Saturday, July 17, 2010

Rev. Samuel Miller: Unitarians Aren't "Christians", Miller's Argument

The last time I posted this, I excerpted the Unitarians' response, not Miller's claim. This time I am going to post parts of Miller's attack. He argues, perhaps with erroneous premises, that the Unitarianism that prevailed in America was, in principle, not much better than Deism. But it helps explain why men who thought of themselves as "Christians" (Jefferson, J. Adams, Franklin) historically became known as "Deists."

As Miller writes [with paragraph breaks added for clarity]:

One more insurmountable Objection to, the Unitarian system with me, is, that Infidels EVERY WHERE PREFER THIS SYSTEM TO ANY OTHER THAT BEARS THE CHRISTIAN NAME, and feel no reluctance to uniting in worship with its adherents.

It is not an uncommon thing for Unitarians to boast, that avowed Deists, on hearing, or reading the discourses of their distinguished preachers, have greatly admired them; and declared, that if the system exhibited in them were Christianity, they had no longer any difficulty in taking the name of Christian.

I have been credibly informed of repeated instances of this kind in reference to the Rev. Mr. Channing's sermon, preached and published in Baltimore. Unitarians consider this fact as a most potent argument in favour of their creed; as an argument, that it is so rational, and so strongly commends itself to common sense, that even infidels bow to its authority. But is it not a much more direct and powerful proof of something very different; viz. that Unitarianism and Infidelity are so closely allied, that he who embraces the one, has really no good reason for objecting to the other? This, I have no doubt, is the real ground of the fact in question. And, indeed, how can it be otherwise?

The prevalent system of Unitarianism at the present day, not only makes Christ a mere man, and discards the whole doctrine of Redemption; but also, as you have seen, rejects the inspiration of the scriptures; and, in short, presents a system reduced so nearly to a level with the Deistical scheme, and allows so much latitude of belief and of feeling, with regard to what is left, that the Deist must be fastidious indeed, who would feel much repugnance to joining in communion with a Unitarian society.

Dr. Priestley seems to have been very much of this opinion; for, in writing to a Unitarian friend, concerning a gentleman who had been commonly reputed a Deist, he observes— "He is generally considered as an unbeliever: IF SO, HOWEVER, HE CANNOT BE FAR FROM us; and I hope in the way to be not only almost but altogether what we are."*

Mr. Belsham, according to a representation given in a former Letter, explicitly acknowledges, that Unitarianism does not differ, in any important point, from serious Deism; and; in another place, does not hesitate to avow, that he would much rather embrace Deism than Orthodoxy.*

So Infidels themselves view the matter. They have little objection to the prevalent forms of Unitarianism; not because they are willing to approximate to real christianity; but because they see something, under the name of christianity, NEARLY APPROACHING TO THEM.


King of Ireland said...

Whether these men were Christian or not is less relevant than where the ideas on political theory they used came from. After reading Dr. Hall's last post, I think line of deliniation between Enligtenment and Christian is each camps view of the nature of man.

It is clear that all but Jefferson clearly believed that man was fallen to some degree and in need of redemption. So did Locke.

Since human nature is the center piece of all political theory talk, this is more germane than an endless soteriological debate where one camp tries to undermine the other's political views by crying heretic.

American was most certainly not founded on the idea of the perfectability of man. Case might seem to be closed here Jon. That is if we put this discussion in the correct frame.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Miller's argument here is from 1821, when the "Unitarian Controversy" was in full flower.

At the time of the Founding, it wasn't that big a deal.

Jonathan Rowe said...

It wasn't that big of a deal because what was explicit in 1821 was implicit and secret in the late 1700s.

Miller is still describing a faith that Jefferson, J. Adams and Franklin without question believed in and perhaps Madison and Washington as well.

Tom Van Dyke said...

It wasn't a big deal. The unitarians made it a big deal in the 1800s when they started taking over churches and exiling the Trinity. Until then, there was a co-existence.

As for the same handful of "key" Founders, the whole thing deflates without Jefferson. The anti-unitarian Rev. Timothy Dwight was a Federalist official, and worked for John Adams' election. Either he didn't care about Adams' unitarianism, or, more likely, didn't know.

Considering Adams issued a thanksgiving proclamation that was quite Presbyterian and Trinitarian, what he wrote after he retired has no real force.

"I have therefore thought fit to recommend, and I do hereby recommend, that Wednesday, the 9th day of May next, be observed throughout the United States as a day of solemn humiliation, fasting, and prayer; that the citizens of these States, abstaining on that day from their customary worldly occupations, offer their devout addresses to the Father of Mercies agreeably to those forms or methods which they have severally adopted as the most suitable and becoming; that all religious congregations do, with the deepest humility, acknowledge before God the manifold sins and transgressions with which we are justly chargeable as individuals and as a nation, beseeching Him at the same time, of His infinite grace, through the Redeemer of the World, freely to remit all our offenses, and to incline us by His Holy Spirit to that sincere repentance and reformation which may afford us reason to hope for his inestimable favor and heavenly benediction..."

Jonathan Rowe said...

"As for the same handful of "key" Founders, the whole thing deflates without Jefferson. The anti-unitarian Rev. Timothy Dwight was a Federalist official, and worked for John Adams' election. Either he didn't care about Adams' unitarianism, or, more likely, didn't know."

I think it might have been more of a don't ask don't tell thing. Samuel Miller, btw, (if I remember the story correctly) supported Jefferson. The same don't ask don't tell dynamic existed with him. But freedom of religious consciences goes both ways baby.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Freedom of religious conscience was a given [that goes back to Samuel Adams' "Rights of the Colonists," 1772], which is why unitarianism isn't important in the scheme of things. No big deal, except to clergy like Dwight and Miller, and then, only as a theological debate, not a political one.

Politically, the interest of the clergymen was the interest in the political liberty for their sects/denominations. Hence, Adams was associated with the powerful Presbyterians; Jefferson picked up the "evangelicals," the less orthodox, the minority sects, Baptists, Methodists, whathaveyou.

Even today, the verrrry orthodox Rev. Frank Pastore is gonna vote for the Mormon Mitt Romney over the professing Christian Barack Obama every time, even though as a pastor, he has greater theological problems with Mormonism than with Barack Obama's faith.

I think it can be fairly said that the Democratic Party favors secularism over theism in the public square, the GOP the reverse; hence "freedom of religious conscience" to Pastore would mean more theism in the public square. His politics---in the interest of his church and his beliefs---then, would tend toward Romney's party.


Dunno who Miller supported. But it was Miller himself [a Presbyterian] who asked Jefferson for a national day of thanksgiving and Prayer, which Jefferson famously refused:

"I consider the government of the United States as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises...Certainly no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the general government. ...But it is only proposed that I should recommend, not prescribe a day of fasting and prayer. That is, that I should indirectly assume to the United States an authority over religious exercises, which the Constitution has directly precluded them from...civil powers alone have been given to the President of the United States and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents."---Letter to Reverend Samuel Miller on January 23, 1808

Jefferson's was the minority view, since Washington, Adams, and Madison all did thanksgiving proclamations.

On the other hand, Jefferson's was still a valid view, followed by Andrew Jackson.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Miller, like Dwight, Morse, [Ashbel] Greene, interacted with the FFs on political-theological matters, and thus I think for that reason merit attention.