American Unitarian Conference

Free Religion

An Act for Establishing Religious Freedom [1779]

Thomas Jefferson

Passed in the Assembly of Virginia in the beginning of the year 1786.

Well aware that Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burdens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do; that the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world, and through all time; that to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical; that even the forcing him to support this or tha.... [missing text]

Be it therefore enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions of belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in nowise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.

And though we well know this Assembly, elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of legislation only, have no power to restrain the acts of succeeding assemblies, constituted with the powers equal to our own, and that therefore to declare this act irrevocable, would be of no effect in law, yet we are free to declare, and do declare, that the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation such act will be an infringement of natural right.


"Things Commonly Believed Among Us"

William Channing Gannett


Adopted 59 to 13 by the Western Unitarian Conference in 1887 to accommodate non-Christians .


We believe that to love the Good and to live the Good is the supreme thing in religion. We hold reason and conscience to be final authorities in matters of religious belief. We honor the Bible and all inspiring scripture, old and new. We revere Jesus, and all holy souls that have taught men truth and righteousness and love, as prophets of religion. We believe in the growing nobility of Man. We trust the unfolding Universe as beautiful, beneficent, unchanging Order; to know this order is truth; to obey it is right and liberty and stronger life. We believe that good and evil invariably carry their own recompense, no good thing being failure and no evil thing success; that heaven and hell are states of being; that no evil can befall the good man in either life or death; that all things work together for the victory of the Good. We believe that we ought to join hands and work to make the good things better and the worst good, counting nothing good for self that is not good for all. We believe that this self-forgetting, loyal life awakes in man the sense of union here and now with things eternal - the sense of deathlessness; and this sense is to us an earnest of the life to come. We worship One-in All -- that life whence suns and stars derive their orbits and the soul of man its Ought, -- that Light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world, giving us power to become the sons of God, -- that Love with which ours souls commune.

Featured Articles

The Connection of Deism to American Unitarianism by Nathan DeMay

Science and Religion: An Exploration by David R. Burton


Free Religion Links

Center for Free Religion - founded in 1983 to address the paradox of religion’s tension between being a major force for freedom and liberation and its history of contributing to conflict and repression.

Deist and Panentheist Websites

Deism and Reason - the best and most thorough discussion of Deism available on the web.

The Panentheist - weblog of the Panentheist circle of Great Britain.

United Deist Church - formed to promote and support the foundation of Deist churches and fellowships.

Positive Deism - focuses on the forward progress of Deism rather than on battling the forces of revelatory religion.

Ponder - a great resource for finding texts, both historical and modern, on Deism. Promotes communication among Deists.


Back to AUC Homepage


The Free Religion Movement in Unitarianism: 

Opening the Way for Non-Christians


During the nineteenth century, the reputation of Unitarianism for being an inclusive, creedless religion attracted a number of non-Christians, many of whom might be described as scientific theists or deists. They longed for a place to gather and worship, but could not find such a place in the mainstream churches. It was only natural that they should find a home in Unitarian churches, where they experienced fellowship and encouragement, even though the focus of the sermons and liturgies was Christian. In some areas, liberal congregations were formed that were non-Christian in character, and these became associated with the larger Unitarian organizations. The non-Christians were a minority well into the twentieth century, but they proved to be very vocal, and several developments ensured their survival and influence within Unitarianism.


During the 1860's, the "free religion movement" began to gain strength in the Unitarian churches. Supporters of this movement were intent on pursuing religious freedom to its logical conclusion: a complete openness to all religious sentiments and persuasions. In 1865, at the first annual meeting of the National Conference of Unitarian Churches in New York, they urged the assembly to permit all liberal churches, Christian or not, into membership of the Conference. However, the majority were not in favor of this, and in the preamble to the new constitution, the Christian character of the organization was affirmed. For the next year, the matter continued to be debated in sermons, pamphlets, and periodicals. At the next annual meeting, Francis Ellingwood Abbott proposed a new preamble to the constitution, which stated that the churches of the Conference, "disregarding all sectarian or theological differences, and offering a cordial fellowship to all who will join them in Christian work, unite themselves in a common body, to be known as The National Conference of Unitarian and Independent Churches." The amendment was rejected. However, at the suggestion of James Freeman Clarke, it was agreed to change the name of the association to The National Conference of Unitarian and Other Christian Churches. It was explained that the expression "Other Christian Churches" was "not meant to exclude religious societies which have no distinctive church organization, and are not nominally Christian, if they desire to co-operate with the Conference in what it regards as Christian work."


Many of the progressives were not satisfied with the concession, and on the train back to Boston, a number of them decided to organize an association of their own that would guarantee the religious liberty they were seeking and provide them with an outlet for expressing their views. On May 30, 1867, the Free Religious Association was born. Octavius Brooks Frothingham was named president. Other notable members were Cyrus A. Bartol, Francis Ellingwood Abbott, William J. Potter, John Weiss, David Wasson, John White Chadwick, Louisa May Alcott and Ralph Waldo Emerson. The group felt strongly in the universality of religion and that all phases of religious opinion should be represented in its membership and on their platform. In the 1872 revision of their constitution, it was stated that "nothing in the name or constitution of the Association shall ever be construed as limiting membership by any test of speculative opinion or belief, --or as defining the position of the Association, collectively considered, with reference to any such opinion or belief, --or as interfering in any other way with that absolute freedom of thought and expression which is the natural right of every rational being." The two chief journals of the organization were The Radical, edited by Sidney H. Morse, and The Index, edited by Francis E. Abbott. It was often argued in the pages of these periodicals that it was time to outgrow Christianity altogether and embrace a universal theism that rejected any attempts at an agreed-upon theology and allowed each individual to find God in his or her own way. Some emphasized intuition; others focused on the advances of science.


For the next few years, efforts were made by the National Conference to bring members of the Free Religious Association back into the fold. However, all attempts were unsuccessful, as either the concessions weren't conciliatory enough for the free religion movement or were too radical for the Christians. Tension between the two groups remained strong, because many active members of the FRA continued to occupy Unitarian pulpits and attend Unitarian services. A controversy arose in 1873, when the names of ministers associated with the FRA began to be removed from the list of ministers in the Year Book of the American Unitarian Association. After a huge backlash, it was decided that no name should be removed unless the minister requested it or he had officially left the denomination.


The Free Religious Association eventually fizzled out, but some of its members would go on to be notable philosophers of the period, and their word had an impact on their former associates in the Unitarian churches. During the 1880's, the controversy resurfaced within the Western Unitarian Conference, albeit in a slightly different form. While still emphasizing universal theism, a significant humanist element also began forming, which set aside the concept of "God" and focused instead on ethics. The influence of the earlier free religion movement could be clearly seen by the decision in 1882 to accept the motto "Freedom, Fellowship, and Character in Religion" for the WUC, which is remarkably similar to the motto of the Free Religious Association ("Freedom and Fellowship in Religion"). Leaders of the movement in the West were Jenkin Lloyd Jones and William Channing Gannett, whose views were reflected in their journal, Unity, and those in sympathy with them were dubbed "Unity men." Their influence greatly concerned the Christians, and Jabez T. Sunderland, the secretary of the WUC, published a pamphlet in 1886 entitled, The Issue in the West, in which he voiced his apprehension about the state of affairs: "This new Unitarianism has shown an especially warm sympathy with the Free Religious movement, and later, with the Ethical movement, has steadily sought to differentiate itself from the Unitarianism of the East as being something 'broader' and 'more advanced' than that, has long been averse to the use of the Christian name, and for a few years past has been more and more distinctly moving off from even a theistic basis, until now it declares openly and strongly that even belief in God must no longer be declared an essential of Unitarianism....Unitarianism must stand for ethical beliefs and beliefs in certain so-called 'principles,' but not for beliefs in anything that will commit it to theism or Christianity." 


Despite Sunderland's objections, the Unity movement remained strong, and at the annual meeting of the WUC that year, by a vote of 34 to 10, a resolution was adopted, composed by William Channing Gannett, which stated, "The Western Unitarian Conference conditions its fellowship on no dogmatic tests, but welcomes all who wish to join it to establish truth, righteousness, and love in the world." Many of the more conservative churches in the conference were unhappy with the direction in which the conference was headed and withdrew from fellowship. At the next meeting in 1887, an attempt was made at reconciliation, and Gannett composed an additional declaration, "Things Commonly Believed Among Us," a portion of which can be seen at the sidebar to the left. This statement did not satisfy the conservatives, and the controversy raged for a few more years.


Finally, at the annual meeting of the National Conference in 1894, all parties agreed to the adoption of a new preamble to the constitution, which stated, "The Conference recognizes the fact that its constituency is Congregational in tradition and polity. Therefore, it declares that nothing in this constitution is to be construed as an authoritative test; and we cordially invite to our working fellowship any who, while differing from us in belief, are in general sympathy with our spirit and our practical aims." This statement set the stage for what was to come.


The AUC supports religious freedom. It understands that there are different yet legitimate paths to God and recognizes that other faith traditions, beliefs, philosophies, and religious texts emphasize love for God and for humanity. The AUC has created a set of religious principles that allow for other monotheistic conceptions of God outside of the Christian tradition, and non-Christian churches, fellowships, and individuals are members. In this respect it embraces the free religion movement. However, although the AUC believes that absolute freedom of religion is a right that should be guaranteed by the state and society, it does not believe that absolute freedom of religion can be itself a religion. There is something oxymoronic in the idea of a pluralistic religion. A religious organization is a group of people practicing a distinct religion, not a group of people from different religions doing something else other than practicing a distinct religion. James Freeman Clarke once said that "Free Religion sacrifices the motive power derived from association and religious sympathy for the sake of a larger intellectual freedom." This is the trap that the free religious movement fell into, and the result is that the distinct religion of Unitarianism has become diluted and for all practical purposes, lost.  


The AUC intends to promote Unitarianism as the distinct religion that it once was.  It maintains a distinct faith tradition, monotheistic, and rooted in the Western tradition. This does not mean that the AUC will strictly define concepts of God and other religious issues; nor does it mean it will reject religious groups or individuals that are not part of the Conference. Being open to other interpretations and understandings of God is part of the AUC's hallmark. However, the AUC is an institution that will promote and teach within the Unitarian tradition and honor the Unitarian Christian foundations of that tradition. The very core of that tradition is faith in one God.


The free religion movement proved to be a double-edged sword for the Unitarian churches and associations. While, on the one hand, it forced Unitarianism to live up to its own principles regarding freedom of religion and creedlessness, at the same time it opened the way for philosophies completely opposed to the principles of Unitarianism. To hold that all religious opinions are equally meritorious is, in the final analysis, to be indifferent to religion and to despair that one can achieve any degree of religious understanding. The AUC does not accept the proposition that the Unitarian faith can coherently stand for the proposition that God exists (our belief) and the proposition that God does not exist (the atheist "humanist" proposition). We also do not accept the proposition that the Unitarian faith can coherently stand for the proposition that there is one God (our belief) and the proposition that there is more than one God (the polytheistic and, often, pagan belief).  One or the other sides of these questions is true.  Logically, it is either true that God exists or does not exist.  How can there be a middle ground on that question?  And logically, there is one God or more than one God.  Both propositions cannot be true. On an issue so central to religion, how can a religion profitably fail to hold an opinion on the issue of whether God exists or treat the question as merely a matter of taste (like whether one prefers strawberry or vanilla ice cream)?  We at the AUC believe in God and that there is one God.  On this we are united. Ours is a faith to which God is central.  On that we agree with most Unitarians in the past and with most Unitarians elsewhere in the world. It is the business of religion to explore our faith in God and its implications for how we should lead our lives.


It may be noted that if a fellowship or church decides to organize itself around the AUC's Seven Principles (printed on our main page) and to go no further in defining its theology or limiting it, it will very much resemble the faith of the early free religionists. It would espouse a universal or scientific theism, or a deism in the spirit of Thomas Paine and Ethan Allen. Such fellowships and churches are welcome as members of the AUC. They fall under our umbrella and still hold much in common with classical Unitarianism.

Classical Writings on Deism, Theism, and Free Religion

Reason: The Only Oracle of Man (1784) - Ethan Allen

On the Religion of Deism Compared With the Christian Religion - anonymous 18th century author

The Age of Reason (1795) - Thomas Paine

Imperfect and Perfect Theism (1870) - James Freeman Clarke

© 2004 American Unitarian Conference