Classical American Unitarian Christian Sermons and Writings

 

Jonathan Mayhew 

(1720-1766)

Jonathan Mayhew was a leading clergyman in New England and is sometimes called the first American Unitarian, because he was the first to be outspoken in his rejection of the Trinity and his belief in the essential goodness of human nature. He served West Church in Boston from 1747 until his death in 1766. His sermons and writings were clear and direct, with a modern style. He was powerfully influential in the development of the movement for liberty and independence in America. Believing in reason and conscience, Mayhew championed the right of private judgment in religion, a right which was to become the key principle not only of American Unitarianism but of American democracy itself.

Biography

Seven Sermons (1749) - In this series of sermons, Mayhew argues that all people were meant to use their own judgment in determining right from wrong, and they have the duty to do so.

"Concerning Unlimited Submission and Non-Resistance to the Higher Powers" (1750) - (excerpt) One of the sermons that proved influential to the fathers of the American Revolution.

Joseph Priestley 

(1733-1804)

Best known as the discoverer of oxygen, Joseph Priestley, besides being a scientist, a historian, and a political philosopher, was a minister. He was associated with the Dissenters in England, those who rejected orthodox doctrine. Two of his books received a great amount of attention, both in England and America, causing quite a stir. They were The History of the Corruptions of Christianity (1782) and The History of Early Opinions Concerning Jesus Christ (1786). In 1794, because of increasing pressure against him in England, he emigrated to Philadelphia, PA, and helped to establish there the first congregation in America that actually called itself "Unitarian."

Biography

"A General View of the Arguments for the Unity of God" (1794) - This pamphlet presents arguments against both Trinitarian and Arian views of Jesus.

James Freeman

(1759-1835)

Graduating from Harvard in 1777, James Freeman began as an Episcopalian minister. By 1785, however, he began quarrelling with trinitarianism, and in 1787, he convinced his church in Boston, King's Chapel, to become, in a sense, the first Unitarian church in the U.S., in that it removed all references to the Trinity from its liturgy. He remained at King's Chapel until 1826, after which he retired to Newton MA.

Biography

 

"Walking by Faith" - A sermon showing the benefits and blessings of not knowing with absolute certainty the answers to all religious questions.

"Rules to be Observed in Examining the Evidences of the Christian Religion" - In this sermon, Freeman discusses, not the evidences of Christianity, but how they should be approached. 

William Ellery Channing

(1780-1842)

William Ellery Channing was a minister at the Federal Street Church in Boston during the early part of the 19th century.  Many of his sermons shaped and defined the "Unitarian Controversy" and are therefore considered definitive of American Unitarianism.

Biography

 

"A Letter to the Rev. Samuel C. Thacher on the Aspersions Contained in a Late Number of The Panoplist on the Ministers of Boston and Vicinity" (1815) - This letter, written with the intent of it becoming public, marked a critical turning point in the "Unitarian Controversy." This letter brought the conflict out into the open and established that there could be no reconciliation between the Orthodox Calvinists and the liberal Christians that would soon accept the name "Unitarian."

"The System of Exclusion and Denunciation in Religion Considered" (1815) - A discourse affirming that character, rather than doctrine, is the defining mark of Christianity and that the condemnation and exclusion of those with Unitarian beliefs from Christian fellowship is a form of persecution.   

"A Letter on Creeds" - (excerpt) This piece is a classic work that lays out the perils of creeds - how they separate us from the mystery and wonder of our religious search, how they are a "means of fastening chains on men's minds".

"War" (1816) - An affirmation of Christian pacifism. Delivered before the Congregational ministers of Massachusettes (the first discourse with this title).

"Unitarian Christianity" (1819) - (Also known as the "Baltimore Sermon") This address is probably the single most important sermon in Unitarian history, and it was thought so at the time too. When it was delivered, the battle between the Calvinists and the liberals was at its height, and this sermon functioned as a sort of "call to arms" for the liberals. Moreover, Channing's preaching the sermon at a new liberal church outside Boston signaled the intention of the Unitarians to make theirs a national movement.  Six years later, in 1825, the American Unitarian Association would be founded.

"Love to Christ" (Part One) - A consideration of the nature of love to Christ and its grounds. 

"Love to Christ" (Part Two) - A discussion of errors concerning love to Christ in the Christian world.

"Likeness to God" (1828) - A discourse at the ordination of the Rev. F.A. Farley, Providence, R.I.  Here Channing asserts that true religion consists in becoming more and more like the Supreme Being. Religious instruction should aim chiefly to "turn men's aspirations and efforts to that perfection of the soul, which constitutes it a bright image of God."

"Spiritual Freedom" (1830) - (excerpt) This much beloved sermon calls us to aspire to true freedom of the mind and heart.

"Slavery" - A discourse on the morality of human slavery.

"Self-Culture" (1838) - An introductory address to the Franklin Lectures, delivered in Boston.

"The Religious Principle in Human Nature" (c. 1840) - Channing demonstrates how inclination to religion is present in all human beings.

Introductory Remarks to the Works of W. E. Channing, D.D. (1841) - When his sermons were collected into a volume, Channing wrote this introduction.

Joseph Stevens Buckminster 

(1784-1812)

Joseph Stevens Buckminster was one of Boston's foremost Unitarian ministers. Through his preaching, biblical analyses and criticism, introduction of German scholarship to America, and contributions as associate editor of the Monthly Anthology and Boston Review, Buckminster laid the foundation for future generations of New England and American scholarship.  In 1811, Buckminster was elected by the President and Fellows of Harvard College to the newly-created Dexter Lectureship on Biblical Criticism, the first American appointment ever made in Biblical criticism. Buckminster had sketched the preliminary course of lectures, but they were left unfinished when he died suddenly on June 9, 1812, after a severe epileptic seizure.

Biography

"Salvation by Grace" (c. 1800) - A analysis of the various interpretations of the biblical phrase "saved by grace," in which the duty of Christians is emphasized.

Andrews Norton

(1786-1853)

Andrews Norton was a Harvard professor and biblical scholar. In his early career he was among the young liberals who fought against Calvinist orthodoxy through a rational interpretation of the Bible, and in his later career he became an agent of conservative reaction against Transcendentalism.

Biography

 

"On Self Examination" (1813) - An essay that discusses the ways in which we can better ourselves.

A Statement of Reasons for Not Believing the Doctrines of Trinitarians (1819, 1833, 1859) - This major work on the Trinity first appeared during the Unitarian Controversy and was revised and updated twice since.

"The Latest Form of Infidelity" (1839) - In this discourse, Norton attacks the new theology propounded by Emerson, in particular the claim that belief in the miracles of Jesus is irrelevant to Christianity. Norton expresses concern that the new emphasis on soul and personal experience with the divine is at odds with the use of reason in religion.

"Remarks on a Pamphlet Entitled '"The Latest Form of Infidelity" Examined'" (1839) - Norton's response to George Ripley's critique of his earlier discourse.

Henry Ware, Jr. 

(1794-1843)

Henry Ware, Jr. was the son of Unitarian minister Henry Ware. The younger Ware attended Harvard and became an assistant teacher at Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. In 1815, the Boston Unitarian Association licensed him to preach, and in 1817, he was ordained and became pastor of the Second Church in Boston. He was Professor of Pulpit Eloquence and Pastoral Care at the Harvard Divinity School, 1829-1842. He also edited the Christian Disciple and ran the Society for Religious Improvement at Harvard University (his father was on the faculty there, as well).

Biography

 

Hints on Extemporaneous Preaching (1831) - A booklet highlighting the advantages of this form of speaking and tips for doing it well.

"Faith" (1835) - An analysis of the concept of faith.

"The Personality of the Deity" (1838) - In this sermon, Ware critiques pantheism and argues that God must be a person. He uses the opportunity (without naming names) to take a few jabs at Emerson and the Transcendentalists, whom he believes are inclined toward pantheism.

James Walker 

(1794-1874)

James Walker graduated at Harvard in 1814, studied theology at Cambridge, and was pastor of the Unitarian church in Charlestown for 21 years. During this period he was active in his parochial duties and in advocating the cause of school and college education, lectured extensively and with success, and was a close student of literature and philosophy. From 1831 to 1839 he was an editor of The Christian Examiner. He resigned his pastorate in July, 1839, the following September became professor of moral and intellectual philosophy in Harvard, was elected its president in 1853, and held office till his resignation in 1860. He devoted the remainder of his life to scholarly pursuits, and left his valuable library and $15,000 to Harvard. That college gave him the degree of D. D. in 1835, and Yale that of LL.D. in 1860. 

Biography

"The Exclusive Principle" (1830) - An examination of the principle by which some Christians deny the Christianity of others because of not accepting certain beliefs that they deem essential.

"The Philosophy of Man's Spiritual Nature in Regard to the Foundations of Faith" (1834) - A discussion of what we learn from the revelations of consciousness. 

George Ripley 

(1802-1880)

Ripley was a Unitarian minister, Transcendentalist, and member of the Transcendental Club.  When Andrews Norton attacked the Transcendentalists in 1839, Ripley stood out as the most outspoken defender of the transcendental movement within Unitarianism.  He left the ministry in March 1841 to found a commune.  

Biography

 

Review of Martineau's Rationale of Religious Enquiry (1836) - This book review, which denied that Christianity necessarily includes belief in the miraculous element in the Bible, upset a number of Unitarians in 1836. 

"The Latest Form of Infidelity Examined" (1839) - A critique of Andrews Norton's discourse on "The Latest Form of Infidelity," in which Norton attacked the Transcendentalist position.

"Defense of 'The Latest Form of Infidelity' Examined" (1839-40) - Two letters to Andrews Norton occasioned by his defense of "The Latest Form of Infidelity," which was published as a response to Ripley's earlier pamphlet. 

Ralph Waldo Emerson

(1803-1882)

Emerson was born in Boston, Massachusetts. Most of his ancestors were clergymen as was his father.  Emerson became sole pastor at the Second Unitarian Church of Boston in 1830. Emerson's early sermons are a valuable record of the Unitarian Christianity of his day. Three years later he had a crisis of faith, finding that he "was not interested" in the rite of Communion. Emerson's controversial views caused his resignation. His message attracted young disciples, who joined the informal Transcendental Club (established in 1836). Emerson abandoned the ministry to become a poet and writer, and later became a free religionist with pantheist leanings, but his famous lectures of the 1830's were highly influential and began the transcendentalist movement within Unitarianism. 

Biography

"What is Man?" (1827) - A discussion of humankind's place in the universe and in God's purpose. 

"A Good Man Shall Be Satisfied from Himself" (1831) - In this sermon, Emerson argues that a person must verify the truth by his own experience. 

"Divinity School Address" (1838) - The famous lecture that was both acclaimed and denounced vigorously in a storm of controversy. Emerson denounces an over-emphasis on miracles to highlight his own emphasis on "soul," personal and self-evident experience of the Divine. 

Frederic Henry Hedge

(1805-1890)

Hedge  served as minister at West Cambridge (now Arlington) (1829-35), Bangor, Maine (1835-50), Providence, Rhode Island (1850-56), and Brookline, Massachusetts (1857-72). From 1836, Hedge began meeting with what Emerson called the "Hedge Club" but was more commonly called the "Transcendental Club." Hedge, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Convers Francis, James Freeman Clarke, and Amos Bronson Alcott attended the first meeting of this informal group at the home of George Ripley in Boston. Theodore Parker, Margaret Fuller, Orestes A. Brownson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, William Ellery Channing, and others, attended subsequent meetings. Hedge edited The Christian Examiner, 1857-1861, and served a term as president of the American Unitarian Association, 1859-1862. 

 

Biography

Reason in Religion (1865) - This eloquent book well represents the Transcendentalist philosophy in Unitarianism.

Theodore Parker

(1810-1860)

From 1837 to 1845 Parker served as pastor of the West Roxbury, Massachusetts, Unitarian Church; but opposition to his liberal sermons caused him to resign. He became minister of the Twenty-eighth Congregational Society of Boston in 1845 (Webster 771) and was one the most theologically and socially active transcendentalists of his time. In 1840, he debated conservative Unitarian leader and curmudgeon Andrews Norton over the significance of biblical miracles in a lengthy public letter written under the pseudonym “Levi Blodgett.”  He tried hard to move Unitarianism toward transcendentalism, a battle not won within his relatively short lifetime and one that left him alienated from his fellow ministers and bitter. But he was highly influential even after his death, and the transcendental movement flourished in the Unitarian Church in the years to follow.  

 

Biography

"The Previous Question" (1840) - Parker weighs in on the debate over Andrews Norton's "The Latest Form of Infidelity" and the claim that miracles prove the truth of Christianity.

"The Divine Presence in Nature and in the Soul (1840) - This essay argues that divine inspiration is available to all people, but in varying degrees, depending on their spiritual condition.

"The Transient and Permanent in Christianity" (1841) - This sermon is regarded as a key document in the Transcendentalist Movement  that took hold within American Unitarianism shortly after Unitarianism gained form. Parker talks about how the doctrines of Christianity held up by the fundamentalists as true Christian belief change over time, but the true message of Jesus remains the same. The sermon lays out several important theological points that resonate to this day in liberal religion. "The authority of Jesus, as of all teachers, one would naturally think, must rest on the truth of his words, and not their truth on his authority."

The Prayers of Theodore Parker - From the book of the same name. The AUC will eventually publish his book of prayers in its entirety.

Edmund Hamilton Sears

(1810-1876)

Edmund Hamilton Sears was born on April 6, 1810, and educated at Union College in Schenectady, New York, 1831-34, and Harvard Divinity School, from which he graduated in 1837. He became a missionary for the American Unitarian Association, a minister for congregations in Wayland and Lancaster, Massachusetts, and editor, from 1859 to 1871, of The Monthly Religious Magazine. Married to Ellen Bacon, with four children, he died on January 16, 1876, of injuries sustained from a fall from a tree two years previously. He remains very well known for his hymns, especially "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear."

Biography

 

"The Books Opened" (1854) - On recognizing evil within us. Part III, Chapter 3, of the book Regeneration.

James Freeman Clarke

(1810-1888)

From 1833 till 1840 Clarke was pastor of the Unitarian church in Louisville, Kentucky, and also edited The Western Messenger (Louisville) from 1836 till 1839. He then returned to Boston, where, in 1841, he founded the Church of the Disciples, of which he was pastor for forty-five years. In this church the seats were free, and the worship, a form devised by Dr. Clarke, combined the features of responses on the part of the congregation as in the English church, the extempore prayer of the Congregationalists, and the silent prayer of the Friends. He was prominent in all educational and reform movements in Boston. For many years he has been one of the overseers of Harvard University, where, from 1867 till 1871, he was professor of natural religion and Christian doctrine, and during 1876-77 lecturer on ethnic religions.

Biography

"The Favorite Texts of Jesus" (1864) - A consideration of the way Jesus used the Bible and an encouragement for us to use it the same way.

"On Orthodoxy" (1866) - (excerpt) Highlights the fact that truth begins with a minority.

"Why Do We Believe in God? Or: Evidences of Theism" (1870) - This article is a chapter from the book Steps of Belief; or, Rational Christianity Maintained Against Atheism, Free Religion, and Romanism. The book is a compilation of lectures that James Freeman Clarke preached at Boston's Church of the Disciples, where he was pastor and co-founder. 

Manual of Unitarian Belief (1884) - In this treatise, Clarke discusses 21 topics of belief and successfully represents the views of both traditional Unitarian Christians and the transcendentalists.

Andrew Preston Peabody

(1811-1893)

Peabody was editor and proprietor of the North American Review. From 1860 to 1881 Peabody was Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard University and, for two short intervals, was acting president of the college. He was either author or editor of 190 books and pamphlets--on conversation, travel, morals, etc. He learned to read before he was three years old, entered Harvard College at the age of twelve, and graduated in 1826, with the single exception of Paul Dudley (class of 1690) the youngest graduate of Harvard. In 1833 he became assistant pastor of the South Parish (Unitarian) of Portsmouth, New Hampshire; the senior pastor died before Peabody had been preaching a month, and he succeeded to the charge of the church, which he held until 1860. 

Biography

"Review of 'The Latest Form of Infidelity'" (1839) - Peabody gives a favorable review of Norton's controversial discourse.

A Manual of Moral Philosophy (1873) - A divinity school textbook addressing questions of ethics and morality.

Henry Whitney Bellows

(1814-1882)

Bellows graduated at Harvard College in 1832, and at the Harvard Divinity School in 1837, held a brief pastorate (1837-1838) at Mobile, Alabama, and in 1839 became pastor of the First Congregational (Unitarian) church in New York City (afterwards All Souls church), in charge of which he remained until his death. Here Bellows acquired a high reputation as a pulpit orator and lyceum lecturer, and was a recognized leader in the Unitarian Church in America. For many years after 1846 he edited The Christian Inquirer, and he was also for some time an editor of The Christian Examiner. In 1865 he proposed and organized the national conference of Unitarian and other Christian churches, and from 1865 to 1880 was chairman of its council.

Biography

 

"Revelation and Intuition Considered as Sources of Our Knowledge of God" (1869) - In this essay, Bellows attempts to steer a middle course between conservative and Transcendental views of the way humans learn of God.

Samuel Longfellow

(1819-1892)

Samuel Longfellow, brother of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, was a Unitarian preacher who adapted the Transcendentalist philosophy to his sermons and hymns. He was a Unitarian pastor in Fall River, Mass., Brooklyn, N.Y., and Germantown, Pa. Longfellow spent a number of years compiling a new book of Unitarian hymns with Samuel Johnson.  He was known for his focus on children, his kind and optimistic disposition, and his poetical Christianity.   "The Father the Only and the Sufficient God" (1859) - In this tract, Longfellow demonstrates the shortcomings of believing God to be more than one person and discusses the appropriateness of calling God "Father."

Jabez T. Sunderland

(1842-1936)

Sunderland, originally a Baptist clergyman, together with his wife became Unitarian in 1872. He described himself as a Transcendentalist in the style of Parker and Emerson and was an important figure in the Western Unitarian Conference in the 1880's, when the atheist-friendly Unity movement was becoming popular. Sunderland did not like this trend and published a pamphlet in defense of theistic Unitarianism called The Issue in the West (1886). He ended up quitting the WUC and helped form the Western Unitarian Association, which modeled itself after the more Christian American Unitarian Association in the east. 

Biography

"Orthodoxy: The Worst Enemy of Christianity" (1875) - Sunderland explains why so-called orthodox doctrines are harmful to the Christian message.

"A Rational Faith" (1876) - An overview of Unitarianism and its teachings.

"The Issue in the West" (1886) - A response to Unitarian revisionism, which was just beginning in the Western Unitarian Conference.

"Is the Bible Infallible?" (c. 1895) - Addresses the question of error in the Bible and the Bible's real value.

"The Divine Incarnation" (1901) - A consideration of how God dwelt in Jesus and how he dwells in other people.

Others

 

To the right is a list of famous sermons and other documents by Unitarian and Universalist ministers and other historical figures that have impacted Unitarianism. They serve to illuminate the theology, history, and rich tradition of the Unitarian faith. Click on the underlined title to go to the full sermon.  Many of these sermons were cornerstones in the "Unitarian Controversy" that grew out of the Congregational churches in New England in the early part of the 19th Century.   The message of freedom of religion and freedom of thought embodied in these sermons is as important today as it was nearly 200 years ago. 

"The Morning Inquiry, Part I" (1812) - by H.R. A discussion of language and its relation to the Trinity doctrine.

 

"What is it to be a Christian?" (1824) - by Henry Ware.

Ware considers common definitions of "Christian" and provides the most reasonable one.

 

"The Doctrine and Discipline of Human Culture" (1836) - by A. Bronson Alcott. An appeal to proper education of children for the betterment of the human race (from a Transcendentalist perspective). 

 

"On Being and Immortality" (1837) - by Harm Jan Huidekoper. This essay considers the validity of the teaching about the immortality of the soul.

 

"On Miracles as the Foundation of Religious Faith" (1840) - by Richard Hildreth. A pamphlet published in response to Andrews Norton's discourse on "The Latest Form of Infidelity," arguing the Transcendentalist point of view.

 

"Miracles as an Evidence of Christianity" (1840) - by David Damon. A public discourse that argues against the Transcendentalist view and affirms the importance of miracles to establish the truth of Christianity.  

"On Original Sin" (1844) (excerpt) - by George Burnap.

"On Justification by Faith Alone" (1848) (excerpt) - by George Burnap.

"The Bible and Explaining It Away" (1855) - by George Burnap.
This article is a discourse by Unitarian clergyman George Burnap (1802-1859), presented at the First Independent Church of Baltimore. The sermon is one of seven compiled into the book Popular Objections to Unitarian Christianity Considered and Answered.

"On the Terms 'God' and 'Lord'" (1854) (excerpt) - by Mary Dana.

"On the Attacks Against Liberal Christianity" (1847) (excerpt) - by Orville Dewey.

"The Unitarian Belief" (1873) - by Rev. Orville Dewey, D.D.
Orville Dewey, D.D. (1794-1882), was an American Unitarian minister born at Sheffield, Massachusetts. Dewey graduated at Williams College in 1814 and studied theology at Andover from 1814 to 1819, afterwards becoming Dr. W.E. Channing's assistant. In 1823 he was made pastor of the Unitarian Church at New Bedford, Massachusetts, and in 1835 of the Second Unitarian Church in New York city. From 1858 to 1862 he was pastor of the South Church in Boston.

"On The Atonement" (1873) (excerpt) - by Orville Dewey.

"The Unity of God - The Trinity" (1873) - by Frederick A. Farley.

"The Unitarian Aim" - by Rev. Charles A. Allen.

"The Religion of the Spirit" - by Ulysses G. B. Pierce, D.D.
This link is to five sermons preached to the "Unitarian Club" by Dr. Pierce in All Souls Church in Washington D.C. on Sunday evenings in January and February in 1910. They were recorded stenographically, and, with necessary corrections are printed as spoken.

"A Reasonable Easter" - by Ulysses G. B. Pierce, D.D.

"The Religious Convictions of an American Citizen" - by William Howard Taft, LL.D. An address delivered as president of the General Conference of Unitarian and other Liberal Christian Churches.  W. H. Taft, a Unitarian,  was the President of the United States from 1909 to 1913, Chief Justice of the United States from 1921 to 1930, and first civil governor of the Phillipines from 1901 to 1904.  This article is offered here for its historical significance. 

"Seeing Jesus" (1926) - by Rev. Frederic H. Kent. 

 

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