Sunday, November 8, 2020

A Retrospective on the Controversy That Formed Unitarianism

For most of my adult Henry Ware Sr. by Charles Osgood
Until the past several years I'd always been on the 'conservative' side of religious movements, even in my more 'progressive' times. When I heard about churches, colleges, and other parachurch organizations becoming 'liberal' it really irked me. Why couldn't those people find some other denomination or movement more to their liking, and not insist on changing what was already established, I wondered. I can still see through that lens and understand how this bothers more traditional believers. Its with this at the forefront of my mind that I recently studied the 'Unitarian Controversy' of the early 1800s in the United States.

The last chapter told how during more than half a century the Congregational churches of Massachusetts were slowly and almost imperceptibly growing more liberal in belief. During much of the time the conservatives noted this fact with growing apprehension, though they were able to point to little or nothing definite enough to furnish a point for attack; for the liberals were content to let the old beliefs fade away without notice, and preferred to confine their preaching to the essential of practical Christianity as shown in life and character. (Wilbur, 1925)

The churches of the Puritan colonizers in North America became known as the Standing Order in Massachusetts. This was the established church of the colonies of that region, supported by taxes. Typically, each congregation employed a Pastor and a Teacher, although over the generations these roles changed and converged. While change otherwise was very gradual, it did come as new ideas circulated in and old certainties became curiosities from a previous time. Many remained 'orthodox' in their Calvinism, although as we'll see, even their theology didn't truly match that of their forebearers. The shift towards liberalism in some quarters came so slowly that the more paranoid of the evangelicals saw it in biblical terms. 

For there are certain men crept in unawares, who were before of old ordained to this condemnation, ungodly men, turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness, and denying the only Lord God, and our Lord Jesus Christ. (Jude 4 KJV)

Despite increasing suspicion, a status quo was maintained for quite a long time. Inevitably, though, the the polarization between the orthodox and the liberals had to come to the full light of day. The spark that lit the fuse happened at Harvard, where generations of Standing Order ministers had trained.

In 1805 a controversy arose at Harvard College over the election of a new Hollis Professor of Divinity. Morse had gone to Yale, where staunch Calvinism still prevailed. He led the orthodox Calvinist clergy against the liberals. When one of the latter party, Henry Ware, minister in Hingham, was chosen for the post, Morse was incensed. The college named for his famous predecessor would now breed heretics! Soon he helped to launch and evangelical monthly, the Panoplist, to rival the Monthly Anthology, started by the Athenaeum liberals. He also helped to gather subscriptions to build an orthodox congregational church in the very heart of Boston, where nearly all the ministers were liberals. (Buehrens, 2011)

Across the years I can relate to how Morse must have felt. If his thinking was at all like mine as an evangelical, then he must have felt fury and betrayal at what he saw as the takeover of an essential ministry training school. If he was a man of conscience, however poorly informed, I'm guessing that in his bones he experienced this as affront to God and, by extension, all 'good Christians.' He didn't take it lying down.

Dr. Morse next exerted himself to establish at Andover a theological seminary which should remain forever orthodox, for its constitution required the professors every five years to renew their subscription to a creed which was perpetually to remain "entirely and identically the same, without the lease alteration, addition, or diminution." (Wilbur, 1925)

Having written before about how the Transylvanian Unitarians were boxed in by a law against any change in their doctrine, thus leading to some theological stagnation, I'm struck by the small irony that orthodox Congregationalists would do the same thing to themselves in attempting to set theological boundaries. Of course, they didn't know the history, and I'm reasonably certain they wouldn't have cared. They were trying to hold fast to the 'faith once delivered' (Jude 3), something that despite evidence to the contrary they believed was unchanging. By laying out in details what was to be believed and taught, and requiring regular re-subscription to the creed, they hoped to prevent another slide into apostasy and theft of something they were building for a specific purpose. 

For a clear example of this gradual drift, one needn’t look further than American Evangelicalism. Whether you are aware of it or not, a significant shift has occurred in Evangelicalism over the past 5-10 years. The Christian group that once “held the line” when it came to things like the doctrine of biblical inerrancy or the authority of Scripture has been slowly drifting away from much of its historic Christian thinking. (The Parkway Church, 2019)

Pastors and other evangelical leaders who I think should be raising the alarm over the heresy of Trumpism are instead doubling down on their traditional beliefs. I'm not sure if this is escapism on their part, the return-to-the-1950s mentality essential to MAGA, or something else. It's certainly not new, being something I believed was the case all through my two decades as an evangelical, and which has been a concern of conservative Christians since...ever, really.

The Seminary began as a militant defender of orthodoxy aligned especially against Harvard and the Unitarian movement in the vicinity of Boston and Cambridge. Its advance would have been somewhat simpler had the orthodox been unanimous in their own theological convictions; but Calvinism by 1807 had divided into two distinct parties distinguished from each other largely by the varying degrees of their strict Calvinistic interpretation. Both of these groups were involved in the founding of Andover. The anti-Harvard and anti-Unitarian group in the Boston area were commonly known as Old Calvinists or Old Divinity Men or, more correctly, Moderate Calvinists, and were in general firmly Calvinistic but somewhat tempered by their generation and environment. The second group, especially strong in Essex County, were the disciples of Samuel Hopkins and were wont to term themselves Consistent Calvinists but were better known as New Divinity Men or Hopkinsians. They were Calvinists in the strictest sense and viewed the laxity of the moderate Calvinists with some alarm and suspicion. In fact, the mutual distrust between these two wings of Calvinists made it difficult for them to combine in mutual opposition to the progress of liberalism. (Pierce, 1946)

The funny thing is that 'theological drift' doesn't just happen with religious liberals, by any means. Among the Calvinists in the era of the Unitarian Controversy there were clear distinctions of emphasis. This sort of divisiveness can happen in any faith tradition, and yet occurs so often among conservative groups that it could be considered one of their defining characteristics. As soon as there is a 'standard' to dispute how interpret, and whenever 'purity' is at stake, there are bound to be problems. It's almost like speciation in the natural world, with new sects and denominations coming into existence around personalities and particular emphases in beliefs.

As for the liberal ministers, although by 1812 there were at least a hundred of them, only Freeman at King's Chapel and Bentley at Salem were really Unitarian in belief. Of the rest only one or two had ever preached a sermon against the Trinity; and while they had generally ceased to hold that doctrine, yet they had not reached any wide agreement as to other points. They knew indeed that they had pretty well outgrown their Calvinism, and they acknowledged only the authority of Scripture; but their main emphasis was on the practical virtues of Christian life, and their main opposition was to narrowness of spirit and bondage to creeds, while for the rest they advocated Christian charity, open-mindedness, and tolerance.  (Wilbur, 1925)

The 'liberals' weren't what we think of with that term today. They still put the Bible at the center of their spiritual lives, and most at that point still affirmed the divinity of Jesus. What they denied, and for which reason it would be better to describe them as 'Arian,' was that Jesus is the second person of one being. Only God was the Father, and Jesus was his Son in the sense that he was the first created and the one through whom the worlds were formed. Jesus still participated in the divine nature in a unique way, and therefore was still worthy of worship as 'lord' and messiah. At least, that seems to have been the general idea. It's hard to say for certain because the liberals, like any others of faith, differed among themselves. 

What I find very interesting here is that the proto-Unitarians (I'm taking the liberty of calling them that because 'Unitarian' didn't quite apply yet) had arrived at the idea of a creedless Christianity around the same time as others in the United States, including the Christian Connection (James O'Kelly) and the Christian Churches/Churches of Christ/Disciples of Christ (Alexander Campbell, & Barton Stone). However, the latter movements were coming at it from a more evangelical, back-to-the-Bible sentiment mixed with a desire for Christian union and an end of sectarian squabbling. 

The Calvinists in New England clearly wanted no part of any of this, and saw the liberal request for a simple Christianity as perhaps a Trojan horse to get into congregations and institutions in order to turn them liberal as well. Led by Rev Jedidiah Morse, they waged a war of words with the nascent Unitarians.

All the while that things were in this uncertain state, Dr. Morse in the Panoplist [magazine] kept calling on the liberals to admit that in important respects they had departed far from the faith of their fathers. They steadfastly refused to accept his challenge, for they disliked controversy, and they had no mind to champion special doctrines or to be set off into a separate party. They stood on their rights as free members of Congregational churches and did not feel under any obligation to report to Dr. Morse or ask his leave. (Wilbur, 1925)

The proto-Unitarians would rather have maintained the Standing Order churches as one communion, avoiding a split. From the Calvinist perspective this wasn't feasible, as they saw churches becoming 'Unitarian' or 'Arminian' and believed there was a full-on assault on the faith taking place. With the events at Harvard favoring a 'Unitarian' perspective, the source of theologically 'sound' ministers was at serious risk for the conservatives, and to their minds would only accelerate the conversion of congregations to Unitarianism.

Some religious descendents have succeeded where the early Congregationalists failed. The National Association of Congregational Christian Churches (NACCC), which formed in the mid-20th century from congregations that did not wish to join the (e)merging United Church of Christ (UCC), maintains a list of congregationally-governed churches that represent a fair spectrum of Christian belief. 

Local Church Control. The NACCC honors the fact that God has given the local church every power and gift necessary for its spiritual life and decision for ministry. Because Christ alone is the head of the church, each church is free to determine its statement of faith, select and ordain its clergy and maintain stewardship of its resources and property. Respecting the ability of each church to discern God’s intentions and purposes for them, the NACCC does not pass resolutions on social or political issues nor does it make statements on behalf of or binding upon the member churches. (NACCC)

Some congregations are as liberal as the official stance of the UCC, even holding membership simultaneously in that denomination, and others are evangelical to the point of being part of the Conservative Congregational Christian Conference (CCCC). In between are a range of more middle-of-the road churches. The denomination claims no theological schools, and ordination is left entirely at the local level, removing the 'risk' that the Calvinists of the Standing Order saw in their arrangement. This balance is maintain as well through the fact that the national organization requires no statement of faith for congregations, and it makes no statements on political or potentially controversial religious issues. Whether it's the best way is up for debate, but it is at least a way to keep the peace, I suppose.

Returning to the 1800s, Dr. Morse went entirely on the offensive against the 'heretics.'

The Panoplist followed up the exposure in a severe review, charging that the liberals were secretly scheming to undermine the orthodox faith, and were hypocrites for concealing their true beliefs; and that the orthodox aught therefore at once to separate from those who, since they denied the deity of Christ, could not be considered Christians at all. (Wilbur, 1925)

In my youth I saw liberal encroachment as evil, something that came from a foul heart that sought power and recognition. It brought to mind then, and comes to me now, what Peter said to Simon Magus:

Repent therefore of this thy wickedness, and pray God, if perhaps the thought of thine heart may be forgiven thee. For I perceive that thou art in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity. (Acts 8:22-23 KJV)

As I said here at the beginning, I've been on the side of the conservatives, feeling dismayed at the activities of 'liberalizers' in my denomination's midst. With the independent Christian Churches it wasn't about the doctrine of the trinity or the authority of the Bible. Instead, it was the approximation I saw (and now know what essentially correct about) of certain leaders and churches toward mainstream evangelicalism. Many of these blurred the lines about the necessity of baptism by immersion for salvation, something that is a historic hallmark belief for the Stone-Campbell churches. Further, at the annual national gathering, the North American Christian Convention, the keynote speakers all came to be 'outsiders' to the fellowship. No longer were the voices of our own people lifted up and celebrated.

There are reasons other than liberal conniving for the troubles with the NACC.  

The plain truth is that attendance at, financial support for and interest in the NACC continue to drop off. I could spend this whole post exploring the various reasons why (less institutional loyalty throughout our culture, growth of specialized and niche events, an “uncool” reputation) but I’m more interested in thinking about whether it matters, and what can be done...The convention’s current decline happened not because people don’t attend conferences, but because this conference no longer has a clearly-defined mission...Is it for leaders or entire families? If leaders, vocational, volunteer or both? It’s “the connecting place” but to what end? Who’s connecting? Why is it valuable? How are the connections different from the other ways people are already working together? (Johnson, 2010)

What ended up happening there is that in the past year or two the NACC was reorganized as Spire Network. The conference for ministers and laity is gone, and it is now focused as an evangelical parachurch organization on encouraging church growth. It maintains no denominational ties with the independent Christian Churches, although of course without a denominational structure this wouldn't have existed in any form other than by statements to that effect.  I don't think the people involved were necessarily 'scheming,' although with money involved who knows, but were doing what they thought was right, even though it meant the end of a national touchpoint for an entire religious group. However, I do see how easily and perhaps justifiably conservatives could conclude that this was their plan all along.

The orthodox were made more than ever determined in their attitude; while the Unitarians (as they were henceforth known) began to abandon their policy of reserve and to speak out plainly also against other doctrines of Calvinism, and their views spread accordingly. (Wilbur, 1925)

Backed into a corner, the Unitarians began to do what I think they should have done all along, and stood up for themselves and their convictions. Frankly, I wonder just how much any of it mattered to them before, because if it had wouldn't the silence in some way have bothered them?

William Ellery Channing preached a sermon at an ordination in Baltimore in 1819 that is considered a turning point. Although in no place in the message does he mention Unitarianism by name, his words made clear the distinction between the liberals and the conservatives.

In this sermon he boldly took the aggressive against the orthodox, taking up the distinguishing doctrines of Unitarians one by one, showing that they were supported by both Scripture and reason, and holding up to pitiless attack the contrasted doctrines of orthodoxy in all their nakedness. (Wilbur, 1925)

It's a long sermon by today's standards, and the story goes that when it was first delivered no one past the first few rows could hear it. Still, the impact it made once in print (under the title 'Unitarian Christianity) was enormous. 

We regard the Scriptures as the records of God's successive revelations to mankind, and particularly of the last and most perfect revelation of his will by Jesus Christ. Whatever doctrines seem to us to be clearly taught in the Scriptures; we receive without reserve or exception. (Channing)

Channing was not denying the Bible as a revelation of God. Rather, he was disputing certain interpretations of it that consigned most of humanity to hell, and spoke about God and Jesus in terms not found within Scripture. He also explained the interpretive principles that he identified with Unitarianism.

Our leading principle in interpreting Scripture is this, that the Bible is a book written for men, in the language of men, and that its meaning is to be sought in the same manner as that of other books. (Channing)

When I read this I was struck by how similar it was to something written by Alexander Campbell, one of the founding fathers of what has become the Stone-Campbell tradition, in 1839. 

The words of the Bible contain all the ideas in it. These words, then, rightly understood, and the ideas are clearly perceived. The words and sentences of the Bible are to be translated, interpreted, and understood according to the same code of laws and principles of interpretation by which other ancient writings are translated and understood. (Campbell)

This parallel between the Unitarian and Disciples of Christ traditions isn't a coincidence. Both Channing and Campbell were working from an Enlightenment perspective that called for the use of reason. As non-controversial as it may seem to say that the Bible should be interpreted using the same methods used to interpret any other literature, that was virtually heresy among people in the early 1800s and still is in some quarters today. It is also not an approach that has a long history with the Bible. In the Second Temple Period midrash was common, and within Christianity in there was a great deal of proof-texting without regard to context and other forms of creative re-readings of the Scriptures. It was really only from the 17th century onward that a more 'reasoned' approach was used, and it remains sacrocant in conservative evangelical seminaries to this day. Odd that we use an 'unbiblical' method to interpret the Bible.

Dr. Channing...held that Unitarian Christianity was the most favorable to piety, and likened the orthodox doctrine of the atonement to a gallows erected at the center of the universe for the public execution of God. (Wilbur, 1925)

Now that's some potent imagery, showing in stark but evocative terms the truth of substitutionary atonement theory. In the reaction to Channing's sermone we also learn that conservative 'snowflakes' aren't really news. For all their vitriol against the liberals, the Calvinists were quite upset at Channing's sermon.

[The orthodox] complained that channing had misrepresented their beliefs and had injured their feelings by his harsh statements. (Wilbur, 1925)

Those poor babies.

In the unhappy division that took place at this time, congregations were split in two, and even families were divided against themselves. (Wilbur, 1925)

It sounds like an ugly, disputed divorce. Before we get into the details, I can't help but note how these events echo some words of Jesus.

Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man's foes shall be they of his own household. (Matthew 10:34-36) 

If the historical Jesus actually said those words, it certainly with the same intent I'm using it here. And yet there's a feel of the prophetic for me in this given the course Christianity took. To a degree not found in other religions of the ancient world, precise beliefs about things unseen became critical. A Roman could think whatever she cared to about Zeus, so long as she didn't act disrespectfully towards the gods. Bawdy tales of his lascivious ways circulated even as philosophers pondered the elevated ethics of the supreme god. The same could not happen within Christianity.

In any event, the split between the orthodox and the Unitarians was ugly.

The orthodox losses as the result of the divisions that took place were indeed severe. in eighty-one instances the orthodox members seceded, nearly 4,000 of them in all, thus losing funds and property estimated at $600,000, not to mention the loss of churches that went to the liberal side without a division; and they had to build new meetinghouses for themselves. They called themselves "the exiled churches".... (Wilbur, 1925) 
None of what I'm writing is meant to imply that the Unitarians were faultless. Far from it. And some of their attitudes would cost them in terms of miss opportunities at growth in the future.

Perhaps the charge that hurt the Unitarians most, and had the most truth in it, was that whereas the orthodox were deeply in earnest about their religion, zealous, self-denying, and full of missionary spirit, the Unitarians were lukewarm, often indifferent to their church, lax in religious observances, and opposed to missions. (Wilbur, 1925)

As I indicated above, theological 'drift' happens no matter what, to conservative and liberal doctrine alike. What happened with Andover Theological Seminary, founded to be a bastion of conservative Calvinism, demonstrates this truth. That unchangeable creed that was laid down for faculty requiring renewed assent every 5 years, became cage. With faculty pressure, liberation was sought and won through the courts.

On April 10, 1931, the Supreme Judicial Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, acting under the doctrine of cy près, decreed that henceforth Andover Theological Seminary should forever be relieved of subscription to its creed and that "hereafter no professor should ever be called into question because of inconsistency with the creedal requirements of its Constitution and Statutes." (Pierce, 1946)

When we consider the history of faith, it seems almost axiomatic that over time institutions tend to liberalize and apostatize. There is at work in the universe of institutions a law of entropy. Organizations begin with great heat and intensity. But over time this fire cools, and the intensity eventually dissipates until the school, church, or ministry completely detaches itself from its founding vision and purpose. (Beates, 1994)

Andover-Newton Theological Seminary, as it came to be called following the merger of the Congregationalist and a Baptist one, has gone on to survive under the auspices of Yale University.

Andover Newton had been confronted by declining enrollment, substantial recurring budget deficits and deferred maintenance at its campus outside Boston when it decided to explore an affiliation with Yale in 2015. It formally announced affiliation plans in in 2016, beginning the process of relocating to Yale’s campus in New Haven, Conn. The two institutions have been moving forward since then, with a visiting arrangement bringing some Andover Newton faculty, staff and students to Yale in the 2016-17 academic year. (Seltzer, 2017)

As for the Unitarians and the Congregationalists, some of their spiritual heirs have forged a partnership. For instance, the United Church of Christ, formed in part from Congregationalist churches, and the Unitarian Universalist Association produced together an excellent sex education curriculum called Our Whole Lives. Without involving specific religious beliefs, it provides thoughtful and thorough opportunities for children and teenagers to learn about the biology and emotions around sex, as well as the perils and the need for consent. Without quite a lot of theological revision and new thinking this would not have been possible.

Controversies can serve to forge identities, but division also bears a cost in relationships and resources. Through meaningful cooperation, old enemies can become friends, and beautiful things can happen. I appreciate the struggle of the early Unitarians in the United States, as well as the efforts of Unitarians, Universalists, Congregationalists, and others since that time to pursue united action for the benefit of others. May we find a way to be who we are without demanding that others be like us for there to be progress, justice, and peace.


Beates, M. (1994, April 1). Drifting into Heresy. Retrieved November 05, 2020, from

Buehrens, J. A. (2011). Universalists and Unitarians in America: A people's history. Boston, MA: Skinner House Books.

Campbell, A. (n.d.). The Christian System: In Reference to the Union of Christians, and a Restoration of Primitive Christianity, as Plead in the Current Movement (2nd ed.). Cincinnati, OH: Standard Publishing Company.

Channing, W. E. (n.d.). Sermon Delivered at the Ordination of the Rev. Jared Sparks, to the Pastoral Care of the First Independent Church in Baltimore, May 5, 1819. Retrieved November 04, 2020, from

Johnson, J. (2010, February 16). Does the nacc have a future? Retrieved November 04, 2020, from

National Association of Congregational Christian Churches. About Membership. Retrieved November 04, 2020, from
Pierce, R. D. (1946). The legal aspects of the Andover Creed. Church History, 15(1), 28–47.

Seltzer, R. (2017). Andover Newton Finalizes Plan to Move to Yale. Retrieved November 03, 2020, from

The Parkway Church. (2019, June 12). The Evangelical Drift. Retrieved November 05, 2020, from

Wilbur, J. B. (1925). Our Unitarian Heritage: An Introduction to the History of the Unitarian Movement. Boston, MA: Beacon press.