Saturday, August 16, 2008

Channing at Sparks' Ordination

William Ellery Channing delivered a sermon at the ordination of Jared Sparks on "Unitarian Christianity." Sparks served as President of Harvard from 1849 to 1853 and was a distinguished biographer of among others, George Washington. Harvard officially became Unitarian in 1805. "From 1810 until 1933 all of the presidents of Harvard University were Unitarians."

My understanding of the history: In the 18th Century theological unitarianism was not considered real Christianity but "heresy" or "infidelity." Yet, such heresy was quite popular in educated 18th Century circles (and among America's key founders). This heresy was even being preached from the pulpit of New England's "Puritan" Congregational Churches. Eventually, in the 19th Century many of these New England Churches officially became Unitarian, and with Harvard officially adopting Unitarianism, and with the "rights of conscience" more firmly established in American law and culture, individuals felt freer to speak their mind and publicly assert what was once infidelity as a valid form of "Protestant Christianity."

Indeed, Philip Hamburger, in Separation of Church and State, notes one way in which Unitarians and Calvinists deflected their theological dispute was to come together, albeit for different reasons, to combat Roman Catholicism. It was liberal (Unitarian) and conservative (Calvinist) Protestants united against Roman Catholicism, which Hamburger argues eventually became Protestants United for Separation of Church and State (with underlying anti-Roman Catholic motives), which eventually became Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The question, though, is what was being called liberal Protestant Christianity (Unitarianism), though it might have been "Protestant," was it truly Christian? Ironically, whatever the theological disputes between traditionally minded Catholics and Protestants, arguably their theologies were closer to one another's, than either were to "Unitarian Christianity," which rejected core doctrines of traditional Christianity.

For instance, at Sparks' ordination Channing states the following on the Trinity:

We object to the doctrine of the Trinity, that, whilst acknowledging in words, it subverts in effect, the unity of God. According to this doctrine, there are three infinite and equal persons, possessing supreme divinity, called the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Each of these persons, as described by theologians, has his own particular consciousness, will, and perceptions. They love each other, converse with each other, and delight in each other's society. They perform different parts in man's redemption, each having his appropriate office, and neither doing the work of the other. The Son is mediator and not the Father. The Father sends the Son, and is not himself sent; nor is he conscious, like the Son, of taking flesh. Here, then, we have three intelligent agents, possessed of different consciousness, different wills, and different perceptions, performing different acts, and sustaining different relations; and if these things do not imply and constitute three minds or beings, we are utterly at a loss to know how three minds or beings are to be formed. It is difference of properties, and acts, and consciousness, which leads us to the belief of different intelligent beings, and, if this mark fails us, our whole knowledge fall; we have no proof, that all the agents and persons in the universe are not one and the same mind. When we attempt to conceive of three Gods, we can do nothing more than represent to ourselves three agents, distinguished from each other by similar marks and peculiarities to those which separate the persons of the Trinity; and when common Christians hear these persons spoken of as conversing with each other, loving each other, and performing different acts, how can they help regarding them as different beings, different minds?

We do, then, with all earnestness, though without reproaching our brethren, protest against the irrational and unscriptural doctrine of the Trinity. "To us," as to the Apostle and the primitive Christians, "there is one God, even the Father." With Jesus, we worship the Father, as the only living and true God. We are astonished, that any man can read the New Testament, and avoid the conviction, that the Father alone is God. We hear our Saviour continually appropriating this character to the Father. We find the Father continually distinguished from Jesus by this title. "God sent his Son." "God anointed Jesus." Now, how singular and inexplicable is this phraseology, which fills the New Testament, if this title belong equally to Jesus, and if a principal object of this book is to reveal him as God, as partaking equally with the Father in supreme divinity! We challenge our opponents to adduce one passage in the New Testament, where the word God means three persons, where it is not limited to one person, and where, unless turned from its usual sense by the connexion, it does not mean the Father. Can stronger proof be given, that the doctrine of three persons in the Godhead is not a fundamental doctrine of Christianity?

[...]

So entirely do the Scriptures abstain from stating the Trinity, that when our opponents would insert it into their creeds and doxologies, they are compelled to leave the Bible, and to invent forms of words altogether unsanctioned by Scriptural phraseology. That a doctrine so strange, so liable to misapprehension, so fundamental as this is said to be, and requiring such careful exposition, should be left so undefined and unprotected, to be made out by inference, and to be hunted through distant and detached parts of Scripture, this is a difficulty, which, we think, no ingenuity can explain.

[...]

We also think, that the doctrine of the Trinity injures devotion, not only by joining to the Father other objects of worship, but by taking from the Father the supreme affection, which is his due, and transferring it to the Son.


After denying the Trinity and Incarnation, Channing then denies Christ's Atonement:

We farther agree in rejecting, as unscriptural and absurd, the explanation given by the popular system, of the manner in which Christ's death procures forgiveness for men. This system used to teach as its fundamental principle, that man, having sinned against an infinite Being, has contracted infinite guilt, and is consequently exposed to an infinite penalty. We believe, however, that this reasoning, if reasoning it may be called, which overlooks the obvious maxim, that the guilt of a being must be proportioned to his nature and powers, has fallen into disuse. Still the system teaches, that sin, of whatever degree, exposes to endless punishment, and that the whole human race, being infallibly involved by their nature in sin, owe this awful penalty to the justice of their Creator. It teaches, that this penalty cannot be remitted, in consistency with the honor of the divine law, unless a substitute be found to endure it or to suffer an equivalent. It also teaches, that, from the nature of the case, no substitute is adequate to this work, save the infinite God himself; and accordingly, God, in his second person, took on him human nature, that he might pay to his own justice the debt of punishment incurred by men, and might thus reconcile forgiveness with the claims and threatenings of his law. Such is the prevalent system. Now, to us, this doctrine seems to carry on its front strong marks of absurdity; and we maintain that Christianity ought not to be encumbered with it, unless it be laid down in the New Testament fully and expressly. We ask our adversaries, then, to point to some plain passages where it is taught. We ask for one text, in which we are told, that God took human nature that he might make an infinite satisfaction to his own justice; for one text, which tells us, that human guilt requires an infinite substitute; that Christ's sufferings owe their efficacy to their being borne by an infinite being; or that his divine nature gives infinite value to the sufferings of the human. Not ONE WORD of this description can we find in the Scriptures; not a text, which even hints at these strange doctrines. They are altogether, we believe, the fictions of theologians. Christianity is in no degree responsible for them. We are astonished at their prevalence. What can be plainer, than that God cannot, in any sense, be a sufferer, or bear a penalty in the room of his creatures? How dishonorable to him is the supposition, that his justice is now so severe, as to exact infinite punishment for the sins of frail and feeble men, and now so easy and yielding, as to accept the limited pains of Christ's human soul, as a full equivalent for the endless woes due from the world? How plain is it also, according to this doctrine, that God, instead of being plenteous in forgiveness, never forgives; for it seems absurd to speak of men as forgiven, when their whole punishment, or an equivalent to it, is borne by a substitute? A scheme more fitted to obscure the brightness of Christianity and the mercy of God, or less suited to give comfort to a guilty and troubled mind, could not, we think, be easily framed.

We believe, too, that this system is unfavorable to the character. It naturally leads men to think, that Christ came to change God's mind rather than their own; that the highest object of his mission was to avert punishment, rather than to communicate holiness; and that a large part of religion consists in disparaging good works and human virtue, for the purpose of magnifying the value of Christ's vicarious sufferings. In this way, a sense of the infinite importance and indispensable necessity of personal improvement is weakened, and high-sounding praises of Christ's cross seem often to be substituted for obedience to his precepts. For ourselves, we have not so learned Jesus. Whilst we gratefully acknowledge, that he came to rescue us from punishment, we believe, that he was sent on a still nobler errand, namely, to deliver us from sin itself, and to form us to a sublime and heavenly virtue. We regard him as a Saviour, chiefly as he is the light, physician, and guide of the dark, diseased, and wandering mind. No influence in the universe seems to us so glorious, as that over the character; and no redemption so worthy of thankfulness, as the restoration of the soul to purity. Without this, pardon, were it possible, would be of little value. Why pluck the sinner from hell, if a hell be left to burn in his own breast? Why raise him to heaven, if he remain a stranger to its sanctity and love? With these impressions, we are accustomed to value the Gospel chiefly as it abounds in effectual aids, motives, excitements to a generous and divine virtue. In this virtue, as in a common centre, we see all its doctrines, precepts, promises meet; and we believe, that faith in this religion is of no worth, and contributes nothing to salvation, any farther than as it uses these doctrines, precepts, promises, and the whole life, character, sufferings, and triumphs of Jesus, as the means of purifying the mind, of changing it into the likeness of his celestial excellence.


Unitarianism seems as far removed from traditional orthodox Christianity as is Mormonism. To tie this back to America's founders and religion, in a big tent sense that includes trinitarians, unitarians, universalists, Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, cafeteria Christians, rationalistic Christians influenced by deism, the religion of the key founders like Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Franklin, could be considered "Christian." But in a narrow sense that strictly defines Christianity according to its trinitarian orthodoxy, the beliefs of the key founders as well as Channing, Sparks and the 19th Century "liberal Protestants," were not "Christian."

Sparks is also notable because he, as Washington's biographer, and relying on the testimony of Washington's step-granddaughter/adopted daughter Nelly Custis argued on behalf of GW's "Christianity." Well, what did Sparks consider qualified as "Christianity," and what was he arguing GW was not? It's entirely possible that Sparks meant Washington was neither an atheist nor a strict deist, but a "Christian" in some broader sense, indeed the way he Sparks was. Arguably these broader forms of "Christianity" are not real Christianity, just as the broader forms of "Deism" that accept an active personal God and an intervening Providence are not real Deism.

21 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...

Harvard, dude. Think about it. The ancestral and still home of all great American nonsense.

Matt Huisman said...

Heh. Why does it always turn out to be that the ultimate end of rationalism is nonsense?

Pinky said...

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Come on, guys, you must be able to come up with a better response than that. Your sectarianism is showing.
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bpabbott said...

Jon: "Eventually, in the 19th Century many of these New England Churches officially became Unitarian, and with Harvard officially adopting Unitarianism, and with the "rights of conscience" more firmly established in American law and culture, individuals felt freer to speak their mind and publicly assert what was once infidelity as a valid form of "Protestant Christianity.""

Interesting perspective. Your words indicate some similarity/parallels between 19th century Unitarianism and 21st century Atheism ... well except that Atheism would never qualify as a valid form of Christianity, and it is very unlikely that an open Atheist could be elected as President :-(

Tom / Matt,

If you do not agree with Jon's post, you can certainly do better than a quick hand-wave :-(

In the very least, you might offer some specifics as to what part of Jon's post violates your sensibilities.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I don't think Tom and Matt disagreed with my post as my post doesn't take a position on whether "unitarianism" is a valid form of "Christianity."

My post is meant to be descriptive, not prescriptive.

I think they both intimate that what Channing here argues is "true Christianity" is rationalist nonsense. Their quibble is going to be more with Pinky or my friend Eric Alan Isaacson who would argue that Unitarian Christianity is "real Christianity."

That said, Tom and Matt are free to make their case as to what is wrong with Channing's sentiments.

Pinky said...

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They didn't just intimate that they thought Channing's teachings were "rationalist nonsense", one of them came right out and posted it.
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I think this is one more example about how our Founding was not based on Christianity if we are to accept the "orthodoxy" of puritanism that laid down their rules of what it means to be a Christian. That WAS what puritanism was all about now, wasn't it?
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Once more, America finds herself in an era in which puritanism is weeding most of everyone and everything out of their club of what it means to be an American--the next step once some court gives in to the idea that we are a Christian Nation.
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Last night we saw one of the presidential candidates claim that America was founded on Christian values and principles in the Faith Forum sponsored by Saddleback Church. This is truly a dangerous road we are on. There should be sign posts proclaiming, "DANGER AHEAD!!".

Tom Van Dyke said...

Hey I just wanted to slag on Harvard.

But for a snapshot of the religious landscape of the early 1800s, I find Tocqueville's America more reliable than Harvard's.

Matt Huisman said...

Hey I just wanted to slag on Harvard.

...and I was just digging on the rationalist crowd that seems to be the majority of this board. (Which is cool - actually it's more fun that way - I just don't always have time to give a full response, so I shoot off what I can. Feel free to zing back.)

Matt Huisman said...

With respect to Jon's post, what I find in Unitarianism is a faith that, while not orthodox, is part of the Christian conversation. Channing several times makes statements along the lines of "show me where in the Bible you find...". Jesus, the Bible, God the Father, eternal life are major elements of their worldview. These are people the orthodox can work with.

What I keep coming back to is whether the Unitarians were significant enough to lead a big tent coalition that approved (not necessarily wrote) the founding documents. Who were the people that were going to put life into the founding ideals/documents?

But perhaps I'm missing something.

Pinky said...

I think it is germane to this thread that some of the questions raised relate to the idea of epistemology and, in particular the fact that there was a big discussion and argument going on in regards to how people came to have their view of reality. And, on one side of that argument the idea of revelation was firmly planted. People got their ideas from outside their own being.
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So and apparently, the "orthodoxy" argued for a revealed idea of the Trinity, etc.. So, when Channing--in the name of Unitarianism--asks for your specific text to show how the doctrine of what it takes to be a Christian, why, of course, it will be said that his claims and questions are all nonsense.
.

Pinky said...

The Edwardsian idea of how persons came to be Christians came from the preaching of George Whitfield and the Great Awakening when people were said to be enthused by God's Spirit.
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It would have been quite difficult for Calvinists to reconsider their idea of the Triune God--impossible.
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Identity as a Christian had to do with how a person was made a member of a church. And, a public display is shown in the second illustration at this blog. If I'm not mistaken, that's George Whitfield with his arms raised.
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bpabbott said...

Matt: "What I keep coming back to is whether the Unitarians were significant enough to lead a big tent coalition that approved (not necessarily wrote) the founding documents. Who were the people that were going to put life into the founding ideals/documents?"

This is also a question that I've pondered.

My impression is that unitarianism was common among the leading framers/founders but less so among the congress as a whole.

A post on this topic might be interesting.

However, it invites (imo) a improper interpretation, being that the majority opinion is more important.

The leaders of any movement are much more important than those who follow ... and in the case of the founding of our Nation, it does appear that the founders embraced Unitarianism disproportionately. What the majority thought of this is not as important as the fact that they followed the founders in their pursuit.

I've not put much time into this comment, and am sure there is plenty of weakness in it ... so be kind ;-)

Tom Van Dyke said...

Pinky [and Ben], if I were a theological jihadist, I might take Channing on. But I think both Matt and I are ending up in the same place, that the theological musings of the pointy-heads at Harvard are as spit in the stream.

Well, not quite, but I liked the metaphor. My point about Tocqueville's America stands, and it's easy to get caught up in Harvard and Jefferson and lose all perspective. The "majority" certainly is important, especially if we view "the Founders" as more than a half-dozen marquee people, but all the Signers and Ratifiers, too.

Besides, for me, Channing/Unitarian argument is an intramural Protestant sola scriptura one, as Catholicism holds that tradition and reason [inspired by the Holy Spirit] draw out truths from scripture, and the Trinity was well-established theology by the time of the Reformation.

But a quick crib of the internet offers John 1:1-2

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning."

and John 1:14

"The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth."

is one rejoinder to Channing's challenge, as is Mt 28:19:

"Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit..."

And there are others just a google away.

Now, I'm sure there are various theological sophistries used to deconstruct these verses, but the Harvard unitarian project to use the Bible against itself seems nonsensical and nihilistic to me. Better they just be as honest as Jefferson and declare whole swaths of scripture to be bunkum, and invent their new religion from scratch.

I didn't mean to get into all this, but I didn't want to dodge either. Cheers.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Re Matt's comment at 4:51 PM and Ben's, yes I've identified certain "elite" figures who were disproportionately responsible for America's Founding documents as either unitarians/theistic rationalists or probably so (even if there is some dispute). The big 3 who certainly fall into this category are Jefferson, J. Adams and Franklin, with Washington, Madison, Wilson and Hamilton (before his end of life return to orthodoxy) as probably so. G. Morris was another key player who was either a theistic rationalist/unitarian or perhaps an out and out deists like Thomas Paine.

Those are some big names. And even if their sentiments are not in the majority, there are enough key players there for their ideas to have consequences.

I think it's also an apt point that some of the Unitarians like Channing could be quite "biblical" in their approach. He certainly cited the bible as authority more so than any of those above mentioned key Founders did. But then again he was a Rev. and they weren't.

Matt Huisman said...

And, on one side of that argument the idea of revelation was firmly planted. People got their ideas from outside their own being.

In addition to Tom's reply, I'm not sure I'm ready to cede to you the idea that revelation (or at least some fundamental presuppositions) exist on only one side of the argument.

Jesus acknowledges as much when he asks, "Why do you call me good?". And later to Simon Peter, "Who do you say I am?".

Reason, alone, quickly finds itself in trouble.

I should perhaps say that I do not dismiss Channing lightly, nor solely from Authority (thanks to Tom for taking on some of the work along these lines). You may disagree, and that's fine - but you will not have arrived there from reason alone.

Matt Huisman said...

And even if their sentiments are not in the majority, there are enough key players there for their ideas to have consequences.

Their ideas certainly have consequences, and so Ben's point "that what the majority thought is not as important as the fact that they followed the founders..." is what's really in play here.

How do we determine who's following whom? The best I can come up with is either some evidence that 1) my impression of an orthodox majority is incorrect or 2) that some significant ideas of the "key players" overtly restrained/restricked orthodoxy in the founding documents.

Is that reasonable?;)

Jonathan Rowe said...

I'm not sure if the orthodox had a majority of the population. I think there is a strong chance they were (but you never can tell what the masses of potentially nominal, unregenerate Christians believe).

I would say that political theology of the America's Founding was a lowest common denominator of general theism that spoke in terms in which the orthodox Trinitarians and the heterodox unitarians and rationalists could agree.

bpabbott said...

Tom: "The "majority" certainly is important, especially if we view "the Founders" as more than a half-dozen marquee people, but all the Signers and Ratifiers, too."

Tom, I don't think we'll come to a shared conclusion on this, but ... In simple terms, the opinions of the founders/leaders is of greater significance because;

(1) The prominent founders recorded their intent and opinions for us, and the remainder followed them.

(2) The remaining signers/ratifiers followed and seldom recorded their intent or opinions.

We can speculate on the general position of the silent majority, but there will (nor can there be) any meaningful conclusion.

However, regarding *my* opinion, I do think it very likely that the majority did support the idea that the new federal branch be constrained from any action upon the states and/or their citizens that smacked of a religious nature.

That is not to say that none of the states planned to establish themselves as theocracy, just that they had no interest in any such thing being imposed on them

Tom Van Dyke said...

OK, fine, Ben. But the other side of the coin is the states were quite happy for the federal government to butt the hell out as they established/continued their own "theocracies." See People v. Ruggles, which I might just have to promote to out mainpage, since it was met with a conspicuous silence, perhaps because of cognitive dissonance.

;-[D>

Perhaps we focus on the thoughts of the "key" Founders simply because they are easier to locate. After that constitution mess was worked out c. 1787, many "lesser" Founders simply went home, their work done, content in the knowledge that the federal government would largely leave them and their states alone.

Hehe.

bpabbott said...

Tom: "[...] the other side of the coin is the states were quite happy for the federal government to butt the hell out as they established/continued their own "theocracies.""

Agreed.

Our Nation's original Constitution and the later Bill of Rights restrained the federal government from infringing upon the liberty of our citizens. It was the Fourteenth amendment that extended that protection to state and local governments as well.

Thus, what is important is the intent of the founders with respect to the actions of the federal government. Whether some, many, or all ratifiers hoped to, intended to, or did act to establish theocracies in the home states is not relevant to us today ... at least in the sense that it has nothing to do with the Constitution.

However, I do admit it is an interesting topic ... for me anyway :-)

I'll check out People v. Ruggles. Beyond it being a Barton favorite (if memory serves, his reference to it includes his habit of deceptive editing), I don't recall the details. Would this page and this one be fair references, in your opinion?

Eric Alan Isaacson said...

Hi Jonathan,

I don't think it's accurate to say that "Harvard officially became Unitarian in 1805." I don't think Harvard has ever been "officially" Unitarian - though it was practically so from about 1805 to the end of the 19th century.

That a religious liberal, Henry Ware, was appointed to the Hollis Chair in Divinity in 1805 greatly annoyed those whom you identify as "orthodox," and contributed to the schism that divided Trinitarian Congregationalists and Unitarian Congregationalists as the orthodox disfellowshipped the liberals.

The result was that America's founding churches landed solidly in the liberal camp. The First Church in Plymouth, a congregation that gathered at Scrooby in 1606, sailed on the Mayflower to land at Plymouth Rock in 1620, and celebrataed the First Thanksgiving in 1621, is a Unitarian Church. So is the First Church in Salem, which gathered in 1629 (and had issues with witches in 1692). And so is the First Church in Boston, gathered in 1630 by John Winthrop for his shining "city on a hill."

My family just returned from a Massachusetts vacation, during which we joined each of these congregations for Sunday worship services. We also visited the church of John and Abigail Adams, the United First Parish Church in Quincy, where they are interred with their son John Quincy Adams, and his wife Louisa Catherine Adams.

Though the schism that divided the liberals from the orthodox dates from about 1800, it's clear that theological liberalism underlying it has deep roots in the liberal attitudes of 18th century New England. Indeed, if you asked John and Abigail Adams, I believe they would have told you that their church was Unitarian from the 1750s.

William Ellery Channing was Boston's most influential minister in the early 1800s precisely because the people of Boston, and Quincy, and Plymouth, and Salem, and their founding churches, already had embraced the liberal theology that Channing then dubbed "Unitarian Christianity."

Eric