CHAPTER XXXV

The Unitarian Controversy in America, 18051835

 

    The last chapter told how during more than half a century the Congregational churches of Massachusetts were slowly and almost imperceptibly growing more liberal in belief. During much of the time the conservatives noted this fact with growing apprehension, though they were able to point to little or nothing definite enough to furnish a point for attack; for the liberals were content to let the old beliefs fade away without notice, and preferred to confine their preaching to the essentials of practical Christianity as shown in life and character. It was not until 1805 that an event took place which convinced the conservatives that their fears that the churches were becoming honeycombed with heresy were but too well founded; and this event took place not in any church, but in Harvard College.

    The college had been founded by the Puritans in 1636 primarily to train up educated ministers for their churches; and among its endowments was one given in 1721 for a professorship in divinity. The donor, a liberal English merchant named Thomas Hollis, whose intimate friends and advisers had been on the liberal side of the Salters’ Hall controversy,1 had provided that the incumbent should be “of sound and orthodox” belief; while a supplementary legacy for the same chair required explicit acceptance of a conservative creed. In 1803 this chair fell vacant, and for more than a year no election was had because the liberals and the conservatives, being evenly balanced, could not agree upon a candidate. The liberals favored the Rev. Henry Ware of Hingham; while the orthodox, charging that he was a Unitarian, opposed him. The opposition was led by Dr. Jedidiah Morse2 of Charlestown, who had for fifteen years been the sole public defender of the doctrine of the Trinity in the vicinity of Boston, and who now insisted that a Calvinist should be chosen. At length the liberals gained the majority and elected Ware in 1805. This showed that the liberal party were now in control of the college, and the fact was soon further emphasized by the appointment of a liberal president and several liberal professors.

    The orthodox, thoroughly aroused at finding their worst fears realized, and seeing that henceforth their young ministers were to be under not orthodox but liberal teachers, now opened what might be called a “thirty years’ war,” which was to end in one hitherto united church being divided into two sects bitterly opposing each other. Dr. Morse founded the Panoplist magazine, in which he carried on an aggressive warfare against the liberals, attacking them incessantly, and urging them, if they disbelieved in the Trinity, to come out and say so openly. Though their views had long been well enough known, and had not been concealed, they did not accept his challenge. Dr. Morse next exerted himself to establish at Andover a theological seminary which should remain forever orthodox, for its constitution required the professors every five years to renew their subscription to a creed which was perpetually to remain “entirely and identically the same, without the least alteration, addition, or diminution.”3  The Andover Seminary was opened for instruction in 1808, and henceforth became the chief place for the training of orthodox ministers; while in 1821 an orthodox college was also founded at Amherst to offset the liberal tendencies of Harvard.

    Already in 1802 the conservative ministers, led by Dr. Morse, though in the face of strong opposition, had sought to strengthen the cause of orthodoxy by forming a General Association on the basis of the Westminster Catechism, thus excluding liberals. This was really the beginning of the split between them. Two years later an unsuccessful attempt was made to force the liberals out of the ministers’ state convention. In 1807 when Samuel Willard of Deerfield, having been refused ordination by one council on account of his liberal views, was ordained by another, he and his church were outcast by all their orthodox neighbors. In 1808, when John Codman was settled over the Second Church in Dorchester, he began by announcing that he would not exchange pulpits with men of liberal views. This was the first move in Massachusetts toward that “exclusive policy” which had already been urged in Connecticut two years before, and which ere long became general among the orthodox, and has largely continued down to this day. At Boston the next year the orthodox took a strong aggressive step by organizing the Park Street Church, whose minister, by preaching a sermon “On the Use of Real Fire in Hell,” won for the location of his church the name of “Brimstone Corner.”

    In individual congregations also lines were being more closely drawn. Some of the churches tried to shut out heresy by adopting elaborate confessions of faith for their members to accept, and thus paved the way for sad divisions a little later. In case of contest the side outvoted would sometimes separate from the majority. Thus at New Bedford in 1810 the conservatives withdrew and formed a new church. At Sandwich, where the minister, having grown strongly Calvinistic, was dismissed from his parish by a small liberal majority in 1811, he organized a new church among his followers. In 1813 a liberal minority withdrew from Codman’s Dorchester church and organized a new one. Other such instances occurred within the few years following.

    At the same time, liberal views were spreading faster than ever in the Congregational churches, and English Unitarian books were reprinted in Boston in increasing number, and were widely read. The Rev. Noah Worcester, a country minister of New Hampshire, influenced by Emlyn and other English writers, published in 1810 a little book called Bible News, which was Arian. For this his brother ministers bitterly attacked him, maligned his personal character, and caused him to lose his pulpit; but he at once found friends among the liberal ministers of Boston, served the liberal cause well, and later won enduring fame as the founder of the peace movement in America.

    As for the liberal ministers, although by 1812 there were at least a hundred of them, only Freeman at King’s Chapel and Bentley at Salem were really Unitarian in belief. Of the rest only one or two had ever preached a sermon against the Trinity; and while they had generally ceased to hold that doctrine, yet they had not reached any wide agreement as to other points. They knew indeed that they had pretty well outgrown their Calvinism, and they acknowledged only the authority of Scripture; but their main emphasis was on the practical virtues of Christian life, and their main opposition was to narrowness of spirit and bondage to creeds, while for the rest they advocated Christian charity, open-mindedness, and tolerance. They were most of them Arian in belief, and so strongly opposed to what was then known as Unitarianism that when it had been charged that Professor Ware was a Unitarian, the charge was indignantly resented as a calumny. In fact, they did not regard themselves as heretics at all, for they knew that their views were widely held both in the Church of England and among the English Dissenters. The Congregational Church was still broad enough to bold both conservatives and liberals; and of the nine old congregations at Boston eight had grown liberal, while the ninth remained orthodox by only the narrowest margin.

    All the while that things were in this uncertain state, Dr. Morse in the Panoplist kept calling on the liberals to admit that in important respects they had departed far from the faith of their fathers. They stedfastly refused to accept his challenge, for they disliked controversy, and they had no mind to champion special doctrines or to be set off into a separate party. They stood on their rights as free members of Congregational churches, and did not feel under any obligation to report to Dr. Morse or ask his leave.

    But now something unexpected occurred which forced the issue. Three years earlier Belsham in London had published a life of Lindsey. It contained a chapter on the progress of Unitarianism in New England, quoting letters from Dr. Freeman and others giving an inside view of the liberal movement at Boston, and reporting that most of the Boston clergy were Unitarian. Dr. Morse at length discovered the book in 1815 and promptly reprinted this chapter, giving it the title, American Unitarianism. It created a tremendous sensation, and ran through five editions in as many months. Dr. Morse’s charge seemed to be proved true: the liberals were Unitarians after all. The Panoplist followed up the exposure in a severe review, charging that the liberals were secretly scheming to undermine the orthodox faith, and were hypocrites for concealing their true beliefs; and that the orthodox ought therefore at once to separate from those who, since they denied the deity of Christ, could not be considered Christians at all.

    The name Unitarian stuck, as Dr. Morse meant that it should, for it was then an odious name, and it has stuck ever since; but it was not fairly given. For the writers of the letters referred to had used it simply to denote disbelief in the Trinity; while as then commonly understood it meant such beliefs as those of Priestley and Belsham, who held that Jesus was in all respects a fallible human being, together with certain philosophical views which were abhorrent to the Boston liberals. The Panoplist, however, insisted that they were Unitarians in Belsham’s sense of the word. The liberal ministers of Boston were outraged at such misrepresentation of their views, and they felt that the slander must not be let pass without responsible denial. The answer was soon forthcoming in the form of an open letter to the Rev. Samuel C. Thacher of the New South Church, from his friend, the Rev. William Ellery Channing. Though Channing was but thirty-five, he had been for a dozen years the beloved and honored minister of the Federal Street Church, and of late had come to be regarded as the leader of the Boston liberals; and he was destined at length to be the most distinguished of all American Unitarians. Though a semi-invalid, he had a remarkable charm of voice, manner, and character. In his earlier ministry he had been a moderate Calvinist, had been on friendly terms with Dr. Morse, and had preached the sermon at Codman’s ordination; but he had never believed the doctrine of the Trinity, and had never made a secret of his views. He held that Christ, though less than God, was far above man, a sinless being, and the object of religious trust and love. In short, he was an Arian.

    Always shrinking from controversy, Channing could yet speak out strongly when he must; and in this letter he now indignantly denied the Panoplist’s charges. He admitted that his brethren disbelieved in the Trinity, and in that sense alone were Unitarians; though they preferred to call themselves liberal Christians, or rational Christians, or catholic Christians; while they were wholly out of sympathy with the views of Priestley and Belsham, and were nearer to the Calvinists than to them. Most of them were Arians, some were not clear as to their views, and hardly one could accept Belsham’s creed, though to believe with him was no crime. Their views had not been concealed: Dr. Morse and others had long known them. But the disputed doctrines had been kept out of their pulpits as unprofitable, and had been treated as though they had never been beard of. Such was his answer; and in conclusion he urged that it would be a great wrong to Christianity, and a great injustice to individuals, to create a division in the church by shutting any out of it as not Christians simply because they held more liberal views of scripture teaching than did the others.

    The controversy was continued on the orthodox side by Dr. Worcester of Salem, whose two brothers had already suffered persecution in New Hampshire for their Arianism,4 and who was himself doubtless still smarting over his own dismissal from his Fitchburg church.5  Three letters were published on each side, and several other writers also took a hand in the discussion. Dr. Worcester picked flaws in Channing’s letter, pressed the Panoplist’s charges, and urged that the differences between the orthodox and the liberals were too serious to be longer ignored, and that the two must part company. Channing replied that in the essential part of Christian faith, which was that Jesus is the Christ, they were agreed, and that any minor differences did not vitally matter. The controversy ran for half a year, and ended in the opening of a permanent breach between the two wings of Massachusetts Congregationalists. The orthodox were made more than ever determined in their attitude; while the Unitarians (as they were henceforth known) began to abandon their policy of reserve and to speak out plainly also against other doctrines of Calvinism, and their views spread accordingly.

    Before and during this controversy Dr. Morse and his strict Calvinist friends were steadily trying to get the Massachusetts churches to form “consociations,” with power to depose heretical ministers as Sherman and Abbot had been deposed in Connecticut.6  But both liberals and moderate Calvinists resisted this plan as dangerous to liberty of conscience, so that after some years’ effort the scheme was dropped. In an increasing number of churches, however, creeds were adopted to keep heretics from becoming members, and in a few cases where the orthodox could not control the situation as they wished, they withdrew and formed separate churches. More and more of the orthodox ministers also refused to include in their list of monthly pulpit exchanges any who were suspected of being Unitarians; so that while there was still, indeed, but a single denomination of Congregationalists, its two wings were steadily drawing further apart. Thus things went on for a few years, with the orthodox getting further away from the liberals, though with hope of reconciliation not yet wholly despaired of, until two events occurred which proved decisive. These were Channing’s Baltimore sermon in 1819, and the decision of the Dedham case in 1820. We must speak of these in turn.

    After the controversy of 1815 the orthodox kept treating the Unitarians in the Church with such increasing narrowness, and kept attacking their beliefs with such increasing bitterness, that at length Channing, peaceable as he was, felt bound to strike a telling blow in return. The opportunity to do so came in 1819, when he was asked to preach the sermon at the ordination of Jared Sparks as minister of the church lately established at Baltimore, the first extension beyond New England of the liberal movement in Massachusetts. In this sermon he boldly took the aggressive against the orthodox, taking up the distinguishing doctrines of Unitarians one by one, showing that they were supported by both Scripture and reason, and holding up to pitiless attack the contrasted doctrines of orthodoxy in all their nakedness. Probably no other sermon ever preached in America has had so many readers and so great an influence. It put the orthodox at once on the defensive. They complained that Channing had misrepresented their beliefs and had injured their feelings by his harsh statements. Professor Moses Stuart of Andover wrote a whole book to defend the doctrine of the Trinity against Channing’s attack, though in it he admitted that he did not know clearly what the doctrine meant; and he even brought upon himself from a Presbyterian source the charge that he too was tending toward Unitarianism. Channing himself said no more, but Professor Andrews Norton of Harvard renewed the attack upon the Trinity with such effect that the orthodox withdrew on this point, and were content to lay their emphasis henceforth upon the deity of Christ.

    Professor Leonard Woods of Andover now came to the defense of the other doctrines which Channing had attacked, and debated them back and forth with Professor Ware of Harvard for three years, in a printed controversy which ran to over eight hundred pages.  This “Wood’n-Ware controversy,” as it was called, was carried on in fine spirit on both sides, and it made clear that even the orthodox had drifted further away from the old doctrines than they had yet acknowledged or realized.  Nevertheless they continued to pursue more widely than ever their policy of exclusion of Unitarians and separation from them; while the Unitarians, who had had their views so clearly stated and so ably defended by Channing, now first fairly realized where they stood, and rallied to their standard with enthusiasm.  The division between the two wings had become practically complete.

    In the unhappy division that took place at this time, congregations were split in two, and even families were divided against themselves. But the question now arose, whose should be the church property when Unitarians and orthodox drew apart? This was the question involved in the Dedham case. In order to understand the matter, one must remember that in the Massachusetts towns there had long been two religious organizations. The “parish,” or “society,” consisted of all the male voters of the town organized to maintain religious worship, which they were bound by law to support by taxation. The “church” on the other hand consisted only of those persons within the parish (generally a small minority) who had made a public profession of their religious faith, and had joined together in a serious inner circle for religious purposes, and were admitted to the observance of the Lord’s Supper. The church members were on the whole (though not exclusively) more devout and more zealous than the rest of the members of the parish, and a large majority of them were usually women. Now by law a minister must be elected by vote of the whole parish which supported him; but by natural custom it had come to be generally expected that he must also be acceptable to the church, even if not nominated by it. For generations church and parish had generally agreed; though if they did not, means were provided for settling the matter through a mutual council. But when the controversy arose between the orthodox and the Unitarians, disagreements became frequent and often serious; and in many cases it happened that while the majority of the church members wished to settle a conservative from Andover, the majority of the parish would prefer a liberal man from Harvard, and usually no way of compromise could be found.

    This was the situation at Dedham, where the pulpit fell vacant in 1818, and the parish voted two to one to settle a liberal man, while the church by a small majority voted against him. As the parish refused to yield, a majority of the church withdrew and formed a new church, taking with them the church property, which was in this instance nearly enough to support the minister. A lawsuit followed, to determine which was the real church, and which might hold the property, the majority of the church who seceded from the parish, or the minority who stayed in it. The case was bitterly fought, and the Supreme Court of the state at length decided in 1820 that seceders forfeited all their rights, and that even the smallest minority remaining with the parish were still the parish church, and entitled to the church property; indeed, that if even the whole church should secede it must still leave the church property behind it. This legal decision, which would of course apply to any similar cases arising elsewhere, aroused among the orthodox a storm of indignation so deep and bitter that it has hardly subsided after a hundred years. They declared that the judge, being a Unitarian, was prejudiced in favor of his own party; and for many years they continued to cry out against the injustice of the decision, and against what they insisted was “plunder” of their churches.

    The orthodox losses as the result of the divisions that took place were indeed severe. In eighty-one instances the orthodox members seceded, nearly 4,000 of them in all, thus losing funds and property estimated at over $600,000, not to mention the loss of churches which went to the liberal side without a division; and they had to build new meetinghouses for themselves.  They called themselves “the exiled churches”; but while there were cases in which the liberal majority oppressed the minority and meant to force them out, the latter most frequently seceded because they were not permitted, though often but few in number, to impose a minister of their choice upon the large majority of those who attended the church and supported it by their taxes, but to whom he was not acceptable. Nor were the losses all on one side. There were at least a dozen cases, first and last, in which it was the liberals that seceded, rather than listen to the preaching of doctrines which they believed to be untrue and harmful. There were happily many others in which there was no division. Of these the larger number remained orthodox, but thirty-nine became liberal without division, and often so quietly and gradually that no one could have told when the invisible line was crossed. Among these latter were twenty out of twenty-five original churches, including all the most important ones. In only three of the larger towns of eastern Massachusetts did the parish remain orthodox, and at Boston only the Old South. In several cases the whole church withdrew in a body; in others only one or two members were left. At the end of the controversy a few over a third of the Congregational churches of Massachusetts were found to have become Unitarian.

    Although churches kept on separating until as late as 1840, the greater number of divisions took place in the years immediately following the Baltimore sermon and the Dedham case decision. The Unitarians were thenceforth, against their wish, a separate denomination from the rest of the Congregationalists. They found themselves consisting of 125 churches, mostly within twenty-five miles of Boston, though with a few distant outposts at New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, and Charleston. In eastern Massachusetts they had for the time won a sweeping victory. The ablest and most eloquent ministers, the leaders in public life, in education, in literature, were theirs, as were the great majority of those of wealth, culture, and high social position. In fact, they had quite too much prestige for their own good, since they now seemed as a church to have little more to strive for. The truth is that it was not so much Unitarian doctrines as Unitarian freedom that had attracted many of them. Hence, while broad in spirit, strongly opposed to sectarianism, and liberal, though vague, in their beliefs, they were yet conservative in almost everything else. But they were generally reverent in temper and were earnestly devoted to pure morals and good works. The consequence of all this was that they now settled back complacently, and showed far less zeal in promoting, their cause than did the orthodox; fondly believing that without any particular effort on their part Unitarianism would ere long sweep the whole country as it had already swept eastern Massachusetts.

    The orthodox, on the other hand, were for a time stunned, and in acute fear of losing the whole struggle, in which the Unitarians had made steady gains since 1815. Their champion, Dr. Morse, had gone; their organ, the Panoplist, had suspended publication. A strong recruit for their cause, however, now came from Connecticut, where the spread of Unitarianism had thus far been so successfully prevented. Dr. Lyman Beecher, known as the most successful revivalist of his time, and as a powerful and eloquent preacher of tremendous earnestness, had with eager interest long watched the battle from afar when in 1823 he came to Boston to hold revival meetings. He soon revived the fainting spirits of the orthodox. They began to make fresh converts, and many of the wavering were won back from the Unitarian camp. Thus the orthodox reaction began.

    When those ministers and churches that had accepted Unitarian beliefs found themselves quite excluded from religious fellowship with those that held to the old beliefs, it became a serious question what they should do. Shut out from the orthodox organizations, should they form a new denomination, or should they go on separately with no attempt to hold together or to act together for the interests they had in common? The older leaders were much disposed to go on as they were, and were opposed to forming a new denomination; for they had of late seen quite too much of the evils of sectarianism, and they wished no more of them. The younger men had less fear and more zeal, realizing that, if they were to do anything at all to help spread Christianity in the newer parts of the country, they must unite for the purpose; while if they did nothing in the matter they would be simply abandoning the new field wholly to orthodoxy and to beliefs which they felt to be untrue and hurtful. In that case, liberal Christianity might become extinct within a generation.

    Since the beginning of the century, indeed, four or five organizations had been formed to promote the spread of Christianity in various ways, in which, though they were quite unsectarian, only the liberals had taken part; and half a dozen publications, notably The Christian Register, weekly (1821), and the Christian Examiner, quarterly (1824), had been founded, in which the liberals had expressed their views, and had carried on controversy with the orthodox. But now that separation had come it was felt that something more was needed. It was ten or twelve young ministers lately graduated from the Harvard Divinity School that took the lead in the matter, and after long discussion and much opposition joined with a few laymen who shared their views, and in the vestry of Dr. Channing’s church organized the American Unitarian Association,7 “to diffuse the knowledge and promote the interests of pure Christianity.”  Dr. Channing gave only passive approval to the move, and declined to be President of the new Association.  Boston Unitarians generally were lukewarm. During its first year only sixty-five of them joined the Association, and only $1,300 was raised to carry on its work. Yet it set to work with energy and skill, began publishing Unitarian tracts and circulating them in large numbers, and sent a scout into the West who came back reporting many promising fields where Unitarian churches would be heartily welcomed. Missionary preachers were sent afield, a missionary to the city poor was employed, a Sunday-school Society was organized (1826), and especial efforts were made to spread Unitarian literature. Yet so afraid were the churches of losing some of their liberty in the bonds of a new sect, that for twenty-five years only from a third to a half of them would contribute to the work of the Association, which thus had only from $5,000 to $15,000 a year to spend. Its work could grow but slowly until the timid conservatism of an older generation could be replaced by the missionary earnestness of a younger one.

    Dr. Beecher’s revival meetings at Boston in 1823 had revived orthodoxy for a time; but it was still on the defensive, and now the Unitarians had organized for aggressive effort. Beecher was glad therefore to accept a call to a church just established in Hanover Street, which had been organized on a basis designed to prevent it from ever calling a liberal minister. Coming to Boston to live in 1826 he at once began a revival which lasted. five years. It often crowded his church, and it stirred up the drowsy Unitarians to unaccustomed activity. He took a bold aggressive stand, attacking Unitarian beliefs as unscriptural, and the results of them as unfavorable to true religion. Some years before this a Presbyterian clergyman preaching at Baltimore had declared that Unitarian preachers were “most acceptable to the gay, the fashionable, the worldly minded, and even the. licentious”; and another in New York had charged that religion and morals had alarmingly declined, and vice had increased at Boston since the spread of Unitarianism there, and he had insinuated that even the Unitarian ministers were men of loose morals and little piety. Dr. Beecher did not venture to go so far as this; but he and those that followed his leadership repeatedly charged that the effect of Unitarianism was to make its followers less earnest in their religion, less faithful in their religious habits, and less strict in their moral standards. It was declared that they had been steadily giving up one doctrine of the Christian faith after another, until little was now left. As their views of the inspiration of the Bible were changing, it became common to call Unitarians infidels; while it was often charged, and as often denied, that by accepting the doctrine of the Universalists they were encouraging men to sin by taking away their fear of eternal punishment.8

    Perhaps the charge that hurt the Unitarians most, and had the most truth in it, was that whereas the orthodox were deeply in earnest about their religion, zealous, self-denying, and full of missionary spirit, the Unitarians were lukewarm, often indifferent to their church, lax in religious observances, and opposed to missions. Indeed, the first Treasurer of the American Unitarian Association felt these things so keenly that he resigned his office in discouragement and went back to orthodoxy. This became the occasion of a pamphlet controversy which attracted much attention on both sides. Although the Unitarians preferred to meet the passionate zeal of the orthodox with easygoing self-confidence, they could not remain silent under such attacks as these. They returned blow for blow, calling attention to the most repulsive doctrines of Calvinism, until at length Dr. Beecher was driven to admit that he too had abandoned various doctrines held sacred by the fathers, and in his “new Calvinism” had thus taken the same steps which the earlier liberals had taken two generations before.

    Dr. Channing in particular felt compelled again to come to the defense of Unitarianism in a dedication sermon preached at New York in 1826, in which he compared the effect of the doctrines of Unitarianism with those of orthodoxy, held that Unitarian Christianity was most favorable to piety, and likened the orthodox doctrine of the atonement to a gallows erected at the center of the universe for the public execution of a God. This sermon created a sensation second only to that at Baltimore, and was never forgiven him by the orthodox. The controversies that filled the next six or eight years now became more bitter than ever before. To keep these alive and push them vigorously Dr. Beecher helped found a new periodical, the Spirit of the Pilgrims, to take the place of the Panoplist.  Quarrels became angry and personal. Charges of bigotry, and unfairness, insincerity, hypocrisy, and falsehood, were freely made on each side, and many things were said in the heat of controversy of which the authors ought to have been, and no doubt afterwards were heartily ashamed. Bitterness was aroused which still survived after two generations. A church dedication, an ordination, or an anniversary was seized upon as the occasion for one side or the other to proclaim its views. Whatever might be said or printed was closely scanned for some point of attack; the worst things that could be found said by some hasty spirit on one side would be held up in triumph for criticism by the other in the pamphlet war that would follow. The parties often misunderstood and sometimes misrepresented each other, and would spend page after page in picking at petty flaws and inconsistencies, until at length peaceable souls grew disgusted with the whole business and resolved to cease from the fruitless strife. For the whole sad quarrel had done much harm and little good to those who engaged in it, and to true religion. The only clear result of it all was that the orthodox became more fixed in their orthodoxy, and the Unitarians more convinced of the truth of their heresy.

    The fiercest quarrels of all arose over divisions in local parishes. Of these, that at Groton in 1826 was perhaps the most noted. The aged minister of the parish asked for a colleague, and an orthodox candidate was heard. The church, consisting of only some thirty voting members out of a parish of three hundred, called him by a vote of seventeen to eight; but the parish, which had grown liberal by three to one, would not approve the choice. The question was whether so small a minority should be allowed to impose upon so large a majority a minister who was distasteful to them. The orthodox withdrew, with much bitterness of feeling and complaint of injustice, and formed a new church. In the heated contest over this case Dr. Beecher took a leading part. In the First Parish at Cambridge the minister, the venerable Dr. Abiel Holmes (father of Oliver Wendell Holmes), joined the orthodox reaction which Dr. Beecher was leading so vigorously, and ceased to exchange with liberal ministers as he had previously been accustomed to do. Two-thirds of the church supported their minister in this action, but three-quarters of the much larger parish insisted that exchanges be continued as before. Neither party to the controversy would yield or compromise, and it ended with the dismissal of Dr. Holmes in 1829. At Brookfield in 1827, when a liberal majority of the parish settled a Unitarian minister, all the male members of the church but two withdrew, excommunicated those two and claimed the church property; but the two members remaining organized a new church, went to law, and recovered the property, as in the Dedham case. At Waltham in 1825 every member, male and female, of the church seceded from the parish, took their minister with them, and formed a new church and society. There were many other cases similar to these, though less conspicuous.

    These controversies had not died down before a yet more heated one arose over the subject of exclusiveness; for as the orthodox regained strength and confidence they grew increasingly exclusive against the Unitarians, until they at length denied them the privilege of their turn in preaching the annual sermon before the state convention of Congregational ministers to which both belonged. Indeed, there were thought to be signs that they meant to close against the Unitarians everything in church and state. A young orthodox preacher aroused much attention in 1828 by asserting that though Unitarians formed no more than a fourth of the population of the state, they monopolized public offices, controlled nine-tenths of the political power, and influenced legislation and court decisions in their own interest and against the orthodox; and he called upon orthodox voters to remember these things when voting at elections. Once more, and for the last time, Channing now entered the lists in a memorable sermon before the Legislature (1830) on Spiritual Freedom. He charged that orthodoxy was using all its power in the way of bigotry and persecution to suppress freedom of thought in religion by raising the cry of heresy, and that this was in effect a new Inquisition; and he uttered a strong protest against such a spirit. The orthodox replied that these charges were not true, and that it was they that had cause to complain of being ridiculed by the Unitarians; that they were given no share in public offices and honors, and no positions at Harvard University. Professor Stuart called upon Channing to withdraw his charges or prove them. Channing himself made no reply, but one of the younger ministers published a whole volume of evidence that for a generation the orthodox had tried in every way to oppress the liberal party in their churches. Here the matter rested, for the fires of controversy had nearly burnt themselves out. Most had grown weary of it and disgusted with it. The final act was at Salem in 1833, where an orthodox minister in a public address attacked Unitarians with personal abuse of a violence hitherto unknown, calling them “cold-blooded infidels.” But the controversy had lost its leader with the departure of Dr. Beecher9 from Boston in 1832, followed by the suspension of the Spirit of the Pilgrims the next year. The separation of Church and State in Massachusetts in 1834 removed the occasion for further controversy over the property rights of churches. Moreover, the orthodox were becoming involved in a doctrinal controversy within their own body, so that probably every one concerned was glad of an excuse to cultivate peace.

    The separation of the two bodies was now complete beyond hope of reconciliation.  The last exchange of pulpits had taken place.  The two denominations went their different ways, the Unitarians with about one hundred and twenty-five churches,10 the orthodox with some four hundred.  The orthodox had moved further than they fully realized from the teachings of Calvin; and the Unitarians further than they realized from their original ground.  Without being aware of it, they were already depending much more on reason in religion than on the Bible, and in their views of the nature of Christ had gone far toward the position of Priestley and Belsham.  But though they had Dow settled their final account with orthodoxy, they had even more serious accounts to settle with themselves.  Those will form the subject of the next chapter.


Back Next
Click here to open the frame set built to read this document.
Text taken from a 1925 original copy of Earl Morse Wilbur's Our Unitarian Heritage.
Copyright released by Wilbur's grandchildren.
For comments of technical support, e-mail  the Webmaster at [ webmaster at pacificuu dot org ].