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The Issue in the West

Is Western Unitarianism Ready to Give Up Its Christian Character? 

Is It Ready to Give Up Its Theistic Character?

Jabez T. Sunderland

The following pamphlet was published in May 1886 at the height of the Western Unitarian controversy, which flared up when certain influential ministers in the Western Unitarian Conference began pushing for a new Unitarianism based on ethical principles, rather than religious principles. Their movement was, in fact, the spearhead that resulted in the complete redefinition of Unitarianism in America. 

Various public utterances have been made within the past year, but especially within the past few months—among them an open letter from Rev. Rowland Connor, a series of articles in Unity from Rev. W. C. Gannett, a series of articles in the same paper from Rev. J. C. Learned, and various editorials and contributed articles from Mr. Jones, the senior editor, and others, which have used my name and treated the religious position which I occupy in such ways as to create serious misunderstandings, both regarding my work as Western Secretary and the important question at issue among western Unitarians.

 

I did not make any reply to Mr. Connor's letter, feeling that it was its own sufficient answer. Nor did I until lately think to reply to Unity; but its editors have pressed the matter so persistently and so far, and in ways to create so much confusion concerning the real questions which Western Unitarianism is confronted with, that I do not feel I can, in justice to the general cause, to constituents individually, or to myself, refrain longer from breaking the silence which I have kept so long. It would seem that candor and fairness all round demand that my second year of public work should not be allowed to end and the Western Conference to meet again without at least one public utterance being made by me in explanation of my position, and to set forth the general situation in the West as I and many others see it.

 

I choose to speak through a pamphlet rather than through one of our denominational periodicals, because if I spoke through one of the latter it would seem proper to select that with which I am myself connected—the Unitarian. But the Unitarian was started with non-controversial ends in view; its purpose from the beginning has been to stand in a positive, constructive, non-controversial way for a broad, practical, progressive Christianity. This is its purpose still. I am not willing, therefore, to turn its pages aside from the use for which they have all the while been designed, to say in them the things, however true and important, which this pamphlet will contain.

 

Plainly, Western Unitarianism has reached a question which it must face. That question is no other than the one (one question in two forms) which has been placed at the head of this paper. Are we ready to declare that those great faiths—in God, prayer, immortality and the spiritual leadership of Jesus—which have always in the past been at the very heart of Unitarianism, are no longer essential to our movement?

 

Unitarianism in the past has always been Christian. Nobody thinks of doubting that. Our great historic leaders, the men who have given luster to the Unitarian name—Channing, the Wares, Parker, Dewey, Bellows, to say nothing of those now living—have all stood for Liberal Christianity. Unitarianism in England, Europe, and all foreign lands where it is known, does the same today. So does it in New England and the Middle States and the South and on the Pacific Coast. So has it always in the West, without dispute and without a question, until within a very few years. So does it indeed, doubtless, with a great majority of the Unitarians of the West still. But within a dozen years or so, seemingly as the result of the breaking over the West of the free religious wave of the East, there has been a movement here, at first quite unnoticed, possibly hardly conscious of itself, but becoming more definite in its purpose and more pronounced as it went on, to create a new and different order of Unitarianism in the West. From the beginning, 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.

 

To avoid misunderstanding, it should be said at the outset, however, that most of the men who are thus endeavoring to remove the Unitarianism of the West onto this new basis are themselves, personally, believers in God, prayer and immortality—as they are unquestionably sincere in their expressed wish that all individual Unitarians might be believers in the same. But, they say, all this must be left solely to the individual. Unitarian churches as churches, Unitarian organizations as organizations, the Unitarian denomination as a denomination, must not plant themselves upon these beliefs. Unitarianism must stand for ethical beliefs and beliefs in certain so-called "principles," but not for belief in anything that will commit it to theism or Christianity. The particular beliefs, which are most often and most strongly insisted upon by this new school, are four, viz.: Belief in “freedom,” belief in “fellowship,” belief in “character,” and, by implication, belief in “religion.” These beliefs are declared to be essential to Unitarianism; but belief in the Christian religion, or belief in religion in any such high form as distinctly recognizes a conscious Intelligence and Goodness over the world inviting man's worship, this must not be held to be essential.[1] Even for the ordination of men to the ministry—to be recognized teachers and preachers of Unitarianism—theistic belief must not be required; our pulpits and pastorates must be as distinctly open to the agnostic or the atheist as to the theist or the Christian.[2]

 

I need hardly say that, for a number of years past, warning voices have not been few in the West, telling of trouble certainly ahead if the attempt was persisted in of thus revolutionizing Western Unitarianism. Mr. Douthit, after several years of protest inside the Western Conference, withdrew from that body because of its extreme non-Christian tendencies and established his paper the more effectively to voice his protest. Mr. Clute of Iowa has maintained an attitude of quiet but firm protest, almost as long as Mr. Douthit, part of the time inside of the Conference, and part outside. The warnings of Dr. Eliot, of St. Louis, have been frequent and very earnest. The Meadville men have been greatly troubled at the tendency of things, and have not failed in kindly ways to make known their sorrow and regret. Mr. Cutter, of Buffalo, has seen disaster ahead unless there was a change, and privately and to some extent publicly has uttered his warnings. The same is true of Mr. Gordon, of Milwaukee. The clear eye of Mr. Batchelor saw, while he was in Chicago, that if our ultra brethren continued to push their efforts to remove Western Unitarianism off its theistic basis, the inevitable result must be reaction and very likely a split, and more than once he gave his warning accordingly. Everybody knows how steadily Mr. Herford, during all his residence in the West, labored to hold the denomination true and united and to check the extremist and disintegrating tendencies which he saw to be so strong in some quarters. Rev. A. N. Alcott, of Kalamazoo, Mich., an able preacher who three or four years ago joined us from the Presbyterians, last year, after protesting in vain against the non-Christian and. non-theistic attitude of the Michigan Conference and the Western Conference, finally withdrew from our fellowship. Of my own efforts within the past five years to avert the calamity which I have foreseen I need not speak, nor of the protests, mainly private but nonetheless significant for that, which have more and more been coming from thinking, influential laymen in Chicago, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Louisville, Kansas City, Milwaukee, St. Paul and many other parts of the West, against the attempt to turn Unitarianism aside to Free Religious aims and purposes.

 

It would seem that all these protests and warnings surely ought to have caused our "freedom, fellowship and character" friends to reflect how revolutionary a thing they were undertaking, and how certainly, if persevered in, it must bring discord and division all over the West, where there used to be, and ought to be still, union, harmony and: peace. And if there are any voices of controversy beginning to be heard in any quarter among us today, or if anywhere the harmony and unity of spirit among churches and ministers is less than we could desire, can anyone mistake as to where the responsibility rests? Surely it can rest only in one place, and that is with the innovators. Surely it can lie at only one door, and that is the door of that party of good and loved but singularly misjudging men who have disturbed the historic order, and undertaken the task of removing the body to a new basis—a new basis so ultra, so unprecedented in its character, and, at least to many minds, so essentially unreasonable, that a moment's reflection ought to have made it plain that the denomination in the West could never accept it.

 

It was in full view of these facts that I made my report as Secretary of the Western Unitarian Conference at St. Louis, in May last, calling attention to the serious condition of things into which we are being carried in the West, together with some of the practical evil effects to our missionary work and our cause generally, which my observation and experience in the field had revealed to me as growing out of our new and abnormal religious position. Some persons who heard my report, and who looked on from the outside, may have found it difficult to believe that I did not exaggerate in my statements. But those conversant with the facts knew how carefully and guardedly I spoke, and events which have occurred since last May have singularly confirmed and more than confirmed all that I then said.

 

Now all this seems very startling. Indeed, to many, and, among them, to the present writer, it would seem nothing less than incredible were it not all here, before our eyes, an undeniable fact. And, strangest of all, and hardest of all to meet, the men who are at the head of this revolutionary movement are men whom we all love and honor. Fain would we all go with them. To differ from them in any important particular is something we all alike shrink from. We have hoped against hope that they have said more than they meant. Many persons have not, until very lately,  understood at all fully what their position was; some do  not understand yet; some who understand, and long have understood, have kept silence from surprise and sorrow. These brethren have been allowed to carry much of organized Western Unitarianism far off from the straight path along which it has formerly walked—far off from the path along which, as I am convinced, it still desires to walk—far off on the strange path which they are treading, partly because it has been only very slowly growing clear to the majority just where these brethren were leading, and partly because they were so highly esteemed and trusted that opposition to them was painful.

 

We may be encouraged by the assurances which come from many quarters that this movement to change the character of Western Unitarianism, and make it Free Religion, is not one that meets the wish of any large proportion of the Unitarians of the West. My own wide acquaintance on the field, as well as what I learn from other sources, convinces me that the great body of our people have no desire to put themselves out of line with the Unitarianism of the East, or that of England, or to part company with such leaders of the past as Bellows and Channing and Parker; rather do they believe as they always have believed, in theism, in a broad, rational, practical Christianity, and wish Unitarianism to stand for these as it always has done. I do not think the men who want to remove Unitarianism off its historic basis to that of Free Religion are many in number. But they are united, and seemingly determined, and have a clear purpose in view. Hence the danger—the great danger, unless those who want the different thing are united and of a clear purpose too. I believe the danger can be averted and the West saved from the calamity which threatens, with perfect ease, if only all our people will really open their eyes to what is going on, and then will take their stand with kindness but with firmness for what they really believe and want. But at last we have reached the point where we can no longer do as we would. Those of us who believe Unitarianism to be Christianity, who believe that to remove it off its theistic basis is to seal its fate, as a religious movement, would be sinning if we remained silent longer. Let us be sure that we speak in candor, in fairness, in love, but speak we must.

 

Let no one be deceived as to the real issue. Perhaps the greatest danger of all lies in the possibility that some may be blinded here. Mr. Gannett's articles in Unity, with all their candor of spirit, have been particularly confusing in this matter, as have also the articles of Mr. Learned and the editorials of Mr. Jones. What then is the issue in the West, and what is not the issue?

 

1. Let it be clearly understood, the question at issue is not whether the men leading this new Unitarian departure are good men; the question is whether the movement is a good movement. Some of the greatest calamities of history have come as the result of the mistaken action of good men.

 

2. The issue is not whether we shall make much or little of ethics. All are agreed to put as strong emphasis upon ethics as possible, as Unitarianism has always done. The question is whether we do not stand for ethics with a plus—ethics and also something else, namely, belief in God and Worship— these as being both or them important in themselves, and also as being something without which ethics itself loses its highest sanction and Impulse.

 

3. The issue is not between "radicalism" and "conservatism." The claim that it is, is wholly misleading. The position that Unitarianism stands and always must stand for Christian theism finds its supporters as much among the stoutest radicals as among conservatives—as much among Theodore Parker Unitarians as among Channing Unitarians—as much among those who accept most heartily the teachings of science and comparative religion, and the doctrine of evolution as among any class. Indeed the matter before us is one of so grave and vital a character that in its presence all ordinary thought of radicalism or conservatism seems trivial, for the present issue is one that concerns the very life of the Unitarian body. It is a question as to changing the essential character of Unitarianism. It is the question as to whether our movement is or is not to continue to be fundamentally religious. It is the question, shall we keep our churches, really churches? Or, shall we pull down all flags but those of ethics, literary culture and free thought, leaving worship and everything distinctly Christian or even in any deep sense religious among us everywhere, merely incidental, to be retained or left out as preferred? Not, shall Unitarianism be more or less radical, or more or less conservative, as a religious movement, in the old sense of those words, but shall it continue to be primarily a religious movement at all? This is the question.

 

4. The issue is not that of dogma or non-dogma. In the only sense in which Christian or theistic Unitarians hold to dogmas, our new departure brethren also hold to dogmas—and just as firmly as we do, and as just as essential to Unitaranism, only their dogmas are solely ethical (or ethical and intellectual), while ours are ethical and theistic.

 

5. The question at issue in the West is not between freedom and bondage. Nobody insists upon freedom more perfect and entire than do Christian Unitarians. Was not Channing free? Was not Parker? Did not both stand for a freedom as absolute as the thought of man can conceive? Yet both were Christian theists. We would put no fetters upon inquiry. We would have reason exercise itself to the fullest degree. But does this imply that we must wipe out all lines of distinction, and destroy all principles of classification, in the religious world? Must a scientist, because he is free, refrain from classing an animal with a backbone among vertebrates, saying, "That would be a limitation; for me to be perfectly free I must be at liberty to call a vertebrate a mollusk, or a fish, a bird." That would seem to be much the same kind of freedom, which those who oppose a theistic basis for Unitarianism want in religion. They seem to think that religious classification implies bondage. But religious classification, according to rational historic, well-established principles, is all any of us want. We would have men exercise the utmost freedom of thought, but if as the result of that perfect freedom, they come to hold the convictions of Roman Catholics or Orthodox Trinitarian Protestants, we would class them among Roman Catholics or Protestant Trinitarians and not among Unitarians; or if, as the result of their perfect freedom, they come to the conclusion that Ingersoll is right, or Frederick Harrison, then we would classify them among agnostics or Positivists and not among Unitarians. And we see no reason why religious freedom should require us to invent a conception of Unitarianism which shall ignore historic and rational classification and include in one conglomeration, as the "freedom, fellowship and  character" conception  for  example does, the Catholic, the Protestant, the Mohammedan, the Buddhist, the Positivist, the believer in one God, or three, or twenty, or none. Such a confusion of things distinct seems to us not to be required by religious freedom, indeed to have no connection with religious freedom whatever, but to be a mere intellectual freak, with no justification in either religion or reason.

 

6. The issue before the West is not one of creed or no creed. Nobody wants a creed; nobody, so far as I am aware, would have a creed if he could, that is, unless the word creed is to be used in some new and unwarranted sense. What is a creed, in the true sense? According to the historic and practically universal use of the word from as far back as we can go, "a creed" has signified a formulated, systematized statement of theological doctrine, made out and authorized by some supposed ecclesiastical authority—synod, council or other. Using the word in this, its historic and proper signification, Unitarians have always said: We want no creed; we will have no creed. We put little store by elaborated, systematized, theological statements; if any one wants them let him make them for himself, but let him stop there, for we recognize no council or synod or body as having "authority" to impose any formulated or not-to-be-changed statement of doctrine upon any but himself. I say this has always been our position, and it is the same today. But this cannot justly be made to imply that we have not stood or do not stand for any doctrinal belief, as a denomination. It only means that we have not been willing to make formulated and authorized and not-to-be-changed definitions and statements of our belief. We always have stood, and it is a very new and strange condition of things if we do not still stand, in a large way, in a fluent, elastic way, in an undogmatic and non-credal way, but nonetheless deeply and really for that, for the great, simple, primal, self-evidencing faiths of religion—God, worship, the immortal life, the supremacy of character, the spiritual leadership of Jesus. We allow no man or set of men to insist that we shall run our beliefs about these great religious fundamentals into his (or their) particular molds; we will be slaves to no man's or set of men's idiosyncrasies or dogmatizings; we insist on standing on our own intellectual feet, to inquire for ourselves, think for ourselves, judge for ourselves, make our own definitions and statements, add to our thought—but all this does not interfere in the slightest with our holding as a body in a large way to what is central in the great faiths named above.

 

So then it is easy to see that the question at issue is not at all one of creeds, unless we are to seek out for ourselves some new and unusual meaning of the word. Understanding the word in its historic, and, for this reason, proper sense, to occupy the Christian position cannot be said necessarily to imply a creed. We who believe that Unitarianism should stand, as it always has stood, for God and worship, are not for that reason any more credists than are they who believe it should stand simply for ethics or for freedom, fellowship and character.

 

The only way the charge that we want a creed can be sustained is to lay aside the historic signification of the word for some new meaning.

 

Of course we have a creed, if to have belief is to have a creed. But with that meaning of the word our new-departure-brethren have a creed quite as much. We have a creed, if to believe in the reasonableness, practicability and need of religious classification is a creed! But if the physical scientist classifies without being called a credist, why should not the religious scientist? We have a creed, if to hold that Unitarianism is necessarily theistic and Christian is a creed! But if this is a creed, then to believe that Unitarianism is necessarily ethical must also be a creed. We have a creed, if to hold that none are Unitarians who do not believe, in some large but true way, in God and worship, is a creed. But in this use of .the word our objecting brethren have a creed too, for they hold that none are Unitarians who do not believe in "freedom, fellowship and character in religion." Hence, in any sense in which Mr. Gannett can show that we have a creed, he himself, and those who stand with him, have a creed also, for they have beliefs, and very earnest ones—beliefs that they hold to be necessary to Unitarianism—beliefs which they claim must be held in order to make one a Unitarian. Doubtless, the truer position to take is that which holds to the historic meaning of the word creed. With that meaning, which has been, and still is, the commonly understood one, the whole creed question, so far as the present issue is concerned, passes out of sight. There is no such issue. Neither those who would base Unitarianism upon ethics and theism, nor those who would base it upon ethics alone, have what ought to be called creeds. But if either has, then both have.

 

7. The issue that is before the West is not between a Unitarianism which shall set up dogmatic tests of fellowship, and one that shall not. It is between a Unitarianism which shall have a real fellowship at all, and one that shall have only a sham fellowship. Nobody, so far as I know, wants or would tolerate any dogmatic tests, in the proper meaning of those words. It is a common saying among us: Let us base our fellowship not on creeds but on unity of aim. To this I, for one, heartily agree. Only, how is unity of aim to be secured? It cannot be secured without a reasonable degree of unity of thought and belief regarding fundamental things. Between two classes of men, one of which doesn't believe in worship, and hence wants an organization and a lecturer to fight churches and show the folly of prayer, and the other of which believes in worship, and hence wants a church where worship is practiced, there can be no fellowship based upon unity of aim, because there is no unity of aim; and there is no unity of aim because there is no fundamental unity of belief. So that while nobody wants a creed, we must have a general harmony of view on central matters, or else the very unity of aim, which we desire, is impossible.

 

Another common form of expression is: Let us base our Unitarian fellowship solely on character and cooperation. To this, too, I say, yes. But cooperation in what? And for what? Cooperation in promoting Roman Catholicism? Or Positivism? Or science? Or ethical culture? Or agriculture? Cooperation in discussion only? Cooperation in Ingersolism? Cooperation with worship left out? Or cooperation in worship? Make it cooperation in the proper things—in the things for which a Unitarian church legitimately stands, and certainly all I want is cooperation. But it is just here that the whole issue comes—cooperation in what? We are all at sea, with not a star in our sky to guide us, or a rudder to steer by, unless we say we mean cooperation in something. And what shall that something be, only just the simple, central things that lie at the heart of Christian theism, the things that make a church a church. Persons say that I, and those who stand with me, are trying to limit fellowship. It would be more true to our aim and purpose if they said we are trying to make our fellowship the broadest possible—the broadest possible that shall not have wrapped up within itself the seeds of necessary antagonism and self-destruction. Could a platform be broader than that which says: Let us regard Unitarianism as standing for the simple, central, self-evidencing faiths of Christian theism, or natural religion (for they are the same), and then on this broad, undogmatic basis, let us all as Unitarians work together—leaving everyone to do his own defining, or to refrain from defining if he prefers—"basing our fellowship solely on character and cooperation," only ensuring that our cooperation shall be real and worthy—cooperation for the true ends of a church—cooperation in religious work, and cooperation in Christian worship?

 

8. The issue in the West is not between a Unitarianism of "doctrines" and a Unitarianism of "principles," as Mr. Gannett would have us believe. We have been told that Unitarianism in the past has stood partly for doctrines and partly for principles, but that the tendency from the first has been to put more and more emphasis upon principles and less and less upon doctrines, until now the time has come for us to say, frankly, we wholly give up doctrines as essential, and boldly affirm nothing to be essential but principles. This might be convincing were it not for certain discoveries, which we quickly make when we begin looking at the matter with a little care. The first is that the principles themselves are actually every one of them doctrines, and derive all their value from the fact that they are doctrines. A doctrine is something believed and taught as true; but every one of Mr. Gannett's "principles" is exactly that—something believed and taught as true by him. He advocates the "principle" of "reason in religion." He does so because he believes it. He teaches constantly, as a part of his philosophy, that freedom is good, safe, something which conduces eventually to the best interests of men. And he calls this a principle. Why? Why does he not call it a doctrine? It is a doctrine, just as much as it is a doctrine that love and worship of God are good, safe, conducive to the best interests of men. "Freedom," "fellowship" and "character," are all principles, according to his nomenclature, not doctrines; yet these are the things he believes and teaches as true, useful, safe, essential in religion; so, then, there is no escaping it—they are his doctrines of religion. It is as doctrinal to say freedom as it is to say the Eternal Energy, and as doctrinal to say that as it is to say God. It is as doctrinal to say fellowship as it is to say reverence, and as doctrinal to say either as it is to say worship. It is as doctrinal to say character, or the supremacy of character, as it is to say the spiritual leadership of Jesus. No, the difference between Mr. Gannett and his associates and the Christian Unitarians isn't that the latter make doctrines essential and the former do not, nor is it that the latter would found Unitarianism on doctrines and the former on principles. Both parties hold doctrines—one just as firmly as the other. The so-called principles on which our Unity brethren would found Unitarianism are every one of them doctrines. The real line of separation between the two is not at all that between doctrines and principles; it is between doctrines ethical (or ethical and intellectual) and doctrines theistic; or, if we are to use the word principles at all, it is between principles ethical (or ethical and intellectual) and principles theistic. In other words, it is the old issue, covered up for the moment by Mr. Gannett's skillfully-used words, "doctrine" and "principle"—but the same old issue of a Unitarianism necessarily theistic versus a Unitarianism not necessarily theistic. Mr. Gannett goes through the things which Unitarianism has always stood for, and when he finds one that says God, or worship, or immortality, or Jesus, he calls that a "doctrine" and says, "No, we cannot stand for that;" but when he finds one that is only ethical or intellectual he calls it a "principle" and says, "That we must stand for." He, quite as much as any, would plant Unitarianism upon a belief basis, a doctrine basis, only he would have the doctrines or things believed—the things which according to him must be believed in order to make one a Unitarian— he would have these solely ethical and intellectual and not theistic or Christian. I repeat, the things which must be believed, for he lays down a "basis of fellowship," takes ground in favor of a "test of fellowship," (see Unity, Jan. 23, pp. 260 and 259), calls the position of those who hold to the necessity of theism, "Non-Unitarianism," "doubts" anyone's "title to the [Unitarian] name" who does not subscribe to those "intellectual and ethical principles which Unity's motto seeks to watchward." Here then we have this leading protestant against the bondage of Christian Unitarianism, this leading champion of a larger freedom, a perfect freedom, a freedom which shall have no bounds or limits or tests, himself becoming a limiter of liberty just as much as the worst of us, becoming an advocate of those dreadful things, "a basis of fellowship" and "a test of fellowship," only he wants the basis to be his particular basis and the test his particular test; the theistic test must not be submitted to, the intellectual and ethical test—the test of "those intellectual and ethical principles (doctrines, beliefs) which Unity's motto seeks to watchword"—must be introduced instead.

 

Thus does the protest against tests of fellowship, which looked so broad and generous and undogmatic, fade away into something quite as dogmatic as anything charged upon theistic or Christian Unitarians, and thus, too, does the whole contrast between "doctrines" and "principles," which under Mr. Gannett's brush looked so striking and beautiful, fade away also and leave, where it seemed to be, only the plain, simple, serious question, Does Unitarianism mean necessarily God and worship, or does it not?

 

Our ethical friends urge the claim that in their abandonment of the theistic basis they are only illustrating the genius of the Unitarian movement, only carrying out its spirit, only pressing forward in the path of those who have gone before us, only proving themselves true prophets and seers, true successors of Channing and Dewey and Parker and Bellows. The genius of Unitarianism, they tell us, is to be forever moving on; and they are simply advancing in the exact line of natural and legitimate progress from the great men named.

 

To a claim like this one hardly knows what to say; it comes so near taking away one's breath. Mark the "argument." Because the tendency in the denomination has been to make the Christianity we have stood for more and more simple, and to purge our theism of this or that dogmatic element found not to be necessary to it, therefore we shall only be carrying out the same tendency if, as a denomination, we now abandon Christianity and theism altogether.

 

This is as if the grape-growers of the country should say, "The tendency among the growers of grapes before us has been to prune their vines more and more closely; so, then, we will prove ourselves legitimate descendants of theirs, followers exactly in their footsteps, if we cut up our vines by the roots." No one doubts that there has been a tendency among our great leaders to simplify doctrine, but to urge that the way to carry out that tendency legitimately is now to give up all doctrine is like urging that if my father as he grew older manifested a tendency more and more to simplify his food, the way for me to follow his example is to give up all food. I do not hesitate emphatically to deny that our great Unitarian leaders of the past have shown any tendency whatever to surrender the central doctrines of rational Christianity, or that the movement among us now to effect such a surrender finds any warrant or justification whatever in the past history of the denomination. The fact seems rather to be that, with the surrender of certain things as non-essential, as time went on, our great leaders like Channing, Parker and the rest put all the more stress upon those which remained; they were reconciled to, or glad of, the simplifying of doctrine, because of the very opportunity thus afforded to put increased emphasis upon the few, great, central things.

 

The genius of our denominational movement leads to the giving up of theism as not essential to Unitarianism? As well urge that the genius of constitutional republican government tends toward the surrender of the ballot as non-essential, or that the genius of our American educational system tends toward the giving up of "the three R's" as non-essential!

 

Our brethren speak much about "prophets" and "prophecy" and the "prophetic spirit." Certainly all this is good; most of us believe, assuredly the present writer does, that Unitarianism is truly a prophetic movement, that its spirit is preeminently the prophetic spirit. But wherein lies the peculiarly prophetical character of the movement to make Unitarianism no longer Christian or theistic? This, we confess, we are unable as yet to see. We have always supposed it to be the nature of prophecy to run up noble new flags rather than to lower the old, and the noblest of the old. We gladly confess that some of our new departure brethren show, as it seems to us, a real prophetic spirit in some things—in many things—but in this particular desire of theirs to make Unitarianism synonymous with Free Religion, what is there, what can there be, prophetic? Have the achievements of the Free Religious societies of the East been so conspicuous that the promise would seem to be brilliant for us when our Unitarian churches generally shall come to stand for the same things with them? This new movement is prophetic of what? It would seem to be prophetic, if of anything, of a time when the Unitarian body will lose its Christian character, and therefore will lose a large part of its present membership. Is this an alluring prospect—something to kindle a prophet soul to ardor? It would also seem to be prophetic, if of anything, of a time when it shall be perfectly legitimate for Mr. B. P. Underwood (a gentleman for whom certainly I have only the highest respect) to apply to the American Unitarian Association to be appointed a Unitarian missionary lecturer in the West, and for Mr. Robert Ingersoll to ask the trustees of the Unitarian Church Building Loan Fund for assistance in erecting a Unitarian lecture hall for himself in Washington. Both these gentlemen, though non-believers in God or prayer or personal immortality, are yet able teachers of free thought and ethics, according to their understanding of the words, and hence, if free thought and ethics are all that is essential to Unitarianism, of course it would be proper for them to apply for denominational money for equipment and support as Unitarian teachers. I may be wrong, but I do not quite see why the great word prophecy should apply to a time and condition of things in which this would be legitimate.

 

Will anyone tell us the reason why Mr. Gannett and our other freedom, fellowship, and character brethren today prefer the Unitarian name to the Free Religious name, and choose to be preachers and ministers in Unitarian societies rather than in Free Religious societies, and seem to feel themselves a little ill-treated if anyone speaks of them as Free Religionists? Is not the preference which they thus evince for Umtarianism itself a tribute to the truth of the Unitarian position? Do they not prefer Unitarianism to Free Religion because the former has wisely refused to accept the very position which these men now want it to accept—refused to adopt the solely ethical basis— refused, when the issue was raised in New England, to give up the essentials of Christian theism? If Unitarianism had given these up and gone the Free Religious road—leaving even belief in God and worship open questions in our churches and pulpits—does anyone doubt that the history of a large portion of our churches would have been essentially what that of so many of the Free Religious societies has been? But they refused to move off on any such religious tangent—they stood firmly by the central things of Christianity, and so continued to prosper, and are today something which even our ethical brethren are compelled to love and honor and are glad to work with. That Unitarianism is something which these brethren love and honor and choose association with would seem to grow out of the fact that it refused fifteen or twenty years ago, when urged to do so, to go the way which they today are pressing it in the West to go.

 

We are told that the denomination, to be trite to its past, must be forever moving on. Yes, but moving on how? Like the tramp that never has a home? Or, like the settler in a new land who moves on to find a home, and then moves on in an equally true but different sense to improve and adorn and beautify the home he has found?

 

Mr. Gannett tells us that the denomination first took its stand on "reason and revelation," but it had to move on. Later it took its stand at the supernatural or the miraculous, but it had to move on. Later still it made another stand at the Lordship of Christ, but again it was compelled to move on. Now the stand is made at Christian theism, but once more, he says, we must move on. Move on where? let us ask. We should say, move on from our present Christian theism to a Christian theism larger, nobler, more living, more burning. But no, we are told we must move on from our Christian theism to freedom, fellowship and character in religion, that is, to non-theism. To this we cannot help replying, Well, when we get there what then? Where next shall we move to? There would seem to be as much reason for moving on from "freedom, fellowship and character in religion" as from God and worship. The Ingersoll and D. M. Bennett and Boston Investigator men are quite as urgent for our ethical friends to move on as the latter are for us to move on. Will the next move for Unitarianism be to Ingersoll’s or the Investigator's or Bennett's position?

 

The fact seems to be there is nothing about which there is more mental confusion than about this whole moving on idea. If I am faced toward a desert, the farther I move on, the farther from a habitable land I shall be. If I am faced toward the edge of Table Rock, Niagara, I can safely move on for a distance—move on until I am within 20 feet of the edge, 15 feet, 10 feet, 6 feet, 2 feet, one foot—but if I move on much beyond that, it will be the last moving on I shall be likely to do in this world. So a religious body may move on for a time toward the edge of religion—nearer and nearer to the edge—but what if it moves off? Our Unity friends have got us to the place where they want us as a body to move on and move off historic Unitarianism—move off Christianity, move off theism; they tell us if we will we shall find a religion of ethics, which will be better. But surely they cannot wonder if some of us prefer to do our moving on not over any such brink, but in quite a different direction—one that seems to us a real advance and not a retrogression. If to be in the line of Unitarian development requires that we must move off Christianity or theism, we prefer to change the line of development. But we deny that there is anything in the nature or genius of Unitarianism, or in the history of Unitarianism up to within a very few years, that looks in such a non-theistic direction at all. We are pointed to Channing and Parker and Bellows as men who wanted Unitarianism kept ever open to light and progress. Yes, but not to retrogression under the name of progress, not to darkness and confusion in the name of light. As I have already said, those men always placed the most tremendous emphasis upon God, worship, the spiritual leadership of Jesus, the supremacy of character, the immortal life; indeed if they withdrew emphasis from other things, it was that they might put the more here. And now to use their names in connection with a movement to surrender these, or any of these, as no longer essentials of Unitarianism, is simply amazing.

 

Our new departure brethren seem particularly fond of referring to Theodore Parker. They more than intimate that they are the Theodore Parkers of today, they tell us that in twenty years their non-Christian and non-theistic position will be generally accepted by our body as Parker's non-miracle position is now, and they take pains to abundantly warn us against persecuting and driving them out as our fathers are said to have persecuted and driven out Parker.

 

Now, looked at from one aspect, this seems plausible; I have no doubt that those who say it think there is something in it. But let us see what.

 

1. It certainly seems very curious to hear Parker, the most tremendous of theists, referred to in support of a movement to drop theism out of Unitarianism as not essential. If I have read Parker correctly, nobody would protest more fervently against this whole idea of the substitution of ethics for theism than would the great Music Hall preacher, if he were now living.

 

2. It is equally curious to hear persons talking about persecution. As to whether Parker was persecuted or not, I have nothing here to say; but certainly at the present time there is no indication of persecution. Nobody has hinted persecution in any direction; nobody has done anything, which looks the slightest toward persecution; nobody would submit, certainly nobody that believes in the Christian position, so far as I am aware, would on any account submit to the persecution of anybody.

 

3. Nobody proposes to "drive out" or "put out" anyone from the denomination. If anyone goes out, it will be because he chooses to go, or reaches the conclusion that he ought to go. As long as he stays with us, we shall treat him with perfect courtesy, as we have always done. But does this mean that we ought to refrain from speaking of Unitarianism as Christian? Or refrain from speaking of worship as an essential part of Unitarianism? Ought we for the sake of a false courtesy, or of preserving a false and unnatural fellowship, wipe out the lines of distinction between our movement and Romanism, or between our movement and atheism, or between our movement and agnosticism or ethical culture? What we propose is simply to say, at proper times and places, with perfect frankness and without apology, that Unitarianism has always been, and, as we understand it, still is Liberal Christianity, or the Christianity of Christ interpreted in the light of the modern world, and endeavor to plant our churches and denominational organizations upon such a broad, undogmatic basis; and then if Catholics or others want to come among us on that platform they shall be welcome, or if they conclude that they do not belong there and go where their intelligence and judgment tell them they do belong, we shall bid them Godspeed. This is all the persecuting or "driving out" that any of us, so far as I am aware, propose to do to anybody.

 

But there is another side to this driving out question which our friends overlook. How is it that they fail to discover that there is something else much more calculated than Christianity to drive persons out of the Unitarian fellowship, and that is the surrender of Christianity? Have they not reflected that to destroy the Christian character of the Unitarian body, and open its pulpits to non-Christian and anti-Christian teaching must inevitably sooner or later drive out a large proportion of the denomination-must compel multitudes of those who have been in the denomination longest, and given most of money and labor for its support and are its most valuable members, to go elsewhere to find what they are in the denomination for, viz., Christian thought, Christian culture, Christian education for their children, Christian worship? Even if there were no such thing to be considered as justice toward those who have made the denomination what it is, still it would seem that the mere consideration of expediency, the merest business wisdom alone, should make our friends call a halt—call a halt to inquire if we can any of us afford to shift the basis of the denomination for the purpose of taking in a few extreme religious negativists, when for each such gain we must suffer a loss of many of our best, most laborious and self-sacrificing workers.

 

There are some who seem to think that the issue in the West in some way involves the question as to whether such well-known and honored brethren as Mr. Gannett, Mr. Blake and Mr. Jones are Unitarians, and have a right to a place in the Unitarian body. Where the idea arose that anyone ever questioned the legitimacy of the place of these brethern among us, I do not know. I can only say that even to suggest such a question seems to me preposterous, for these brethren are theists; individually they believe in worship. The question is only as to other men who are not theists, who are not believers in God or worship. Shall we say to such, "Your want of these faiths makes no difference. You are Unitarians just as truly without them as with. You have just as good a right to be Unitarian ministers without them as with?" This is where the issue comes. It does not even come necessarily at the case of laymen, certainly not at all at members of congregations as such. Probably there is nobody among us who is not glad to have men of every possible shade of belief, from Catholic or Mormon to Atheist, come freely to our services. And with our churches once planted upon some simple Christian basis, and organized on the lines of real religious work and worship, there can be little or no objection to such men being full members and even business officers in our churches. Certainly as for myself, I have always had such men, and most gladly, as members and administrative officers of the churches of which I have been pastor.

 

The difficulty, I say, does not come here: the difficulty comes on the side of the pulpit. Shall our pulpits and pastorates be open to known disbelievers in the simple fundamentals of Christian theism? Here I, and certainly a very large number of others with me, say no. I believe our ministers should not ordain, I believe our fellowship committees should not recommend, I believe our churches cannot without disaster call to or maintain in their pulpits men who are known to be devoid of these essential faiths. And yet the need of saying even this comes wholly from the strange condition into which our body in the West has allowed itself to drift—a condition of uncertainty, to some extent, in the eyes of itself and the public, as to whether it is theistic or Christian. The whole matter would solve itself instantly—I say would solve itself—if our churches and our denomination stood distinctly on a basis of Christian theism, for then nobody would want, certainly nobody would ask ordination among us, or pulpits among us, except persons who believed in Christian faith and worship. The trouble all comes when, and only when, we give up our Christian or theistic basis. That basis given up, of course it becomes perfectly legitimate for men without Christian faith to ask pulpits among us, or for any man already in a pulpit, who loses his faith, to ask to continue, if he so desires.

 

Our denomination should be kept a religious body; and for this to be possible it should be guarded against all influences which tend to weaken or destroy its religious character. How can it be thus guarded? In one way, and only one, so far as I can see; and that is by beginning and carrying out the rational, business-like policy of making our churches and denominational organizations stand for something—something simple, yet something distinct, something declared, something that everybody can understand, something worthy, something broadly and yet really Christian. If we mean church, let us say church; if we mean worship, let us say worship; if we mean Christianity or theism, let us say it. Let us be something and stand somewhere. In the past, Unitarianism has always been Christian. The idea of a Unitarianism which counts nothing essential but ethics and free thought, and hence which is reduced to virtual Free Religion, is an idea which, even if it is growing influential in some quarters in the West just now, is a very, recent growth. Believing as I do, that if allowed to prevail it will destroy us, as it is already in so many ways disintegrating and weakening us, I would have the denomination protect itself against it. How? Not by persecutions; not by heresy trials; not by any injustice or unkindness to any. But by doing the just, strong, true thing of insisting always and everywhere that the body has always been, and still is, broadly Christian, and by establishing our churches and organizations, as they formerly were established and as it is amazing that we should ever have ceased anywhere to establish them, unequivocally upon the great faiths that have always lain at the heart of Unitarianism in the past, as they must lie at the heart of every form of religion that expects to satisfy the deep wants of men. This done, the danger largely passes away, and of itself. If churches and associations are organized distinctly for purposes of worship, persons who do not believe in or care for worship will naturally pass them by and seek their affiliations elsewhere. That we have the question before us at all, which is pressing so hard at our doors, as to whether Unitarianism is theistic and whether our pulpits are to be reserved for believers in God and worship, or are to be opened freely to non-Christians, agnostics and atheists, arises simply because we have gone in the West to the absurd and well nigh fatal extreme of planting so many of our churches and nearly all our denominational organizations upon nothing doctrinal or theological at all—upon nothing more definite or firm than the mere formula, so rapidly becoming a shibboleth—"freedom, fellowship and character in religion"—a formula which may cover the Buddhist, the Trinitarian, the Ethical Culturist and the Positivist, as well as the Liberal Christian. And if this is the basis upon which Western Unitarianism stands, and if this is all Western Unitarianism means, of course it is proper for Mr. Connor, Mr. Miln, Mr. Chainey, Mr. Frederick Harrison, Mr. Salter, Mr. Ingersoll, and, for that matter, Monseigneur Capel, to take their places with us and call themselves Unitarians and occupy our pulpits and be pastors of our churches, if they so desire. And it is not proper for our churches to refuse, on theological grounds, to call them, if Unitarianism stands only for freedom, fellowship and character in religion.

 

Let not anyone say that I advocate a creed, when I urge establishing our churches and conferences upon something, and something definite. As I have already said so emphatically, I would have no creed. I would, however, have our constitutions and articles of association of churches and other organizations not dodge the Christian name, but use it, not evade the thought of discipleship to Jesus, but rationally employ it, not omit, but state the fact that they are associations for worship.    I would have the bonds of union and covenants of our churches so framed as to include and express the primary rather than the secondary things of religion. I would have the children of our Sunday schools taught that Unitarianism stands for at least a few great doctrines that we regard as settled. I would have simple platforms and declarations of principles adopted by churches and conferences to give them coherence, and to let the world know what they stand for. The Ethical Culture societies of the country put forth declarations of principles, and everybody recognizes the fact that it is a sensible proceeding. They are stronger for it; the community better understands their purpose and aim because of it. Nor does anybody mistake these declarations for creeds. Why should not we follow their example? And why do the very same persons who never think of saying creed in connection with the platforms of the Ethical societies begin to cry out creed the moment we, as Unitarians, talk about the same thing?

 

Political parties, too, adopt platforms. For a party to set out on a campaign without a definite public statement, which all can see, of what it stands for and is trying to do is to invite defeat. Why should any think it less shortsighted or disastrous to attempt to carry on religious movements and build religious organizations without platforms or statements of religious principles which all can see and understand? But let nobody fall into the folly of confounding statements of principles or platforms with creeds in the old objectionable sense. They are not creeds. They keep all that was good in the old creed idea and leave out the bad.

 

In making this protest against the attempt to revolutionize Western Unitarianism and remove it off its Christian basis, I wish to be understood as speaking as a radical. I have always been a radical, and am the same now. It is as a radical that I hold that no religion which does not believe mightily in God, which does not "touch God's right hand in the darkness," consciously, and with a thrill that is heaven, can ever get much of a hold upon men. It is as a radical that I believe and maintain that no religion which does not root itself down in those deepest faiths of man—those natural, ineradicable faiths that have been the life and power of Christianity—faith in God, faith in prayer, faith in immortality, faith in such a life lived on earth, of consecration to holiness, and felt sonship with God as Jesus lived—can ever move, much less renovate, human nature or make anything more than a ripple on the surface of human society. But if I speak as a radical, I also speak as a Western radical—a man whose life has been mainly spent in the West, who has lived in four or five different parts of the West, and who, if he knows the wants and needs of any section of the country, knows the wants and needs of the West. As a Western man I claim that this great, growing Western empire has not got beyond Christianity; I claim that it wants not less Christianity than it has had, but more and purer. Doubtless it wants ethics, but it wants ethics set on fire with the burning consciousness that duty is but the living law of a living and loving God. Then its ethics will be a thing of life and power.

 

This protest which this paper contains against the abandonment of the theistic position I make not from one consideration, but from many—indeed, I make it in the name of every most important interest connected with or involved in Western Unitarianism.

 

1. I make it in the name of truth. I deny that the simple fundamental doctrines of Christian theism are mere "opinions," as we are told, and that only the doctrines of ethics are real "soul-faiths." I affirm that no voices of the soul are more authoritative than those which declare that man's puny thought isn't the highest intelligence in the universe, or man's bungling and baby justice the highest righteousness. Especially does it seem a strange time to ask us to surrender our Christian theistic position now, when the truth of it is being testified to as never before. On the side of the churches and all historic religions the tendency is strongly and steadily toward it, and on the side of science and philosophy there were never so many voices nor so weighty ones as now confirming it. At a time when such men as John Fiske are saying, "In its fundamental features the theism of Jesus and Paul was so true that it must endure as long as man endures," it is a curious time for us to begin as a denomination to weaken as to our theistic position.

 

2. I make my protest against abandoning the distinct Christian theistic character of the denomination in the interest of unity and harmony. If we cannot live in harmony on this basis, it is clear as the sun in the sky we cannot on any other. To destroy the historic character of the denomination in this which is central and deepest in what the denomination has always represented, it is madness to think we can do otherwise than seriously rend and tear the body. There is peace in one direction, and only one, and that is the direction of what the American Unitarian Association stands for, the direction of what the Western Conference stood for before its late change of base, the direction of what most of our churches, East and West, still stand for, the direction of what all our great leaders of the past have taught, the direction of what the great mass of the people of the denomination everywhere believe and want the denomination to represent. Few denominations are more united than we have always been in the past on our basis of a broad and undogmatic, rational Christianity, which has always said in its declarations, and said with perfect consistency: We have no creed, and will have none, yet we stand, in a large way, in an undogmatic way, but in a real and vital way, for at least and everywhere God and worship, and the great immortal hope, and the ideal of the divine humanity that shines in Jesus. That basis can oppress or fetter nobody and exclude nobody whose aims and interests are in any deep sense with us.

 

3. I deprecate all attempts to destroy the Christian, and especially the theistic, character of our body because of the necessarily evil effects of the same upon our missionary and church extension work. Most of the money given in our body for missionary purposes is given by Christian men and women, prompted by Christian motives and for Christian aims. Now it requires only a moment's thought to see that if it comes to be a fact, and to be generally understood, that Western missionary work is work to build up not liberal Christianity or even a religion necessarily theistic, but primarily "Free Religion" or a "religion of ethics," the result must inevitably be to cut off a large part of our missionary revenues, and as well those from the West as those from the East. Of course there are men, both West and East, who would give cheerfully for free religion or ethical culture, but a majority would not; a majority of Unitarians believe that what the world needs is Unitarian Christianity, and if they give money, they want it to go in some real way for that. The missionary opportunities before us in the West are simply unlimited. We ought to be able materially to augment our missionary activities every year, and we can do this, if we will but press forward on the main line of historic Unitarianism, but we may be sure that just to the degree that we take any free, religious or ethical culture or agnostic or non-theistic sidetrack, our missionary work and church extension work must suffer.

 

4. I protest against the de-Christianizing of Unitarianism in the name of every commonest principle of business intelligence. Every businessman knows that any enterprise which attempts to embrace everything succeeds in nothing. The man who undertakes to carry on all kinds of business, fails in all. The movement of any kind that too much spreads itself out simply thins itself away. Religion is no exception. Men will labor and give money for definite religious institutions, so they will for definite religious ideas, so they will in discipleship of some great religious leader whose life they can make their example and inspiration. But give them neither of these, offer them a religion without any leader, without any religious doctrines, without any institutions that are regarded otherwise than as incidental, declare that even worship and belief in God are too definite and too narrowing to form essentials in your religion, make it so broad, so general, so nebulous that it shall include everybody, Trinitarian and Unitarian, Theist, Polytheist and Atheist, and that its pulpits (where it concludes to have pulpits) shall be freely open for all these and all other religious believers and non-believers in the world—so only that they be men or women of reputable moral character—and what is the prospect of success for your religion, judging on business principles? What man is there who understands the first principles of organization, or the simplest conditions of success in building up institutions or pushing forward movements, who can be made to have any faith in the future of such a religion? Try to organize it? As well undertake to organize the west wind! Propagate it? What is there to propagate? The ethical culturists have something definite to stand for and teach, and people can understand them. But when we call our movement religious, and then proceed to declare that no religious belief whatever, no matter how rational, natural, true or fundamental in worship, is necessary to it, while every religious belief or non-belief under heaven may justly claim protection under its banner and propagate itself in its name, we have got something about as indefinite, nebulous, everything-and-nothing, not to say self-contradictory, as the conditions of human thought allow. To expect men with clear business heads permanently to take interest in such a kind of a religion, or to continue to give much money or make much sacrifice to support and spread it, would seem, to the present

writer at least, an absurdity. We claim to believe in reason in religion. If here is not reason run mad, one wonders where to look for it.

 

5. I protest against the de-Christianizing of Unitarianism in the West, in the name of progress and evolution. The position that Unitarianism should lift no banner but that of ethics, and should stand before the world for only "freedom, fellowship and character in religion," claims to be an advanced position; I believe it to be a seriously retrograde position. I believe it to be a mistaking of revolution for evolution. It is astonishing that men should persist in calling that "progress" in Unitarianism, which takes the highest faiths of religion and says they are no longer to be put first, or even to be insisted on as a necessary part of Unitarianism at all. Rather let this be called a sad going backward. In the organic world we sometimes see forms of life revert to a lower type. Let us call this attempt to make Unitarianism confess that its highest faiths are only non-essentials a reversion to a lower religious type, and then fewer will be deceived by it. Let us be sure that all true religious progress leads to God, and ever more to God—leads to the making of the God-idea not less central or necessary, but more central and more necessary.

 

6.  I deprecate the non-Christian attitude which a portion of Western Unitarianism is taking, because it puts our movement out of line with the great Christian  armythat army which, with   all its faults, is yet the most powerful force operating in our day against sin, and in favor of the higher life of men. It dissociates us from that great band of Christian worshipers and workers which is doing nine-tenths of the best religious, philanthropic, and even ethical work of Christendom. And with whom does it put us in affiliation? It puts us in affiliation with a class of men, many of whom certainly I would be the last to speak disrespectfully of, and yet men who religiously are extremists of the extremists. Why should our Unity brethren be willing to have the Unitarian body pay the heavy price it must cost to come into affiliation with such extremists who, for the most part, care nothing for association with us—extremists who regard mere free thought as the ultimatum of human good—extremists whose delight is to push out to the very edge of religion and stand there where most persons grow dizzy, and where they themselves find one and another of their own number losing footing and falling off from time to time into the abyss of open repudiation of all religion—extremists who are bent on finding an open sea at the north pole of religion—a brave thing enough to do for an adventurer here and there, whose desire pushes him over that dreary road, but an unreasonable and a sad thing when the effort is made to get numbers of their fellows to go to those frigid shores to live. Why try to get Unitarianism to follow such men into regions where life is so scant? Why not endeavor, rather, to win them to our own fairer Unitarian Christian land, while we seek our affiliation with those who are our natural spiritual kin?—with those who in thought, in reason, are quite as much our kin, and who in worship and the vital things of religion are infinitely more so, namely, our Universalist brethren, the broad churchmen of the English and American Episcopal churches, the new theology men in the orthodox Congregationalist body, the broader and more advanced men in all the orthodox churches, and especially such Christian independents as Prof. Swing and Dr. Thomas? Indeed, why should we forget that the whole Christian army is our natural ally—far more our ally than our foe—especially the whole advancing wing of it. Surely it is a pity to lose this great, natural, helpful Christian alliance for the sake of a forced and unnatural one with men whose hold upon religion is so much more feeble, and whose faces are set toward the north pole or the desert.

 

7. I protest against a non-theistic Unitarianism in the interest of the very agnostics and unchurched classes, themselves, whom it is hoped to reach by taking this position. My observation and experience convince me that it does not help us, in reaching these classes, to give up our theistic or Christian ground. The more, earnest and thoughtful agnostics—those who have any interest in our churches at all, or could be drawn to us on any condition—very few of them want us to remove our Christian basis. The very thing about our churches that is most likely to attract them, and certainly the thing most likely to hold them when they once come, is the finding that, with our reason and with our freedom, we have at the same time a religious faith firmer and higher than they have yet reached, or quite see how to reach, but one so beautiful and helpful that they would like to reach it if they could. We may be sure that people do not long go to hear preachers who believe less than they do, or long attend churches that stand for less than they themselves believe.

 

It hardly seems fitting to close this paper without considering the practical consequences that have already resulted, and still more must result, from the attempt to remove Western Unitarianism from its historic basis. This subject, however, I treated with some care, even though briefly, in my Secretary's Report made at St. Louis in May last, and therefore will not attempt to go over the ground again, but will refer persons interested to that report. Suffice it to say here that the harmful consequences in various directions, which have already appeared, have been more than enough to justify all I have said in this paper, and the end is not yet. It is not long since one of our best known, most experienced and influential ministers said to me, "We ought to have had today at least 160 Unitarian churches in the West, instead of 60, and we might have had if we had everywhere been true to our gospel—true to our great mission as a rational, practical, progressive Christian body." I think there is no question that he was right. And as to the future, the signs of promise that I see on every hand are simply magnificent, if we are firm and clear-visioned, and go forward with bravery and faith, with one hand holding with absolute fidelity to our priceless Christian heritages from the past, and with the other reaching out with absolute confidence to grasp God's not less precious gifts and revelations of the present. But failing of this—turning aside from the great highway so plainly before us, into any such by-path meadow as our loved and honored and certainly well-meaning but certainly mistaken Unity brethren urge—I can see nothing before us but a future of sad disappointments and regrets. By hauling down and destroying bur theistic and Christian flags and running up in their place the ethical only, I am convinced we should seal the fate of Unitarianism as a religious movement in the West. Of course it would still live on after a fashion, even with all its load of misunderstanding to carry, and with all its loss of inward power. It would continue for a time to do a certain work, some of it valuable work—literary, social, ethical and to some extent religious—but nonetheless as a religious movement I am convinced its face would be set toward death.

 

My readers will see, then, why I write this paper. I hoped not to write it. I have waited and waited, month after month, desiring and trusting that things would take such a shape as to render it unnecessary. Especially did I hope and trust that the starting of the Unitarian, to speak quietly and without controversy for the Christian position, might make the need less for such a plain utterance as this. But what was intended in the Unitarian as a proclamation of peace has been interpreted as a proclamation of war, and for four months past the leaders of the "freedom, fellowship and character" movement have been pushing their cause through Unity and otherwise, with an outspokenness and determination never known before. There is, therefore, nothing left for me but to speak in the plain way which I do in this pamphlet.

 

And now my task is done. In these pages I have endeavored as faithfully, as clearly, and certainly as kindly as possible, to state the issue now before Western Unitarianism.

 

The question confronts us, not to be evaded: Shall we, in the West, go on in the way the denomination has been going in the past—forward to help the world—to lead it, if we are true and noble enough, to a purer, higher, more practical, more vital Christianity—pressing on and up along that path which has the life and teachings of Jesus to light it, and God shining forever in its sky? Or shall we turn aside to seek out some path in which neither Jesus, nor any teaching of Jesus, is anything more than incidental, and into whose sky God may come or not come, but at least is not the sun whose shining makes its day? For one, I believe that to settle this crucial and far reaching question wrong will prove deeply disastrous—is it too much to say fatal?—to our body—not fatal, at once, but ultimately. I think it will be turning aside from our clear path of advance, from the high mission which we have believed was ours, to fritter away our strength, to disintegrate our numbers, to lose our hope and incentive, to miss our opportunity, to drop from our grasp the leadership which we had dreamed belonged to us in the Christian advance of the world, and leave to some other body, more true than we to the deep and central things of all high religion, the leadership which we shall have lost. I say this, if we settle this question of Christian or non-Christian theistic or non-theistic wrong. But I do not believe we shall settle it wrong. I believe our friends who think to substitute "freedom, fellowship and character" for God, Jesus, prayer and immortality, instead of keeping both and all, will, when the issue is once fully  understood among us, be amazed to find how little Western Unitarianism is minded to change the higher for the lower, the grander for the poorer—amazed to discover how clear the great body of our laity, and our ministers too, will be found to be, that they want a religion in which the greatest faiths known to the human soul shall not be regarded as incidental, something which may be left out or put in as any church or minister shall please—-but shall be inscribed in blazing light upon our banners, and shall be held and declared to be forever vital and central in Unitarianism.

 

Brethren of the West, this issue, however much we may shrink from it or regret it, is upon us; we cannot evade it. It is no time for indifference; too much is at stake.

 

At such a time, if ever, Unitarianism demands of us our best and truest service, of calm judgment, of broad and unfailing charity, of respect for others and their honest thought as we wish respect for ourselves and our thought, but, nonetheless, of clear thinking and of loyalty to the truth as God gives us to see the truth.

 



[1] "Some of our old churches in the West, which were established years ago upon a distinct recognition of the central faiths of Christianity, have within three or four years revised their constitutions, changed their bases, and now stand upon platforms that leave most, if not all, these out. Most of our State Conferences in the West have organized themselves with constitutions that give no distinct recognition of either Christianity or theism—no recognition of either, even by inference, except as it is implied in their name, Unitarian. The same is also true of this General Western Conference. This Conference was organized thirty-three years ago upon a distinctly Christian basis. After awhile it adopted a platform which was simply theistic. Then, when it came to incorporate itself and adopt its new constitution at Cleveland, three years ago, it dropped, as too dogmatic, even its theistic platform—declining, after long discussion and repeated votings, to put itself on permanent record as any longer existing to promote 'the kingdom of God.' It was urged strongly in that discussion, as it has been in this Conference before and since, that an ethical basis, or a basis of simply 'freedom, fellowship and character in religion' is all that is wanted."—From the Report of 'the Secretary of the Western Conference, made at St. Louis, May, 1885.

[2] Mr. Connor's open letter was a violent protest against the idea that belief in God, worship or immortality is essential to Unitarianism, or anything necessary to be held by a Unitarian minister. In the issues of Unity of Dec. 19 and Jan. 16, the senior editor of that paper endorses Mr. Connor's position, while in subsequent issues another editor (Mr. Gannett) has not only subscribed to Mr. Connor's position, but has argued again and again, and elaborately, in support of it.


© 2006 American Unitarian Conference