers began to be alarmed, as appears from the annual Convention sermons.8 In his sermon of 1722 Cotton Mather sounded the alarm, lamenting that the ministers were neglecting to preach Christ; and the sermon of two years later echoed the complaint. But at just the time when the churches seemed to be growing ever more lax and indifferent to religion, there occurred a remarkable revival, known as the Great Awakening.9 It began at the end of 1734 at Northampton, where the whole community had been deeply stirred by the powerful and passionately earnest preaching of the minister, the Rev. Jonathan Edwards. The revival rapidly spread throughout Massachusetts and Connecticut, and excited great interest even in England. A little later it was carried to its greatest height by the Rev. George Whitefield from England, a revival preacher of phenomenal power, who had some years before come to America to assist John Wesley in his labors in Georgia. After preaching for some time in the southern and middle Colonies, he was in 1740 invited by the Rev. Benjamin Colman of the Brattle Square Church, Boston, to visit New England. In that year, and also in three subsequent visits, he preached in many towns to tremendous crowds and with great effect; and his efforts were followed by others’ during several years of intense and widespread religious excitement, marked withal by extreme emotionalism, wild fanaticism and narrow bigotry, until at length the fever burned itself out and the general religious interest subsided almost as suddenly as it had arisen. While the Great Awakening had the effect of arousing or deepening interest in true religion in many communities, yet on the other hand its emotional excesses, its fanatical spirit, and its reactionary, dogmatism had the opposite effect of alienating sober Christians, and among these not a few of the ablest and most honored ministers, who did not hesitate to raise their voices in behalf of a religion marked by sobriety and reasonableness.10
The real significance of the Great Awakening for the history of the Unitarian movement, however, is in its effect on the development of doctrine. The effort of the conservatives to revive Calvinism led to a cleavage among the ministers. On his first visit Whitefield spoke of the New England clergy as ‘dumb dogs, half devils and half beasts, spiritually blind, and leading people to hell,’ complained of the low state of religion at Harvard, and made a similar criticism of the clergy at Yale. He was especially disliked by the educated and refined, and his statements were so much resented that on his later visits he was not invited to preach at the colleges, and many pulpits were closed against him.11 From this time liberal tendencies were increasingly shown, and any inclination to soften the offensive features of Calvinism was blamed as heresy, and charges of being Arminian, Arian or Socinian were indiscriminately flung by the conservatives at all departing from the old doctrine. Even before 1750 over thirty ministers are said to have more or less departed from Calvinism, following the lead of Tillotson, Clarke, and other English liberals who were being more and more read, and sermons of the time in defence of the Trinity and the Divinity of Christ and other doctrines of Calvinism betray a sense that these were in danger. The cleavage above referred to is more marked in the writings of the conservative ministers, who made themselves guardians of the true faith during the second half of the century, than in those of the progressives, who went their own liberal way, and continued to read liberal English books, and to correspond with the authors, but were little inclined to engage in controversy. Jonathan Edwards saw such grave danger in Arminianism that he was moved to publish in 1754 his famous work on Freedom o f Will to defend it against the attacks of Whitby; and in the last year of his life he was so deeply concerned by the mischievous effects of the English Arian John Taylor's Scripture Doctrine of Original Sin 12 that he felt bound to write one of his most powerful works to counteract it. In the same year (1758) we find his gifted disciple, Joseph Bellamy, defending the Trinity which Mayhew had attacked; and in 1768 Samuel Hopkins, Edwards’s distinguished disciple, came all the way from Great Barrington to preach at Boston a sermon in which he told them to their face that a number of the Boston ministers much neglected, if they did not disbelieve, the doctrine of the Deity of Christ.13 The liberal ministers did not engage in controversy, yet doctrinal changes proceeded; and the Boston Association of Ministers, which had refused to recognize Mayhew, received into fellowship his successor, Simeon Howard,14 who from the first was regarded as unsound as to the Trinity.
The doctrinal change silently going on in spite of this conservative resistance was at first felt only as a vague undefined atmosphere, and it can best be treated only as it appears in the persons of outstanding representative individuals. By a gradual, almost unconscious, process in their thinking, they first ceased to emphasize certain doctrines as of vital importance, then left them out of account, and finally deliberately abandoned them from conviction, making no secret of their views. We take four of these progressive thinkers as examples of many. First to be mentioned is the Rev. Ebenezer Gay (1696–1787).15 After graduating from Harvard he became minister of the church at Hingham, where he had an unparalleled pastorate of nearly sixty-nine years. He had from the start the repute of being a fine scholar, and while yet a young man was esteemed one of the most learned among the ministers of New England. He was regarded as one of the ablest and most popular preachers of his period. One looks in vain in his sermons for any betrayal of his doctrinal position, for on principle he abstained from bringing controversial subjects into his preaching; though he was known to be liberal in his thinking, and as early as 1740 he took a decided stand with regard to the Trinity. Hence he has often been called the Father of American Unitarianism. Like all the ministers with whom he was most intimate, he was out of sympathy with the emotionalism, the fanatical spirit and the narrow dogmatism that marked the Great Awakening. His active service covers almost the whole period of the transition from the strict Calvinism of the first settlers to the emancipated Christianity of the last decade of the century, yet it is impossible to say just when the Hingham church crossed the dividing line. When he died his congregation had for two generations heard from his pulpit none of the doctrines of the old Calvinism, and they had long since abandoned these without being aware when or how, as was also the case with most of the congregations which silently became liberal without controversy or division. He was honored with the degree of Doctor of Divinity in 1785.
Near neighbor of Gay, and his contemporary during the middle of his long ministry, was the Rev. Lemuel Briant, minister of the North Precinct church in Braintree, which he served 1745–53. In 1749 he published a sermon (already preached in several of the churches) on ‘The Absurdity and Blasphemy of Depreciating Moral Virtue.’ Its liberal views disturbed some of the members of his church, and provoked answers from several of the neighboring ministers, with whom a controversy ensued that lasted a number of years. Though the body of his church agreed with him, a minority insisted on calling an Ecclesiastical Council to inquire into the soundness of his beliefs. Its competency was not acknowledged, and the majority of the church sustained their pastor. Although in the course of the controversy Briant had been called Arminian and Socinian, and John Adams sixty-five years later reckoned him as having been an early Unitarian, yet the questions of the Trinity and the Deity of Christ were not involved in the controversy. But as the greater part of the church decidedly took his side, and was ever afterwards aligned with the emerging liberal churches, it is perhaps fair to claim that this church was the earliest one clearly to take its stand on the liberal side. Briant was forced by ill health to resign in 1753, and died in the following year.16
The minister of greatest influence in Boston during the second half of the eighteenth century was the Rev. Charles Chauncy (1705–87), minister of the First Church for sixty years.17 Graduating from Harvard at sixteen he entered upon his sole pastorate at twenty-two. He was not noted for eloquence in the pulpit, but his preaching was marked by a gravity and deep earnestness which his hearers found most impressive. He was broad in his religious sympathies, and in the period before the Revolution he was a powerful advocate of liberty for the Colonies. His favorite authors were Archbishop Tillotson, Richard Baxter, and John Taylor. Though he did not indulge in sermons on disputed doctrines he exercized wide influence by his numerous published writings, through which he became the best known of the liberal leaders of his time; and though his congregation was not disturbed by any doctrinal quarrel it steadily grew more liberal during his ministry. At the time of the Great Awakening he sternly opposed the prevailing religious excitement, and in 1743 he published an elaborate work entitled Seasonable Thoughts on the State of Religion in New England, which entirely disapproved of the revival and its spirit and methods. Near the end of his life he published a work defending the salvation of all men; and after his death, when the inevitable division of the churches occurred, his congregation found itself spontaneously on the liberal side. He was early honored with the Doctor's degree from the University of Edinburgh.
Yet more prominent and aggressive in the interest of liberal religion was the Rev. Jonathan Mayhew (1720–66), minister of the West Church, Boston. He was of the fifth generation of a distinguished family that for a hundred and sixty years had been missionaries to the Indians on Martha’s Vineyard, was fitted for college by his father, and graduated with honor from Harvard at twenty-four. For the next three years he taught school, at the same time fitting himself for the ministry under the oversight of the Rev. Mr. Gay. He was at once called to the vacated pulpit of the West Church in Boston, which was but ten years old, but had already become suspected to be of doubtful orthodoxy. As he did not practice the customary reserve, but was outspoken in his opinions, it was well known that he did not believe in the Trinity; so that when it came to his ordination, the Boston ministers with one accord declined to assist in a Council, and they never invited him to join their Ministerial Association. Another, and larger Council was then called, consisting of liberal ministers outside of Boston, and he was ordained by them (1747). The ordination sermon was preached by his close friend, Mr. Gay of Hingham. Mayhew soon won attention by the eloquence, boldness and freedom of his sermons. He was familiar with the writings of such English liberal writers as Milton, Locke, Clarke, Whiston, and Taylor of Norwich, and was by temperament a radical, who spoke his views without disguise or equivocation. In 1749, two years after his ordination, he published a volume of sermons in which he strongly urged the duty of free inquiry and of private judgment in matters of religion, and opposed the use of creeds, especially the Athanasian, as tests. The volume was soon reprinted in England, and won him warm approval from prominent clergymen there. The result was that several of them (seconded by Governor Shirley) recommended him to the University of Aberdeen for the degree of Doctor of Divinity, which was conferred in 1749, when he was only thirty years of age.18
As Mayhew continued his correspondence with Arians and other liberals abroad, he grew bolder and more definite in his preaching, plainly preached the Unity of God by 1753, and in 1755 published it in a book of sermons.19 This gave the orthodox great offence, since it was the first time that one of the ministers had broken through their customary reticence and openly opposed the Trinitarian doctrine as unreasonable, unscriptural and self-contradictory. Preachers and lecturers in generous numbers rose in defence of the doctrines under attack. The Overseers of Harvard College seriously discussed whether Mayhew's attack on the Trinity should not be answered on the part of the College, but concluded that it would be advisable that nothing be done. Writings in the papers kept criticism alive, until in 1756 appeared an American reprint of Thomas Emlyn’s Humble Inquiry.20 The editor (‘G. S., a Layman’) refers to ‘the little pieces lately printed amongst us upon the other side as being quite superficial and wholly unworthy of public notice’; and while dedicating the book to ‘the Reverend the clergy of all Denominations in New England,’ he commends it to their attention, and thinks it calculated to be of great service to the cause of Christianity in the country.21 This publication so much concerned Jonathan Edwards in his remote retirement among the Stockbridge Indians that he wrote Dr. Edward Wigglesworth, Divinity Professor at Harvard, urging him to make an authoritative reply; and when the latter shrank from keeping the controversy alive, and advised that the matter be allowed to drop, he next appealed to another quarter for aid, from his son-in-law, President Aaron Burr of Princeton, who responded with a book on The Supreme Deity of Our Lord Jesus Christ.22 Evidence of the effect of Emlyn’s book appeared the same year in southern New Hampshire, where a group of the churches published at Portsmouth a revision of the Shorter Catechism, omitting the doctrine of the Trinity, and otherwise harmonizing it with the teachings of the English Arian John Taylor.23 Another outcome of the controversy appeared in 1758 at Leominster, where the Rev. John Rogers was dismissed from his pulpit for not believing the Divinity of Christ.24
From this time on until his premature death in 1766 Mayhew was ever more occupied and influential in political questions which were to issue only in the war with England, and it was natural that after his death he was called the father of civil and religious liberty in Massachusetts and America. Many years later Dr. James Freeman of King’s Chapel acknowledged him as the first public advocate in Boston of the strict Unity of God.25 As his views were unwaveringly supported by his congregation, and as all his successors shared them, his church though it never adopted the Unitarian name may be called the earliest Unitarian church in America.26 The type of belief represented by Mayhew quietly spread until well before the end of the century it was held by a large proportion of the churches in eastern Massachusetts. The four ministers above mentioned may be taken as fairly illustrating what was going on in liberal circles of the Massachusetts churches during the generation after the Great Awakening. None of these may truly be called Unitarian (although this has often been done), for while they had clearly ceased to hold the doctrine of the Trinity, they should not be considered more than Arian; and they did not regard their view as heresy since it was widely held in the English Church and by Dissenters. They reverenced Christ far above humanity, as a being worthy of the highest reverence short of Godhead, a sinless being, infallible, incarnating the power, wisdom and love of God, and the object of religious trust and love. They advocated simple, undogmatic Christianity, accepted the authority of the Bible, and hoped for salvation through faith in Christ.
In the account thus far given, we have been concerned solely with the Congregational churches. Before following the course of the movement among them further, we must turn to a movement in a quite different quarter. We shall see how a kindred tendency arose quite independently in an Episcopal church, which ended in its severance from the Church of England, and in its becoming closely associated with the liberal wing of the Congregational churches. King’s Chapel, Boston, was established in 1686 to accommodate those that wished to worship according to the Book of Common Prayer, and it was steadily used until March 1776, when the British troops evacuated Boston and the Rector, Dr. Henry Caner, went with them to Halifax, taking the church plate and other things. The congregation, mostly royalists, were dispersed, and the chapel was closed until late the next year, when use was granted to the congregation of the Old South Church, which had been desecrated by the British cavalry. They worshiped here until 1783, when their own church had now been restored. Meanwhile the remaining proprietors of the chapel resolved to resume their worship, and as no clergyman could at once be obtained, Mr. James Freeman, a recent graduate from Harvard, who had been preparing for the ministry, was in 1782 invited to serve as Reader, and later as Pastor, to conduct the worship, and to use his own or others’ sermons, with leave to omit the Athanasian Creed, and to make such other changes in the service as seemed best.27 But the scruples he already held as to the Trinity increased, and he felt ere long that he could no longer with good conscience use the Prayer Book as it was. He therefore took the members into his confidence, and at their request preached several sermons on Christian doctrine as he held it. They were heard with general sympathy, and as a consequence it was voted to revise the Liturgy, and a committee was appointed to recommend desirable changes. These were duly made and adopted June 19, 1785, and by this act ‘the first Episcopal church in New England became the first Unitarian church in America.’28 The changes were adopted by a vote of twenty to seven, and in the main were alterations shown in Dr. Samuel Clarke’s draft of a reformed Liturgy and adopted in Lindsey’s Reformed Prayer Book for Essex Street Chapel. The chief omissions were of the Athanasian and Nicene Creeds, and of passages concerning or implying the Trinity. Not all the changes that Mr. Freeman desired were made; but in 1811 a further revision was authorized, and the Apostles’ Creed was then omitted.29
The congregation still considered themselves Episcopalians, not meaning by their action to sever their connection with the Church. But their minister had never received ordination. When the American Episcopal Church was becoming sufficiently organized, separately from the Church of England, inquiry was therefore made of two of its leading clergymen whether ordination could be had for Mr. Freeman. When after considerable time it became apparent that no early reply, if any, could be expected, the society, weary of delays, determined after mature deliberation to ordain Mr. Freeman themselves, which was solemnly done November 18, 1787. 30
Just before Mr. Freeman's ordination a protest was given the Wardens, in which some of the former proprietors of the Chapel protested against the ordination, as well as against the revised Liturgy. The Wardens published an ample reply,31 fully vindicating the actions taken. A few weeks later, however, a more formal protest, signed by six clergymen of the Episcopal Church,32 was circulated in a handbill, and later reprinted in the newspapers at Mr. Freeman's request, declaring the proceedings to be irregular and unconstitutional, and cautioning all churchmen against recognizing Freeman as a clergyman of the Church, or holding any communion with him, or regarding his congregation as a valid Episcopal church. Though their ecclesiastical affairs were not sufficiently organized to decree a regular excommunication, this was regarded as virtually equivalent. No further attempt was made to secure episcopal ordination, and Freeman was henceforth ignored by the Episcopalians.33
Congregational ministers of Boston without exception treated the ordination as valid, and it was ably defended in the press by the Rev. Jeremy Belknap of the church in Long Lane, and the Rev. Joseph Eckley of the Old South, to whose congregation King’s Chapel had shown hospitality for more than five years during the late war, was the first to propose an exchange of pulpits with the newly ordained Mr. Freeman. But the Congregational churches in the main held aloof, for King’s Chapel had proceeded much faster and further in reformation of doctrine than any one but Mayhew had yet thought it well to do. Meanwhile news of the revised Liturgy had reached London in 1776 and was heard with great pleasure, and an intimate correspondence followed between Freeman and Lindsey, who presented to the library of Harvard College copies of his own and Dr. Priestley's works, which found eager readers. From now on writings of the English Unitarians were more and more read in America, where their works had hitherto been little known, but were now the more welcome since leading English Unitarians had openly sympathized with the Colonies in the late war, and were regarded as friends of the Americans.34
Perhaps no other group of the old New England churches followed the startling developments at King's Chapel with so little misgiving, or showed Mr. Freeman so prompt and hearty welcome, as was the case at Salem. Here were three old and prosperous churches whose core was made up of men engaged in foreign commerce as merchants or ship-masters. Their far travels to oriental lands had made them cosmopolitan in their sympathies, and their business contacts with high-minded heathen, whose business principles did not suffer from comparison with those of Christians, enlarged their religious views. In such an environment liberal views of Christianity naturally took root.35 They certainly ceased to be orthodox, though it is quite impossible to say when. These three churches had in the last quarter of the eighteenth century three young ministers lately out of Harvard. Youngest of the three was William Bentley (1759–1819) of the East Church. He was college classmate of Freeman, and both of them became pronounced Unitarians and very early exchanged pulpits. Bentley was a deeply learned man, and was said to understand twenty or more languages.
He took little interest in the Unitarian controversy; but his private diary shows that long before Channing he had become a bold disciple of Priestley, whose writings he was reading with approval in 1786, and whose views he preached in 1791. He received the degree of Doctor of Divinity from Harvard in 1819. John Prince (1751–1836) was minister of the First Church from 1779 on, and besides being diligent in his ministry he had a reputation both at home and abroad for his scientific discoveries, and was honored with the degree of Doctor of Laws from Brown University. But he was also a very learned theologian, and had a large and valuable theological library, filled with English Unitarian books. Although he refrained from controversy and continued to have friendly relations with both sides, it was well known that his sympathies were on the liberal side. Thomas Barnard (1748–1814) of the North Church did not betray his doctrinal opinions in his sermons, and some supposed him to be conservative; but when one of his parishioners, seeking to get him to commit himself said, “Dr. Barnard, I never heard you preach a sermon upon the Trinity,” he promptly replied, “And you never will.” He and his congregation had changed their ground so quietly that no one ever knew when the change took place. Both Edinburgh and Brown Universities honored him with the Doctor's degree.36
If the churches at Salem moved faster and further from the old theology than most others of the period, it was largely because they were directly influenced by English Unitarians. The decay of Calvinism in most of the other old churches came from their independent study of the Bible as the fountain of their doctrine, and it passed slowly through the stages of Arminianism and Arianism; but the more rapid transition of the Salem churches seems to have been due to the fact that Freeman directly interested them in the advanced writings of Priestley, who had already outgrown Arianism. Hence it was thirty years before the other churches reached the point at which the Salem churches had already arrived. This direct influence of English Unitarianism was also felt farther down the coast at Portland, where a Unitarian society was formed in 1792. The leader of the movement was an Episcopal layman, one Thomas Oxnard, a former resident who had returned to Portland from Boston in 1784. Meaning to enter the ministry he was appointed lay reader of the Episcopal church, and served in this office until 1792. But in Boston he had to come to know the lay reader at King's Chapel, Freeman, who gave him the works of Lindsey and Priestley to read and thus led him to adopt Unitarian views. In consequence, finding general sympathy in his congregation, he proposed to introduce a reformed Liturgy, and when one or two leading members opposed this, the majority seceded, formed the Unitarian Society, and chose Oxnard as their minister. This was the earliest church in the country to adopt the Unitarian name, and both Freeman and Bentley of Salem made contributions to it; but it survived only a few years. Oxnard died in 1799, and no successor was found. Some of the members returned to the Episcopal church, and some were absorbed into the First Parish, which later became Unitarian.37
Another instance of an effort to transplant Unitarianism directly from England is found in an ephemeral movement in New York. Early in 1794 one John Butler, a layman arrived from Bristol the previous autumn, inserted in the Daily Advertiser, New York, an address ‘to the clergy,’ and at the end of February he inserted a notice inviting ‘the Friends of Free Inquiry’ to a course of lectures on the Unity of God, to be given at Mr. Barden’s large assembly room in Cortlandt Street near Broadway, the same to be followed by questions and discussion, and to be continued on subsequent evenings.38 The audiences grew to an extent which alarmed the clergy, who bitterly attacked the movement, and a public debate was held. The city was at the time much infected by French infidelity, and Butler apparently aimed to controvert this, though not on orthodox grounds. Early in March the First Unitarian Society of New York was organized; but Butler soon fell ill, and after May we hear no more of it. The clergy, however, girded themselves for an imminent struggle, for an English visitor writes of them shortly after (June 15, 1794), ‘They are really afraid of Dr. Priestley, and are preparing publications against Unitarianism, making no doubt of a complete victory.’39 Priestley landed early in June40 and was received with particular distinction by many prominent citizens and with formal addresses from a number of societies, but no pulpit was open to him.
After two weeks in New York Priestley proceeded to Philadelphia where he had numerous friends old and new, and thence to his destination at Northumberland, where his sons had settled. He soon had flattering invitations to teach in various colleges, and also to give courses of lectures, but he declined them all and built a residence and laboratory, evidently hoping to find settlement and to pursue his favorite calling as a preacher, and his favorite recreation as a chemist. He at once began holding religious worship every Sunday, and administering the Lord's Supper at his own or his son's house, to which perhaps a dozen English friends came, gradually increasing to twenty or thirty, and later meeting regularly in a log schoolhouse nearby.41 It does not appear, however, that a regular church organization was formed. But in the winter of his second year he spent three months in Philadelphia, where he was given the use of the Universalist pulpit,42 and delivered twelve lectures on the Evidences of Christianity, to which he added a sermon on Unitarianism. His lectures were given to crowded audiences, and were attended by the Vice-President and many of the members of Congress, the seat of government still being at Philadelphia. The success of these lectures so much encouraged him that in the spring of 1797 he delivered a second series, this time in the University common hall, but for various reasons they were not nearly so well attended, and he attempted no more public addresses.
A more far-reaching result of his visit to Philadelphia was the gathering of the first permanent Unitarian church in America.43 Since 1790 many Englishmen had come to the United States, Unitarians among them; and during his first visit to Philadelphia in 1796 Priestley became acquainted with a number of them, and encouraged them to form a Unitarian church, even though they had no minister. Early in the following summer, and without further suggestion from him, fourteen English Unitarians, mostly young men, met and formed The First Society of Unitarian Christians in Philadelphia. The leaders of the young church were John Vaughan, of a family prominent in the Unitarian cause in England and afterwards in America; Ralph Eddowes, who had been Priestley’s pupil at Warrington, sometime Member of Parliament for London, and had now come to Philadelphia in 1793, and James Taylor. Eddowes was apparently the leading spirit. It was agreed that meetings should be held every Sunday at the usual hour, and that the services should be conducted by the members in rotation; though before long the office of reader was taken by only the three named, and they soon began to write their own sermons.
After being for a time driven from place to place they found rest in Church Alley, where the little church for a time grew beyond Priestley’s expectations. But a severe epidemic of yellow fever carried off several of the members, while others removed from town, and by 1800 numbers had sadly declined, so that Priestley despaired of the cause. Still a handful continued to meet every Sunday, and when Priestley was again in town early in 1803he preached to a considerable number. Congregations began to grow again so much that he judged that a settled preacher would be acceptable, and late in 1803 he recommended that the Rev. William Christie, who was just leaving Northumberland, be called.44 At length, at the end of 1806, the members invited him to be their minister, and he began preaching in February, 1807, while still continuing to teach. The church was reorganized, and a Constitution was adopted; but as Christie thought this gave too much power to the members and too little to the minister, he withdrew with a minority faction and formed an Independent Society of Unitarian Christians, which however did not survive.45 The parent church continued holding lay services until 1825, when after twenty-nine years of lay preaching a minister was settled.46 A church building had meantime been erected with English aid in 1813.47
Having traced the beginnings of the liberal movement in the places or regions where it first developed, down to the point where division of the churches was impending, we can now survey the field as it lay in the last decade of the eighteenth century, while the Congregational Church, though embracing a wide diversity of opinions and feelings, was still unbroken. During the absorbing period of the American Revolution, discussion of religious questions was of course postponed, so that there was no general controversy; and the liberal ministers confined themselves to preaching practical sermons, and let dogmas and creeds alone, urging generous tolerance as to points on which there was disagreement. During the war the orthodox had relaxed their vigilance; but when the war had passed, the teachings of Edwards and his followers, which had all along strongly prevailed in Western Massachusetts and Connecticut, somewhat revived in the eastern counties. The conservative churches began to awake, to cultivate a more active and earnest religion, and to be more sensitive to the doctrines heard from the pulpit.48 A Great Awakening redivivus seemed to be taking place, and churches began to require those joining them to subscribe creeds, and to ask candidates for ordination to the ministry to submit to a searching examination.
The liberals on their part were not indifferent. In 1790 Emlyn’s Humble Inquiry which had caused so much anxiety a generation ago was reprinted and called forth two replies. Some of the leading English Unitarians, whose sympathies had been with the Colonies, had also maintained correspondence with a number of the liberals in Massachusetts from 1785 on, and sent over their religious writings along with the political, and these were read as the words of friends, so that Bentley at Salem was openly preaching the views of Priestley as early as 1791. The Rev. Jeremy Belknap (1744–98), formerly at Dover, N. H., was called in 1787 to be minister of the Federal Street Church. He was already known as author of a History o f New Hampshire, but was not known to be one of the liberal wing; but in 1793 he published (anonymously) a life of Isaac Watts,49 which set many to doubting the doctrine of the Trinity; and between 1779 and 1792 he had abandoned the deity of Christ; and in 1795 he published (with the collaboration of Jedidiah Morse!) a Collection of Psalms and Hymns, which omitted any reference to the Trinity but was designed to be acceptable to Arians, and was very widely used in the Boston churches.50 From this time on the liberal churches in Boston abandoned the use of Trinitarian doxologies in favor of Scriptural ones.
When the Rev. Ashbel Green, a young Presbyterian minister from Philadelphia (later to be President of Princeton College) made a summer tour of the New England States, and visited the more important churches and ministers in the summer of 1791, he noted that many of the ministers were unsound in the faith, and that the Boston clergy included Calvinists, Universalists, Arminians, Arians, and one Socinian, though Freeman was the only professed Arian.51 When ten years later the Rev. Archibald Alexander, President of a college in Virginia (later to be founder of Princeton Theological Seminary) made a similar tour, he found the situation yet worse. Heretics of various types were found, though they agreed on no point save opposition to the Trinity. All the talented young men at Harvard were reported to be liberal, and generally to ridicule orthodox views, while conservative ministers were attempting to stem the tide by introducing creeds and confessions of faith as tests.52 It was reported that in 1800 out of the 200 churches east of Worcester County 125 were liberal, as were 18 out of 20 in Plymouth County, and 8 out of 9 in Boston.53
In the pulpits of the Boston churches, however, there was during this period no doctrinal controversy, for all the Congregational churches had liberal ministers.54 Not a single strictly Trinitarian minister remained. It was not fair to call these liberal churches Unitarian, in the sense in which the name was then used in England where it had originated,55 for they wholly disagreed with the views that Priestley and Belsham were emphasizing, which seemed to them extreme; and Priestley received no welcome from the Boston liberals when he came to America in 1794. But on principle they abstained from pulpit controversy as unprofitable, confined their preaching to practical undogmatic themes, cultivated personal relations with their orthodox brethren, exchanged pulpits with them, and joined with them in the same programs at Councils, ordinations and dedications. In fact, it looked as though Massachusetts Congregationalism were on the way to become a simple, undogmatic form of religion, attaching little fundamental importance to creeds, but leaving each person free to be as liberal or as conservative as he pleased, while all strove together to cultivate reverent, positive Christian personal character, and to promote a Christian civilization. Nevertheless, despite all wishes and hopes of lovers of peace and harmony, it must have been evident that though there was as yet no division, yet sooner or later questions now evaded or suppressed must come up for settlement, and that to bring them to the fore there was needed only some situation calling for positive action. Such a situation was to arise early in the nineteenth century, and the person to take the most active part in agitating it during the next twenty-five years was the Rev. Jedidiah Morse, with whom the next chapter will have to deal.
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