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Freeman, James (1759-1835)

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James Freeman

James Freeman. Courtesy of Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Harvard Divinity School.

Dr. Freeman is noteworthy as the first avowed preacher of Unitarianism in the United States. He is remembered by the people of Boston as one who for fifty years was identified with all the best interests of that community. His writings occupy an important place in the literature of the country, both for justness of thought and purity of expression.

The first ancestor of Dr. Freeman who came to this country was Samuel Freeman, who was proprietor of the eighth part of Watertown, Mass., a town settled in 1630. His son Samuel went to Eastham, on Cape Cod, with his father-in-law, Thomas Prince, governor of Plymouth. He inherited his father-in-law’s estate in Eastham, and the family remained on Cape Cod till Constant Freeman removed to Charlestown, Mass., about 1755. James Freeman was born in Charlestown, April 22, 1759. But, his father moving to Boston soon after, he was sent to the public Latin School in that city, then under the care of Master Lovell, a famous teacher in his day.

James Freeman entered Harvard College in 1773, and graduated in 1777, at the age of eighteen. The Revolution dispersed the college, and interrupted for a time his studies; but he must have laid the foundation of scholarship, for in after years he was an excellent Latin scholar, a good mathematician, and read with ease the French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese languages. It was his custom to spend an hour after dinner with his slate and pencil, working out some mathematical problem. With the writings of Cicero, Tacitus, Lucretius, and other Latin authors he was thoroughly acquainted. Though he always spoke lightly of his own learning, he was far more of a scholar than many men of greater pretensions.

After leaving college, Mr. Freeman went to Cape Cod, to visit his relatives there, and, as he strongly sympathized with the Revolutionary movement, he engaged in instructing a company of men who were about to join the Colonial troops. In 1780 he sailed to Quebec in a small vessel, bearing a cartel, with his sister, to place her with her father, who was then in that city. On his passage he was captured by a privateer, and was detained at Quebec after his arrival in a prison-ship and as a prisoner on parole. He did not leave Quebec till June, 1782, when he sailed again for Boston, arriving there about the 1st of August. Being a candidate for the ministry, he preached in several places, and was invited in September to officiate as reader at the King’s Chapel in Boston for a term of six months.

The King’s Chapel was founded in 1686, and a wooden edifice for public worship was built in 1690. It was the first Episcopal Church in New England. The present stone building, which is still one of the finest specimens of church architecture in New England, was built in 1749. Dr. Caner, the rector of the church, had espoused the British cause, and he accompanied the British troops when they evacuated Boston in 1776. The few proprietors of King’s Chapel who remained in Boston lent their building to the congregation of the Old South Church, whose house of worship had been used by the British army as a riding school. The two societies occupied the building alternately, each with its own forms and its own minister—one in the morning and the other in the afternoon. Under these circumstances Mr. Freeman began his services as a reader.

Mr. Freeman’s letters to his father in Quebec show his opinions and feelings at this time. December 24, 1782:

I suppose, long before this reaches you, you will be made acquainted with my situation at the Chapel. I am now confirmed in the opinion that I shall obtain the settlement for life. The church increases every day, and I am happy to find that my friends are still very partial. I trust you believe that, by entering into this line, I have imbibed no High Church notions. I have fortunately no temptations to be bigoted, for the proprietors of the Chapel are very liberal in their notions. They allow me to make several alterations in the service, which liberty I frequently use. We can scarcely be called of the Church of England, for we disclaim the authority of that country in ecclesiastical as well as in civil matters…. I forgot to mention in my former letter the sum I receive for preaching. For the first six months I am to be paid fifty pounds sterling. This is not much, but, when I engaged, the church was small, consisting only of about forty families. It has already increased to nearly eighty. So that I imagine that at the end of the six months, when I shall enter into new terms, the salary will be increased to two hundred and fifty or three hundred pounds lawful money per annum. I wish for no more. Indeed, if at any period of life I knew what contentment was, it is at the present.

In the course of the year or two following his settlement Mr. Freeman’s opinions on the subject of the Trinity were so far modified by his studies and reflections that he proposed to his church to alter the Liturgy in the places where that doctrine appears. An English Unitarian minister, Mr. Hazlitt, was at that time residing in Boston, and his intercourse with Mr. Freeman may have contributed to this change of sentiment; but only as an occasion, for this change of view lay in the direction of the tendencies of Mr. Freeman’s mind and of the tendency of thought in the community, as appears from the ease with which Unitarianism spread in Boston. Mr. Hazlitt was the father of William Hazlitt, the essayist. The latter was born in Boston, and Dr. Freeman used to speak of him as a curly-headed, bright-eyed boy.

Dr. Greenwood, in his sermon preached after the funeral of Dr. Freeman, thus speaks of the way in which this change of the Liturgy was effected. He says that Mr. Freeman first communicated his difficulties to those of his friends with whom he was most intimate. He would come into their houses, and say: “Much as I love you, I must leave you. I cannot conscientiously any longer perform the service of the church as it now stands.” But at length it was said to him, “Why not state your difficulties, and the grounds of them, publicly to your whole people, that they may be able to judge of the case, and determine whether it is such as to require a separation between you and them or not?” The suggestion was adopted. He preached a series of sermons in which he plainly stated his dissatisfaction with the Trinitarian portions of the Liturgy, went fully into an examination of the doctrine of the Trinity, and gave his reasons for rejecting it. He has himself assured me that, when he delivered these sermons, he was under a strong impression that they were the last he should ever pronounce from this pulpit…. But he was heard patiently, attentively, kindly. The greater part of his hearers responded to his sentiments, and resolved to alter their Liturgy, and retain their pastor.

Alterations were accordingly made in general conformity with those of the amended Liturgy of Dr. Samuel Clarke; and on the 19th of June, 1785, the proprietors voted, by a majority of three-fourths, to adopt those alterations. In a letter to his father, dated the 1st of June, he says, after describing the changes which had been made in the Liturgy: “In two or three weeks the church will finally pass the vote whether they will adopt the alterations or not. I flatter myself the decision will be favorable; for out of about ninety families, of which the congregation consists, fifteen only are opposed to the reformation. Should the vote pass in the negative, I shall be under the necessity of resigning my living.” He adds, however, that in this case he has no fear but that he shall find employment elsewhere. “Thus,” says Mr. Greenwood, “the first Episcopal church in New England became the first Unitarian church in the New World.”

The next thing to be considered was the mode of ordination to be received by Mr. Freeman, who was as yet only a reader. In a letter to his father, dated October 31, 1786, he describes an application made to Bishop Seabury, of Connecticut, and Bishop Provost, of New York, for ordination, from which the following extracts are taken, which illustrate both the opinions of the time and the cool self-possessed character of Mr. Freeman :

My visit to Bishop Seabury terminated as I expected. Before I waited upon him, he gave out that he never would ordain me, but it was necessary to ask the question. He being in Boston last March, a committee of our church waited upon him, and requested him to ordain me without insisting upon any other conditions than a declaration of faith in the Holy Scriptures. He replied that, as the case was unusual, it was necessary that he should consult his presbyters—the Episcopal clergy in Connecticut. Accordingly, about the beginning of June I rode to Stratford, where a convention was holding, carrying with me several letters of recommendation. I waited upon the bishop’s presbyters, and delivered my letters. They professed themselves satisfied with the testimonials which they contained of my moral character, etc., but added that they could not recommend me to the bishop for ordination upon the terms proposed by my church. For a man to subscribe the Scriptures, they said, was nothing; for it could never be determined from that what his creed was. Heretics professed to believe them not less than the orthodox, and made use of them in support of their peculiar opinions. If I could subscribe such a declaration as that I could conscientiously read the whole of the Book of Common Prayer, they would cheerfully recommend me. I answered that I could not conscientiously subscribe a declaration of that kind. “Why not?” “Because there are some parts of the Book of Common Prayer which I do not approve.” “What parts?” “The prayers to the Son and the Holy Spirit.” “You do not, then, believe the doctrine of the Trinity?” “No.” “This appears to us very strange. We can think of no texts which countenance your opinion. We should be glad to hear you mention some.” “It would ill become, gentlemen, to dispute with persons of your learning and abilities. But, if you will give me leave, I will repeat two passages which appear to me decisive”: “There is one God and one Mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus.” “There is but one God, the Father, and one Lord Jesus Christ.” “In both these passages Jesus Christ is plainly distinguished from God, and in the last that God is expressly declared to be the Father.” To this they made no other reply than an “Ali!” which echoed round the room. “But are not all the attributes of the Father,” said one, “attributed to the Son in the Scriptures? Is not Omnipotence, for instance?” “It is true,” I answered, “that our Saviour says of himself”; “All power is given unto me, in heaven and earth.” “You will please to observe here that the power is said to be given. It is a derived power. It is not self-existent and unoriginated, like that of the Father.” “But is not the Son omniscient? Does he not know the hearts of men?” “Yes, he knows them by virtue of that intelligence which he derives from the Father. But by a like communication did Peter know the hearts of Ananias and Sapphira.” After some more conversation of the same kind, they told me that it could not possibly be that the Christian world should have been idolaters for seventeen hundred years, as they must be according to my opinions. In answer to this I said that, whether they had been idolaters or not, I would not determine, but that it was full as probable that they should be idolaters for seventeen hundred years as that they should be Roman Catholics for twelve hundred. They then proceeded to find fault with some part of the new Liturgy. “We observe that you have converted the absolution into a prayer. Do you mean by that to deny the power of the priesthood to absolve the people, and that God has committed to it the power of remitting sins?” “I meant neither to deny nor to affirm it. The absolution appeared exceptionable to some persons, for which reason it was changed into a prayer, which could be exceptionable to nobody.” “But you must be sensible, Mr. Freeman, that Christ instituted an order of priesthood, and that to them he committed the power of absolving sins. Whosesoever sins ye remit they are remitted unto him, and whosesoever sins ye retain they are retained.” To this I made no other reply than a return of their own emphatic And I upon the whole, finding me an incorrigible heretic, they dismissed me without granting my request. They treated me, however, with great candor and politeness, begging me to go home to read, to alter my opinions, and then to return and receive that ordination which they wished to procure me from their bishop. I left them, and proceeded to New York. When there, I waited on Mr. Provost, rector of the Episcopal Church, who is elected to go to England to be consecrated a bishop. I found him a liberal man, and that he approved of the alterations which had been made at the Chapel. Of him I hope to obtain ordination, which I am convinced he will cheerfully confer, unless prevented by the bigotry of some of his clergy. The Episcopal ministers in New York and in the Southern States are not such High Churchmen as those in Connecticut. The latter approach very near to Roman Catholics, or at least equal Bishop Laud and his followers. Should Provost refuse to ordain me, I shall then endeavor to effect a plan which I have long had in my head, which is to be ordained by the Congregational ministers of the town or to preach and administer the ordinances without any ordination whatever. The last scheme I most approve; for I am fully convinced that he who has devoted his time to the study of divinity, and can find a congregation who are willing to hear him, is, to all intents, a minister of the gospel; and that, though imposition of hands, either of bishops or presbyters, be necessary to constitute him priest in the eye of the law in some countries, yet that in the eye of Heaven he has not less of the indelible character than a bishop or a patriarch.

As might have been foreseen, it was found impossible to procure Episcopal ordination; and Mr. Freeman and his church finally determined on a method differing from both of those suggested in his letter. He was neither ordained by the Congregational ministers of Boston nor yet did he omit all ceremony of induction, but was ordained by the church itself by a solemn service at the time of evening prayer, November 18, 1787. The wardens entered the desk after the usual evening service, and the senior warden made a short address, showing the reasons of the present procedure. The first ordaining prayer was read, then the ordaining vote, to which the members gave assent rising, by which they chose Mr. Freeman to be their “Rector, Minister, Priest, Pastor, and Ruling Elder.” Other services followed, among which was the presenting a Bible to the rector, enjoining on him “a due observance of all the precepts contained therein.”

On the 17th of July, 1788, Mr. Freeman was married to Martha (Curtis), the widow of Samuel Clarke, merchant of Boston. They had no children, though Mrs. Freeman had one son by her first marriage. She died on the 24th of July, 1841, aged eighty-six years.

From the time that Mr. Freeman was thus set apart to his office he sustained the various duties of the ministry till 1809, when the Rev. Samuel Cary was, at his request, associated with him as colleague, after whose death, in 1815, he again served alone till 1824, when the Rev. F. W. P. Greenwood was inducted as colleague. In 1811 he was honored with the degree of Doctor of Divinity from Harvard College. In 1826 his health had so far given way that he was obliged to give up his duties to Mr. Greenwood, and retire to a country residence near Boston. Here he lived nine years, surrounded by the affection of young and old, and, though suffering from painful disease, always cheerful, and at length expired November 14, 1835, in the seventy-seventh year of his age and the fifty-fourth of his ministry. Dr. Freeman was a member of the first School Committee ever chosen by the people of Boston, which was elected in 1792, the schools before that time being under the charge of the selectmen of the town. He was for many years on this committee, and was one of those by whose labors the public school system of Boston was successfully developed. He was one of the founders of the Massachusetts Historical Society, and during a long period one of its most active collaborators, contributing many valuable papers to its collections. He was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He printed no controversial sermons, and seldom preached them. His style was sententious and idiomatic, and has often been spoken of as a model of pure English. Though there is no trace of ambitious thought or expression in his writings, their tone and spirit are wise and healthy.

Although Dr. Freeman was the first who, in this country, openly preached Unitarianism under that name, he never claimed the credit of that movement, but referred to Dr. Mayhew and others as having preached the same doctrine. Yet, as he was the first to avow and defend the doctrine by its distinct name, he may no doubt be considered as its first preacher.

This fact necessarily brought him into relations with other advocates of these opinions, and he corresponded with Priestley and Belsham, and especially Theophilus Lindsey, whose character he much esteemed. He also had sympathy from Chauncy, Belknap, and others older than himself, and among his contemporaries from men like Bentley, Clarke, Eliot, Kirkland. And, as he loved to “keep his friendships in repair,” he was surrounded in after years by multitudes of younger friends and disciples.

The leading traits in Dr. Freeman’s character, which immediately impressed all who saw him, were benevolence, justice, and a Franklin-like sagacity. He could endure to see no kind of oppression, and was always ready to take sides with any whom he thought overborne. He was punctilious in keeping all engagements, and his honesty descended into the smallest particulars.

He was a great lover of truth, but his regard for the feelings of others kept him from harshness. To a young friend, whom he thought in danger of carrying independence too far, he said: “It is well to be candid, but you need not say everything which is in your mind. If a person, on being introduced to me, should say, ‘Dr. Freeman, what a little, old, ugly, spindle shanked gentleman you are!’ he would no doubt say what was in his mind, but it would not be necessary, I think, for him to say it.”

“Dr. Freeman was truly humble,” wrote his successor, Dr. Greenwood,

but he was above all the arts of deception and double-dealing; and he could not be awed or moved in any way from self-respect and duty. He made all allowances for ignorance and prejudice and frailty, but arrogance he would not submit to and hypocrisy he could not abide. He possessed in a remarkable manner the virtue of contentment. You heard no complaints from him. He was abundantly satisfied with his lot. The serenity of his countenance was an index to the serenity of his soul. “I have enjoyed a great deal in this life,” he used to say, “a great deal more than I deserve.

He loved children, and loved to converse with and encourage them, and draw out their faculties and affections. His manners, always affable and kind, were never so completely lovely as in his intercourse with them. Naturally and insensibly did he instill moral principles and religious thoughts into their minds, and his good influence, being thus gentle, was permanent.

The mind of Dr. Freeman was one of great originality. It arrived at its own conclusions and in its own way. You could not be long in his society without feeling that you were in the presence of one who observed and reflected for himself.

The Rev. Samuel J. May wrote of him:

It was a part of my education to respect Dr. Freeman, and his reverent aspect and manners deepened the impression. But, though I stood in awe of him, I loved ‘to pluck his gown, to share the good man’s smile,’ which was one of the sweetest that ever illuminated a human countenance.

Dr. Freeman was somewhat below the ordinary stature. He had a full, solid person, and a face in which great benignity and high intelligence were beautifully blended. His manners were characterized by gentleness and scrupulous courtesy. He seemed desirous to make all about him pleased with themselves; and it was thought that sometimes his politeness to the fair sex led him to flatter them. But his benevolence was most conspicuous in his attention to the poor and the afflicted. Nothing that he could do or induce others to do to supply their wants or alleviate their sorrows was omitted. He had fine social qualities, which made him very attractive in private life, but he was little given to visiting, even in his own congregation, beyond a limited circle. He lived during the greater part of the year in the country, a few miles from Boston, formerly Dorchester, latterly in Newton, where he not only industriously prosecuted his studies, but indulged his great love of horticulture, and exercised his skill and taste in the production of fine fruits and beautiful flowers. This quiet, retired manner of life was not merely agreeable to him, but rendered necessary by a local disease, often very annoying, under which he suffered during the last twenty-five years of his life.

Dr. Freeman for a while after his induction into the ministry sustained a somewhat isolated position, being excluded from ministerial intercourse with the Episcopalians, on the one hand, and not wholly instated among the Congregationalists, on the other. Erelong, however, he conciliated the confidence of the latter, and in due time secured the respect of all as a most conscientious and honorable man. He did not exchange pulpits often, for the reason, I suppose, that he did not like extempore prayer, and several of the neighboring ministers were embarrassed in the use of the Prayer Book, and by the order of services, which were very similar to those of the Episcopal Church. But I well remember that in 1807 or 1808, when the Old South Meeting-house was undergoing extensive repairs and alterations, Dr. Eckley, with his congregation, occupied King’s Chapel on one part of several Sundays, and Dr. Freeman on the other, and between the two venerable men, I believe, a cordial friendship always existed. He lived on the most intimate terms with Dr. Howard, of the West Church, and Dr. Eliot, of the New North, and was an esteemed member of the Boston Association before as well as after the division of that body caused by the controversy which commenced in 1815.

In the delivery of his sermons he generally used but little gesture, and was not very animated. Still there was a quiet and often pathetic earnestness that did not fail to secure the attention of his auditors. On special occasions, particularly of affliction, he sometimes exhibited the deepest emotion. I well remember that the Sunday after the death of Dr. Eliot, in attempting to delineate the character of his friend, he was completely overcome, burst into tears, and was obliged to omit a part of his discourse.

The most remarkable instance of this weakness (if weakness it must be called for a man to be unable to repress feelings that are the glory of our human nature) occurred at the celebration in King’s Chapel of the downfall of Bonaparte in 1814. Dr. Channing preached on the occasion one of his great sermons. Dr. Freeman read selections which he made from the Scriptures, so appropriate that it seemed as if he had culled the history of the modern usurper from the pages of the Bible. When he came to the end, I well remember, he raised himself to his utmost height, stretched out his arms, as if in a majestic transport, his face perfectly radiant with emotion, and shouted at the top of his voice: “Babylon the Great has fallen! Babylon the Great has fallen! Hallelujah! Praise ye the Lord!” and then burst into tears. The whole audience was carried away with the emotion. Many who were sitting sprang to their feet, and the loudest applause was hardly suppressed.

Dr. Freeman was a man of great firmness and boldness of character withal, and of transparent honesty. He abhorred shams of every sort. Perhaps this was the reason why he never cultivated oratory; for he was wont to speak of oratory as trick. It has often amazed me, knowing the tenderness and warmth of his heart and his highly emotional nature, to notice how over-calm was his pulpit manner. Yet I have known him often to break utterly down in the pulpit under the weight of emotions which he could not control. When I became old enough fully to understand and appreciate his sermons, although in general addressed to the sober judgment or cool moral sense of his hearers, they often held me enchained by their perfect truthfulness.