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The Development of American Unitarian Theology

David Miano

La Jolla, California



Liberal Christian theology blossomed during the heyday of American Unitarianism. It is no coincidence that both the intellectual movement and the denomination flourished at the same time. Unitarians spearheaded the great theological advancements in 18th and 19th century America. Many of the opinions that seem so common and taken for granted in today’s liberal Christian churches made their first appearance in this country under the pens of Unitarian ministers. The ideas propounded by the liberals were not necessarily new; they were revivals of previous “heresies” of the Protestant Reformation, or repackagings and refinements of new conceptions floating around in Europe. Nevertheless their impact on American society is undeniable. This historical essay will attempt to chronicle the theological progress made by Unitarians during this important period.

A convenient overview is presented at the outset:

American Unitarian theology developed in three successive stages. Each stage is marked by controversy. A fourth controversy brought that development to an end.

1. The Arminian stage (1740-1785)

Calvinism vs. Arminianism

2. The Unitarian stage (1785-1830)

Trinitarianism vs. Unitarianism

3. The Transcendentalist stage (1830-1880)

Restrictive Revelationism vs. Transcendentalism

4. Decline of Unitarian theology (1880- )

Unitarian Conservatism vs. Unitarian Revisionism

The first two controversies were waged between conservative Christians and liberal Christians in New England. The third and fourth controversies were waged among and between Unitarians.

The first stage of development led to the convictions that religious doctrine should be in harmony with reason, that each individual Christian should be able to use his or her reason to discern religious truth, that Christianity is more about behavior than belief in doctrines, and that humans are not corrupt by nature, but neutral and able to choose freely between good and evil. These beliefs were drawn directly from the principles of the Enlightenment and laid the theological groundwork for Unitarianism

The second stage of development led to the conviction that God is but one person.

The third stage led to the understanding that the Bible is not infallible, and that God reveals religious truth from within.

The fourth stage led to the redefinition of Unitarianism as an ethical movement rather than a religion, thus making theological discussion irrelevant to the denomination as a whole.


The Arminian Stage (1740-1785)

In eighteenth century New England, the orthodoxy of the day was of the Reformed Tradition, drawing its creed from John Calvin’s work and thriving amidst the Presbyterian and Congregational churches in the area.

In the simplest terms, Calvinism teaches that God, before the world was ever created, knowing all there is to know and seeing ahead of time all the people that would ever come into existence, decided which persons would be saved and which would be damned. There is nothing, therefore, that people can do to alter their fate. Calvinism allows the possibility that humans have the free will to make everyday mundane decisions, but because humans are basically evil and estranged from God, when it comes to choosing to serve God and receiving Jesus Christ, they have no free will in any sense. God draws those whom he elects, and abandons those not elected. In other words, God chooses individuals; individuals cannot choose God. 

Many liberal Christian ministers in New England had misgivings about such a doctrine. They could not accept that individuals had no free will when it came to godly devotion. Almost everything that Jesus taught was aimed at reforming human conduct, and they wanted to teach his message of love toward others, but the doctrines of election and predestination played down the gospel message, making good behavior irrelevant to salvation. These concerned ministers believed the church should be a “saving community,” rather than a “community of the saved.” Several of them began leaning towards Arminianism.

Arminianism is a belief system named for Jacob Arminius (1560-1609), who argued that individuals are free to choose God of their own accord, and are not forced by God to do anything against their will. Therefore, a person’s fate is not written in stone, but is affected by the choices that person makes.

It was difficult, however, for the ministers of Boston to express their Arminian views freely, because the association of Congregational ministers placed great emphasis on orthodoxy to the Calvinist creed. Martin Luther’s doctrine of “justification by faith alone” was widely held as a fundamental teaching, and it tended to be interpreted to mean that subscription to a rule of faith was faith itself, and therefore evidence that a person was, in fact, one of the elect.

Matters came to a head when the great Calvinist revival movement, known as the Great Awakening, which had begun in the western part of New England in the late 1730’s under the spiritual leadership of Jonathan Edwards, came to Boston in the early 1740’s. A representative of this movement, George Whitefield, was sent to Boston to give a series of special lectures intended chiefly to get people back into the churches, but his methods were aimed at inspiring zeal and fervor in his audiences. The sermons were of little substance, but had great effect. Conversion experiences grew more and more dramatic, with wild displays of emotion. People began placing more emphasis on the emotional experience of religion, thinking that the more spectacular the drama of conversion, the stronger the conviction of an individual, and the more ecstatic the joy that followed a conversion, the better. These great “gifts” of the holy spirit were thought to be the identifying marks of being one of the elect. For this reason, people began to scrutinize those who were not caught up in all the hullabaloo, including their own ministers, wondering whether they truly might be saved.

Whitefield was followed by James Davenport, who preached extemporaneously with a lot of arm-waving and uncontrolled shouting. He believed the holy spirit, when operative, would produce physical effects like screaming, jerking, and fainting. He claimed infallible intuitive knowledge of who was of the elect and who was not, and was extremely censorious of others. Many liberal ministers, as might be guessed, found the movement offensive on several levels. One of them Charles Chauncy, minister of the First Church in Boston, wrote several pamphlets in criticism of these tactics, and a book entitled, Seasonable Thoughts on the State of Religion in New England (1743). Chancy emphasized the need to encourage people to right conduct through persuasion rather than compulsion, and warned of the dangers of putting emotion on a level higher than reason.

Because of the rising popularity of Deism at the time, and a growing emphasis on the importance of reason, many Christian theologians, in an attempt to curb the growing interest in Deism, were arguing that religious truth is known only through revelation, and that the human mind is incapable of ascertaining the truth of God through reason or through observation of nature. The liberal ministers strongly disagreed with this view and began delivering and publishing sermons in defense of human reason. Most notable were Jonathan Mayhew’s Seven Sermons (1749) and Ebenezer Gay’s Natural Religion as Distinguished from Revealed (1759).

Vindicating the use of the mind in order to come to a knowledge of religious truth was absolutely necessary for these liberal ministers, because without this foundation, they could not argue that human individuals, using reason, could determine right from wrong, truth from falsehood, and interpret and understand the Bible themselves. They saw the hypocrisy of many Protestant groups who upheld the right of private judgment when it came to their own disagreements with the Roman Catholic Church or other Protestant groups, but not when it came to their own parishioners, or even ministers, disagreeing with church leaders of their own denomination.

After establishing that they had a right to disagree, the liberal ministers then began attacking the tenets of Calvinism head on. First they began publishing Arminian works that had been written in England, but before long they were writing books and essays of their own. The most notable American Arminian works from Congregational ministers of this period were Lemuel Briant’s The Absurdity and Blasphemy of Depreciating Moral Virtue (1749), Jonathan Mayhew’s On Hearing the Word (1755), Samuel Webster’s A Winter Evening’s Conversation Upon the Doctrine of Original Sin (1757) and Justification by the Free Grace of God (1765), John Tucker’s The Gospel Condition of Salvation (1769), and Charles Chauncy’s Twelve Sermons (1765), Five Dissertations on the Scripture Account of the Fall and its Consequences (1785), and The Benevolence of the Deity (1785).


The Unitarian Stage (1785-1830)

As the 18th century came to a close, more and more ministers in New England, particularly in eastern Massachusetts, had become openly Arminian. However, many of them also had become closet anti-Trinitarians during this period. In their writings of 1740-1785, we see little evidence of it, but it was there, as is evidenced by the fact that conservative Calvinists were in a state of alarm about it and frequently making charges that certain ministers in the area (usually without naming names) were Arians or Socinians. Arianism and Socinianism are two forms of Unitarianism, the first accepting the pre-human existence of Jesus and the second rejecting it. In America of this period, most of the liberal ministers, if they were Unitarian, were Arian. Though careful to speak about it at first, in the second half of the 18th century they began reprinting anti-Trinitarian works that had been published in England, such as Thomas Emlyn’s An Humble Inquiry into the Scripture-Account of Jesus Christ in 1756 and 1790, Joseph Priestley’s An Appeal to the Serious and Candid Professors of Christianity in 1784, A General View of the Arguments for the Unity of God in 1794, and An History of the Corruptions of Christianity in 1797. However, the liberal theologians in America also were becoming more vocal in their rejection of the Trinity. They did not view the Unitarian position as an innovation, but as a natural development in Biblical understanding. Nevertheless, in the early years they did not think it was necessary or even helpful to argue about these matters with their more orthodox neighbors; formal recognition of their doctrines was not their desire.

As a reaction to the new ideas, however, the more conservative churches began using creeds to enforce assent to certain doctrinal tenets in their churches and refusing to exchange pulpits with ministers known to be “heterodox.” The liberals, on the other hand, were willing to welcome persons of varied doctrinal persuasions into their churches and to exchange pulpits even with conservative preachers.

The tensions climaxed in 1805, when the Harvard Board of Overseers appointed Henry Ware, an open Arminian and Unitarian, to the Hollis Chair of Divinity. The Calvinists were in an uproar. Jedidiah Morse, who had been considered for the position, wrote a pamphlet in protest. The decision, however, had already been made. Concluding that they had lost control of Harvard, the Calvinists decided to found a new school, Andover Theological Seminary, which opened in 1808.

During this time, the conservatives drew the battle lines. Morse and other prominent Calvinist ministers urged a complete separation of proper orthodox churches from liberal ones. Many liberal ministers, most notably William Ellery Channing, tried to close the rift, calling for peace and unity. It was to no avail. The liberals had to accept that they were now on their own. A flurry of controversial literature began appearing, clarifying the position of the liberals and their theology. After Channing preached his sermon "Unitarian Christianity" in 1819 at the ordination of Jared Sparks in Baltimore, Maryland, the liberals embraced the name “Unitarian.” In 1825 they formed the American Unitarian Association to promote the formation of Unitarian churches around the country.

Notable theological works of this period include John Sherman’s One God in One Person Only (1805), Noah Worcester’s Bible News of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (1810, rev. 1812) and An Appeal to the Candid (1814), Andrews Norton’s A Statement of Reasons for Not Believing the Doctrines of Trinitarians Respecting the Nature of God and the Person of Christ (1819), William Ellery Channing’s, “Unitarian Christianity” (1819) and “Objections to Unitarian Christianity Considered” (1819).


The Transcendentalist Stage (1830-1880)

Once the controversy with the conservatives began to subside, Unitarianism had a chance to mature. The new concerns had to do with issues over the Bible. Most Unitarians of the 1830’s held the traditional view that the Bible was infallible, the complete revelation of God to humans, without error. Leaders in the Unitarian community, many of whom were biblical scholars, were aware of the problems with such a view. Already some had openly asserted that there were errors in the Old Testament, but were not willing to say the same about the New. It was not long before some did.

During the days when interest in science and reason was on the rise, Bible readers had a problem accepting the historical truth of the miracles recorded therein. While no one raised an eyebrow when the truth of an Old Testament miracle was denied, the same could not be said about the miracles of Jesus in the New Testament. Some began denying that those miracles actually happened, and many Unitarians took offense. Writers in Unitarian journals began calling attention to errors and contradictions in the Bible and asserting that the book was imperfect.

The initial reaction on the Unitarian right was to assert that belief in the miracles of Jesus was necessary in order to be called a Christian. Those on the left denied this and argued that Christianity assumes belief in Jesus’ teachings, not his miracles. Those in the middle, while still holding to the truth of Scripture, argued that all who put faith in the teachings of Jesus were Christians, regardless of whether they believed in the miracles. A rift among Unitarians was avoided.

When those upholding the doctrine of biblical infallibility inquired how, if the Bible was imperfect, a Christian could know right from wrong, the response they received was that God’s revelation to humans was personal. God’s spirit is inside of us and speaks to us through a “spiritual sense.” This view (which came to be called Transcendentalism) was borrowed from the new German theology of the time, best represented by the writings of Friedrich Schleiermacher, probably the most influential Christian theologian of his time. It had elements of Romanticism in it and was too mystical for some Unitarians, who thought it devalued the importance of reason. Indeed, the writings of some of the more extreme Transcendentalists only reinforced this view. Many Transcendentalists, however, such as Theodore Parker, George Ripley, and Frederick Henry Hedge, were firmly Christian and held a moderate position, placing reason and conscience alongside their “spiritual sense” as instruments in understanding divine truth. God’s revelation, they said, is not restricted to one set of writings from one time in history. God is revealing himself to humans always. The Bible contains God’s revelations, but is not all there is of God’s revelations. If we are to tell truth from falsehood, right from wrong (whether in or outside the Bible), we must look within ourselves to see what God’s spirit is testifying to us.

This new theology opened up Christianity to all people. It asserted that one did not have to be a Bible scholar in order to understand the ways of God. Over the next few decades, it became the mainstream theology of Unitarianism.

Notable works of the period include Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Divinity School Address” (1838) and “The Transcendentalist” (1843), George Ripley’s Three Letters to Andrews Norton (1839-1840), Richard Hildreth, “On Miracles as the Foundation of Religious Faith” (1840), Theodore Parker’s “The Previous Question” (1840), “The Transient and Permanent in Christianity” (1841), and A Discourse of Matters Pertaining to Religion (1842), and Frederick Henry Hedge’s Reason in Religion (1865).


Decline of Unitarian Theology (1880- )

The demise of classical Unitarianism around the world can be traced to the efforts of two influential ministers associated with the Western Unitarian Conference in the 1880’s. The WUC was an association of Unitarian churches in the Ohio River and Mississippi River valleys. Under the leadership of its Missionary Secretary Jenkin Lloyd Jones and William Channing Gannett, the Conference began a process of re-identification. Jones’ primary concern was the growth and prosperity of the WUC. He and Gannett believed this could be best accomplished by opening up Unitarianism to other (non-Christian, even non-Theist) views. In their journal Unity, they began calling for reform.

In the opinion of Jones and Gannett and a few other ministers, Unitarianism should be an ethical movement, rather than a religious one. They claimed that past controversies were not really about theology, but about acceptance of differing beliefs. Unitarianism is really an aversion to creeds; its openness is the foundation upon which it should rest. Therefore, any and all who wish to be Unitarian, whether they believe in God or not, should be welcomed. If some wish to form churches that are not Christian or even Theist, in nature, those churches should be permitted into the WUC. They claimed that anyone who wished to limit Unitarianism to Christianity or belief in God was a lover of creeds.

Many churches in the WUC were alarmed at this state of affairs. Immediately several ministers began writing articles and publishing pamphlets to discourage the new movement. Notable works include Jabez T. Sunderland, “True and False Liberalism” (1884), “The Issue in the West” (1886), C.A. Allen, “The Ethical Basis Movement” (1886), C.A. Allen et al., “What is Unitarianism?” (1886), Jasper L. Douthit, “Remonstrance against the Free Religious and Ethical Interpretation of Unitarianism” (1886), and the Western Unitarian Association, “Unitarian Christianity: Some Significant Utterances” (1887).

The radical Unitarians eventually won out, and in 1894 encouraged the American Unitarian Association in the East to take the same position. While it may have been the original intention that both associations would be made up of a variety of churches, some Christian, some Deist, some secular, over the years the result instead was that each individual church took the same position as the larger organization and itself became open to all religious and non-religious persuasions. Thus each congregation had no distinct identity, but rather became an association of people with fundamentally different viewpoints.

Although theological research and investigation continued among individuals in Unitarian communities, the denomination itself took no active role in the development of Christian theology once the principles of the ethical movement set in. Most of the important work after the 1880’s was done in other Christian denominations, in particular those that gradually took on liberal principles that they inherited from Unitarians. God-believing Unitarians today find common ground in the theological foundations laid by their forebears, but also realize, as their predecessors did, that the road to truth is a long one. While unlikely to return to the errors they discarded in the past, they are always open to refinements in their theological understanding and will gladly engage new arguments and welcome fresh discoveries. Their theological work as a denomination may be done, but the spirit lives on.




© 2006 American Unitarian Conference