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“An Address to Unitarians” By Sidney E. Mead

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“An Address to Unitarians”
(original 1950, revised 1957)
by Sidney E. Mead
in Proceedings of the Unitarian Historical Society, Vol. 12 (1958)

Sidney Mead

Sidney Mead. Courtesy of the Meadville / Lombard Library

Sidney Mead is a distinguished American church historian, a UU, and a former President of Meadville Theological School.

His address points up the lost opportunities for Unitarianism to become a numerically significant movement. While his focus is on theology he also underlines how division and the attitudes purveyed by “the neighborhood of Boston” also played their part.

The essay raises the question can the UU movement ever become a popular religion or are there inherent concepts (e.g. individual freedom of belief) that make this virtually an impossibility?

The challenge hurled by this brief address poses the fundamental issues in the continuing conflicts between Unitarian ideals and Unitarian organization.

The page numbers below refer to pagination in the original Peter Raible compilation.

[***Page 00818 starts]


By Sidney E. Mead, Ph.D.

Unitarianism in America was in origin an indigenous movement in the afterglow of the Enlightenment. It was characterized by a rejection of orthodox Calvinism in New England on the basis of a different doctrine of man. The name “Unitarian” was thrust upon it by orthodox leaders — who wanted to identify the New England Congregational “liberals”‘ (who were at most Unitarians) with the more radical (Socinian) and hence more offensive English Unitarians of the time. To my mind the name “Unitarian,” by suggesting that the doctrine of the Trinity was the chief issue, has sometimes been an unfortunate source of confusion, and a handicap to the denomination.

As a movement of rejection this early Unitarianism accentuated the negative. As Theodore Parker said in his Discourse of Religion in 1842:

Contending, as it must, with the predominant sects, then even more arrogant and imperious than now — perhaps not knowing so well the ground they stood on — its’ work, .like most reformations, was at first critical and negative. It was a Statement of Reasons for not believing certain doctrines, very justly deemed not scriptural.

It should be noted that these early Unitarians’ accepted the same basis for final religious authority as did the orthodox, namely, the Bible. As George E. Ellis put it in his A Half Century of the Unitarian Controversy, the only “real issue” between orthodox and Unitarian was, “What are the doctrines of the Gospels as taught in the Bible?” This is made explicit in William Ellery Channing’s famous Baltimore Sermon of May 5, 1819.

Unitarianism in America stepped out on a positive platform, and at the same time made its first radical break with orthodoxy by rejecting Biblical authoritarianism, with the emergence of Transcendentalism — the new idealistic philosophy of Germany mediated to American largely through the works of Kant, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Goethe and Carlyle.

As early Unitarianism was a child of the Enlightenment, so Transcendentalism was a child of Romanticism. The Romantic movement represented a revolt against the Enlightenment as it ran into the deadend negations of David Hume. So Transcendentalism in America staged its revolt against what Ralph Waldo Emerson was to call the “corpse cold” and ”pale negations of Boston Unitarianism.”

[W]ith all the inadequacies of its idealistic philosophy and intuitive method, and with all its dreamy “Brook Farm” fringe, the Transcendentalist movement did build into American [***Page 00819 starts] Unitarianism the principle of “free inquiry” in religion, at a time when the main current of American Protestantism was running the other way.

This is important, for the maintenance of this position in Unitarianism kept it open for the reception of a third element — modern scientific empiricism. But the real significance of this we can see better when we place Unitarianism against the background of the larger context suggested by an , interpretation of what happened in American Protestantism during the Revolutionary Epoch (1776-1819).

During the eighteenth century the two live movements in Protestant Christianity which nourished the souls and imaginations of those unable longer to subsist on the well-picked bones of Protestant scholasticism were Pietism and Deism.

Pietism or “Methodism,” gaining its greatest strength among the lower class and uncultured people, was the expression of a revolt against the dry formalism and doctrinalism of the churches in the name of a warm religious experience in the heart. Doctrinally it remained nominally orthodox, but to say the least it did not emphasize formal theological structure, and especially in America in the form of revivalism, tended to wash out traditional standards of doctrine and polity, and in the long run to undermine the intellectual quest itself.

Deism, the religious aspect of the Anglo-American Enlightenment for the intellectual and cultured class, was in part the attempt to reconcile the Christian doctrinal tradition with…new knowledge…

In America during the last quarter of the eighteenth century and down to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 the pressing issue for the churches was religious freedom. The problem at the time was primarily practical and in practice the Pietists and Diests united against Protestant orthodoxy which by and large clung to the traditional Christian view of the State-Church ship.

But the startling events of the French Revolution, widely interpreted in American religious circles as indicating an attempt of a French International to overthrow all religion and government., turned the great bulk of Protestantism to a rejection of the whole ethos of the Enlightenment. When this happened the Pietists lined up with traditional orthodoxy… American Protestantism henceforth for more than a century, by and large turned its back on the basic ideas and spirit of modern civilization which were rooted in the Enlightenment.

What is suggested here is that during the period when the overwhelming bulk of American Protestant-ism turned “right” in a flight from. Reason, Unitarianism turned “left” in defense of Reason. Channing in his Baltimore Sermon of 1819 hoisted its colors for all to see. And just as many orthodox adherants turned against the Enlightenment in a truculent and recalcitrant mood, so Unitarians in their counter-revolt were not entirely immune to a similar spirit.

But positively their revolt meant that Unitarianism remained in close touch with the spirit of modern civilization, always [***Page 000820 starts] attuned to the changing currents of its ideas and moods. And as during the nineteenth century those currents were dominated first by idealistic Romanticism, and then increasingly by scientific empiricism, Unitarians, not without inner struggle and turmoil, were deeply affected. Thus were woven into the structure of American Unitarianism the three great strands — rationalistic Biblical Authoritarianism (Channing Unitarianism), idealistic Romanticism (The Transcendentalism stemming from Emerson and Parker), and naturalistic, scientific empiricism…. The inner struggles of American Unitarianism may be seen as the clash between representatives of these three traditions. One basic principle, to which all appeal, is freedom of inquiry and opinion in religion. At least I would interpret so the 1882 amendment to the constitution of the Unitarian National Conference which stated that,

while the constitution embodied the views of a majority of Unitarians, it was distinctly understood that there was no authoritative test of Unitarianism, and that none would be excluded from its fellowship “who, while differing from us in belief, are in general sympathy with our purposes and practical aims.”

I do not think that one of these strands could ever come to complete dominance without destroying institutionalized Unitarianism itself, and with it its testimony that Freedom of inquiry and opinion is possible in an organized religious group. You cannot, for example, have such freedom and at the same time the kind of unity achieved in the confessionally based churches — and for Unitarians to long for it is to long for the fleshpots of Egypt while wandering in a wilderness. Unitarians must .be reconciled to living under tension! Therefore the greatest mistake an individual or a party within Unitarianism can make is to fight to annihilate an opponent in the denomination. It follows that Unitarians do not want their theological schools to serve any one party or faction in the denomination.

Unitarianism appeared in the Boston area only after New England Congregationalism had been contending with “Infidelity” for the soul of America for sometime. “Infidelity,” was defined as denial that the Bible alone contained the saving revelation to man[sic]. Early Unitarian leaders of course believed that the Bible was such a revelation, as witness Channing. Orthodox opponents argued that their emphasis on the use of Reason in its interpretation would inevitably lead them into “Infidelity”. Thus the Unitarian leaders were trapped into twenty years’ reiteration that such was not the case. This assertion they ploughed into their record.

And so they were on the spot when in 1838 Transcendentalism erupted in their midst “with Emerson’s declaration that the embryo ministers before him should “go alone”; should become “new born bard(s-) of the Holy Ghost” casting behind them “all conformity” in order to “acquaint men at first hand with Deity.” Granted [***Page 000821 starts] their record it is hard to see how they could have done anything but reject what Professor Andrews Norton of Harvard soon dubbed “the latest form of infidelity.” The consternation of the conservative Unitarians is indicated by the fact that Norton republished in Cambridge, with his open endorsement, articles from The Princeton Review from the very stronghold of orthodoxy, in which three Calvinist theologians castigated Emerson and the Transcendentalists.

And yet this rejection of Transcendentalism meant the rejection of the positive affirmations that Unitarians themselves had prepared the way for. In larger context it meant that Unitarianism lost the opportunity then provided to ride the incoming wave of Romanticism.

Horace Bushnell of Hartford, Connecticut managed to domesticate Romanticism sufficiently for orthodox use, and became the father of nineteenth century liberalism in the large orthodox denominations. Hence, by the time Unitarians, pressed by the Free Religious Association, finally got around to accepting Parker’s Transcendentalism it was barely distinguishable from wide areas of orthodoxy, and anyway had ceased to be the basic issue–which by then was scientific empiricism. Transcendentalism as a popular religious movement in America was drained off into the “cults.” Charles Braden (These Also Believe) is right in suggesting that Emerson is “the real spiritual father of New Thought” — and New Thought has spawned Christian science, Unity Truth, Psychiana, Norman Vincent Pealism, and a host of related “isms” in our land.

The second factor I have in mind is a much more delicate matter since it has to do with the character of the early Unitarian leaders. Hence, I refer to it only obliquely and depend largely upon quotations from Parker and Emerson for direct statements.

The Unitarian “sect,” said Parker in his sermon on Spiritual Conditions — and with a delicacy of touch unusual for him — “has done great service” and is “I think, still doing something to enlighten and liberalize the land.” But, he continued,

This sect has always been remarkable for a certain gentlemanly reserve about all that pertained to the inward part of religion, other faults it might have, but i-t did not incur the reproach of” excessive enthusiasm.

And Emerson suggests in rather sly fashion that some of the enthusiasm it did engender might be drained off into pleasant sociability….

Parker and Emerson here both hinted at something in the cultured character of the early Unitarians that militated against their ever becoming the leaders of a genuinely popular or grass roots religious movement. This, thought Parker, was tragic… And in a final purple outburst he seems to have given them and [***Page 000822 starts] their “inductive mode of religious culture” up in despair:

Alas! after many a venturous and profitable cruise, while in sight of port, the winds all fair, the little Unitarian bark, o’ermastered by its doubts and fears, reverses its course, and sails into dark, stormy seas, where no such craft can live. Some of the fragments of the wreck will be borne by oceanic currents where they will be used by the party to progress to help to build more seaworthy ships; whilst others, when waterlogged, will be picked up by the great orthodox fleet, to be kiln-dried in a revival, and then serve as moist, poor fuel for its culinary fires. It is a dismal fault in a religious party, this lack of piety, and dismally have the Unitarians answered it; yet let their great merits and services be not forgot.

Unitarianism, I think, had its second great opportunity to lead an extensive grass-roots movement in America during the two decades following the Civil War when a widespread “revolt against the Christian churches was in progress.

But the energies of the [National Unitarian] Conference were apparently dissipated in the attempt to maintain a Unitarian orthodoxy, while the Free Religious Association foundered in the hopeless attempt to preserve the precious individual freedom of every member. The Conference amendment to correct was too little and too late to meet the situation. Unitarianism lost great opportunity in America to become a mighty movement…