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Church of the Future: James Freeman Clarke and The Church of the
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.
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
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
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.
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.
“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
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
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
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
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
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.”
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.
James Freeman Clarke, A Sermon on the Principles and Methods
of the Church of the Disciples. December
7, 1845. Benjamin H. Greene,
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.
15, 1848. Benjamin H.
Background information came from several sources including:
James Freeman Clarke,
Autobiography, Diary and Correspondence.
James Freeman Clarke,
The Ideas of the Apostle Paul .
James R. Osgood,
Hutchison, William R.
The Transcendentalist Ministers:
Church Reform in the New England Renaissance.
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™