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“Lecture I: 1825,” by Virgil E. Murdock

“Lecture I: 1825″

by Virgil E. Murdock

The Institutional History of the American Unitarian Association

(Minns Lectures, 1975-76), pages 5-19

  1. How would you sum up Channing’s reservations about the establishment of the AUA?
  2. Why do you think the AUA was organized anyway?
  3. What was the basis of membership in the AUA?

The full text of the first lecture is below, with page numbers inserted in the text. 

[***Page 1 starts]

Minn’s Lectures


The Institutional History of

The American Unitarian Association

Lecture I. 1825

Lecture II. 1825-1864

Lecture III. 1864-1934

Lecture IV. 1934-1961

Delivered at

25 Beacon Street, Boston, Massachusetts

October 1975


Reverend Virgil E. Murdock

110 Arlington Street

Boston, Massachusetts

[***Page 2 starts]

Printed at Southborough, Massachusetts

by the

Powell Press, Incorporated


[***Page 3 starts]


My assigned task is to present an overview of the story of the American Unitarian Association between 1825 and 1961. This effort might be labeled history – or institutional analysis – or interpretive sociology; I consider it a combination of the three. I intend to approach the task chronologically. The first lecture will serve as an introduction to the total effort, and will include a statement regarding my methodological presuppositions, my thesis, and a description of the situation in 1825 vis-à-vis the liberal Christian churches recently separated from others of the “standing order.” The second lecture will consider the period from 1825 to 1864. The third lecture covers the period from 1865 to 1934 and the fourth and final lecture will deal with the period from 1934 to 1961, and will include a summary statement and some suggestions for future study and action.

Methodological Presuppositions

First, I shall try to clearly set forth my methodological presuppositions. I am chiefly indebted to the writings of Max Weber and his successors for my approach to this task. Alfred Schutz, an interpreter of Max Weber, wrote in The Phenomenology of the Social World:

“The basic methodological problem of the historian is already set for him by that point of view which is his qua historian. This is the interest or purpose with which he approaches his task. History is thus the same as in other fields in that the angle of the approach determines everything.”

This is the reason I strongly feel the need to clarify, if I can, where I’m coming from, even though it may seem that I don’t know where I am going.

“Historical inquiry, according to (R. G.) Collingwood, makes the following basic presuppositions: that there is a historical past localized in space and time; that its details can be inferred from present evidence; that its details consist of actions rather than mere events; and that actions have a ‘thought’ side which can be rethought by the historian.”

This statement expresses my own position but I want to go further and say that I place myself in the voluntaristic tradition which [***Page 4 starts] goes back to at least John Duns Scotus (c. 1266-1308) and William of Ockham (c. 1285-1349) and asserts a radical belief in the freedom of the will. The concept of freedom of the will has played a dominant role in our institutional and theological development and is a central feature of Max Weber’s interpretive sociology.

According to Weber, the task of interpretive sociology is to understand and interpret “social action” Social action, according to Weber, is that action which:

“… by virtue of the subjective meaning attached to it by the acting individual (or individuals), takes account of the behaviour of others, and is thereby oriented in its course … In ‘action’ is included all human behavior when and in so far as the acting individual attaches a subjective meaning to it. Action in this sense may be either overt or purely inward or subjective, or of deliberately refraining from such intervention, or possible acquiescing in the situation.”

In summary then, I stress along with Weber and other voluntaristic intrepreters, my belief that “It is actual human beings who are bearers of meaning and who act and respond to one another;” power is the ability to attain one’s will in conflict with other wills, and history is the interplay between conflicting wills in the context of the institution. The most influential and most powerful persons are charismatic leaders whose wills dominate other wills and shape the history of institutions. They act decisively and are ultimately responsible for their actions. “For Max Weber, history was a means by which to achieve a clear consciousness of present reality and present aims.” This states clearly my principal reason for the undertaking of this effort.

Although I may be distorting Weber’s position, or so inadequately understand him, that I do both him and myself and injustice by claiming to follow his lead, on one point, at least, I am sure that I am a thoroughgoing Weberiean. “Academic lore is that on one occasion Weber was interrupted during a lecture by a student who protested ‘the facts are not in accord with your theory!’ To which Weber is said to have responded: ‘So much the worse for the facts!’” Forewarned is forearmed.

Schutz maintains that: “The main task of the science of history is to decide which events, acts, signs, and so on of those found in the past (which he also calls the world of predecessors) are to be [***Page 5 starts] singled out for interpretation and systematized into something called ‘history’.” I have decided to try and tell the story of the founding and actions of the American Unitarian Association from the point of view of some of those charismatic figures in our past whose decisions led to the founding of the institution and shaped its course of action over a period of 136 years. The story of the situation which existed in 1825 and the actions which led to the formation of the American Unitarian Association will be told as though from the pen of William Ellery Channing. The description of the years from 1825 to 1864, will be from the time stance of Ezra Stiles Gannett. The third lecture covering the period from 1864 to 1936 is of such duration that no one contemporary observer could describe it. I have therefore chosen the voice of Samuel Atkins Eliot. Finally, I will borrow the voice of Dana McLean Greeley for the years from 1936 until 1961.

For this exercise I intend to imagine myself face to face with these men and try to recapture some sense of what they experience directly and place these insights in a hypothetical document which they might well have written themselves for our edification.


Before proceeding with the story let me attempt a preliminary statement of my thesis. I submit that the primary functions of a central denominational organization for congregationally governed churches are these: 1) Institutional Maintenance; which includes the activities sustaining the membership organization, arranging meetings, employing staff, raising funds and so forth. 2) Ministry; including recruitment, training, accreditation and placement of professional leaders. 3) Publishing; including tracts, books and hymnals. 4) Education; including preparation of curriculum materials for all age groups, training programs for teachers, etc. 5) Extension; including publicity, recruitment of individual members, the founding of new societies and the maintenance of existing ones. 6) Reform and Social Action; including expressing the consensus of the membership on social issues and recommending actions toward commonly agreed upon goals. In summary, for congregationally structured societies, the central denominational organization exists primarily to perform those tasks which the individual societies cannot or choose not to perform for themselves.

The second assertion of my thesis that the American Unitarian Association’s efforts to perform these basic functions were severely hampered by the absence of agreement on several key issues. These [***Page 6 starts] issues included: 1) the desirability or necessity of having a central denominational organization; 2) the differences of belief on theological and political issues; 3) the competition of special purpose efforts; and 4) the question of where power should rest – locally, regionally, or nationally?

In summary then, denominational growth was inhibited by lack of agreement of its membership. Lack of interest and support resulted more from these disagreements than from success of failure in the performance of its basic functions. To restate my thesis: the purpose and function of a central organization structure for congregationally governed religious societies is to perform those tasks which the individual societies assign to it; and the American Unitarian Association, as the central organization for the Unitarian societies from 1825 to 1861, had limited success due to the absence of commonly agreed upon attitudes regarding the need for and activities of such a central organization.

I proceed now to the development of this thesis by having representative historical figures tell how the functions named were carried out and how the absence of consensus affected the performance of the central organization. For the period just prior to the founding of the American Unitarian Association on April 25, 1825. I have chosen William Ellery Channing as the narrator:

William Ellery Channing was born in Newport, Rhode Island, on the seventh of April, 1780. He graduated from Harvard College in 1798. After teaching for three years he read for the ministry and was licensed to preach in the fall of 1802 and was ordained and installed as the minister of the Federal Street Church in Boston on the first of June 1803. When the Unitarian controversy erupted he played a central role; his Baltimore sermon delivered in 1810 proved to be the most influential statement of the Unitarian position of all time. Ill health made in impossible for him to carry on the duties as minister of the Federal Street Church and, after 1824, when the Rev. Ezra Stiles Gannett became associated with him, he gradually withdrew from the active ministry. But, he maintained a relationship with the church until his death in 1842.

I imagine him to have penned these words in 1835, about ten years after the founding of the Association, and I now speak as Channing. [***Page 7 starts]


It has been suggested that my recollection of the situation which existed prior to the founding of the American Unitarian Association in 1825 might prove helpful when future generations look back to these times. I shall attempt, therefore, to set forth those recollections.

By 1825 it was becoming increasingly apparent that the Christian churches in New England were divided by substantial disagreements. Possible as many as 125 churches in eastern Massachusetts were liberal in outlook and there were another nine or so in Maine. Societies were also in existence in Baltimore, New York City, Philadelphia, Charleston, and Washington, D.C. Some of the younger ministers began insisting that the time had come to organize. Some other of us did not see such a need, and in face, feared it, desiring instead to preserve the unity of the Congregational church “standing order.” On May 30, 1820, I invited the liberal ministers to meet at the Federal Street Church to consider some kind of organization, and urged them to form a society of liberal clergymen for mutual encouragement. “It was thought by some of us that the ministers of this commonwealth who are known to agree in what are called liberal or catholic view of Christianity needed a bond of union, a means of intercourse, and an opportunity of conference no as yet enjoyed.” Thus we formed the Berry Street Conference and I and others hoped that further divisive organizations would not be founded.

Actually, the Berry Street Conference was only one of several associations which served the ministers and members of the churches of New England. A great many efforts were undertaken by groups of individuals organized to carry out specific tasks. Membership in these societies overlapped and there was a growing feeling of unity among liberal Christians. This cohesiveness centered in the ministerial associations and in events related to the Harvard Divinity School.


 Prior to 1815:

“A prospective minister had two alternatives open to him. He might reside with a settled clergyman, read in his library under supervision, prepare sermons for criticism, and learn by direct observation how to meet some of the everyday problems of parish life. Or he might take up residence at Cambridge or New Haven, tempted perhaps by the [***Page 8 starts] offer of a tutorship. He would then have access to the college library, would pursue a course of study under the informal guidance of the president or the professor of divinity, and would preach from time to time in vacant pulpits nearby. Whichever choice he made, his training was likely to be hasty and superficial.

In 1816 a group of us – ministers and layman – saw the need for a special school wholly dedicated to the preparation of candidates for the liberal ministry and we formed the Society for Promoting Theological Education in Cambridge at Harvard University. We raised the sum of $30,000 that year and an independent school was begun. In 1824 the society assumed full responsibility for the school, arranged the courses of study and managed its affairs. We carried on this responsibility until 1831. During this period, in 1826, I had the privilege of giving the address when Divinity Hall, built with funds raised by the Society, was dedicated. Our relationship to and interest in the new Divinity School was a focal point for liberal Christian efforts. At about this time:

“… the Faculty voted certificates to those who completed these prescribed studies, and those certificates carried weight with ministerial associations to which graduates of the school applied for approbation to preach. As early as 1820, the Boston Association began to insist on such certificates; and by 1824 it was argued that graduates of the school should receive license to preach without further examination or other formality.”

You see, ministerial standing, approbation to preach, was granted only the local association of ministers. As early as 1633 ministers’ meetings were held in Boston and sometime between 1700 and 1745 this group split into two sections, the Associated Ministers of Boston and Charlestown and the Association In and About Cambridge. Other association were also formed on geographical bases. Candidates for the ministry were examined by these groups of ministers who then decided whether to license them to preach and approve their ordination. During this period, settlements were usually for life and the Divinity School faculty and the members of the ministerial associations made recommendations to societies seeking to settle a minister.

Thus there was no real need for a central organization to fulfill this function. [***Page 9 starts]


Publication of tracts and sermons began in New England very early. I recall that the year of my ordination, 1803, saw the founding of The Monthly Anthology. This could be said to be the first liberal Christian publishing effort. It was started by a young man as a monthly literary journal but when he found he could not support it, the publishers asked the Rev. William Emerson, minister of the First Church in Boston, to take it over. He and a group of friends organized The Anthology Club and continued its publication through ten volumes. “In the year 1806 William Emerson also began publication of The Christian Monitor, in his capacity as the secretary of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, Piety, and Charity; a society … founded by residents of Boston and its vicinity for the purpose of publishing enlightened and practical tracts and books.” In addition to the Monitor the Society also published a series of religious tracts and books for children and adults. Both The Monthly Anthology and The Christian Monitor clearly expressed the practical and tolerant aims of liberal Christians and were not controversial in nature.

It was not until Professor Andrews Norton of the Divinity School began publication of The General Repository and Review in 1812 that the controversy of that period entered our publications. However, it was too outspoken for some and it did not publish for many years. Because we did need a journal, my friends Charles Lowell, Joseph Tuckerman, S. C. Thatcher and I founded, in May of 1813, The Christian Disciple. It was liberal in character, distinctly religious, but not sectarian, dogmatic or controversial. Noah Worcester, Henry Ware, Jr. and John Gorham Palfrey all served as editors of the publication before it became The Christian Examiner in 1824.

In May of 1821 a group of Boston gentleman founded the Publishing Fund Society which issued and distributed a number of practical tracts on religion and morality.

The first issues of The Christian Register appeared on April 20, 1821. It began as a general weekly religious newspaper with very little church news and was only denominationally oriented in a very limited way. One other of our many liberal publications deserves mention; this is The North American Review which was founded in 1815 and became a very influential literary and critical journal.

From these examples it may be seen that liberal Christians were very active in the publication of religious newspapers, tracts, [***Page 10 starts] books, and journals, long before the founding of the American Unitarian Association.


Another new development in which the liberal Christians were most active was in the founding of Sunday Schools. Two young women, Miss Hannah Hill and Miss Joanna B. Prince, founded a religious school in the First Parish in Beverly where my friend, Dr. Abiel Abbot, was the minister, as early as the summer of 1809. A Sunday School was begun in Concord, Massachusetts in 1810 by Miss Sarah Ripley, daughter of the minister, Dr. Ezra Ripley. In the West Church in Boston, Miss Lydia K. Adams founded a school in 1812. Sunday Schools were also begun in Cambridge in 1814, in Wilton, New Hampshire in 1816 and in Portsmouth, New Hampshire on 1818. A group of Harvard students founded The Young Men’s Association for Mutual Improvement and for the Religious Instruction of the Poor in 1822. Among other objectives they wanted to start Sunday Schools for the poor they were indeed responsible for the founding the Howard Sunday School in 1823 and the Franklin Sunday School in 1826. Teaching materials in all these schools included the so-called Worcester Catechism, written by Rev. Joseph Allen in 1822 and issued by the Worcester Association of Ministers. The General Catechism and a hymn book developed by the Publishing Fund Society were also used in these schools.


Missionary work was also being carried out by organizations and individuals long before 1825. Outside Boston permission from the General Court was need to establish a new parish, but in Boston and some other cities new societies were formed by groups of interested people for special and varied reasons. One liberal society existed for the express purpose of founding new societies in the more remote areas. The Evangelical Missionary Society was founded in 1807 by several ministers from Worcester and Middlesex counties. This society carefully selected towns with good promise of permanent growth and sent fully qualified ministers to organize churches and promote the building of meeting houses. It founded a number of churches in Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.

One example of a special missionary effort comes to mind. In Boston – in early 1825 – a group of persons saw that the West Church was overcrowded and decided to organized a new society in that area. Subscriptions were sought and enough money was raised [***Page 11 starts] to build a new meeting house and thus the Twelfth Congregational Society was formed and the pews in the meeting house were sold to its members. With the proceeds of this sale another meeting house was built and the Thirteenth Congregational Society was formed. Also, as liberal Christians moved west and south in increasing numbers, they often built meeting houses and called ministers from back east to organize new societies.

Reform and Social Service

In the years just prior to 1825 many liberal Christians were involved in the reform efforts of the day. The temperance movement, the need for public education, the desirability of more humane treatment for the insane and criminals, concern for the poor and the increasingly troublesome problem of slavery led to the formation of many associations devoted to the amelioration of one or more of these problems.

Founding of the American Unitarian Association


All in all, it can be said that there was a great deal of cooperative activity among the liberal Christians, both lay and clergy; and the needs of the congregations were not being ignored. Ministers were trained, many publications were made available, Sunday Schools were formed, missionaries were sent out and social needs were being addressed. But the efforts did not satisfy all. Some, especially those among the younger ministers recently graduated Harvard Divinity School, wanted to form a general organization to serve and to unite the liberal Christians. Beginning early in the 1820’s more and more discussions concerned themselves with the question of whether or not such a general organization was necessary and/or desirable. As early as 1822 I recall formal discussion on the topic at meetings of The Young Men’s Association for Mutual Improvement and for the Religious Instruction of the Poor, and by 1824 it was discussed at meetings of the Anonymous Association. The former group was made up primarily of Harvard students, the latter was a group of thirty to forty leading men of Boston. The greatest need was seen for a missionary organization. Another group which considered joint missionary action was the Wednesday Evening Association, sometimes called the Beneficent Association, which first met at my home in February of 1822. Our purposes were: “1) to extend the knowledge of true religion and to advance its practical influence; 2) to promote any plans of a public nature for improving the condition of society; 3) to produce a unity of purpose and effort [***Page 12 starts] among Unitarian Christians.” I am sure that his question of a general missionary organization was widely discussed and there were sharply divergent opinions about it.

I recall that at a meeting of Anonymous Association held at the home of the honorable Josiah Quincy in the autumn of 1824 a spirited discussion was held on the possibility of promoting liberal Christianity through the distribution of the printed word. Someone introduced a resolution suggesting that measures be taken to united the efforts of liberal minded people to give greater efficiency to the attempt to extend a knowledge of Unitarian principles by means of the public press. A committee was appointed to consider and report on the expedience of forming an organization for this purpose. Those appointed to this committee were the Rev. Henry Ware, Jr., Alden Bradford and Richard Sullivan. Ware was minister of Second Church, the other two gentleman were graduates of Harvard College and prominent in the business and social life of the city. The committee, under the date of December 29, 1824, called a meeting for January 27, 1825, inviting all those interested “in order to confer together on the expediency of appointing an annual meeting for the purpose of union, sympathy, and co-operation in the cause of Christian truth and Christian charity.”

The January meeting was held in the vestry of Federal Street Church. I opened the meeting with prayer and then Richard Sullivan was chosen moderator, and the Rev. James Walker secretary.

“Others present at this meeting included: Drs. Freeman, Lowell, Tuckerman, Bancroft, Pierce, and Allyn; Rev. Messrs. Henry Ware, Francis Parkman, John Gorham Palfrey, Jared Sparks, Samuel Ripley, Andrew Bigelow, Abiel Abbot, Convers Francis L. Capen, John Pierpont, Mr. Harding and Mr. Edes; and the following laymen – Stephen Higginson, P. Gould, H. J. Oliver, S. Dorr, Colonel Joseph May, C. G. Lorgin, George Bond, Samuel A. Elliot, G. B. Emerson, C. P. Phelps, Lewis Tappan, David Reed, Mr. Storer, J. Rucker, N. Mitchell, Robert Rantoul, Alden Bradford, Mr. Dwight, Mr. Mackintosh, General Walker, Mr. Strong, Dr. John Ware, and Professor Andrews Norton.”

Henry Ware, the younger, on behalf of the committee appointed at the previous meeting, presented a statement of the objects proposed by those desirous of organizing a national Unitarian society; and he offered a resolution declaring it “desirable and expedient that provision should be made for future meetings of Unitarians and liberal Christians generally.” An extended discussion followed with [***Page 13 starts] with both those in favor and those opposed presenting their views. Near the close of the meeting the Rev. John Pierpont declared: “We have, and we have, the name Unitarian. It is not for us to shrink from it. Organization is necessary in order to maintain it, and organization there must be. The general interests of Unitarians will be promoted by using the name and organizing in harmony with it.”

But the consensus seemed to call for another meeting at the time of the meeting of the General Court when more interested persons would be present. Another committee was appointed and charged with the responsibility of calling together the larger meeting during the General Court Session, but as James Walker noted at the conclusion of his report of the January meeting, the proposed committee composed of Sullivan, Bradford, Ware, Channing, Palfrey, Walker, Pierpont, and Higginson never met. We felt, he wrote, that since there was “so much difference of opinion as to the expediency and nature of the measure proposed, it was thought best to let it subside in silence.”

But the matter did not subside. On May 25, 1825 at the Annual Meeting of the Berry Street Conference of Ministers, Henry Ware, Jr., who had been chairman of the first committee appointed by members of the Anonymous Association, raised the issue anew by presenting the following statement as a declaration of purposes of the projected organization:

“It is proposed to form a new association, to be called the American Unitarian Society. The chief and ultimate object will be the promotion of pure and undefiled religion by disseminating the knowledge of it where adequate means of religious instructions are not enjoyed. A secondary good which will follow from it is the union of all Unitarian Christians in this country, so that they would become mutually acquainted, and the concentration of their efforts would increase their efficiency. The society will embrace all Unitarian Christians in the United States. Its operations would extend themselves through the whole country. These operations would chiefly consist in the publication and distribution of tracts, and the support of missionaries.

He announced a meeting to be held that afternoon to discuss the subject. This meeting was held and Dr. Henry Ware was the moderator. Those who opposed the resolution did not attend the meeting and it was promptly “Voted, that it is expedient to form a new [***Page 14 starts] to be called the American Unitarian Association.” All those present voted in favor of the motion. Rev. James Walker, Mr. Lewis Tappan, and Rev. Ezra Stiles Gannett were appointed a committee to draft a form of organization, and the next morning a meeting was held to adopt the constitution prepared by the committee. The purpose of the new organization was declared to be “to diffuse the knowledge and promote the interests of pure Christianity.” I was not present at the meetings and was therefore somewhat surprised by the action taken. Although I was elected president in absentia, I could not serve. As I wrote to my colleague, Rev. Ezra Stiles Gannett, secretary of the new organization, “I was disappointed at learning that the Unitarian Association is to commence operations immediately. I conversed with Mr. (Andrews) Norton on the subject before leaving Boston, and found him so indisposed to engage in it that I imagined it would be let alone for the present. The office which in your kindness you have assigned to me I must bet to decline. As you have made a beginning, I truly rejoice in your success.”

I wish that I could have been more supportive of the actions taken but could not do so for a number of reasons. On the one hand, I did not see the need for yet another organization. The needs of the churches were being met and those who opposed the founding of the new general organization had many good points to their arguments. I shall attempt to set them forth here.

Associative Action


Many persons, both lay and clergy, were wary of any church organization other than the local society. This had been the tradition of the churches of the standing order in Massachusetts since the earliest days. Although church leaders in Connecticut had very early organized an association of churches, Massachusetts people were unanimous in their opposition. This opposition was clearly, if quite strongly, stated by my colleague, the Rev. Nathanael Emmons, minister at Franklin, Massachusetts from 1773 to 1827. “He declared that the Congregational church was a pure democracy; that even the minister has no more authority than a private brother; that ‘one church has as much power as another;’ and that there ‘is no appeal from the authority of a particular church to any higher ecclesiastical tribunal.’ In opposing the organization of a state association in Massachusetts he stated: ‘Association leads to Consociation; Consociation leaders to Presbyterianism, Presbyterianism leads to Episcopacy; Episcopacy leads to Roman Catholicism; and Roman Catholicism is the ultimate fact.’”  [***Page 15 starts]

But concern for the development of authoritarian hierarchy was only one of the reasons for opposing the formation of a general association. I, myself, suggested that we organize a “convention” rather than an “association”. I did this because of my growing concern for loss of individual action and responsibility in the multiplicity of associations then being formed. In my Remarks on Associations I commented:

“… on the disposition which now prevails to form associations and to accomplish all objects by organized masses. A difference of opinion on the point has begun to manifest itself and murmurs about the countless societies which modestly solicit or authoritatively claim our aid, which now assail us with fair promises of the good which they purpose, and now with rhetorical econiums on the good they have done …. In truth, one of the most remarkable circumstances of our age is the energy with which the principle of combination, or of action by joint forces, by associated members, is manifesting itself. I may be said, without much exaggeration, that everything is done now by societies. Men have learned what wonders can be accomplished in certain cases by union, and seem to think that union is competent to every thing. You can scarcely name an object for which some institution has not been formed. Would men spread one set of opinions or crush another? They make a society. Would they improve the penal code, or relieve poor debtors? The make societies …. We have immense institutions spreading over the country, combining hosts for particular objects …. This principle of association is worthy the attention of the philosopher, who simply aims to understand society and its most powerful springs.

“What many of us have come chiefly to dread from society is, not that we shall acquire a positive character of vice, but that it will impose upon us a negative character; that we shall live and die passive beings; that the creative and self-performing energy of the soul will not be called forth in the work of our improvement. Our danger is, that we shall substitute the consciences of others for our own …. Generally speaking, we can do most good by individual action …. We do fear, from not a few associations which exist, that power is to be accumulated in the hands of a few and a servile, tame, and dependent spirit in the many.” [***Page 16 starts]

 One of the reasons then for opposing the formation of the American Unitarian Association was this dual fear of hierarchical church structures and the subordination of individual action and responsibility in mass organizations.

Theological and Political Positions

Another reason for opposition was the fact of divergent theological and political beliefs among liberal Christians themselves in addition to their differences with their more orthodox brethren. I feared that a general religious organization might lead to bonds upon the thoughts of believers – might lead to creeds, if you will. I condemned then, as I condemn now, “the guilt of a sectarian spirit.” I believe that “to bestow our affections on those who are ranged under the same human leader, or who belong to the same church with ourselves and to withhold it from others who possess equal, if not superior virtue, because they bear a different name, is to prefer a party to a church of Christ.”  I believe that Unitarianism is “characterized by nothing more than the spirit of freedom and individuality.” It has no established creed or symbol …. Its friends think each for himself, and differ much from each other.” Later I wrote to a friend, “I distrust sectarian influence more and more. I am more detached from a denomination, and strive to feel more my connection with the Universal Church, and with all good and holy men. I am little of a Unitarian, and stand aloof from all but those who strive and pray for clearer light, who look for a purer and more effectual manifestation of Christian truth.”

Nor was I alone. Many of my colleagues agreed that sectarianism was evil and endangered spiritual freedom. Having so many differences of opinion within and without our liberal fellowship would make it difficult if not impossible to undertake any definite missionary enterprise or to agree upon a common means of accomplishing desirable social reforms. Additionally, many who shared liberal Christian beliefs opposed having to declare themselves as the forming of a new association required. At the January meeting to discuss organization, Dr. Abiel Abbot of Beverly, put the problem clearly when he expressed his thought that presenting a distinct object for opposition arrest the progress of Unitarianism, for in his neighborhood liberal Christianity owed everything to slow and silent progress.

Another reason for opposition to forming a general organization was put forward by Judge James Jackson when he stated his belief that “there was a danger in the proposed plan, that it was not be- [***Page 17 starts] coming to liberal Christians, that it was inconsistent with their principles and that it would not be beneficial to the community. He was ready to give his aid to any specific work, but he thought that everything could be accomplished that was necessary without a general association of any kind.” His opinion was echoed by Mr. George Bond, one of Boston’s leading merchants, who expressed additional fear that “Unitarianism might become popular, and that when it had gained a majority of the people in the country it would as intolerant as other sects.”

Yet another reason for opposition to the proposed general organization was concern that it would be primarily a proselyting effort. Dr. Aaron Bancroft, later to be elected president of the AUA, expressed this fear at the May 1825 meeting when he opened debate by saying that the “thought the plan, if adopted at all, should be adopted with caution. He doubted its expediency. He feared it would do more harm than good. He alluded to the past progress of Unitarianism, especially in his own parish. He thought the success had been greater from having been allowed to take its own course without being forced or openly advocated. Dr. Bancroft evidently considered it a proselyting plan.” Judge Jackson also viewed the plan as one designed to proselyte. “He thought men should be left to their own course. He would aid them when then began to enquire but would let them name their course. I, along with Rev. Jared Sparks, did not see proselyting as a danger, but viewed it in a positive light. I said that I thought “the objects were partly to promote when we deem truth; to aid those abroad and to strengthen the course of rationality and free faith in religion …. Mr. Sparks thought we were laying too much stress on the subject as a plan of proselyting that was not its object. He however thought we ought to come forward in support of our own views of the truth.” No consensus was reached on this issue prior to the forming of the American Unitarian Association, nor to my knowledge, in the years that followed.



Locus of Power


Finally, he let me set forth one other reason for the reluctance of many to support the founding of the new Association. This was the question of representation. How could a few persons take action which might possibly reflect upon and affect many other persons who were not present to participate in the deliberations or to vote on the recommended actions? At both the January and May meetings Dr. Pierce of Brookline raised this point. In January he said [***Page 18 starts] he opposed the move because he thought it would be unpopular in seventy-five or so parishes in the interior of the state not represented at the meeting, that they were composed of all types of Christians, and that, of course, some would be unfavorably affected. He considered the absence of many ministers as an indication that they were not in favor of founding an association. At the May meeting, Judge Jackson again raised this question.

We had come full circle in the argument regarding where authority was to rest in an ecclesiastical organization – in an individual member; in a local society; in a convention or an association of individual members from several societies, or in an association of societies? (End of Channing’s Story)


Let me now resume my own argument. I have attempted to show in this presentation that the six basic functions of a denominational organization for congregationally governed churches were being performed for liberal Christian societies to some extent by various individuals, associations, societies and institutions prior to the founding of the American Unitarian Association in 1825. There seemed to some, at least, to be no pressing need for a central organization to perform any of these basic functions.

I have also attempted to show that there was no consensus on such crucial matters as the need for or desirability of forming such a general association; nor on the purposes and programs of the proposed organization, nor on the theological and political stance it might take and institutionalize; nor on whether a general purpose organization or several special purpose organizations was preferable; nor whether one of the purposes would be to proselyte; nor whether control would rest at the individual level or some other level.

The absence of both pressing need and general consensus on basic issues help to explain the difficulties and delays encountered by those committed to the founding of a new association. But, in any event, they did prevail and on May 25, 1824 it was moved, seconded, and voted that the American Unitarian Association come into being.

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Categories: Congregational Polity