Monday, April 6, 2009

Founding-era Unitarians: Christian, or what?

I reckon it depends on who you ask
by Tom Van Dyke

One of our commenters wrote recently that one of the Founders had to be an "orthodox" Christian because he referred to "Our Saviour." But that ain't necessarily so.

Unitarians referred to "Our Saviour" all the time, and they weren't "orthodox" Christians by any measure---

The unitarians were a movement in Founding-era Christianity whose defining feature was that they didn't believe Jesus was God, or that he died for mankind's sins. This has been taken to mean they weren't "Christian" in any meaningful sense, and they might even be fairly called "theistic rationalists."

According to John Adams, who stated explicitly he was one, unitarians dated back until at least the mid 1700s. Thomas Jefferson expressed strong sympathy for the idea, and a friend of the sphinxlike James Madison wrote that Madison leaned that way too. That's 3 of the first 4 presidents, something that can't be ignored.

There's no real historical or scholarly controversy over whether unitarianism had a palpable influence in the Founding. It did, and that's observable in the copious mentions of "Jesus Christ" by the Continental Congress, and then the few if any mentions by the US Government under the 1787 US Constitution, limited mostly to stuff like "in the year of Our Lord."

The unitarian movement started informally and none too public, as not believing Jesus is God was seen as heresy in orthodox quarters, but by the early 1800s it had grown in numbers and influence enough---and as a coherent body of theology--- "unitarianism" finally and formally became a sect of its own, Unitarianism.

So what did Unitarianism believe? As an authority, let's consult Samuel Barrett, first pastor of the first formally Unitarian church in Boston, a historic hotbed if not breeding ground of unitarianism:

Unitarian Christians believe Jesus Christ to be the Son of God and the Saviour of men. They believe in the divinity of his mission and in the divinity of his doctrines. They believe that the Gospel which he proclaimed came from God; that the knowledge it imparts, the morality it enjoins, the spirit it breathes, the acceptance it provides, the promises it makes, the prospects it exhibits, the rewards it proposes, the punishments it threatens, all proceed from the Great Jehovah. But they do not believe that Jesus Christ is the Supreme God. They believe that, though exalted far above all other created intelligences, he is a being distinct from, inferior to, and dependent upon, the Father Almighty. For this belief they urge, among other reasons, the following arguments from the Scriptures.

Well, that's pretty straightforward. "Unitarians" is a bit vague. I've called them "Christian Unitarians," but Rev. Barrett flatly says Unitarian Christians. Rev. Barrett follows with One Hundred Scriptural Arguments For the Unitarian Faith, which is the title of his pamphlet. What's interesting is that the unitarian rejection of Jesus-as-God is based not on aBiblical "reason," but on completely Biblical arguments. Their rejection of the Trinity, then, was merely a rejection of the "orthodox" interpretation of scripture, not a rejection of the Bible in the least.

Now, one thing that modern fundamentalists and Roman Catholics could agree on is that the unitarians weren't "orthodox" Christians---the irony being that they wouldn't call each other orthodox Christians, either, because of their own intramural doctrinal hassles.

Today, there's a movement in some academic circles to play one orthodoxy against another, with the net effect of [apparently] diluting the role of Christianity in the American Founding. But this is no more valid than exploiting the Shia-Sunni-Sufi divides. That's the realm of theologians and especially of clerics inside Islam itself, but not of historians, sociologists or political philosophers. Anyone more than an arm's length from that theological battle calls them all "Muslims" without contradiction.

What jumps out from Rev. Barrett's essay are the core beliefs of these Christian Unitarians---and "Christian" is necessary here to mark the clear difference from 2009's Unitarian Universalism, which abjures the notion of "core beliefs" and is another story---

According to these Unitarian Christians, Jesus has a unique role in human history ["exalted far above all other created intelligences"] and is referred to as "Our Saviour," and by another highly influential unitarian of Barrett's time, Jared Sparks, as "The Messiah."

And oh, yes, John Locke, perhaps the most influential thinker outside of the new Americans themselves, is claimed by Rev. Sparks as a unitarian, too:

"And Locke must still be considered a Unitarian, till he can be proved a Trinitarian; a task, which it is not likely you will soon undertake. At all events, he had no faith in the assemblage of articles, which you denominate the essence of christianity, and without believing which, you say, no one can be called a Christian. His whole treatise on the Reasonableness of Christianity bears witness to this truth. For the leading object of that work is to show, that “the Gospel was written to induce men into a belief of this proposition, ‘that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah,’ which if they believed, they should have life.”

So there you have it. According to at least some highly-placed Unitarians of that era [Jared Sparks was the president of Harvard], Jesus was "Our Saviour," The Messiah, and the Gospel---if believed---could lead a man to eternal life. No "rationalist" arguments, except ones based on the Bible itself. Faith, you might even call it.

Most folks would call that "Christian," especially non-Christians with no horse in the race.


Jared Farley said...

Tom, I would caution you on one thing. I don't think you can treat the unitarian movement as one clearly defined movement. It was fluid and embraced a wide range of theological beliefs. So, yes Rev. Barrett had his interpretation and beliefs, but other unitarians or Unitarians had very different theological beliefs than this.

So my point is that you had huge differences in beliefs. One one side you had a very devout "orthodox" Unitarian with John Adams, but on the other side you had a less devout and clearly unorthodox Thomas Jefferson embracing unitarianism (cutting up the Bible, mocking the book of Revelations).

I am of the opinion that many individuals during this time period embraced unitarianism because deism was getting a bad name and being a full deist was becoming unpopular. So, like Jefferson after his unitarian conversion with Dr./Rev. Priestly, many individuals found in theological unitarianism a more socially-acceptable theology in which to operate and express their doubts about traditional Christian orthodoxy and dogma. I cannot prove that, but it is just a theory I have.

Does that make sense?

Jared Farley said...

One other point, based upon my own, albeit limited, reading about the history of the unitarian movement, many Unitarians attempted to keep the terminology of traditional Christianity, although the clandestinely altered the meaning of the terms/phrases. They did this in an attempt to appear as main-stream/traditional as possible. I'm not saying this is true for the quotes you mention above, but it is something worth checking into.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Jared, I claimed Jefferson as only having sympathy for unitarianism. Jefferson is an outlier of the outliers, and it might be best to give him his own category, sui generis.

For a provocative look at Jefferson and his "Bible" I recommend our co-blogger Kristo Miettinen's

Anyway, with that said, Mr. Farley, thx for your comment and I welcome any corrections that might bring Founding-era unitarianism into better focus. My thought is that unitarianism doesn't have to be as un-orthodox a Christianity---or not Christianity at all---as the "common knowledge" might indicate. I think we blandly assert that unitarians only saw Jesus as some great moral teacher, but there can be a lot more to it than that.

For instance, our occasional visitor Bob Cornwall, pastor of the Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), states in his blog that

Our statement of faith is simple -- Peter's confession in Matthew 16:16. No more, no less.

Matthew 16:16 reads

15"But what about you?" he asked. "Who do you say I am?"

16Simon Peter answered, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."

17Jesus replied, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.

So, if we want to get into deciding who is a Christian and who isn't, I guess the Disciples of Christ are on the block too. And then, who's next?

In the least, I'm calling for a suspension of a rush to judgment, and to not let theological hassles define what should be a historical/sociological/political philosophy question.

hrgottlieb said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jonathan Rowe said...

I think #4 was spam and should be deleted.

Great post and comments. I'll try to have something more meaningful to say later.

Our Founding Truth said...

Tom: 16 Simon Peter answered, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."

The question would be do unitarians interpret "Christ" as the Prophets have written.

Revolutionary Spirits said...

Thanks for a well-written exploration of Unitarianism and its relation to our nation's founders. I'm not sure I would rely so heavily on the words of Samuel Barrett, who was wasn't licensed to preach until 1823 and represents a 19th century, rather than 18th century, version of Unitarian theology. It would probably be wise also to distinguish American and British Unitarianism; while Adams was of the homegrown variety, Jefferson was far more influenced by Priestly and the more rationalistic of the English school.

Prior to its classic formulation by William Ellery Channing in his sermon "Unitarian Christianity" (1819), Unitarianism was more a constellation of spiritual tendencies rather than any clearly delineated body of belief. Those tendencies would include an Arian Christology, identifying Jesus as more than human but less than God; they would include a focus upon moral preaching and the improvement of character rather than upon doctrinal confessions of faith; they would include a tendency to see Christ's saving work as demonstrating the path toward holiness, revering him as a model of divinity made manifest on earth, rather than as a sacrifical victim whose death accomplished an atonement for human sin.

There was no conflict between reason and the Bible for these early Unitarians. As Channing laid out the exegetical principles that guided him and other Unitarians, "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." Interpreting the Bible, written in ancient times and almost forgotten cultures, required all one's critical faculties, as Channing commented: "Now all books, and all conversation, require in the reader or hearer the constant exercise of reason," and the Bible an even greater share of it than other volumes.

All of these tendencies made Unitarianism attractive to the Founders. As practical men--farmers, surveyors, inventors, lawyers--they were chiefly interested in the pragmatic results of religious belief, i.e. it's ability to generate virtuous citizens and anchor communities in moral conduct, rather than in metaphysical niceties like the doctrine of the Trinity. Men like Adams and Jefferson both admired the Bible for its ethical teachings, rather than for its supernatural truth claims. About the divnity of Jesus the Founders tended to be agnostic, like Franklin, who said:

"I think the system of morals and his religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting changes, and I have, with most of the present dissenters in England, some doubts as to his divinity, though it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to buy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble."

Tom Van Dyke said...

Thank you, GaryK. That you found my essay even-handed is plenty enough for me, and I hope I made it clear I have just begun to study unitarianism.

Your quote from Franklin is one of my favorites, both theologically and for Ben the man.

When he wrote that he hadn't thought about the Trinity much, and, "I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble," as memory serves he died only months later, and indeed did find out the truth with little trouble. Such a practical man!

What I'm getting at is that when it comes to religion and the Founding, "unitarian" has become a catchall for disbelief---whatever doubts and deviations from orthodoxy any Founder may have had. A constellation indeed.

What is overlooked is what they did believe, or tended to believe. For instance, Joseph Priestly, I'm told, believed in Jesus' resurrection!

That is no small thing.

The problem becomes that all "unitarian" roads tend to lead to Jefferson, and this simply doesn't represent the facts, nor is Jefferson representative of the Founding or even "unitarianism."

Your point is well-taken that Samuel Barrett is circa 1825, when unitarianism gained its capital "u," Unitarianism. Still, when his contemporary Jared Sparks claims John Locke for those unitarians who believed Jesus is The Messiah, well, that's a long way from Jefferson.

I look forward to our blog exploring this together. The problem with America's "religious history" is that it's often written by historians, highly specialized scholars who unfortunately tend to have no genuine understanding of religion and theology.

Our Founding Truth said...

I was under the impression unitarians were arminians, who believed they were saved by works, and not by grace. We should look at Channing's works.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Armianism is a genus to which unitarians are species. There are also Trinitarians of the Arminian species like my friend Jim Babka.

Kristo Miettinen said...

Hi Tom!

As you know, my position is that America was founded an unorthodox Christian nation, so I am happy to accept your point that the Unitarians were unorthodox, but...

I think you go too far in positing that they might even be "theistic rationalists". After all, what is the unity referred to in the term "(u/U)nitarian"? It is a twofold unity, unity of God (denying the Deity of Christ) and unity of Christ (denying the hypostatic union of natures). No mere theistic rationalist (e.g. Socrates) would call himself a "(u/U)nitarian" on those terms, because he would not define his religious position with respect to Jesus to begin with. It is for this reason that I count (u/U)nitarians as Christian, despite their unorthodoxy: they are still Christ-centered.

Other than that, I count your post as being in my corner - that's me calling out "Amen" when you quote Barrett. He is quite right in insisting on "Unitarian Christian" rather than "Christian Unitarian", for "Unitarian" is the narrower term, and must therefore be the qualifier. We may, if we feel redundant, speak of canine mammals, but it makes no sense to speak of mammalian canines.

What I have argued for before, and recall no persuasive counter to, is the idea that we should, as amateur historians (rather than as amateur theologians), model our standards of Christianity after our standards of, e.g., Marxism. There are many schools of doctrinaire Marxism, each with their clashing orthodoxies, and each willing to commit violence against one another, but from an outside perspective we recognize them all to be species of a single genus. So should we recognize competing Chistian orthodoxies as well, species of a unifying genus.

Thanks for this, and I hope we get good discussion going...

Tom Van Dyke said...

I believe we agree, Kristo. When you write "I think you go too far in positing that they might even be 'theistic rationalists'," I believe I was arguing precisely against such assumptions.

Gregg Frazer said...

There were (and are) many kinds of unitarians. For example, Arians believed in an exalted Jesus such as was described in the Barrett quote. Socinians, such as Priestley and Jefferson, believed that Jesus was just a man. The essential defining belief of unitarianism is that Jesus is not God; which, from their rational perspective, must be true if there is only one God.

Theistic rationalists (as I've defined the term relating to key American Founders) were unitarians. They did not believe Jesus was God -- whether they were Arians or Socinians is irrelevant to the question of whether they were unitarians.

No one (to my knowledge -- certainly not me or Jon) has suggested that all unitarians were theistic rationalists. That's why I coined the new term -- otherwise, I'd simply have called them unitarians and there would be no need for a new term.

Theistic rationalists were unitarians; unitarians were (and are) not necessarily theistic rationalists.

Socrates was not a theistic rationalist as I've defined it -- i.e. in the sense that the term is used on this site. It was a belief system of the late 17th and early 18th centuries -- Socrates was dead.

By denying the deity of Christ, Jefferson was, de facto, a unitarian. He predicted: "I confidently expect that the present generation will see Unitarianism become the general religion of the United States" (Dec. 8, 1822 letter to James Smith). He told a Unitarian clergyman that he was "happy to learn" that Unitarianism was "advancing prosperously among our fellow citizens." He also said: "I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die an Unitarian" (June 5, 1822 letter to Thomas Whittemore & June 26, 1822 letter to Benjamin Waterhouse).

Contrary to what was said above, Jefferson was not an outlier -- and certainly not an "outlier of the outliers!" That conventional wisdom simply does not stand up to the facts. Most obviously and simply, Adams himself told Jefferson that he and his son John Quincy shared Jefferson's religious beliefs "cordially, and, I think, solidly" (July 18, 1813 letter).

In fact, Jefferson held essentially the same religious beliefs as did Adams, Franklin, Washington, Madison, Hamilton, James Wilson, and Gouverneur Morris.

Franklin's quote which is lauded above is probably the saddest statement I've found in 30 years of research in this area. As was suggested, Franklin did, in fact, discover the truth about Jesus' deity when he died -- but he will regret for eternity not "busying" himself with studying it when he had the chance to embrace Christ. His practicality will haunt him for eternity!

Priestley did, in fact, believe in the resurrection -- but not because he was a Christian, believed in Christian doctrines, or was even in some kind of broad Christian club.

For Priestley, the resurrection of Jesus, a mere man, was to be an example of a general "resurrection to immortal life" and "a type or earnest of that of all men." [note the ALL] Priestley (also famous as a scientist) was a materialist who rejected the concept of a separable soul. So, he believed that the only avenue to eternal life was that the fully dead must come back to life. This must be accepted on faith, but this faith was not mystical or in the work of Jesus or based on Christian arguments -- it was faith in the credibility of the many witnesses to Jesus' resurrection (with greater historical support than many well-accepted historical events/persons). Without a physical resurrection, Priestley taught, there is no hope for eternal life and, more importantly for Priestley's system, no future rewards and punishments respecting behavior in this life. [all of this is explained in his "A History of the Corruptions of Christianity"]

Tom Van Dyke said...

In fact, Jefferson held essentially the same religious beliefs as did Adams, Franklin, Washington, Madison, Hamilton, James Wilson, and Gouverneur Morris.

Not so, Gregg. You have no proof to rope in Washington and Madison and especially Hamilton and James Wilson with Jefferson. Morris, I don't care about and I doubt they did either as the man was a well-known sybarite.

JQ Adams is not as cut-and-dried as you make him.

A disbelief---or in Franklin and JQ Adams' case, merely doubt---in the Trinity is just that, no more no less, and doesn't justify a new term that doesn't have Christ in it.

And further, there were at least 100 Founders. Taking the unpublic writings of just two of them [Jefferson and Adams], no matter how prominent, is not the basis for a case.

Jonathan Rowe said...

No I think he has proof and I think we've presented it here.

What he doesn't have, I would admit, are "smoking guns" with those above mentioned founders that clear up any kind of mystery. But I think there's good reason to believe those others agreed with Jefferson and J. Adams on the basics.

Consider Franklin. He said in his letter to Ezra Stiles that he had "doubts" about the Trinity. But then he uses terminology in that very letter("corruptions of Christianity") that signifies Joseph Priestley's influence. That's evidence that Franklin was more than just "agnostic" on the Trinity.

Jonathan Rowe said...

And further, there were at least 100 Founders.

I think one problem here is we don't have access to all there private (and in many cases public) writings. We've gone over Wilson's public Works with a fine toothed comb. But we have yet to uncover one private letter of his where he talks about religion.

bpabbott said...

"Debate in Congress lends little assistance in interpreting the religion clauses; Madison's position, as well as that of Jefferson who influenced him, is fairly clear, 5 but the intent, insofar as there was one, of the others in Congress who voted for the language and those in the States who voted to ratify is subject to speculation."
-- U.S. Constitution: First Amendment: Religion

Jonathan Rowe said...

I obviously meant "their" private writings.

Gregg Frazer said...

Actually, I have an entire chapter of proof to "rope in" Washington with Jefferson and 20 pages of proof for Madison. I wrote a chapter full of proof concerning Hamilton in a soon-to-be released book edited by the nation's recognized foremost expert on religion in the Founding era. And I have 11 pages of proof re Wilson. Whether or not you care about Morris, he spoke more than anyone at the Convention, he chaired the committee on style, he wrote the Preamble, and, according to Madison:
"The finish given to the style and arrangement of the Constitution fairly belongs to the pen of Mr. Morris …. A better choice could not have been made, as the performance of the task proved. … [T]here was sufficient room for the talents and taste stamped by the author on the face of it. The alterations made by the Committee are not recollected. They were not such, as to impair the merit of the composition."

Not bad for someone you think they dismissed.

I didn't "make" JQ Adams anything -- I merely reported what John Adams said about his son. You'll have to take up your beef with him.

I don't deny -- I don't think Jon or anyone else does either -- that there were many other Founders and that some of them were Christians (Witherspoon, Jay, and Sherman, for example). But those most responsible for the content and wording of the founding documents were theistic rationalists. And there is no specifically Christian language in them -- and no biblical terms besides "Creator."

If Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin were such outliers with offensive beliefs at odds with the mainstream, why were they picked to write the philosophical document (Declaration)? As an evangelical Christian and knowing he's not a Christian, I would not pick Jon (for example) to write a document representing Christianity and the Christian nation I'm trying to erect -- talk about irrational!

When Franklin says he has "doubts" about the deity of Christ, that is the polite 18th century method of disagreeing with someone who holds the opposite view.

Finally, I see Tom is still hung up on my term. I consider it inappropriate to include "Christ" in the term for people who denied Who He essentially was/is. They didn't even acknowledge Who He was or claimed to be -- so why must His name be part of their identification? And why MUST it be part when "theistic" is perfectly accurate?

Kristo Miettinen said...


both "theist" and "rationalist" are well-defined terms. I know you (and Jon following you) want to coin a term "theistic rationalist" to mean something other than what the two terms mean when combined, but that position has gotten pushback here.

Ditto your (you and Jon) definition of "orthodox", etc.