Sunday, February 21, 2010

Who Were the Unitarians?

Much has been written here about the "unitarians" of the Founding era. John Adams averred he was one, as did Abagail Adams. But were they Christians?

Well, they certainly considered themselves Christians, and protested quite vociferously when accused of not being Christians, usually by competing "orthodox" clergy.

It all came to a head around 1815, when William Ellery Channing---generally regarded then (as now) as exemplary of that era's unitarianism [Abigail Adams specifically endorsed Channing theologically]---answered some prevailing charges against unitarianism in

A Letter to the Rev. Samuel C. Thacher on the Aspersions Contained in a Late Number of the Panoplist, on the Ministers of Boston and the Vicinity

Now, perhaps the defining feature of unitarianism was that it didn't believe in the Trinity---1 + 1 + 1 would equal Three, not One. Hence the term "unitarian."

There were other orthodox doctrines rejected, too, namely, as Channing wrote:

"I fear, that the Author of the Lord's prayer will, according to this rule, be driven as a heretick from the very church which he has purchased with his own blood. In that well known prayer I can discover no reference to the "inspiration of the holy scriptures, to the supreme divinity of the Son and Holy Ghost, to the atonement and intercession of Jesus Christ, to the native and total depravity of the unregenerate, and to the reality and necessity of special divine grace to renew and sanctify the souls of men;" and these, let it be remembered, are _five_ out of the _six_ articles which are given by the Reviewer as fundamental articles of a christian's faith."

So that's what they didn't believe. So what did they believe? Channing wrote:

"The word UNITARIANISM, as denoting this opposition to Trinitarianism, undoubtedly expresses the character of a considerable part of the ministers of this town and its vicinity, and the commonwealth...We both agreed in our late conference, that a majority of our brethren believe, that Jesus Christ is more than man, that he existed before the world, that he literally came from heaven to save our race, that he sustains other offices than those of a teacher and witness to the truth, and that he still acts for our benefit, and is our intercessor with the Father. This we agreed to be the prevalent sentiment of our brethren."

Is that Christian enough? Certainly not to the orthodox clergy and various laymen of the time who stood in opposition to them.

Probably not Christian enough for most Christian theologians of any stripe today, certainly not evangelical or orthodox.

But perhaps Christian enough for the sociologist or the historian. "Unitarian Christian" is my own preference, both descriptively and definitively, at least for our best understanding in this day and age. [Channing and others used "'rational' Christians," but in our day, I'm not sure that's helpful or descriptive enough, although it's certainly a proper term. Channing himself published a popular tract in 1819 called Unitarian Christianity.]

Do read Channing's letter for yourself, as there's more than can be sketched or excerpted here. It offers an excellent window into what is called the Unitarian Controversy today, and clearly outlines the issues and the players, a clarity we need to consider the unitarians properly in the scheme of things.


King of Ireland said...


I am not sure how a trinitarian can say a unitarian that loves God and his neighbor as himself is not Christian. I understand that to love God one must have an accurate picture of Him. But I think it is much more important to understand that God is compassionate, gracious... and all the attributes that he described as His glory to Moses in Exodus than to figure out if it is 3 and 1 or 1 and 3. I think we strain out a nat and swallow a camel.

I am agreeing with you in the above as I am sure you can tell. KISS. Keep it simple stupid. Thanks for your posts like these that do that.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I'm sorry, Naum, I deleted your comment. I'm just not in the mood for that sort of nonsense today. If you have something of substance to contribute, please do. Otherwise, please don't.


Yes, King, that was certainly Channing's point, which he makes quite often in the full text, that such theological hassling and condemnation is unChristian.

[In fact, Madison says that too---

10. Ends in what is orthodoxy, what heresy. Dishonors Christianity.

see Jon's previous post.]

And yes, I did trim the side issues touched on in Channing's letter, which are also interesting, but would have distracted from Channing's core point. One crisis at a time.

Brian Tubbs said...

The Unitarians of the founding era were definitely not the same as the Unitarian-Universalists of today.

Naum said...

I'm sorry, Naum, I deleted your comment.


You'll probably delete this one too.

Again, you're lifting text into a completely different cultural context without allotting for such a juxtaposition.

Your writing is laced with authority you simply don't possess — and that would not be so bad if acknowledged, but you posture yourself as this beacon of disinterest…

bpabbott said...


If you invite Tom to delete your comment don't be surprised if he gives you what you ask for ;-)

I'd like to encourage you (as Tom did) to constructively contribute the the blog.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

i just don't understand what believing in a "god" has to do with loving neighbor. Many unbelievers do this, so why promote a certain type of belief system?

On the other hand, the only way to defend liberty, as our liberal democracy, would be to allow for such diversity of viewpoint that religion brings to the conversation.

Am I missing something? (delete this, if you must, b/c I know this blog is about religious belief and the Founding...I'm just interested and curious as to why it is necessary to believe to be humane? Some believers are more inhumane than unbelievers, so it has little to do with belief...does it?)

Tom Van Dyke said...

i just don't understand what believing in a "god" has to do with loving neighbor.

I dunno, Angie. Jesus loves Naum, and I'm trying.

But love you your enemies, and do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great, and you shall be the children of the Highest: for he is kind to the unthankful and to the evil.

See, it's pretty easy to love some faceless sea of humanity, but when your neighbor's getting in your face, that's where the rubber meets the road.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I believe that love is just as much about saying "no" to someone that is "out of bounds" as it is turning the other cheek.

Don't you believe in self-defense? Do you believe that our nation has a right to national security?

Christian moralistic idealism is self-annihilation, which isn't healthy psychologically. Believe me, I have tried that kind of 'annihlation" and it is called co=dependency. It is addiction to another's affirmation.

People who abuse others, whether physically, or emotionally have no right to be given acess to abuse. And it is only the abused who can determine their experience of abuse. That is where personal differences lie.

So, if someone wants a relationship to me, or wants me to co-operate, I am happy to long as they treat me with dignity and respect. I don't believe anyone has a "RIGHT" to a relationship. That is the right of both parties to agree upon.

And Chrstian communities must learn that individuals have a right to thei preferences and allow that difference.

Unless you believe that what the Congress and Obama adminstration is doing with reconcilliation is "right" by jamming it down our throat, then you will agree with me.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

But, possibly the difference in how we might view the "reconcilliation" on healthcare is about "eltieism" or "equality"...democracy or a Republic....

Tom Van Dyke said...

I don't like getting too far into partisan politics, Angie, and make special efforts to avoid mentioning the president and current events. The blog gets pretty ruthless and stupid when we go there. Besides, I think my thoughts on that front would be fairly predictable to those who have got to know me.

I will say that in a larger sense, the importance of "Christian charity" as a socio-political dynamic in Western history is overlooked today in our post-Christian world---we take "charity" for granted now, even if we've disconnected it from Christ.

But Machiavelli noted that Christian charity replaced the pagan notion of "magnanimity," which was more self-aggrandizement than genuine love for neighbor.

And it's argued that Christianity took over the Roman Empire not by politics or Constantine, but by its charity as contrasted with pagan virtue. Supposedly, Christianity invented the concept of the "hospital."

But today, such charity is being delegated to the state, and is no longer the province of the individual or the community.

Perhaps this will work, perhaps not. The cold calculations of utilitarianism, "the greatest good for the greatest number," surely make the individual disappear into a faceless sea of numbers and data. And of course, the charity state requires higher taxes, more bureaucracy, etc., to function, and individual liberty as well might be at threat. That's certainly the argument of the low taxes-smaller government movement.

As for the individual liberties you speak of, and the threat of a presumably Christian "community" to them, the other side of the equation of rights in the Founding era was "duties." How far can the exercise of individual prerogative go before it disrupts continutity, the ethos that defines the community itself?

I touched on this in King's post. As Sam Adams wrote:

Mr. Locke has asserted and proved, beyond the possibility of
contradiction on any solid ground, that such toleration ought to be extended to
all whose doctrines are not subversive of society..."

And so, if Christian principles are part of the fabric of society, to destroy them would be "subversive" of society.

This has nothing to do with actual religious belief, mind you, whether Jesus is God or if God even exists. It's about the principles that glue a society together and let it function properly.

Which brings us back to Washington's Farewell Address yet once again:

"Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle."

The argument isn't for the individual's belief in God or Christianity---that's freedom of conscience---but the threat to the prevailing belief in the community for such things if freedom of conscience is stretched to its limit.

The community disappears; all that's left is the overarching state, which Hobbes called "Leviathan."

Now, maybe a Godless state can handle the job of charity, and still preserve individual liberty. The current controversy in our country is exactly over that proposition.

Or at least, that's how I see it, and why this religion and the Founding stuff is more than an abstract and academic exercise.

Tom Van Dyke said...

More here for those interested. K of I in particular would find the arguments agreeable.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Thank you, Tom for a thoughtful and "provoking" response.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Some responsed said by those that can say it best...

"A social system is a code of laws which men observe in order to live together. Such a code must have a basic principle, a starting point, or it cannot be devised. The starting point is the question: Is the power of society limited or unlimited?
"Individualism answers: The power of society is limited by the inalienable, individual rights of man. Society may make only such laws as do not violate these rights.
"Collectivism answers: The power of society is unlimited. Society may make any laws it wishes, and force them upon anyone in any manner it wishes." -- Ayn Rand, Textbook of Americanism, HERE

"Collectivism holds that the individual has no rights, that his life and work belong to the group (to "society," to the tribe, the state, the nation) and that the group may sacrifice him at its own whim to its own interests. The only way to implement a doctrine of that kind is by means of brute force -- and statism has always been the poltical corollary of collectivism." -- Ayn Rand, HERE
"STATISM is that particular form of collectivism in which individuals are forced to be subservient to government (as distinguished, if possible, from a religious or cult leader, roving invader or local gangster). Anyone in government who wants to extend his power, or anyone else (who has political influence) with agendas to advance, monopolies to secure, axes to grind or revenge to take -- can make claims that certain governmental actions would be in the national, state, society or even family interest and must 'therefore' take precedence over any individual interests whatsoever. With this 'justification' the people in government can proceed to enforce such claims, often enthusiastically, sometimes brutally, but always with impunity." -- Rick Gaber

"Altruism demands that an individual serve others, but doesn’t stipulate whether those others should be one’s family, or the homeless, or society as a whole. Collectivism states that, in politics, society comes first and the individual must obey. Collectivism is the application of the altruist ethics to politics." -- Dr. Andrew Bernstein, HERE

"Among other grand achievements, F. A. Hayek had a remarkable career pointing out the flaws in collectivism. One of his keenest insights was that, paradoxically, any collectivist system necessarily depends on one individual (or small group) to make key social and economic decisions. In contrast, a system based on individualism takes advantage of the aggregate, or 'collective,' information of the whole society; through his actions each participant contributes his own particular, if incomplete, knowledge—information that could never be tapped by the individual at the head of a collectivist state." -- Sheldon Richman, HERE

"A man's admiration for absolute government is proportionate to the contempt he feels for those around him"-- Alexis de Tocqueville

Tom Van Dyke said...

The power of society is limited by the inalienable, individual rights of man. Society may make only such laws as do not violate these rights.

Rand argues the reverse of Sam Adams and Locke. And Gouverneur Morris, as I recall. The only truly "free" individual is the hermit. Once man "enters" into society, he necessarily surrenders some rights. But by consent.

And if the exercise of individual rights "subvert" society, there is no society to protect the individual's rights! If protecting rights is the purpose of a government, or a society, the society still must answer the question of its own survival.

Now, federalism was conceived by the Founders to preserve the smaller units of society---the community, the state---from the monstrous central Leviathan that your other quotes warn against.

And if you notice, Hayek conceives of a bottom-up [individualist] society, as opposed to a top-down [Leviathan, collectivist] state. Still, society exists, in contrast to Rand, who barely recognizes the existence of society.

This is sort of what Pinky has been trying to get at with his work on Barry Shain and the "community" basis of rights at the Founding, which is opposition to Rand's "radical individualism."

The modern narrative of "rights" is radical individualism, but the duty to not subvert society goes hand-in-glove with that, according to the Founding-era view that Shain argues.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

"It is strangely absurd to suppose that a million of human beings, collected together, are not under the same moral laws which bind each of them separately." -- Thomas Jefferson

"Comrades! We must abolish the cult of the individual decisively, once and for all." -- Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev, addressing the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party, 2-25-56
"...we understand only the individual's capacity to make sacrifices for the community, for his fellow men." -- Adolf Hitler, 10-7-33

"To be a socialist is to submit the I to the thou; socialism is sacrificing the individual to the whole." -- Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda, National Socialist German Workers' ("Nazi") Party

Tom, I guess I thought freedom was for me, as well as any other person. But, sacrifice is to Prove some altruistic claim that man is made in God's the loving community will abide by its own rules and do justly :(...

I imagine that the scientific community in whatever discipline have "goals" that must be realized at such expense. But, as far as I am concerned, the "tea parties" do speak to the arrogance that inhabits the halls of power. It is the wealthy and priviledged that don't care about Americans and their "consent". They will rule and dominate, like Machavelli...

The thoughtful response you gave did not mean that I consent to be governed by domination.

And I do not believe that Pinky is right in saying that poverty was the major social issue at the Founding.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Oh, the hate of tyranny was #1 at the Founding, don't get me wrong.

As for Pinky, I don't know what he says about poverty. I just know he's been reading historian Barry Shain, who argues the notions of rights and liberty at the Founding were a lot more community-based than today's radical individualism gives them credit for.

As for your Jefferson quote, that's classic natural law theory, the prevailing sentiment at the Founding. Natural law would be opposed to radical individualism, too---liberty, not license, to quote Locke among others. Natural law also recognizes that man is a social animal, and therefore to subvert society---as I believe Ayn Rand does [actually she mostly obliterates the concept]---is to go against man's own well-being.

But keep in mind it's that the godless, post-Christian scheme that believes in altruism. In the Christian scheme, I must love Naum not for Naum's sake but for God's. That's not "altruism," it's agape.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

#1- you must believe in a God that has the moral demand of love as the purpose of creation...which undermines evolution's impersonability, as well as affirms some ancient text. Evolution as a fact does not give credibility to anything other than an organistic society, not a social contract (another philosophical dilemma). Social contract would be what civilized societies do to circumvent tribalism and inhibit the survival mentality and mode of being in the world.

#2- Loving someone has to be for their own sake because love considers the other's need. God is irrelavant in this sense.

#3-I don't believe in agape. It is the same as altruism...and I will not prove that...consent to choose to love who I will, not demand to act in a certain way. That is tyrannical to demand a certain response or act. Kant has his limitations...

#4- Natural law was the basis of the 'old way of viewing things" scientifically. Now we have quantum theory as well as many others that underwrite what might be possible in explaining reality. "Natural law" is static, isn't it, while irreducible complexity and the choice as to one's "universe" (parallel universes) what an individual chooses to be a part of...that is rational choice about which describes reality the closest. And since Christians aren't too keen on freethought or liberty of conscience (in some sects), I tend to lean toward the scientific way of understanding life.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Sorry, Angie. You have so many irreconcilable feelings and philosophies swirling in your head that I just don't have the time or ability to sort them out.

You want it all, and it just doesn't work that way. You want radical individualism and the rest of the world just orders itself so you can go your own merry way. You want man to be a social creature without a society, you want rights without duties. You want a Christian society without Christianity.

You're the perfect product of the modern age.

You just said yourself that the Second Great Commandment, to love your neighbor as yourself---even if he abuses you and hates your guts like Naum abuses and hates me---is tyrannical.

I can't help you with that, doll. I accept that command willingly, consent of the governed, if not under natural law, under the greatest of all laws.

Hey, Naum, I love you, my man. It's an agape thing; you wouldn't understand.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

You are correct, Tom. I am sorting out the philosophical dilemmas, and trying to ascertain which I prefer and why. This is an arduous task that I doubt I trust too many to help me with. Sorry. I guess I value my independence too much. That doesn't mean I don't consider what others think or know...but I am protecting myself from indoctrination/domination of any kind.

I will defer to you in regards to my further interaction on this blog, as I am not "addding to the discussion" at present. When I think I have something of value, then possibly I will "come back to speak". Hopefully, you understand my journey. Know that I have and do appreciate all the contributors on this blog. The diversity is so refreshing...just wish there was an devout atheist that would join.

Tom Van Dyke said...

We got Ben. He's OK.

If you remember the post I did on Murray Rothbard, the Aquinas-libertarian-atheist, he might be up your alley.

As for the rest, just pick one idea at a time and see how far it runs on its own steam. You contribute with the right questions all the time, Angie. You get the thread.

Just send a cruise missile next time instead of a cluster-bomb. Reconciling every idea humanity has ever had over the last 5000 years is just a little too much for a comments section.

Otherwise, you do just fine.

bpabbott said...

Angie, regarding "independence", I'm a big defender of that principle. I'm inclined to aggressively defend the liberty of those who I aggressively oppose (ironic?).

Tom, regarding "We got Ben. He's OK" ... you're "OK" too ;-)

Regarding "devout atheism", I think that a bit oxymoronic. I embrace a devotion to individual liberty, and am devoted to seeking truth via the empirical sciences. However, my atheism is predicated on the absence of evidence. Not upon a devotion to an idea.

Depending upon how the term atheism is defined (from agnostic to anti-theistic) Jon, JRB, Ray, and/or Naum *may* qualify as atheists as well.

In any event, Angie, I and many others (Tom is a clear example) find your participation here constructive and provocative ... meaning we enjoy your comments and miss them when you're not participating.

You give me much to think about. I hope you'll continue to comment!

jimmiraybob said...

bpa - "Depending upon how the term atheism is defined (from agnostic to anti-theistic) Jon, JRB, Ray, and/or Naum *may* qualify as atheists as well."

These days - and for the last 5,000 years or so - the term atheist has more often than not been used to convey a negative image (mild understatement) and to shut down reasonable discourse. I'd prefer non-theist as this is fairly descriptive without some of the immediate baggage.

As to devotion, like bpa, I'm neither militant or devoted to a non-theist position. It more or less comes about from a lack of convincing evidence and a general lack of automatic and unquestioning faith in the honor and virtue of religious professors and institutions. If Jesus or Yaweh or Zeus came to earth and could make a convincing case (sans the intermediaries) I'd re-evaluate...probably fairly quickly.

I find that I can lead a quite virtuous and moral life without guilt at being human. This being said, I realize that I live in a larger society where many people find a great deal of comfort and foundation for their own ethics and morality in their religious devotions and that I'm a beneficiary of this.

I've known very brilliant and virtuous atheists, agnostics, Christians, Mormons, and Islamists - and I'm sure I'm leaving someone out.

(This generalization can also be extended to individuals of the various political persuasions.)

I've also known some really dishonest and immoral schmucks across this spectrum too.

I'm guessing, and I've seen not evidence to suggest otherwise, that a cross section of humanity in the American colonies/states during the founding, wouldn't be to dissimilar to what we'd see today. But, thanks to the groundwork of the founding and founders we live in a society that we can be relatively unafraid of often-unpopular expressions.

One thing that I like about AC is the diverse voice. And, I should add, nobody's thrown me out of here yet. :)

jimmiraybob said...

To heck with spelling, usage and grammar rules. That's how I'm rollin' today. Apparently.