CHAPTER XXXVI

American Unitarianism Trying to Find Itself: Internal Controversy and Development, 18351865

 

    When their long controversy with the orthodox had at last come to an end, the Unitarians found themselves but poorly equipped for carrying on an efficient and healthy life as a religious denomination with a distinct mission of its own. Their organization for promoting their common interests, though now ten years old, was still weak and inefficient, and had fallen far short of winning the support of all their churches. Nor had the progress of their thought gone much beyond the stage of merely dropping a few of the most objectionable doctrines of Calvinism. In their churches were many who were there merely because they were opposed to orthodoxy, but who had no positive and strong convictions in religion, and no earnest devotion to its principles. Many who had been bold defenders of Unitarianism so long as it was attacked, relapsed into inactivity now that the war against it seemed to be over, thinking that its work was done, and that liberal religion would henceforth spread fast enough of itself, without any personal effort of theirs. Most of the rank and file, and many of even the leaders, were content to settle down and enjoy in peace the liberty they had won, with no desire for further progress in thought or in organization. This chapter will try to show how the denomination was gradually roused out of this torpor, at length began to think and act for itself, and after struggling for thirty years at last found itself, realized its mission, and began to gird itself for its proper work in the religious life of America.

    The American Unitarian Association had been formed as a volunteer organization of a few individuals, who hoped in time to enlist the support of the whole denomination in a common cause; but they were long disappointed in this hope. At a period when the orthodox churches were full of reviving life and missionary zeal, and were giving generously for their own work though comparatively little for outside causes, the Unitarians, while giving with great liberality for hospitals, colleges, and all manner of charitable and philanthropic work, were giving pitifully small sums to spread their own religious faith.1  In the first year of the Association only four of the churches contributed to its funds; and though the number of these steadily increased, after fifteen years scarcely more than a third of the churches known as Unitarian were doing anything for the organized work of their denomination. Several of the largest and wealthiest of the Boston churches gave it nothing at all. They shrank from sacrificing the least of their freedom by joining any organization, they did not care to build up a new denomination, and they disliked even a denominational name. As late as 1835 the minister of the First Church in Boston stated that the word Unitarian had never yet been used in his pulpit.

    It was nearly ten years before the Association was able to employ a paid Secretary. Nevertheless those that believed in it kept faithfully ahead, and its work and influence grew steadily if slowly. For fifteen years or so its efforts were devoted mainly to spreading the faith through printed tracts. These were issued generally once each month, and were circulated at the rate of 70,000 or more a year, and they were eagerly read by multitudes who had never heard Unitarian preaching. Whenever the funds allowed, preachers were sent on missionary journeys through the West and South. The West was now rapidly filling up with settlers, of whom many had gone from New England and longed for liberal churches such as they had left behind them. It was estimated that two millions of people in the West had outgrown orthodox beliefs, and were in danger of falling quite away from religion, although they were ready to give hearty welcome and strong support to liberal Christianity. Year after year the missionary preachers sent out from New England would come back reporting how eager people in the West and South were to hear Unitarian preaching, how easily churches might be established in scores of thriving new towns, and how great an opportunity there was to liberalize the whole of the new country, if only preachers could be had and a little aid be given at the start. But alas, there were hardly more ministers than were needed in New England, and most of these were reluctant to do pioneer work on the frontier of civilization; while the funds of the Association were too scanty to support them even had they been willing to be sent. The missionary spirit was incredibly sluggish, and the eastern Unitarians seemed to think that the West and South, if left to take their own course, would of themselves soon become as liberal as Massachusetts. Yet despite all this laziness the denomination did steadily grow. A whole series of new churches sprang up in such important centers as Cincinnati, Louisville, Buffalo, New Orleans, St. Louis, Chicago, Mobile, and Syracuse; and by 1840 the one hundred and twenty churches with which the denomination started out in 1825 had increased to two hundred and thirty. Local auxiliaries were formed in more and more of the churches, contributions slowly increased, a permanent fund began to accumulate, and the fear of belonging to a denomination was slowly outgrown.

    If the new denomination was slow in settling down to its proper work, it was yet slower in adopting any principles of thought really different from those of orthodoxy. At the end of the Unitarian controversy the Unitarians had, it is true, changed their beliefs as to God, Christ, the atonement, and human nature; yet these might after all be regarded as mere matters of detail. They might still have remained no more than a liberal wing of the old church, as indeed many of them would have preferred to do. In fact, some of them were already beginning to fear that doctrinal changes might go too far, and that liberty in religion might bring with it more dangers than blessings. They were quite satisfied to let reform of doctrines stop where it was, and to build a new fence about an orthodox Unitarianism, in place of the old one about orthodox Calvinism from which they had lately escaped. Though they claimed the right of interpreting the Scriptures by reason, they were inclined to submit to Scripture authority almost more slavishly than the orthodox themselves.

    Now all this happened because of the philosophy that both Unitarians and orthodox had long accepted. Both believed with John Locke that all our knowledge is gained through the physical senses. Even the knowledge of God and of religious truth came to us thus. We were justified in believing in God and in a future life, therefore, solely because Jesus, who taught these doctrines, wrought miracles which men could see, and which proved his teachings to be true. This was the chief reason why one should accept the Christian religion and follow the precepts of Jesus at all. It thus became of the greatest importance for us implicitly to accept the Bible and its miracles, since otherwise the foundation of our religion would be gone.

    At the time of which we are speaking, however, there were beginning to be some, especially of the younger men, who were growing more and more dissatisfied with these views of truth, and were wishing to carry the reform of theology further than merely the reform of a few orthodox doctrines. The religion of the day seemed to them dead and mechanical. They had been much influenced by the writings of some of the German philosophers of the past generation, and even more by the English writings of Coleridge and Carlyle. Soon they were given the nickname Transcendentalists. Transcendentalism was working among many of the younger generation in New England like a sort of ferment, and it showed its influence in various ways. They became rebellious against external authority and old traditions of thinking and doing. Impatient with the continued existence of ignorance, poverty, intemperance, slavery, war, and other social ills, they threw themselves eagerly into all sorts of reforms and philanthropies that promised improvement — popular education, normal schools, temperance reform, the antislavery movement, woman’s rights, nonresistance, communism, vegetarianism, spiritualism, mesmerism, phrenology some wise and some foolish, but all of them earnestly espoused. They established at Brook Farm in 1841 a coöperative experiment which combined education with agriculture, and became famous though it lasted but six years. They published a magazine called the Dial which in its four years’ existence broke new paths in literature. They were the first in America to welcome modern criticism of the Bible. Their movement was a New England Renaissance. Channing, though not identified with it, was in spirit a precursor of Transcendentalism; and most of its adherents were Unitarians.

    It is the effect of Transcendentalism upon the religion of the Unitarians that most concerns us here. It spread rapidly among the younger ministers. Its leaders declared that we are not dependent upon miracles, nor upon Jesus, nor upon the Bible, for our knowledge of religious truths; for man is a religious being by nature. Religious truths do not have to be proved by miracles or by reasoning; they do not come to us from the outside; they arise spontaneously within us, and God reveals them to our own souls directly. Hence we do not have to go to past ages and ancient prophets for our religion, or to try to reason it out to ourselves, or to follow the usual religious traditions. We need only to keep our souls open to what God would teach us now in our religious intuitions.

    While such thoughts as these had been entertained for some time by a handful of the younger ministers, the first to attract much attention to them by public utterance was Ralph Waldo Emerson in his Divinity School Address. Emerson is generally remembered today simply as an American man of letters; but for a number of years be was himself a Unitarian minister. He was descended from eight generations of Puritan ministers, and his father, the Rev. William Emerson, had been minister of the First Church in Boston, and one of the liberals of his time, though he died before the division of the churches occurred. After leaving the Divinity School, Emerson was for three years and a half minister of the Second Church in Boston, from which he resigned in 1832 because he did not feel that be could conscientiously celebrate the Lord’s Supper with the meaning then attached to it. Though he still continued for some years to preach more or less often, he was never settled over another church, but became more and more a lecturer and writer.

    In the summer of 1838 Emerson, now rapidly coming into fame for his work on the lecture platform, was invited to preach the sermon before the graduating class of the Divinity School. Only a small roomful were present, but the address they heard began a new era in American Unitarianism. He brought his young hearers the message of Transcendentalism as applied to religion. He complained that the prevailing religion of the day had little life or inspiration in it because it was forever looking to persons and events in the past history of Christianity, rather than listening to hear what God has to say to men today; and be urged them not to exaggerate the person of Jesus, nor to attach importance to miracles, as the main elements in religion, but to seek the truths of religion within their own souls, and to preach to men what God reveals to them there. Thus religion should be no longer cold and formal, but a vital personal experience.

    There were those that appreciated the message of Emerson’s address at once. Theodore Parker was one of these, and he wrote of it, “It was the noblest, the most inspiring strain I ever listened to.” Others among the younger ministers were glad to have so earnestly and clearly said in public what they had been vaguely feeling and thinking to themselves. Few who read Emerson’s address today will find in it anything to shock them, or even much to attract attention for its novelty. But the older heads at once saw what was involved in his message, and were filled with consternation that young men about to enter the ministry should have been given advice which, it was felt, was in danger of undermining their whole Christian faith. The address could not be allowed to pass unrebuked. Emerson’s successor at the Second Church made haste to say in the Christian Register that Emerson was not a representative of the denomination nor of many in it, and that he was no longer considered a regular minister. The Christian Examiner called the address “neither good divinity nor good sense.” Professor Henry Ware, Jr. felt bound to preach in the College chapel at the opening of the next term a sermon to counteract teachings which he considered denied the personality of God, and made worship impossible. Unitarian ministers’ meetings debated whether Emerson were Christian, pantheist, or atheist; and writers in various newspapers attacked him.

    After a year had passed Professor Andrews Norton, who had been one of the champions of the liberal party in the controversy of twenty years before,2 girded on his armor afresh, and in an address before the alumni of the Divinity School attacked Emerson’s views as “the latest form of infidelity.” He solemnly gave warning that since miracles are the foundation of Christianity, whoever denies them strikes directly at its root; nothing is left of it without them. For one to pretend to be a Christian teacher and yet to disbelieve in them is treachery to God and man; and he ought to leave the ministry. To all these attacks Emerson made no reply, refusing to be drawn into controversy. But the Rev. George Ripley, one of the younger men, answered Norton at length and with great ability; while a briefer reply was modestly made by another young minister named Theodore Parker, who was soon to become the storm center of a much fiercer controversy which was not merely to concern a few of the ministers, but was seriously to disturb the peace of the whole denomination for a quarter of a century. Of him we have next to speak.

    Theodore Parker was born in 1810, the eleventh and youngest child of a farmer in Lexington, where his grandfather bad been captain of a company at the first battle in the American Revolution. As his father was poor, Theodore fitted himself for Harvard College while working on the farm and teaching school. He could not attend the college classes, but while he kept on teaching he took all the regular studies and passed the examinations, though for want of money to pay the tuition fee he could not graduate. While teaching in Boston at this time he listened to Dr. Beecher’s preaching for a year, but it served only to confirm him in the Unitarian faith in which he had been brought up. After he had finished his course at the Divinity School he became minister of a country church at West Roxbury. In this quiet little place he was known as a faithful parish minister, remarkable chiefly for his immense reading, his prodigious memory, his wide and profound scholarship, and his mastery of many foreign languages. He had been preaching here a year when he heard Emerson’s famous address, and it was three years more before he was unexpectedly lifted out of his obscurity by a sermon which he preached in 1841 at the ordination of a minister at South Boston.

    Parker took for the theme of his sermon The Transient and the Permanent in Christianity, and it speedily brought down upon him far worse opprobrium than had fallen upon Emerson. Parker was already known as one of the Transcendentalists, and on this account some of the ministers had already refused to exchange with him. He still believed in miracles, to be sure, and that Jesus was a perfect man; but in this sermon he insisted that Christianity does not need miracles to prove it true. It stands on its own merits. The permanent element in it is the teaching of Jesus, and the truth of that is self-evident apart from miracles; it does not rest on even the personal authority of Jesus, indeed it would still remain true though it were proved that Jesus never lived at all. On the other hand, the forms and doctrines of Christianity are transient, changing from year to year. All this, putting in concrete form what Emerson had said more abstractly, and saying for people at large what Emerson had said only for ministers, was in itself far enough from the views then held by most Unitarians; but it was made still worse by the fact that in what he said he used language which seemed sarcastic and even irreverent. Many of the Unitarians present were deeply grieved and shocked by what he said.

    Still in spite of all this it is quite possible that the matter might soon have blown over and been forgotten, had not some orthodox ministers interfered. Three of them being present took notes of the most extreme things Parker had said, and at once came out in print inquiring of the Unitarian clergy in general whether they meant to endorse such views, or to regard the man who had uttered them as a Christian; while one of them even demanded that he be prosecuted for the crime of blasphemy. Perhaps they hoped in this way to win the more conservative Unitarians back to orthodoxy by showing them what Unitarianism was coming to. Although it was none of their business, they practically insisted that the Unitarians should either disown Parker or else confess active sympathy with his views. The Unitarians at once accepted the challenge, and made haste to treat him almost as a heathen and a publican. Some of his brother ministers refused henceforth to speak to him on the street, or to shake hands with him, or to sit beside him at meetings. Some of them called him unbeliever, infidel, deist, or atheist, and tried to get him deprived of his pulpit. It was then the custom for ministers to exchange pulpits with one another each month, but the pressure against him became so strong that soon but five ministers could be found in Boston who would exchange with him; for it was felt that exchanging would mean an approval of his opinions which they were unwilling to give. The ministers in the country, however, treated him more considerately, continuing to exchange with him and to give him their friendship. There were laymen, too, who thought him not fairly treated; and believing in the right of free thought and free speech, inasmuch as he was denied a hearing in Boston pulpits they arranged for him in the next two years to give in Boston series of lectures or sermons in a public hall. In these he restated and expanded the views he had expressed in his South Boston sermon.

    It was the Boston ministers who, since they felt most responsible for him, treated him in a way that would now be thought most illiberal. Some twenty five of them had long been united in a Boston Association of Congregational (Unitarian) Ministers, who used to meet together each month and to deliver in turn a “Thursday Lecture” in the First Church. Parker was one of these. The other members now felt greatly disturbed that Parker should still be known as a member of their Association, and they considered bow they might get rid of him. It was debated whether to expel him from membership outright; but they shrank from doing this, for it was precisely what they had complained of the orthodox for doing to them a generation before. Then they tried to get him to resign; but this he was unwilling to do, feeling that a vital question of principle was involved. While all respected him for his character, and many of them still esteemed him as a friend, they entirely disapproved of his religious views. Furthermore he was frequently aggressive in manner, sarcastic in speech, and vehement in denunciation of those whose views differed from his own, and these characteristics alienated from him many of his fellow ministers who might have stood by him. Even Dr. Channing, who continued to the end to be his friend, was doubtful whether he should be called a Christian. Yet so long as his own congregation were satisfied with him there was no way to turn him out of the Unitarian ministry. The result was that the ministers simply gave him the cold shoulder, made him feel unwelcome at their meetings, and after a little devised a scheme to keep him from delivering the Thursday Lecture; so that in a year or two they had so far frozen him out that he seldom attended the Association, and had little more to do with most of its members. Though be was never expelled from the Association or from the Unitarian ministry, in the Unitarian Year Book his name was never included in the list of ministers and churches except in 1846 and 1848, and in the printed list of members of the Boston Association it never appeared at all.

    There were a few of the ministers, however, who though they did not agree with Parker’s views did believe more than the rest in religious freedom, and acted accordingly. Thus the Rev. John T. Sargent exchanged with Parker in 1844, but for doing so he was so sharply called to account by the Benevolent Fraternity of Churches which employed him that he felt bound in self-respect to resign his pulpit. James Freeman Clarke also exchanged with him the next year, whereupon fifteen families emphasized their protest by seceding from his church and organizing a short-lived one of their own. Parker was now so fully shut out of Boston pulpits by their ministers that a group of laymen determined that, whether the clergy would or no, he should have a chance to be heard in Boston. In the face of strong opposition they secured a large hall for him to preach in, and as the congregation steadily increased it soon organized as the Twenty-eighth Congregational Society, and settled Parker as its minister. Though most of the newspapers and all the magazines threw the weight of their influence against him, he won a tremendous bold on the common people, and so long as he preached there he was by far the most influential minister in Boston, week after week crowding Music Hall with its three thousand people, who had come to hear not sensations or popular oratory, but plain, earnest, fearless discussion of the most serious themes.

    Parker’s work was henceforth that of one disowned and opposed by most of his own denomination. As his thought grew clearer he became more radical, though never less religious; and as time went on, he threw himself ever more fully into work for the great social reforms of the day, unweariedly preaching Sundays and lecturing far and wide week days for temperance, prison reform, and the elevation of woman, and against capital punishment, war and, most of all, slavery. Thus he wore himself out. After twelve years of this incessant labor his health began to fail. The orthodox exulted, and daily at one o’clock they offered their united prayers that the great infidel, as they deemed him, might be silenced and his influence come to naught. He sought relief in travel in Europe, but it was too late. He died in 1860 at Florence, where his grave is in the English Cemetery. Then Unitarians began to appreciate and acknowledge that a great prophet had fallen. His influence among them steadily increased; and in the next generation he had come to be admired and praised by them as second only to Channing among all their leaders.

    The discussion which Parker had set going among the Unitarians went steadily on after he had ceased to have any part in it; nor did it cease after his death. But what had begun mainly as a controversy over miracles and the importance of believing in them gradually broadened out into the general question as to what was essential to Christianity, and who are to be regarded as Christians. This Radical Controversy, as it came to be known, lasted for twenty years, until it was at length swallowed up and largely forgotten in the much more serious questions raised by the Civil War. What Emerson and Parker had said in public and without apology, many others had with hesitation been thinking to themselves. As time went on these radicals as they were soon called, most of them younger men, became more numerous, and disbelief in miracles and denial of them progressed steadily. The new critical study of the Bible gave the movement a fresh impulse, and the preaching of many found a new emphasis and took on a new tone. For some time attention was so much centered on Parker that little heed was paid to what was going on in these other minds; but graduates of the Divinity School were anxiously scanned to discover whether they were departing from the true faith, complaint was expressed in public that men supposed to be Transcendentalists were narrowly treated by those who made belief in miracles practically a test of one’s Christianity, and some were discouraged from continuing in the ministry. By and by the new views bad spread so widely that the conservatives began to feel seriously alarmed, and the income of the American Unitarian Association seriously fell off because givers feared their money might be used to support radicalism. At length the officers of the Association took official notice of what they could no longer ignore. In their annual report for 1853 they ascribed the slow growth of the denomination in part to radicalism, and in order to defend Unitarians against the charge of infidelity and rationalism still being made by the orthodox, they set forth a long statement of the beliefs they held, and declared the divine origin and authority of the Christian religion to be the basis of their efforts. A resolution to the same effect was unanimously adopted. Similar action was taken the same year by the Western Unitarian Conference meeting at St. Louis. In fact, throughout this whole middle period most of the Unitarians seemed to be creeping timidly along, steadying themselves by holding on to orthodoxy with one hand, highly sensitive to orthodox criticism, and pathetically anxious to be acknowledged by the orthodox as really Christian despite all differences between them. Thus in this same year at a convention at Worcester it was objected to a proposed monument to Servetus for the three hundredth anniversary of his martyrdom, that “it would offend the orthodox”! Nevertheless the orthodox showed little sign of becoming more friendly. Unitarianism had not yet found itself, and was not yet ready to go its own way alone.

    The denomination had in truth come pretty much to a standstill, and seemed to be at once aimless, hopeless, and powerless. At the Autumnal Conventions (held at various places from 1842 to 1863), though the time was bristling with important questions in which the churches should have taken an active interest, the ministers discussed little but parochial subjects, and no fresh note was sounded, and no fresh inspiration given. Addressing the ministers in 1854 James Freeman Clarke rightly said that they were “a discouraged denomination.” Unitarianism seemed to have gone to seed. The orthodox took note of this, and joyfully proclaimed that Unitarianism was dying, which at the time seemed to be the case; and they kept on repeating the statement many years afterwards, even when it had ceased to be true.

    The growth of the denomination was very slow. Early in the ‘forties the Association, instead of spending its funds mainly in the publishing of tracts, began to pay more attention to missionary work, and gave aid to many young or feeble churches. Still, in the fifteen years which elapsed between the height of the Parker controversy and the outbreak of the Civil War, though a few new churches a year were added, so many feeble ones died that there was a net gain of only about a score. There were several causes for this slow growth. In the first place, the Unitarians had still to use a good deal of their strength in defending themselves against the attacks of the orthodox, and they suffered much from the prejudice against them which existed and hindered their growth in quarters where they were not well known. Moreover, many of the most active spirits in the denomination devoted themselves much less to spreading their own faith than to furthering great reforms. More than in most other denominations the ministers took an active part in the antislavery movement, and it was warmly debated in their meetings; while the temperance and other reforms absorbed the energies of some to the cost of their church work.

    The most serious obstacle, however, to united effort for the common cause was radicalism. Emerson’s philosophy and Parker’s theology made more and more converts, and were adopted by some of the ablest and most brilliant of the ministers. By 1860 there were said to be twenty five of them who shared Parker’s views. These might have done the denomination great service, had they been fraternally treated; but instead, the conservative majority opposed them and in large measure alienated them from it, and some of them were practically driven from the ministry. Naturally they could not do much to build up a denomination which seemed determined to put free thought and free speech under the ban. Nor, on the other hand, would the conservatives support the Association heartily so long as it was equivocal in its attitude toward radicalism. By 1859 the number of contributing churches had shrunk to forty. At meeting after meeting requests for aid to new or feeble churches had to be refused because the Association had nothing to give, and many of these churches were thus starved to death. Hence missionary enterprise languished for want of support; and some of the ablest ministers went over to the Episcopal Church, where one of them became a bishop.3

    Considering how badly hampered it had been for lack of funds, the work of the Association was nevertheless intelligently and efficiently carried on; and in spite of all the discouraging features of this period, still there was more life, and more progress was achieved, than was apparent on the surface or realized at the time. When resources and spirits were at about their lowest ebb at the beginning of 1854, a special effort resulted in raising many thousands of dollars to spread the faith by publishing Unitarian books, in place of the tracts that had so long been issued. Much good came of this, and the churches’ contributions doubled that year. At the same time enthusiasm for foreign missionary work was kindled. A generation before a good deal of interest had been felt in Unitarian work then being carried on in Calcutta, and for several years it received American support. Now again, in 1854, in consequence of reports that great opportunities were opening there, the Association appointed the Rev. C. H. A. Dall as their missionary in India. His work succeeded and be planted several churches and schools there, working with the greatest devotion until his death in 1886; but no suitable successor was found to continue his labors. The following year (1855) a providential chance seemed to open for a mission also among the Chippewa Indians in Minnesota, where work was carried on for about two years.

    Unprecedented emigration from New England to the Western states was now going on, and as the funds of the Association slowly increased it became possible to assist in organizing more new churches. Such important points as Milwaukee, Detroit, and San Francisco were now occupied, as were many smaller places; and the first settled minister and the first church building in Kansas were Unitarian. The Meadville Theological School, established in northwestern Pennsylvania in 1844, from that time on furnished a steady stream of young men for pioneer work in the Mississippi basin; and the Western Unitarian Conference, organized in 1852, did much to further missionary work throughout the West. In the South, however, there was little growth on account of slavery, and the churches already established there had such difficulty in keeping their pulpits filled that some time before the beginning of the Civil War several of them had passed out of existence. The most rapid growth of course was still in Massachusetts. Taking the whole country together, though many churches planted in small towns bad proved to be but short lived, the number of strong new ones founded at important centers much more than made good the loss; so that the denomination in 1860 was distinctly stronger and healthier than in 1845.

    Yet when all has been told, it must still be said that in 1859 out of two hundred and fifty churches only a hundred contributed regularly to the work of the denomination; while a hundred others (and among them some of the largest and wealthiest) had never contributed at all.  The Secretary of the Association in his report the next year said that Boston Unitarians saw no reason for diffusing their faith, but treated it as a luxury to be kept for themselves, as they kept Boston Common.  As a rule they had done little for Unitarian missions, and it was reported that they did not wish to make Unitarians too common.  Many had also come to feel that the liberalizing work of the denomination was now done, and could better be left to others; or else they were simply waiting to see what step was to be taken next.

    What that next step should be, and how it could be taken unitedly, was made clear through the Civil War.  During some years previous to that the tense feeling between radicals and conservatives had been relaxing.  The fears of the latter had not been realized, and they were becoming more kindly in their feeling toward the former.  The laymen had never felt much concern in the controversy anyway; while the ministers, meeting together in their May conferences in Boston, and in the Autumnal Conventions elsewhere, gradually learned to respect one another's religious views even if not agreeing with them.  It was realized that after all they were all of the same family, had many great interests in common, and would be ready to rally to the same cause when one should present itself great enough to outweigh their differences.

    That cause was found, for the time, not in religion, nor even in social reform, but in patriotism.  The Unitarian ministers and churches threw themselves with great zeal into the tasks presented by the war.  Some sixty of the ministers served in the army as chaplains or otherwise.  Dr. Henry W. Bellows of New York organized and led the work of the Sanitary Commission, and Dr. William G. Eliot of St. Louis formed and directed a Western Sanitary Commission, both of which throughout the war did a work similar to that of the Red Cross at a later period, and were largely supported by Unitarians; whereas the orthodox churches, criticizing these movements for not being sufficiently religious in character for churches to undertake, gave their preference to the Christian Commission, corresponding to the religious war work in later times carried on by the Young Mens Christian Association.  The Unitarian Association also prepared especially for army use books and tracts which were circulated among the soldiers in very large numbers, and met with an unparalleled success.  The result was that the interest of the churches in the work the Association was doing was greatly increased, churches began giving to it that had never given before, and contributions steadily rose all through the war.

    Although the war-time missionary work nearly ceased, the reaction of war work upon the denomination was very marked.  The Autumnal Conventions in 1862 and 1863 were the largest, most enthusiastic, and most united that had been known.  The churches began to realize that there were great things to be done for the welfare of the world, and that they were called upon to bear their full part in doing them.  The war was teaching the great value of organization for effective work, and the need of an efficient organization of the churches (the Association had never been more than an organization of contributing individuals) was discussed already in the second year of the war.  The Autumnal Convention was not called together in 1864, but instead a special meeting of the Association was held at the end of that year.  A united and enthusiastic spirit was shown.  It was reported that the Association was receiving far more calls than its funds could meet, and the calls were increasing.  Unprecedented missionary opportunities were opening, for the war had had a remarkable liberalizing effect on the country, not least in matters of religion.  It was at first proposed to undertake to raise regularly henceforth at least $25,000 a year for the work of the Association, instead of the bare third of that amount irregularly given during the past twenty years; but the amount was soon amended to $100,000.  This further led to a proposition to call a general convention of all Unitarian churches in the country to take measures for the good of the denomination.  The idea was received with enthusiasm, and both motions were unanimously carried.  American Unitarianism in getting a new and wide vision of its mission had at last found itself.  The organization of a National Conference soon followed, as the next chapter will relate.


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Text taken from a 1925 original copy of Earl Morse Wilbur's Our Unitarian Heritage.
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