Monday, July 5, 2010

Thomas Belsham's Unitarian Creed

From "American Unitarianism," circa 1816:

"I shall now proceed to exhibit a concise view of Rational Christianity in its connection with Natural Religion.

"Of Rational Religion, the first and fundamental principle is that the Maker of the universe is infinitely powerful, wise, and good, and that it is impossible for him to act in contradiction to his essential attributes.

"God Is Love. Infinite benevolence alone prompted him to action. And infinite benevolence, combined with unerring wisdom, and supported by irresistible power, will infallibly accomplish its purpose in the best possible manner. It appears in fact, that a limited quantity of evil, both natural and moral, was necessary to the production of the greatest possible good. Whence this necessity arises, we know not; but that it could sot be avoided in a system upon the whole the best, we are well assured; for God would not choose evil for its own sake. Evil therefore is introduced and permitted, not because it is approved, but because it is unavoidable. It is in its own nature temporary and self-destructive; and in the view of the Deity it is absorbed and lost in the contemplation of its ultimate beneficial effects, so that to him the whole system appears wise, beautiful and good.

"God is the Former, the Father, and Benefactor of the human race, whom for wise reasons, unknown to us, but perfectly consistent, no doubt, with his magnificent plan of universal order and happiness, he has been pleased to place in circumstances of frailty and danger, the natural consequence of which, in their progress through life, is the contraction of a certain degree of moral pollution, which, in the nature of things, and by the divine appointment, exposes them to a proportionate degree of misery here or hereafter.

"But this fact by no means proves a preponderance of vice and misery in the world; otherwise we must conclude that the Maker of the world, whose character we learn only from his works, is a weak or a malignant being. The truth is, that although the quantity of vice and misery actually existing is very considerable, there is nevertheless, upon the whole, a very great preponderance of good in general, and, with few, if any exceptions, in every individual in particular.

"The almost universal desire of life and dread of dissolution, amounts to a strong presumption, that life is in general a blessing. And the disgrace universally attached to flagrant vice, proves that such vice is not common. Character is the sum total of moral and intellectual habits, and the proportion of virtuous habits, in the worst characters, exceeds that of vicious ones. But no character takes the denomination of virtuous unless all the habits are on the side of virtue: whereas one evil habit is sufficient to stamp a character vicious.

"God cannot be unjust to any of his creatures. Having brought men into existence and placed them in circumstances of imminent peril, though in the nature of things misery is necessarily connected with vice, we may certainly conclude that none of the creatures of God in such, or in any circumstances, will ever be made eternally miserable. Indeed it is plainly repugnant to the justice of God, that the existence to any of his Intelligent creatures, should be upon the whole a curse.

"The light of philosophy affords a few plausible arguments for the doctrine of a future life: there are some appearances physical and moral, which cannot be satisfactorily explained upon any other supposition. But since the sentient powers are suspended by death, and admit of no revival but by the revival of the man, a fact the expectation of which is entirely unsupported both by experience and analogy, the speculations of philosophy would commonly, and almost necessarily, terminate in the disbelief of a future existence.

"Here divine revelation offers its seasonable and welcome aid. God has commissioned his faithful and holy servant, Jesus of Nazareth, to teach the universal resurrection of the dead, and by his own resurrection to confirm and exemplify his doctrine.

"Jesus hath authoritatively taught, that the wicked will he raised to suffering; nor could it possibly be otherwise, if they are to be raised with the same system of habits and feelings with which they descended to the grave, and without which their identity would be lost. But since eternal misery for temporary crimes is inconsistent with every principle of justice, and since a resurrection from previous insensibility to indefinite misery, to be succeeded by absolute annihilation, is a harsh supposition, contrary to all analogy, and not to be admitted but upon the clearest evidence, we are naturally led to conclude, that the sufferings of the wicked will be remedial, and that they will terminate in a complete purification from moral disorder, and in their ultimate restoration to virtue and happiness. In this conclusion we seem to be justified by those passages in the apostolical writings which declare, that the blessings of the gospel shall be far more extensive than the calamities of the fall, and that Christ shall reign till all things shall be subdued unto him. (Rom. v.—1 Cor. xv.)

"The apostles were commanded to preach the gospel to the idolatrous heathen as well as to the chosen family of Abraham, and they were authorized to confirm their doctrine by miracles. These extraordinary powers are in the Scriptures called the Spirit of God, and the Holy Spirit; and the great change which took place in the views, feelings, and character of pharisaic Jews and idolatrous heathen, when they sincerely professed the Christian faith, is called, a new creation, regeneration, rising from the dead, and the like. And as conversion to Christianity was usually produced by the evidence of miracles, this new creation, regeneration, sanctification, or passing from death to life, is in this sense ascribed to the Spirit of God.

"The Jews, having been chosen by God to peculiar privileges, entertained a very high notion of their own dignity, and expressed themselves in the most contemptuous language of the idolatrous gentiles, who were not in covenant with Jehovah. Of themselves they spoke as a chosen and a holy nation, sons of God, and heirs of the promises. But the heathens were represented as sinners, as aliens-, as enemies to God, and the like. In allusion to which forms of expression, the converted gentiles being entitled equally with converted Jews, to the blessings of the new dispensation, they are therefore said to be forgiven, reconciled, and saved, to be fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God.

"The death of Jesus is sometimes called a propitiation, because it put an end to the Mosaic economy, and introduced a new and more liberal dispensation, under which the gentiles, who were before regarded as enemies, are admitted into a state of amity and reconciliation; that is, into a state of privilege similar to that of the Jews. It is also occasionally called a sacrifice, being the ratification of that new covenant into which God is pleased to enter with his human offspring, by which a resurrection to immortal life and happiness is promised, without distinction, to all who are truly virtuous. Believers in Christ are also said to have redemption through his blood, because they are released by the Christian covenant from the yoke of the ceremonial law, and from the bondage of idolatry. Dr. Taylor has in general well explained these Jewish phrases in his admirable Key to the apostolic writings, prefixed to his Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans.

"The Scriptures contain a faithful and credible account of the Christian doctrine, which is the true word of God: but they are not themselves the word of God, nor do they ever assume that title : and it is highly improper to speak of them as such, as it leads inattentive readers to suppose they were written under a plenary inspiration, to which they make no pretension, and as such expressions expose Christianity unnecessarily to the cavils of unbelievers.

"Christianity sums up the whole of human duly in the love of God and our neighbor; and requiring that all our time should he employed to the best account, and that every action should be consecrated to God, lays no stress upon ritual observations, and expressly abolishes that distinction of days, which formed so conspicuous a feature in the Mosaic institute. To a true Christian every day is a Sabbath, every place is a temple, and every action of life an act of devotion. A Christian is not required to be more holy, nor permitted to take greater liberties upon one day than upon another. Whatever is lawful or expedient upon one day of the week is, under the Christian dispensation, equally lawful and expedient on any other day. Public worship, however, must be conducted at stated intervals; and it has been usual from the earliest times for Christians to assemble together, on the first day of the week, to commemorate the death and to celebrate the resurrection of their Master.

"This appears to me to be the true doctrine of reason and revelation, in which the God of nature is not represented as frowning over his works, and like a merciless tyrant dooming his helpless creatures to eternal misery, with the arbitrary exception of a chosen few ; but as the wise, benevolent, and impartial parent of his rational offspring, who is training them all, under various processes of intellectual and moral discipline, to perfect virtue and everlasting felicity. Such is the God of my faith and adoration, the God of nature and of revelation, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, that God whose existence, attributes, and government are the joy and confidence of every enlightened and virtuous believer."*

"Jesus is indeed now alive. But as we are totally ignorant of the place where he resides, and of the occupations in which he is engaged, there can be no proper foundation for religious addresses to him, nor of gratitude for favors now received, nor yet of confidence in his future interposition in our behalf."


Tom Van Dyke said...

Belsham was British, and Priestley's successor.

In his 1816 Letter to Thacher, William Ellery Channing, who became America's Unitarian "Pope" as it were, wrote:

"The word Unitarianism, as denoting...opposition to Trinitarianism, undoubtedly expresses
the character of a considerable part of the ministers of this
town and its vicinity, and the commonwealth. But we both
of us know, that their Unitarianism is of a very different kind from that of Mr. Belsham. 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."


Most of us have often contradicted Mr. Belsham's opinions:
and they who insist that these opinions are ours, will be
forced to maintain that we practise deceit. They start
with a falsehood, and their conclusion cannot therefore be

As we see, at least at this point in unitarian Christianity, as Channing called it, Belsham was not considered authoritative. I can only assume that Mr. Rowe was unaware of this seminal unitarian document, for Belsham spoke only for Socianians and Priestley-ans; the division he caused in America is the real story here.

Brad Hart said...

So can we say that American Unitarianism was more like Arianism?

Jonathan Rowe said...

Yes, I am well aware of Channing's sermon and that Unitarians had sectarian splits just like Trinitarians did.

Add a couple of lines and viola it "fits" with the Arianism of Channing, et al.

Jonathan Rowe said...

There were Sabellians, Arians, Socinians. I think Arianism dominated. Many unitarians considered "Sabellianism" to be a form of the creed (insofar as it is not Trinitarian). However, before I knew that, I would have considered "modalism" (of which Sabellianism is a form) to be neither unitarian nor Trinitarian.

Modalists do believe in a Jesus that is fully God (hence not subordinate or derived from the Father), but that Father, Son, Holy Spirit are three different "modes" or "forms" of the same God. Just not eternally distinct persons.

Pinky said...

What I think can be seen with these words is the beginning of the reactionary movement that came into the twentieth century against honest and open inquiry into what the Christian religion is all about.

Pinky said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pinky said...

The importance our aristocratic Founders put on religion led intellectual leadership to seek out a form of religion that would be the cement of society--one that would work for all.
(Previous post deleted for clarity)

Tom Van Dyke said...

So can we say that American Unitarianism was more like Arianism?

That's what I've read. But 999 out of 1000 couldn't tell you the difference between Channing's Christianity [above] and Belsham's Socinianism, which Channing---at least here---explicitly separates the American unitarians from.

The role of Jesus seems not much more than a prophet in Belsham here; Channing [and Arianism] certainly assign Jesus a unique role in the cosmos, existing before creation and serving as mediator between God and man.

Again, the terms, even for most historians I'd think, are more obstacles that obscure than doors that open understanding. Better to just keep it clean and speak of what they actually believed.

Even someone well-familiar with history or theology would read the OP as some sort of explanation of what the American unitarians believed, but according to the unitarian "pope" hisself, that ain't it.