ALTHOUGH IN 1800 no general public controversy had as yet arisen among the Congregational churches, still it was every year more evident that material was accumulating which at some critical juncture would burst forth into flame. As the churches were constituted, no action could be taken by the denomination as a whole, but only by separate independent congregations; and differences in these could arise whenever a new minister was to be called, or an existing one was for any cause to be dismissed. In such a case the line was likely to be drawn between the evangelicals (as they preferred to call themselves) and the liberals; and unless there was a predominating general agreement, members would be divided, according to their preference for a conservative candidate from Andover (after the establishing of the Seminary there in 1808), or for a liberal one from Harvard. Even before the turn of the century there were a few cases of such divisions. The earliest was in the church at Worcester. Here Aaron Bancroft 1 (1755–1839), lately graduated from Harvard with high honors, preached as a candidate, and was the choice of an influential minority of the congregation; but he had already rejected the theology of Calvin and was a convinced Arian, while the majority preferred a conservative. His friends therefore chose to separate, and in the face of determined and heated opposition from the conservatives they succeeded in withdrawing and organizing the Second Church in 1784. He was ordained in February, 1786, Dr. Barnard of Salem preaching the sermon. This was the first church in New England to separate on doctrinal grounds, and to organize on a basis of complete religious liberty. At a time when some of the churches were beginning to draw the lines more strictly, and requiring members to subscribe creeds or confessions of faith, Bancroft’s new church adopted as their bond of union simply belief in the Scriptures as the sole rule of faith and practice. He had taken his stand even earlier than Freeman, and they had consulted about the latter’s ordination, in which he was to assist had not the King’s Chapel society decided to ordain him themselves.2 Early in his ministry he and his people were largely ostracized by the other churches, and the other ministers refused to exchange pulpits with him, denounced, reviled and shunned him; but he continued until he had won universal respect and had become one of the leaders in his denomination.
Another case of division on doctrinal grounds was at Taunton, where in 1792 the entire Church except four members, in protest against the possible dismissal of the minister as too orthodox and the selection of a successor of questionable character, seceded and organized another society.3 A much more interesting case was that of the original Pilgrim church at Plymouth, where in 1800, on the death of a revered conservative pastor a very large majority of both Church and parish, now grown liberal, chose a liberal as his successor. The conservative minority, however, were discontented, and after a year half the members of the Church withdrew and organized a new church subscribing to the orthodox faith.
Yet a fourth instance of a church dividing over doctrinal questions at the turn of the century was at Fitchburg, where the Rev. Samuel Worcester was settled in 1797, at a period when many revivals were in progress. In the course of the next year he had the covenant of the Church and its confession of faith revised and made more strict. There were numerous Universalists in the congregation who strongly opposed his Calvinistic preaching, especially his six sermons on eternal punishment, and opposition increased and dissension continued, while a succession of church Councils vainly attempted a settlement. At length in 1802 the minister was dismissed.4 After a few months he was settled over the Tabernacle Church at Salem, where a dozen years later he took an active part in a notable discussion of Unitarianism with Channing.
While these few congregations in the last decade of the eighteenth century were already heralding the inevitable separation of the evangelical from the liberal elements in the denomination, efforts continued to be made either to avoid or else to hasten the decisive step. As early as the seventies the Convention5 sermons had begun to reflect the doctrinal situation. In his sermon of 1768 John Tucker of Newbury urges tolerance of difference of opinion instead of insistence on doctrines of human origin. In the sermon of 1772 President Samuel Locke of Harvard, referring to attacks upon religion (apparently intending Deism) in books imported from overseas, shows a broad and tolerant spirit. In 1793 Thomas Barnard of Salem cries out against bigotry, and recommends making a kind allowance for different views of Christian doctrine; but in the following year Chandler Robbins of Plymouth insists that catholicity must not be construed as indifference in belief. Thus far the Convention sermons had mostly commended peace, forbearance and Christian charity toward brethren in the ministry; but with the new century an attempt was made to force liberals from the Convention,6 and it came to be tacitly taken for granted that the sermon should alternate between the two parties and emphasize differences more than agreements. Thus Dr. Emmons in 1804 urged the importance of unity in belief and doctrine, opposed tolerance toward differences and fraternal association with the unorthodox, and found many to echo his sentiments. Dr. Joseph Lyman of Hatfield in 1806 called for emphasis on the fundamental doctrines, stressing total depravity and the Divinity of Christ; while the next year John Reed of Bridgewater, though warning against indifference, made a fine plea for broad and wise tolerance, defending diversity of opinion and opposing divisions with their censorious judgments in matters of faith. Finally in 1810 Dr. Eliphalet Porter of Roxbury, hitherto ranked among the conservatives, would demand nothing beyond belief that Jesus was the Christ. Belief as to the doctrines of Calvin and orthodoxy is of so little importance that he will neither affirm nor deny them, since they are not essential to Christian faith or character, while complexity of doctrine alienates men from Christianity.
This unstable equilibrium among the ministers began in 1789 to be upset by the accession to the evangelical party of an able and active aggressor in the person of the Rev. Jedidiah Morse (1761–1826) of Woodstock, Conn., who was called to the church at Charlestown, where he was for nearly thirty years the outstanding champion of the orthodox cause in Massachusetts. He was a graduate of Yale where he had briefly taught, and he had had a brief pastoral experience.7 He was known to be a moderate Calvinist, but he at once joined the Boston Association of Congregational Ministers, and despite known differences of belief he exchanged pulpits and had fraternal relations with the members for over twenty years. The clergy were averse to having anything said that might provoke controversy, nevertheless it was not long before he felt called upon to make his stand. A reprint of Emlyn’s Humble Inquiry, which had stirred up controversy about the Trinity a generation before,8 was announced, and he felt in duty bound to bear witness. When his turn came therefore to preach the Thursday Lecture,9 he improved the opportunity to deliver three successive lectures on the Divinity of Christ. He realized that his was but a voice crying in the wilderness, and he confessed that he stood solitary among his brethren in the public defence of this doctrine; and eventually he withdrew from the Boston Association, joined a new Union Association of orthodox ministers, and no longer exchanged pulpits with the Boston brethren. For the present, however, nothing interrupted the outward harmony, although he early felt it important that, if the alarming spread of Arianism was to be halted, the two parties must separate and the orthodox must be effectively organized.
The first open disturbance of harmony came in 1803, when the death of Dr. David Tappan, Professor of Divinity at Harvard, left the Hollis Professorship vacant. This chair had been endowed in 1721 by Thomas Hollis (1659–1731), a wealthy Dissenting merchant of London. The first and most generous of six benefactors of Harvard who bore this name, he was by profession a Baptist,10 as was his father before him. It now became a crucial question whether the professor appointed should be of the orthodox or of the liberal persuasion. Appointments to the faculty were made by the Corporation, a body of six members, and must be confirmed by the Board of Overseers, which consisted partly of members of the State government and partly of ministers of Congregational churches in the six adjoining towns; but at the time of Tappan’s death the Corporation was evenly divided, so that no choice could be agreed upon. The liberal candidate was the Rev. Henry Ware, Dr. Gay's successor at Hingham, and the orthodox candidate was the Rev. Jesse Appleton, later President of Bowdoin College. Ware was known to be an Arian, but when the orthodox charged that he was a Unitarian, the charge was indignantly denied as a calumny. Election hung fire for more than a year, virulent discussion meanwhile going on privately and in the press. At length the Corporation took the matter up, and after six meetings with no result the dead-lock was broken and choice was made, February 5, 1805, of Ware.11 A week later, at a largely attended meeting of the Overseers, after a heated debate in which Dr. Morse took the leading part for the opposition, the election of Ware was ratified by a vote of 33 to 23. Dr. Morse was violently criticized by the liberals as having been influenced in his opposition by theological considerations. To justify his opposition he published in reply a pamphlet12 in which he took the ground that Hollis was a consistent Calvinist, who intended that the incumbent of the chair he endowed should be an adherent of that faith, and that to elect him without examination of his belief would be a gross breach of trust. The Corporation on the other hand held that Hollis had required only that the professor at his inauguration should declare his belief that the Bible is the only and most perfect rule of faith and manners, and they declined to impose any further test than this.13
Professor Eliphalet Pearson, who also had opposed Ware’s election, and had been acting-President, was so cast down by it that when he was also defeated for President he despaired of being able any longer to do the College useful service, at once resigned his chair, and withdrew from the Corporation. Dr. Morse also resigned as Overseer. For this election, soon followed by that of four other liberal men, made it clear that control of the College had passed out of the hands of the conservatives. This experience therefore determined them to establish an institution that should remain forever under strict orthodox control. Hence these two, together with some wealthy Calvinistic friends at Andover, now formed a plan to found there a school for the training of ministers. It fell out that about the same time a group of Hopkinsians were incubating a plan for a similar institution at Newbury; and though these two orthodox factions had been on anything but friendly relations, their common hostility to the liberals led them to overlook their mutual differences in order to present a united front against their common enemy.14 It called for adroit maneuvering to bring about hearty cooperation between both parties, but as a result the Andover Theological Seminary was opened in 1808 with an able faculty and a handsome endowment. To ensure that its theological purity should never be impaired, as Harvard's had been, its Constitution (practically Morse’s work) provided that its Professors should subscribe an elaborate Calvinistic creed, and should renew their subscription every five years, and that the creed should “forever remain entirely and identically the same, without the least alteration, addition or diminution.”15 The new Seminary, the first institution of its kind in America, filled its place worthily for several generations.16
Dr. Morse was also exerting his efforts in another quarter. As a newcomer to Massachusetts he complained at length in print of the low standard of the churches as to the beliefs of the ministers and the disuse of creeds and confessions, and he therefore urged a closer organization as a safeguard against the spread of heresy. But he found the churches united only in a loose Ministerial Convention which did hardly more than meet once a year and listen to a sermon. There were indeed some local Associations, though they were stubbornly devoted to their traditional Congregational independence, and jealous of any infringement of it. But in 1802, largely as a result of Morse’s efforts, steps were taken looking toward a closely organized State Ministerial Association on the basis of the Westminster Catechism. A hundred years before Cotton Mather had recommended the establishment of Consociations,17 which should settle questions arising between ministers and churches. These were indeed formed in Connecticut early in the eighteenth century, though opposed in Massachusetts. Had they been adopted as Morse’s committee recommended, the churches would have surrendered their individual independence and become subjected to the jurisdiction of a Consociation. Thus a conservative majority in the Consociation could outlaw a liberal congregation — which was precisely what Dr. Morse sought to make possible. But when the plan was submitted to the General Association in 1815it was not favored, and it was not heard of again. Thus this scheme for thwarting liberal tendencies in the churches came to naught.18
At the beginning of the nineteenth century various elements were tending to sharpen the differences between the churches, and foreshadowing a coming division. These were to be discerned in new periodicals, in new voices in the pulpit, in books proclaiming new doctrines, in congregations dividing between the old faith and the new, in popular movements of minor denominations reaching out for a new freedom; and in contrast to these a reactionary current of influences attempting to restore and confirm the faith of the fathers, and to fortify its institutions against insidious or open attack. First of these heralds was the Monthly Anthology (1804–11),the first literary and critical magazine of note published in America.19 It was published by a club of young gentlemen, mostly liberals,20 and though it was not theological in its purpose, at the very beginning of the Unitarian Controversy it incidentally contained several articles that vigorously supported the liberal views. To counteract this Dr. Morse in the next year at his own expense founded the Panoplist (1805–22),which he at first largely wrote himself. It soon had a circulation of 2,000 and carried on a vigorous, aggressive warfare against the liberals, persistently trying to draw them out and openly to confess and defend their views. The Panoplist while it lasted doubtless did more than any other single agency to kindle and inflame the controversy.
At about the same time several new voices in the pulpit were claiming attention. In 1803 William Ellery Channing, not yet aggressively liberal, though from the beginning of his ministry he had scrupulously abstained from any expression implying the Trinity, became minister of the Federal Street Church at the age of twenty-three; Joseph Stevens Buckminster two years later came to the Brattle Square Church when not quite twenty-one; and William Emerson, Samuel Cooper Thacher, and Edward Everett entered their brilliant but brief ministries in Boston. In conservative pulpits also there were notable recruits. Dr: Morse in 1808 procured for his friend the Rev. Joshua Huntington settlement as colleague pastor of the Old South Church, and a few months later the Rev. John Codman was ordained as minister of the Second Church in Dorchester, Channing taking part in the ordination of both; and in 1811 Dr. Edward D. Griffin became pastor of the new Park Street Church, where he eloquently expounded the system of Calvinism in its strictest Hopkinsian form.
From various quarters printed books made their. contribution; and in this period several English Unitarian books were reprinted in Boston. In 1805 the Rev. Hosea Ballou, the most eminent and influential of the early preachers of Universalism, published a book of Universalist doctrine in which he plainly took issue with the doctrine of the Trinity.21 This was the first book in America openly to deny this doctrine, though it probably did not much influence the current of Unitarian thought. Later in the same year the Rev. John Sherman (1772–1824) of Mansfield, Conn. published a book which reflects the influence of Priestley, and shows a painstaking study of the New Testament teaching. It also shows acquaintance with the writings of scholars, and after examining and confuting scriptural arguments for the Trinity, gives positive grounds for believing that Christ was distinct from God, inferior to him and dependent upon him. This was the first detailed attack made in America against the orthodox dogma.22
A few years later Noah Worcester (1758–1837), an honored country minister in New Hampshire, who had been influenced by no Unitarian writing and had conversed with no Unitarian, but had given some years to serious investigation of the Bible teaching on the subject, published a book on the Trinity which, though not actually Unitarian indeed, but only mildly Arian, yet stirred up angry controversy among his brother ministers, lest they be suspected of sharing his views.23 He had previously discussed his views with numerous ministers of the Association to which he belonged, and they had taken no offence; but no sooner had he put them into print than they hastened to pass a vote condemning the work, attacked him bitterly, and even maligned his personal character. He was deeply grieved at such treatment from those who had hitherto been his professed friends, and at being virtually driven out of his church; but his little book produced a marked impression throughout New England, provoked several replies, and called forth sympathy from some of the leading ministers.24 Channing therefore, with three others, asked him to become editor of a new religious periodical, the Christian Disciple, which it was felt that the liberal cause needed to replace the Monthly Anthology and the General Repository. He edited the Christian Disciple from its beginning in 1813 to 1818, and in 1824it was succeeded by the Christian Examiner. While he gave a measure of attention to liberal movements among the churches, and published two or three minor theological works before his death in 1837,25his deeper interest was in Christian philanthropies and reforms, and he eventually gave himself fully to the peace movement, organized the Massachusetts Peace Society, transferred his editorial activity from the Christian Disciple to the Friend of Peace, and was named “the Apostle of Peace.”
Besides these definite trends, there were several premonitory signs of a more general character. Among the common people at large there were in various quarters vague stirrings of religious unrest, and of discontent with the prevailing religion. In New England the new preachers of Universalism, brought over from England, found a hearing from many souls that would fain have the inspirations of religion, but recoiled from orthodoxy with its insistence on the doctrine of eternal punishment. Hence the early Universalists’ revolt from Calvin, though they were not as yet troubled about the doctrines of God and Christ. Among members of the Society of Friends there arose a demand for greater liberty of belief, which led to separation of the Hicksites from the Orthodox. Early in the century, after a great revival in the Western States, the Presbyterian General Assembly had deposed between forty and fifty preachers for denying the Trinity and asserting the Unity of God.26 In the border States between North and South there grew up a widespread revolt against all creeds and confessions, embodied in the rigid doctrinal system of the prevailing Presbyterianism. The demand was instead for a return to the Bible itself for religious teaching, and to make obedience to Christ's teaching the sole test, and they adopted no distinctive name, but called themselves only Christians. A Unitarian minister returning from extensive travels in the western country reported that these simple Christians numbered about 1,000 congregations and published their own newspaper. They resembled the Methodists, but rejected the Trinity. A similar group known as Christians spread through New England. Eventually these scattered companies grew together under the name of Christians. All these were indications that the religious world was on the edge of a new realignment, of which the Unitarian controversy was but one outstanding example.
Cleavage between the two wings of Congregationalism had begun, as we have seen, even a little before the turn of the century. We have already noted the cases of churches divided at Worcester, Taunton, Plymouth, and Fitchburg. Instances tended to multiply. In 1798 at Brimfield, Mass., a church Council refused to install a minister because he was not sound as to the Divinity of Christ; heated criticism followed, and a few months later another Council accepted him. In 1805 the Rev. John Sherman, graduate of Yale, who in 1797 had settled at Mansfield, Conn., as strongly orthodox, had grown more liberal, though his preaching had been acceptable to the congregation. One of his deacons, however, complained of him as unsound in the faith, and when his Church would take no action, appealed to the Ministerial Association, which voted to suspend him from membership, and threatened to disfellowship the whole Church if they retained him. To prevent such a catastrophe he withdrew to visit friends on the western frontier, in the little village of Oldenbarnevelt (later Trenton, now Barnevelt), N. Y., having now published his book attacking the Trinity.27 By his preaching here he so much attracted the people that they invited him to become their pastor, and having obtained a due dismissal from the church at Mansfield he accepted the call. Even after he had removed, his old church urged him to return to them, but he wisely declined. He thus became the first minister of what was to be the earliest Unitarian church in the State.28
At Deerfield, a town in the Connecticut valley as yet unsullied by liberalism, Samuel Willard (1776–1859) was called in 1807 to the ministry of the town church. The customary Council from neighboring churches was called to ordain him, but when they had put him under examination as to his beliefs, they decided that he did not believe in the Divinity of Christ, nor in several other articles of accepted Calvinism. They therefore refused to ordain him. The church refused to consent to this dictation by other churches, and called a second Council, from the eastern part of the State, which unanimously voted in his favor, and he entered on a long ministry in which he was ‘the pioneer of liberal thought in Western Massachusetts,’ but was excluded from exchanging pulpits with his neighbors.29 In the following year a more famous case occurred at Dorchester, in the recently formed Second Church, where antagonism between orthodox and liberal became extreme and ended in a separation between them. This church was composed of both elements, which had thus far been at peace with each other, and in 1808 they called the Rev. John Codman 1782–1847) to their pulpit, the Rev. Mr. Channing (not yet aligned as a liberal) preaching his ordination sermon. Codman was a pronounced conservative, and to obviate any misunderstanding he announced that, if elected, his ministry would follow the orthodox line; and he presented a very orthodox confession of faith. After a year some dissatisfaction arose over his failure to exchange pulpits with some of the Boston ministers who were liberals, though he was a member of their Association. When some of his members therefore asked that he include these in his list of exchanges, he declined to give any pledge as to what he would do. Dissatisfaction therefore increased, and bitter strife ensued during two years, until at length two successive Councils were called to consider the situation. Though a decision was reached only by the chairman’s casting the deciding vote, no peace was secured, and eventually a compromise was made, under which the complainants withdrew from the parish and were repaid the value of the pews they owned. In the summer of 1813 they erected a new meeting-house and formed a new church.30 Codman’s refusal to exchange pulpits with liberals was the first step in that ‘exclusive policy’ which from now on was more and more followed by the orthodox, and in twenty years had become the well-nigh universal rule.31
As early as 1807 Dr. Morse formed a plan to strengthen the orthodox cause by building a large and handsome church in the heart of Boston to serve as a center of orthodox operations. In 1809 the plan was mature, and a church was organized, largely of members of the Old South Church. The three churches in Cambridge, Charlestown and Dorchester cooperated, but the Old South Church and the Federal Street Church declined to be on the Council. The Westminster Shorter Catechism was adopted; and members were liable to be tested by a strictly Calvinistic confession of faith. The new building, known as Park Street Church, was dedicated the following winter, and eventually became a sort of cathedral to the orthodox Congregationalists. Some difficulty was experienced in finding a minister, but at length Professor Edward D. Griffin resigned his chair at Andover and was installed in 1811. He was an eloquent preacher, who presented bald Calvinism without apology, and sermons like his on ‘The Use of Real Fire in Hell’ brought upon his church the popular title of ‘Brimstone Corner.’ But his ministry was not a success, the church was burdened with debt, the pews were reported to be half empty,32 and in 1815 he withdrew.
The church at New Bedford divided on a question over the ministry. After the death of the venerable and honored Dr. Samuel West his pulpit remained for some years with irregular and occasional preachers. Finally the Church within the parish grew dissatisfied with the parish committee, and when they were unable to obtain any improvement they voted in 1810 to secede and worship separately — a vote of twelve members of the Church against the whole parish. The remaining minority of the Church reorganized and went on as before, without any public controversy over doctrines; although it is true that the seceders were in fact aggressive and militant Calvinists, but too few to form an effective party33
Liberal Christianity did not much disturb the peace of churches in Connecticut at this period, for the ecclesiastical organization there was designed to hold it strictly in check; but in 1811 at Coventry there was a case that attracted considerable attention. The Rev. Abiel Abbot from Massachusetts was settled over the church here in 1795, being presumably orthodox, but after some seven years, though his preaching had given no offence, suspicions of his personal orthodoxy began to be entertained. When personal interviews with him proved unsatisfactory, his Church sought advice of the Association, and this advised bringing him before the Consociation, although Abbot did not acknowledge its authority. This body duly voted to depose him from the ministry for proved heresy as to the Trinity, the Death of Christ, and the Atonement. His parish therefore called a second Council, composed of members from Massachusetts, and he continued preaching as before. The second Council absolved him of heresy, indeed, but in view of all the circumstances recommended that he withdraw, which he did in 1811. Though he had not proclaimed his views from the pulpit, Abbot was undoubtedly an Arian in conviction.34
At Sandwich, Mass. separation of another type took place. The Minister, the Rev. Jonathan Burr, had grown strongly Calvinistic, whereupon the parish being dissatisfied dismissed him (1811) by a narrow majority. Upon this, his adherents, including a large majority of the members of the Church, withdrew and built a new meeting-house, leaving a small remnant of the Church with the majority of the parish to continue the old organization.35
No two cases of division were alike. In the church at. Brooklyn, Conn., the junior pastor, the Rev. Luther Willson, who had been settled in 1813, became convinced after long study of the question that his Calvinistic faith lacked scriptural foundation, and in a series of sermons to his people he declared his conclusions, and avowed his Unitarian belief. Complaint against him was made to the Consociation, which decreed in 1817 that he was no longer pastor of the Church nor to be recognized as a minister; also that the Church, which had long been known as liberal, and had not required of members a profession of belief in the Trinity and the Deity of Christ should, if it retained him, be cut off from the fellowship of the churches. The Church resisted the decree and sustained their minister; but to prevent a division among his people he resigned. Division occurred nevertheless; the orthodox minority seceded in a Church by themselves, and the remaining parish affiliated with the Unitarians. This is the sole instance in the early history of the Unitarian movement in which Unitarianism gained a firm foothold in Connecticut.36
Only one other case of church division need be mentioned. The First Church in Springfield, after the retirement of the beloved and tolerant Bezaleel Howard 37 (who later associated with the Unitarian Church when it was formed), called for his successor a Calvinist, who in 1812 followed Codman's example and refused to exchange pulpits with liberals, and leaned to conservatism to such a degree as to cause much dissatisfaction in the congregation. Unrest continued for some years, and as the pastor held his ground, the liberals at length seceded (1819) and formed the Third Congregational Society. They were unanimously recognized as a Church by a Council duly held; but fifteen months later, after they had settled a new pastor, the First Church voted to withdraw fellowship from them, including their former aged pastor.38 These divisions above mentioned are all the important ones 39 that took place before the general separation into two denominations, illustrating the conditions and problems that marked this period of suppressed conflict.
Nothing was now lacking to cause open warfare to burst forth but something to define the issue and kindle the flame, and the occasion was unexpectedly furnished from a Unitarian source. The acknowledged spokesman and active leader of the Unitarian movement in England at this time was the Rev. Thomas Belsham,40 minister of the Essex Street Chapel which Lindsey had founded a generation before as the first Unitarian church in England. In his leadership of the movement he was particularly concerned that the proper Unity of God and the simple Humanity of Christ be strictly maintained; for he held that any kind of worship of Christ as divine, to which Arians were more or less given, was sheer idolatry. Hence when in 1791 he organized the first general Unitarian society, Arians were purposely excluded from membership.41 The term Unitarian in this restricted sense became current in England, and Arianism faded away, and the strict humanity of Christ which Priestley had taught was more and more emphasized and was taught without apology by the Unitarians; whereas in New England the liberals, who were mostly Arians, held the term in a sort of abhorrence, and indignantly denied that they were Unitarians at all, but preferred to be called Liberal, or Rational or Catholic Christians. This distinction must be kept in mind in order to do justice to the controversy here following.
In 1812 Belsham published what he regarded as his principal work, his Memoirs of Theophilus Lindsey,in which he devoted one whole chapter to the progress and state of Unitarianism in America. Dr. Morse's son,42 who was then studying in England, discovered the book and reported it to his father; but very few copies reached America at first, and these were kept close, so that it was nearly three years before Dr. Morse was able to get hold of a copy. When at last he had read the chapter he found it precisely to his purpose, and he at once made haste to have it reprinted verbatim, adding nothing but a new title, American Unitarianism, and a brief explanatory preface, making in all a pamphlet of about 50pages.43 The pamphlet when published produced a tremendous sensation, and sold five editions within a month. It filled the orthodox with exultation for its apparent confirmation of the long denied charge that the liberals were Unitarians in disguise, and the liberals with mingled grief and anger at being falsely accused of deceit and hypocrisy.
After time had been given for the first impression of the pamphlet to digest, the Panoplist published an extended review of it. It was ably written,44 composed with the skill of a lawyer’s argument, not without abundant party spirit, and it was calculated both to rouse the hostility of the orthodox and to force the liberals openly to acknowledge their privately held beliefs and take the consequences. Its aim was to enforce these three points: 1, that the liberal party hold the Unitarian beliefs of Belsham; 2, that they conceal these beliefs while secretly spreading them among the people; and 3, that the two parties, the orthodox and the liberal, ought to separate. After reciting that for nearly a generation a majority of the clergy have been systematically spreading a religion little better than sober Deism, he proceeds to identify it with the Unitarianism of Belsham, to relate the methods employed to propagate it, and to show its incompatibility with the orthodox faith. He describes the progress of Unitarianism in King's Chapel, in Harvard College, and in the case of Sherman in Connecticut, and he supports his case by quoting letters from Priestley for the earlier stages, while for the contemporary situation he reprints a letter to Belsham from William Wells, Jr.,45 reporting how widely the liberal faith has quietly spread today.
A challenge so definitely and publicly made could not be ignored, and the person to answer it was obviously the Rev. William E. Channing of the Federal Street Church who, though but thirty-five years old, was already acknowledged to be leader of the Boston liberals. He did not undertake to answer the Panoplist review directly, but put what he had to say in a public letter to the Rev. Samuel C. Thacher, minister of the New South Church, who was his close friend.46 The tone of his letter is that of one that is not only deeply grieved but indignant that both he and his liberal brethren in the ministry should have been publicly outraged by brethren in the same ministry by the false charge that the great body of liberal Christians are Unitarians in Belsham's sense of the word; that is, that they believe that Christ was a mere fallible man to whom we owe nothing, and that they are guilty of misleading the people by systematically concealing their real views. Channing proceeded to refute this outrageous charge. He denied as untrue the charge that the predominant religion among the ministers and churches of Boston is Belsham’s variety of Unitarianism. This charge had rested on letters of Dr. Freeman and Mr. Wells of Boston, reporting that many of the ministers and laymen of Boston are Unitarian; but they had meant by this simply that they do not accept the doctrine of the Trinity, which many of them confessedly reject. Belsham is not acknowledged as leader by any of the American liberals, and their Unitarianism is a very different thing from that of Belsham; for only a small proportion of them believe in the simple humanity of Christ, while the great majority hold exalted views of Christ as more than man — in short, they are Arians.47
Proceeding to answer the reviewer’s second charge, that the liberal ministers of Boston are engaged in secretly spreading their views, concealing their own and thus misleading the people, Channing replies that their views of the Trinity have not been concealed, but are well known to all the clergy; and that the reason why they have not been proclaimed from the pulpit is that controversy on the subject is unprofitable, and has in all ages been mischievous. They therefore preach precisely as if no such doctrine as the Trinity had ever been known. As to the third point, that the orthodox ought to separate themselves from the liberals, this is an invitation to divide the Church of Christ and fill it with a censorious spirit, because of a difference of opinion as to a doctrine that we can not understand nor find in the Scriptures, which has divided the Church for ages. The letter concludes with urging that as Christians we must cherish no ill will toward our enemies, and must remain stedfast in our convictions while keeping open-minded and free from narrow dogmatism.
The Panoplist did not at once reply to this letter; but the Rev. Samuel Worcester of Salem undertook of his own accord in a public letter to answer Channing’s charges against the reviewer. It will be remembered that in 1797 he had been dismissed from his church at Fitchburg,48 and he now doubtless welcomed an occasion to expose the character of the liberal movement. He therefore proceeded to defend the positions of the reviewer. It would serve no useful purpose to retail the steps of the long pamphlet debate which followed.49 It soon shifted from the original charge that the Massachusetts liberals were secretly promoting the Unitarianism of Belsham, to a debate about Unitarianism in general; and it ended with Dr. Worcester insisting more strongly than ever that the orthodox can not have fellowshipwith Unitarians, nor regard them as entitled to the Christian name.50
No party victory had been won by the long discussion. At the end the two parties were more than ever confirmed in their positions. But the questions involved had been sharpened and clarified, and the threatened breach in the Congregational Church had become inevitable. Ministers and congregations were now forced to choose between the two. The liberal party, which hitherto had preferred to be known merely as Liberal, or Rational, or Catholic Christians, found the unpopular name of Unitarian fixed upon them, accepted and began to use it, and gradually to enlarge its meanings into something broader and richer than its original reference to a single doctrine of controversial theology.
This first controversy in print over Unitarianism ended with Worcester’s third letter late in 1815, and the question remained in suspense for more than three years. The arguments were all in on both sides, and the trial was now adjourned to individual churches in which crucial questions might have to be decided. The conservatives, where they could, were urging that long neglected statements of belief be restored to use, or that new creeds be adopted as tests for members; and that candidates for ordination to the ministry be very closely examined as to their soundness in the faith. It was in cases where a new minister was to be chosen that divisions were most likely to arise, whether a candidate from Andover should be taken or one from Harvard; and the smaller number of communicants, who composed the Church, might disagree with the much larger number of tax-payers, who made up the parish. Hot words were spoken from pulpits, and bitter feelings were stirred up among the people; and whereas it was an immemorial custom for ministers to exchange with their neighbors as often as once a month, orthodox refusals to exchange with liberals had become increasingly common ever since Codman set the bad example. What the Unitarians most objected to was not the orthodox doctrines, which they were well enough content to leave to the individual to profess or deny as he pleased; but the requiring of subscription to man-made Creeds, and exclusion from Christian fellowship of those that objected to them. Both views found expression in the annual Convention sermons. Thus in that of 1815 the venerable Dr. Charles Stearns of Lincoln pleaded for peace and charity. In that of 1816 Channing avoided controversy and preached on War. In the following year the preacher relapsed into controversy, while in 1818 he emphasized the difficulty of deciding upon articles upon which every one could agree. In 1819 Dr. Abiel Holmes of Cambridge urged mutual tolerance between Church and Parish rather than stubborn insistence on dogmas. But in that year came Channing’s sermon at Baltimore, and the day of harmony was past; and the effort to impose a compulsory Creed on the churches was barely escaped. At the Massachusetts Convention in 1823 the attempt was made to get a vote passed that a doctrinal test should determine who should be entitled to Christian fellowship, though by a narrow margin it failed to pass.51
The controversy thus far, although it had accomplished its first purpose in bringing the Unitarians to light and fastening upon them a distinctive name, so far from weakening them had stimulated them to act in unity in defence of a common cause. Their first move was to ensure an adequate supply of well-trained ministers. To meet the competition of Andover in furnishing candidates for the ministry, the Harvard Corporation, upon the instigation of President Kirkland, began taking steps at the end of 1815 toward increasing the instruction in theology; for hitherto it had been customary for a candidate to seek guidance from a settled minister who supervised his reading and instructed him in the work of his calling or else, while continuing his residence at Cambridge, to read under the guidance of the President and the Hollis Professor. Hence in 1816 was organized a Society for the Promotion of Theological Education, which in due time organized the Faculty of Theology, undertook the genral direction of the school, raised money and erected a building for it (Divinity Hall), and in 1830 transferred responsibility for it to the University.
The star of Dr. Morse, who had for fifteen years been the head of the opposition to Unitarians, began now rapidly to decline.52 The liberal members of his church at Charlestown felt no longer able to continue under his pastorate, withdrew their membership, and formed a Unitarian church in 1816, and after some three years more of growing discontent among his remaining members he felt it necessary in 1819 to resign his office, and withdrew from further active service in the ministry.53 The gradual process of separating the orthodox from the Unitarians in the congregations where they still worshiped together was hastened and the division was made complete and permanent, by two things which now took place and had a decisive effect: an epochmaking doctrinal sermon by Channing, which made a sharp distinction between the two doctrinal systems involved, and a legal decision which settled the property rights of the parties concerned.
Echoes of the controversy in Boston rapidly spread to other sections, and among these the larger cities of the South, Baltimore, Washington, and Charleston, where numerous settlers from New England were prepared to welcome liberal preaching. Baltimore was the largest commercial town in America south of New York, and many leading men of the Boston churches passed through it en route to or from Washington; but when it was desired to have some of the passing Boston ministers preach there, no pulpit could be found open to them.54 The local Congregationalists therefore determined to erect a church for themselves. As early as 1816 Dr. Freeman of King’s Chapel was announced to preach at Baltimore, and the response was so generous that he preached two Sundays more. The result was that within six months a society was formed (the First Independent Church of Baltimore), and in barely a year from his first preaching there Freeman returned to dedicate what was at the time the handsomest church in America. Jared Sparks,55 at the time a tutor in mathematics at Harvard, was then unanimously called as minister, and ordained May 5, 1819. As this was the first extension of the Unitarian movement beyond Massachusetts into new territory,56 it had been determined to make the establishment of this frontier church a distinguished occasion. William Ellery Channing, regarded since Buckminster’s death in 1812 as the most eminent preacher of the liberal faith and its leader in Boston, was therefore chosen to be the preacher for the occasion, and eight of the best known New England ministers and several laymen gave their presence. The preacher, who for more than three years had remained silent57 under the increasingly narrow and bitter attacks from the orthodox pulpits, felt that the time had come for him to strike back and speak out boldly in support of his faith, and to plead its case against orthodoxy. His theme was that the Scriptures, when reasonably interpreted, teach the doctrines held by Unitarians. It took up the main doctrines on which Unitarians depart from the orthodox, and held them up one by one for searching examination and calm and deliberate attack. It made an eloquent and lofty appeal against a scheme so full of unreason, inhumanity and gloom as Calvinism seemed to him to be, and impeached the orthodoxy of the day before the bar of the popular reason and conscience.
The sermon, which lasted an hour and a half, made a profound impression at the time, and has probably had a wider, deeper and more lasting influence than any other ever preached in America. As the first elaborate statement and defence of their faith in this country, it furnished the Unitarians a sort of platform to which they could rally, and laid down their system of defence and attack for the controversies that were to follow; and since it brought forward as their champion the most distinguished, most eloquent and most honored minister in Boston, it gave them courage in their hesitating convictions and confidence in the future of their cause. It did more than anything else to make a hitherto vague liberalism cohere into a movement of clear convictions and a definitely realized mission. This sermon, which went through eight editions in four months, was followed by preaching from the visiting ministers, and so the new pastorate was auspiciously begun.
Only a few months after his ordination Mr. Sparks was asked to assist at another ordination farther south, where Samuel Gilman was to be ordained at a new church at Charleston,58 where he was to have a notable ministry of nearly forty years. He also preached to large congregations at Raleigh, N. C., en route to and from Charleston; and returning to Baltimore he soon found himself bound to repel various attacks from the established clergy. The first important discussion was carried on in a friendly spirit through the press with the Rev. William E. Wyatt of St. Paul’s Parish, and his contribution to it was later published in a book that was widely read,59 He soon felt the need of wider means of publication, and besides organizing the Unitarian Society for the Distribution of Books, he began publishing monthly in 1821 The Unitarian Miscellany, the first avowedly Unitarian periodical in America. It continued for six volumes, the first three of which were edited and largely written by Sparks himself. Its circulation was large, and its influence in defending and promoting the Unitarian cause was notable. Much interest was aroused by a series of letters in it addressed to Professor Samuel Miller of Princeton Theological Seminary, who in an ordination sermon at Baltimore in 1820 had made a gross attack upon Unitarianism, charging that its doctrines notoriously led to immoral living.60 These letters were later published in book form. During the heated summer season while visiting resorts in the mountains he had opportunity to serve his cause as he made the acquaintance of many men prominent in public life, and these became his friends at Washington where in 1821 he was chosen Chaplain of the House of Representatives in face of strenuous opposition from the orthodox. He preached every other Sunday in the Hall of Representatives, and on the alternate Sundays to a little Unitarian congregation that had been gathered the previous year and had just organized as a church, which was to dedicate its place of worship a year later.61 With the beginning of 1823 Sparks was enabled to resign the editorship of the Unitarian Miscellany to capable hands; but at the same time he undertook as editor the quarterly publication of a Collection of Essays and Tracts in Theology, which ran to six volumes. It was a careful selection of papers by writers of various schools, and was designed to promote religious freedom and rational piety by showing that enlightened Christians of all countries substantially agree upon what is important in religion. This was Sparks’s last contribution to religious literature, for with health impaired he resigned his pastorate in the early summer of 1823, and gave the rest of his life to teaching and historical writing.
While at Baltimore Sparks came into remote contact with an interesting development of Unitarianism in what was then a pioneer land. He discovered that in five of the new States west of the mountains there was, under the leadership of the Rev. Barton W. Stone (1772–1844, formerly a Presbyterian minister) a rapidly growing connection called simply Christians, organized in a Conference, practicing immersion with open communion, and generally rejecting the doctrine of the Trinity and the dogmas of Calvin.62 There were also reports of a similar society in southeastern Virginia with the same name, but distinct from this, and composed mostly of dissenters from the Methodist and Baptist churches, largely Unitarians. Especial interest was felt in the case of the Rev. Augustin Eastin of Paris, Kentucky, who had been a Baptist minister for over a generation when, solely from his study of Scripture, he became convinced that the Trinitarian doctrine is not that of the Bible. He also discovered that Gov. James Garrard, a member of his church, shared his beliefs. As the matter became public, the Association expelled him and his three churches, whereupon he republished Emlyn’s Humble Inquiry, which appears to have made converts, for soon afterwards there were said to be forty Unitarian Baptist preachers in one Association in northeastern Kentucky, as well as many in other parts of the State.63 These instances would seem to indicate that at the period when Unitarianism was just bursting into bloom in New England the whole southern and western frontier, of four seaboard States and five between the Alleghanies and the Mississippi, was a field white already to harvest. The settlers, having broken old associations, were many, of them eager to welcome a simple undogmatic religion, had bold and adventurous preachers only been at hand, ready to share for a generation the exciting hardships and privations of pioneer life. But the Massachusetts churches were not yet organized for missionary activity, nor especially interested in it; indeed, after the successful planting of the church at Baltimore, most of them, instead of feeling the urge to press on into other inviting fields, seem to have been no more than lukewarm about Charleston and Washington, and in another generation the opportunity had passed.
The founding of another important new church is closely connected with that at Baltimore. In December, 1818 the Rev. Henry Ware, Jr., of the Second Church in Boston, when on his way to preach for the new society at Baltimore, preached one Sunday to a small group in New York, and in the following April Channing, en route to preach the ordination sermon at Baltimore, preached to a small company in the house where he lodged, and was invited to preach again on his return north, when he preached morning and evening in the hall of the Medical College in Barclay Street to crowded congregations, May 16,1819. So much interest was shown that a society was soon formed and services were held in a large room at Broadway and Reade Street, with few interruptions, by clergy from Boston, and the following spring construction of a church building was laid in Chambers Street, and it was dedicated in January, 1821 with sermon by Edward Everett.64
There was at the time little but bigoted intolerance among the religious forces in the city, the pulpits were outspoken in their hostility to the movement, and its adherents as a crew of heretics, infidels, or atheists;65 but the cause prospered, and within six years a Second Church was dedicated at Prince and Mercer Streets, with an epoch-making sermon by Channing.
Channing having expressed himself fully in his sermon at Baltimore did not enter into the controversy that inevitably ensued, and for the present he published nothing controversial except one (unsigned) article on ‘Objections to Unitarian Christianity considered’ (Christian Disciple, i, N. S. (1819), 436–449; Works, one-volume edition, pp. 401–4o8); but the Baltimore sermon produced far more than a local effect. It not only echoed throughout the seaboard States from New York south, but in New England it aroused interest from Unitarians and opposition from the orthodox. Of many controversial writings in pamphlets or periodicals, the most important issued from professors in Andover Theological Seminary. The first was from Professor Moses Stuart, who in 1819 published Letters to the Rev. Wm. E. Channing, containing Remarks on his Sermon, etc. (Andover, 1819). He wrote in a temperate spirit, and agreed in the main with Channing’s principles in interpreting Scripture; but when he came to the doctrine of the Trinity, he complained that Channing had given an account of it very unlike what the orthodox now hold. He wished, however, that the word person had never been introduced into the doctrine, and he freely confessed that he did not know what it was supposed to mean; while the eternal generation of the Son seemed to him to be a contradiction in terms, conveying no definite meaning. This shocking admission brought upon him sharp criticism from Professor Miller of Princeton, who declared that this doctrine is so closely connected with the doctrine of the Trinity and the Divinity of Christ that the denial of it would soon lead to denial of the Trinity.66 Continuing his reply to Channing’s sermon Professor Stuart took up in great detail the New Testament passages thought to prove the Deity of Christ; but as the discussion went on, he became more and more clear that the differences between them were not to be reconciled, and came to the judgment that “the simple question between the two parties here must soon be, whether natural or revealed religion is our guide and our hope : . . the sooner matters come to this issue, the better. The parties will then understand each other; and the public will understand the subject of dispute.” Professor Stuart had originally intended to investigate the topics in the rest of Channing’s sermon, but the pressure of other duties led him to abandon the plan, and he resigned the rest of his task to his colleague, Professor Leonard Woods. Professor Andrews Norton of Harvard; however, in two articles in the Christian Disciple (vol. i, N. S., 1819, pp. 316–333, 370–431)made an extensive reply to Stuart’s letters, which was presently reprinted with the title, A Statement o f Reasons for not Believing the Doctrines of Trinitarians concerning the Nature of God and the Person of Christ, which was much enlarged and reprinted in 1856, and was long considered a standard treatise on Unitarian doctrine.67 It was the judgment of a more recent orthodox theologian that ‘the total effect of Stuart’s reply was in one respect damaging to evangelical theology.... The doctrine of the divinity of Christ was rescued so as to become . . . the real basis of its worship and spiritual life. But the doctrine of the Trinity . . . lost its place as the great fundamental doctrine of the system.’68
The proper course, however, of the controversy growing out of the Baltimore sermon was that followed by Professor Woods of Andover and Professor Ware of Harvard, consisting of a series of letters, three on each side, running through the three years, 1820–22, and facetiously known to the outside world as ‘the Wood’n Ware Controversy.’69 The controversy was conducted with great ability, on a high plane and with a temperate spirit becoming to two Christian scholars. Taking up the criticism where Stuart had dropped it, Dr. Woods defended in order the distinguishing doctrines of Calvinism which he felt had been unjustly attacked by Channing, though he complained that the doctrines that Channing attacked were not those that the orthodox now hold, since the former had been either abandoned by the orthodox, or so softened or modified by them as largely to obviate Channing’s objections. In reply Ware insisted on citing from acknowledged orthodox authorities statements of doctrine so clear and definite that they could not be evaded nor explained away as figurative. As the discussion continued, the ground of it became less and less the teaching of Scripture, and more and more the witness of reason, conscience and human experience. When all had been said that could be said, the controversy ended amicably, with no claim of victory or confession or defeat from either party, but with the issues between them sharpened, and the breach between them wider and clearer than ever. The reader of today who has the patience to trace all the steps of the controversy can not but be conscious how far the religious interests of this generation have drifted from topics which then seemed so all-absorbing.
At this point it may fairly be said that the Unitarian controversy, in its essential character, had reached its end. It is true that for some ten years more there were still local disputes, doctrinal or other, between Unitarians and Orthodox; but the main points had been so fully canvassed that little remained to say that had not been said already, and the disputes still argued were mostly not about doctrines but about rights to church property, and about exclusion from public offices. It was evident, even if not explicitly acknowledged, that the doctrine of the Trinity, even if still formally confessed, had ceased to be the centre of the orthodox faith, and was no longer given its old emphasis; and that the outstanding doctrines of Calvinism had received new interpretations which the fathers would have rejected with horror. It was evident no less that the beliefs of the Unitarians had moved on. Channing, indeed, may have remained Arian in his view of Christ to the end of his days; but the well-nigh universal Arianism of the day when the charge of one’s being Unitarian was rejected as calumny had been replaced by a view of Christ that, if not yet so baldly human as that of Priestley and Belsham, did not shrink from insisting on his unqualified humanity.70
The two wings of the Congregational Church were now spiritually divided, and the division ran through many congregations and even through families; and when question arose as to the ownership of church property, appeal had often to be made to the courts. Now in Massachusetts towns there had long been two religious organizations. The Parish consisted of all the male voters of the town organized to maintain religious worship, which they were taxed to support: The Church was usually a much smaller body within the Parish, of those who had assented to a covenant; or made a confession of faith, or professed a personal experience of religion, and who united as communicants in observing the Lord’s Supper. In any case it was a small minority of the whole parish, often composed largely of women; but much deference was shown to the Church as being more devout and zealous in religious affairs, and the usual custom was to allow it to select the minister, and for the Parish to ratify the choice.
Now in 1818 the minister of the First Church in Dedham had resigned, and at a time when differences between orthodox and liberal were at their height a successor had to be chosen; and it happened that the sentiment of the Parish was strongly liberal while that of the Church preferred a conservative. Hence in the vote two thirds of the Parish was for a Cambridge man, Mr. Alvan Lamson (1792–1864),71 while the Church dissented from the choice by the small vote of fourteen to eighteen. Some dissension occurred, and in the end the dissenting majority of the Church withdrew and formed a new Church, also taking with them the Church’s property, the accumulation of many years’ gifts, consisting of real estate and other property yielding nearly enough to support the minister. The minority of the Church still remaining in the Parish then reorganized, removed the dissenting Deacon and elected new ones, and sued at law for recovery of the Church's property. It was realized that this was a critical case, for similar situations were bound to arise with many other churches, and the judgment rendered in this case would furnish a precedent for those. The case therefore was stubbornly fought, with very eminent counsel, and was carried up to the Supreme Court. The ultimate question was not whether the Church had the right to the property — there was no question as to that — but whether it was the dissenting majority, or the minority remaining connected with the Parish, that constituted the real Church. The decision handed down in 1820 was that ‘where a majority of the members of a Congregational Church separate from a majority of the Parish, the members who remain, though a minority, constitute the Church in such Parish, and retain the rights and property belonging thereto.’72 The seceding members therefore forfeited all their rights.
This decision, wholly unexpected by the orthodox, aroused among them an outburst of the bitterest indignation. They charged that the judge, being a Unitarian, had allowed himself to be influenced by sectarian prejudice to favor his own party; and they cried out over the ‘plunder’ of their churches, and after three generations they had hardly ceased to complain of the legal robbery they had suffered; and they had indeed suffered bitterly. In only a few cases were questions of rights to the church property amicably settled between the parties.73 A careful report prepared by a committee of the Massachusetts General Association in 1836 gives a (probably incomplete) list of 81 ‘exiled churches,’ which upon withdrawal from their parishes surrendered parish and church funds valued at nearly $366,000 and meeting-houses valued at $243,000 more; while 3,900 members seceded, leaving 1,282 behind. In several cases every member of the Church seceded, in others only one or two aged members were left. After the decision of the Dedham case congregations proceeded to divide one after another as occasions arose until 1840. But there were many instances in which the whole parish became Unitarian without controversy or division, and so insensibly that it is impossible to give the date. In a yet larger number the parish remained orthodox without contest. It was only where there was heated division of sentiment that trouble arose. There were doubtless instances where a liberal majority domineered over an orthodox minority and meant to force them out; but the latter most often seceded for the reason that they were not permitted, though often but a small minority, to impose a minister of their choice upon a large majority of those that attended the church and supported it by their taxes, but to whom he was not acceptable. Nor were the losses all on the orthodox side. There were at least a dozen cases first and last in which it was the liberals that preferred to secede rather than listen to the preaching of doctrines that they believed to be untrue and harmful. Accurate statistics are not to be had, but it is said that when the division was completed the whole number of Congregational churches in Massachusetts was found to be 544, of which 135 were Unitarian, a ratio of approximately one to three. Ninety-six churches in all were lost from the Congregational rolls, though in many cases new churches were formed by the seceders.74 Out of the twenty-five original churches in Massachusetts twenty became Unitarian; in Boston all but the Old South, and in the larger towns of the eastern part of the State, all but three. The sweeping victory also included the ablest ministers, the leaders in public life and the professions, in education and in literature, and the great majority of persons of wealth, culture, and high social position. The next stage in their development, which they entered almost against their will, was to organize and consolidate their forces for extending their borders into the new fields now beckoning them outside New England.
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