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The Church of the Future: James Freeman Clarke and The Church of the Disciples

Stuart L. Twite


The life and career of James Freeman Clarke spanned the dramatic period in New England (and American) religious history during which Calvinistic orthodoxy gave way to Unitarianism, which, in turn, was altered by transcendentalism.  As a man with an appreciation of each of these camps, Freeman was the quintessential transition figure and as a result he is little appreciated today.  Transition figures tend to be neglected by history as they are not venerated by the conservative stalwarts of the status quo or revered by the apostles of change.  In addition, carving out middle ground in the arena of religious belief is especially difficult and, often, thankless.  As a member of the Anglican tradition, I am well aware of the possible beauty of joining traditions and the very real dangers of that same effort. James Freeman Clarke managed to occupy this tenuous territory in Unitarianism for many years and far more often than not, the result was religious beauty and truth.  

Born in 1810, Clarke was the step-grandson of the Rev. Freeman Clarke who had moved his Anglican Congregation at King’s Chapel towards Unitarianism.  He began his education with the Rev. Clarke, received further education at Harvard, and was ordained an “evangelist” in 1833 at which time he went to Louisville where he pastored a  Unitarian congregation and founded the first transcendentalist periodical, The Western Messenger.

A few months after his return to Boston in 1840, Clarke founded the Church of the Disciples which, excluding a four-year hiatus for illness, he pastured until the end of his life. As a professor of Religion at Harvard he was one of the first to explore the field of comparative religion and his Ten Great Religions was a groundbreaking work in this field.  As a civil leader and reformer, Clarke lived out his motto, “Do your nearest duty,”  serving on many commissions and fighting for women’s rights, temperance, education reform and many other causes.  In addition, he was an editor of Unitarian periodicals and served as one of the first Secretaries of the American Unitarian Association.  Finally, Clarke was the prolific author of many books including Self Culture, Orthodoxy:  Its Truth and Errors, Steps of Belief, and numerous others. 

In all of this, he remained a committed Christian while at the same time advancing an ecumenism that embraced conservative Unitarianism, Evangelicalism, and Transcendentalism of which his good friend Ralph Waldo Emerson was the acknowledged leader.  This essay will focus on the founding ideas and guiding principles of the Church of the Disciples where Clarke attempted to put these ideals into practice.

When Clarke returned to Boston in 1840 after years in Louisville, he found there a large number of unaffiliated “malcontents”.  Some were looking for more orthodoxy, some much less while others were active in one reform movement or another but looking for a greater context for such action.  He determined to form a church that would unite this disparate group and in 1841 the Church of the Disciples was organized with this statement:

“We whose names are subscribed, unite together in the following faith and purpose. Our faith is in Jesus, as the Christ, the Son of God, and we hereby form ourselves into a Church of his disciples, that we may cooperate together in the study and practice of Christianity.”

In describing the elements of this subscription, Clarke emphasized that they would be a Church and not an association and that as disciples they would, “profess only to be…learners in the school of wisdom of goodness.”  The “test” for members was their willingness to “study Christianity” and to help each other “carry it out in practice.” 

Because of the wide ranging beliefs and interests of the founding members, few gave the church a chance for survival but Clarke saw this diversity as its strength:

“What seemed to be our danger was in fact our salvation.  For there was one point of central, higher union among us, and this was in a common longing for spiritual life as the highest aim….We escaped discord on the one hand and monotony on the other, and our varieties were blended into a happy concord.”

The Church of the Disciples was organized around three fairly radical principles.  Each of them reflected Clark’s effort to form an inclusive, democratic church that would broaden the definition of what it was to be a Christian and then to unify those that subscribed to the definition into a reflection of the life of Christ in the individual and the society. 

First was the Social Principle, which sought to involve the whole community in the intellectual and administrative life of the Church to a much greater degree than was common.  Groups were organized for study, pastoral direction and social action.  For Clarke, the minister of the church was of no greater import than the individual member and, therefore, it was the responsibility of the congregation to search for truth.  Wrote Clarke:

“It (the social principle) is desirable for the intellectual culture of the religious nature.  The union of many minds in the earnest investigation of truth will produce deeper and broader results, than the solitary efforts of any individual mind, no matter how superior he is to each of them.”

The Voluntary Principle sought to overturn one of the most deeply ingrained elements of the common New England Congregational Church; the buying or renting of pews as a method of supporting the church financially.  This practice was often exclusionary and certainly favored the wealthy.  In its stead, Clarke determined that, “The expenses of this church shall be defrayed by a voluntary subscription, and pews shall not be sold, rented or taxed.”  He added that, “The time will come, we trust, in which all the churches will be given to Christ and his people, and no individual claim ownership in them.” 

Finally, worship was organized according to the Congregational Principle, which sought to fully involve all members in worship.  Again Clarke described it thus:  “We formed a new service, modeled in part upon the Episcopal, and part upon the Methodist and Quaker forms; which we find has interested those who use it, and has the advantage at least, that the whole body of worshippers can take an active part in it.”  Hymns (unaccompanied) were sung, psalms and liturgies read responsively, silent prayer and meditation (which Clarke reckoned the most interesting part of the service) and extempore prayer were all a part of the service.  All of this was designed so that the members could carry on worship even in the absence of the minister, a reflection of Clark’s belief that, “The Church ought not to be built on the ministry but the ministry on the Church.” 

The elements and principles of the Church of the Disciples were of such great importance because to James Freeman Clarke, “the great theological question of the present century will be the church question.”  He saw the early church as a “family of brothers and sisters” and emphasized its Biblical injunction to be the earthly body of Christ with its various members as reflecting the mutual toleration of body parts.  As with the Church of the Disciples, its only creed was, “Faith in Christ”. 

As the Church became established, according to Clarke, the element of unity over individuality became more pronounced and “Outward pomp and power took more and more the place of inward piety and love.”  This occasioned the “storm” of the reformation, which restored the importance of the individual member but often sacrificed the unity of the body in ever increasing divisions and subdivisions over doctrinal differences.  

As a result, he divined two present tendencies in answering the church question, the first being what he called the “Backward tendency towards Romanism.” While agreeing that the Roman Church did satisfy the needs of many, Clarke rejected what he saw as its authoritarianism.  Second, was the movement away from Churches altogether in favor of individualism and secular “reform associations” which filled the void left by the silence of the organized church concerning the great moral wrongs of the day (including slavery and the expansionary war in Mexico). 

Clarke shared the frustration of the latter with the inaction of the Church and spoke against this history in strong terms: “What”, he asks, “has the Church been teaching for these two hundred years, that these are the results of its teaching?  I will tell you what.  It has not been explaining the Sermon on the Mount, nor the parable of the Good Samaritan.  No.  It has been proving the doctrine of the Trinity or Unity, arguing for and against Vicarious Atonement, for and against Total Depravity, for and against Infant Baptism…And why is this the case?  Because the Church has been always a Church of the Clergy not a Church of the People.”

Clarke is not, however, persuaded that the church is now obsolete and must be replaced by other institutions.  It has long been the church, he argues, that has aroused the moral impulse in man and contributed to his sense of outrage at the social ills around him, and therefore, Clarke would passionately declare, “My hope is not in the destruction of the Churches but in their advance, in progress, to something better.  I never hope any thing from destructive and negative methods.  I never look for any good in turning backward.”

What, then, does the “Church of the Future” look like?  Clarke argues that, “The churches must unite and become a comprehensive church, taking into itself as independent but harmonizing elements, all the tendencies which now appear embodied in separate sects.”  In this comprehensive body, all members would recognize their different contributions and accept new movements as “Providential” and not heretical.  It will, above all, receive into its ranks, recognize the virtues and emphasize the value of each of the three contending “factions” of the day; Orthodoxy, Unitarianism, and Spiritualism (transcendentalism).

Clarke commends evangelical Orthodoxy for its understanding of the Gospel over against the law and its understanding that God came into the world through Jesus.  Orthodoxy, however, “undervalues man’s nature and capacities”, which Unitarianism advances.   It is here that each can teach the other, “If it (Unitarianism) learns from Orthodoxy to see God in Christ, it may teach it to see man in Christ.”  The transcendentalists; reviled by Orthodoxy and conservative Unitarianism, “must”, according to Clarke, “be received for its noble sight of an infinite worth in man, of a divine power in the human soul.” 

A Church of the Future that could unite these factions, would be a “working Church” that sought to eradicate the evils of the day including ignorance, intemperance, licentiousness and poverty.  And, ultimately, all distinctions between clergy (who promote doctrinal dispute) and the laity, would cease to exist.  Finally, it would have only one creed, that being Faith in Christ, a “common platform” for union, the meaning of which would be worked out in concert by the members of this new Church, the Body of Christ in the world.    For the sake of this vision, James Freeman Clarke formed the Church of the Disciples and served as its pastor until his death in 1888.  He had no illusions of perfection, only an earnest desire to follow Christ and serve humankind as an individual and in community. 

Sources: All quoted material comes from two sermons delivered to the Church of the Disciples by James Freeman Clarke:

James Freeman Clarke, A Sermon on the Principles and Methods of the Church of the Disciples.  December 7, 1845.  Benjamin H. Greene,  Boston. 1846.

James Freeman Clarke, The Church…as it was, as it is, as it ought to be.  A Discourse Delivered at the Dedication of the Chapel, Built by the Church Of the Disciples.    March 15, 1848.  Benjamin H. Greene,  Boston.  1848.      

Background information came from several sources including:

James Freeman Clarke,  Autobiography, Diary and Correspondence.  Houghton,  1891.  

James Freeman Clarke,  The Ideas of the Apostle Paul .  James R. Osgood,  Boston.  1884. 

Hutchison, William R.  The Transcendentalist Ministers:  Church Reform in the New England Renaissance.  Yale University Press, New Haven.  1959.     

About the author: Stuart L. Twite was born and raised in South Dakota. He received his bachelors degree in History and Political Science at Northern State College, and his master's degree in Education with an emphasis on History at South Dakota State University.  Stuart worked for a time in politics in Washington DC and South Dakota before becoming a teacher in Phoenix, Arizona.  For the past five years he has lived in New York State with his wife and three children where he works as a freelance editor and stay at home father.  He is active in the Episcopal Church and serves on the local library board. Stuart has had a love for the early American Unitarians since his college years and is presently working on writing projects concerning Unitarian Biblical Criticism and James Freeman Clarke.

© 2002 American Unitarian Conference