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Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism: Introduction

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3prophets-coverTable of Contents

I. Introduction, by Conrad Wright

II. Channing’s Platform 

III. Emerson’s Heresy

IV. Parker’s Manifesto 

V. Conclusion 

Channing’s Baltimore Address

Emerson’s Divinity School Address

Introduction by Conrad Wright

Channing’s Baltimore Sermon, Emerson’s Divinity School Address, and Parker’s South Boston Sermon have long been accepted as the three great classic utterances of American Unitarianism. Other comparable addresses have sometimes been nominated for inclusion in the canon of Unitarian scripture, but in the sifting and winnowing processes of time the acknowledged position of these three addresses has remained secure.

What do they have in common to account for their recognized standing’? In the first place, they all occasioned widespread controversy. Channing’s sermon of 1819 provided the liberal Christians of his day with a party platform, thereby sharpening the cleavage between them and their orthodox neighbors both theologically and ecclesiastically. The pamphlet warfare he initiated continued for half a decade, and the effects were lasting on Unitarians and Trinitarians alike. Emerson’s address in 1838 similarly spoke for a new generation and stimulated reply and counterthrust by others, which continued long after Emerson himself had withdrawn from the debate. Parker’s sermon in 1841 reinforced the reverberations of Emerson’s address and was no less bitterly attacked and warmly defended. All three were significant for what they said but no less important for the response they elicited.

In the second place, all three of these addresses represent turning points in the history of American Unitarianism. Channing took the liberal wing of New England congregationalism, fastened a name to it, and forced it to overcome its reluctance to recognize that it had become, willy-nilly, a separate and distinct Christian body. Emerson cut deeply at the traditional presuppositions of the Unitarianism of his day, that it was never thereafter possible for Unitarians to return to the position that Christianity is based on the authority of Christ as the unique channel of God’s revelation to humanity. Emerson and Parker alike insisted that the religious impulse is primary and universal and that Christianity is but one of many expressions of that primary impulse, deriving its authority from its congruity with universal truths. Since that time, there has always been a universalistic as well as a Christian component in American Unitarian thought; and much of the intellectual history of the denomination has involved the interplay between these two strands.

Finally, all three of these addresses were influential far beyond the confines of the religious body which produced them. This was especially true of the Divinity School Address. It is admittedly impossible to measure precisely the effect of this discourse in shaping the religious views of many who never became Unitarians and who may never have realized that Emerson’s doctrine was rooted in Unitarianism. But this address is as much a classic of American as of Unitarian literature, and its influence has been correspondingly widespread and continuous. Parker’s influence, also, was felt beyond the bounds of Unitarianism, reaching many for whom none of the traditional versions of Christianity, even liberal Christianity, had any attraction.

It may indeed be argued that the reputation of Channing, Emerson, and Parker beyond the confines of Unitarianism itself is the explanation for the special position of their three most influential addresses within the denomination. There were other sermons and pamphlets which also marked turning points in Unitarian history. Henry W. Bellows’ Suspense of’ Faith (1859) was a call for self‑appraisal, which led to a reinvigorated Unitarianism based on denominational organization after the Civil War. Jabez T. Sunderland’s pamphlet, The Issue in the West(1886), which threatened to divide the denomination, led to a clearer understanding between conservative and radical Unitarians and ultimately to a reconciliation based on W. C. Gannett’s “Things Commonly Believed Among Us.” The “Humanist Manifesto” (1933) restated for its day the radical half of Unitarian doctrine. But while these publications attracted attention and aroused controversy, it was within the denomination itself that their influence was chiefly felt.

Hence the circumstances which made classics of the three earlier discourses may not soon recur. Channing’s audience was concentrated and identifiable, so that its response might be calculated in advance; today it would be diffused and anonymous. Emerson’s audience responded alertly to the doctrinal implications of his poetic utterance; today it would concern itself but casually with theological issues, no matter how basic, since we now use a secular rather than a theological vocabulary when issues really seem worth arguing about. Parker’s sermon was addressed to Unitarians, but it created a sensation largely because the orthodox of that day were watching and listening and were insistent that the liberals either accept or disavow this strange new heresy; today a comparable sermon would pass unnoticed by other denominations, so pluralistic has our society become.

Until such time, therefore, as the denomination of Channing, Emerson, and Parker shall produce a prophet who can, like them, speak both to a parochial audience and to a universal one, the addresses here reprinted will stand alone, and their authors will remain the three stars of the first magnitude that American Unitarianism has produced.

[Introduction Copyright © 1961, 1968 by Conrad Wright]