Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Who Were the American 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---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---as John Adams noted, 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.

The primary qualitative sine qua non for an understanding of unitarianism as Christianity is a belief that the Bible is literally the Word of God--even if corrupted over the centuries by churches, churchmen and assorted prophets and scholars, even if well-intentioned. The following excerpt from Channing contains too many ellipses [by a Dr. Jan Garrett] to be taken as a primary source, but it conveys enough of the unitarian view of scripture to serve as a starting point.

1 Thes. v. 21: "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good."

I shall [try to explain] the [methods we use] in interpreting the Scriptures . . . and . . . some of the [teachings] that [they] . . . seem to us clearly to express.
I. We regard the Scriptures as the records of God's . . . revelations to mankind, . . . Whatever [ideas] seem to us to be clearly taught in the Scriptures, we receive without reserve . . . We do not, however, attach equal importance to all the books in this collection.
Our religion . . . lies chiefly in the New Testament. . . . whatever [Jesus . . . ] taught, either during his personal ministry, or by his . . . Apostles, we regard as of divine authority . . . This authority, which we give to the Scriptures, is a reason . . . for studying them with peculiar care, and for inquiring . . . into the principles of interpretation . . . by which their . . . meaning may be [determined] . . .
Our [primary guideline] in interpreting Scripture is this, that the Bible is a book written for [human beings], in [human] language . . . and that its meaning is to be sought in the same [way] as that of other books. . . . God, when he speaks to the human race, [abides by] the established rules of speaking and writing. . . . Now all books, and all conversation, require in the reader or hearer the constant exercise of reason; . . . their . . . [meaning] is only to be obtained by continual comparison and inference. Human language, . . . admits various interpretations; and every word and every sentence must be modified and explained according to the subject which is discussed, according to the purposes, feelings, circumstances, and principles of the writer, and according to the [features] of the language . . . he uses. These are acknowledged principles in the interpretation of human writings . . .

One may protest this contains too much theological leeway to be considered "Christian," but as one unitarian argued in the 19th century, it certainly qualifies as Protestant!


Jon Rowe said...

Indeed and this is why for some time now, I've used Mormonism as an analogy. A big difference would be the enlightenment rationalism component. Mormons venerate the American founding, which has an enlightenment rationalist component to it, but that term is hardly something we associate with the Mormon faith.

Though much of what the unitarians of the Enlightenment era have turned out to believe -- like Priestley and Price's prophecy on the Book of Revelation -- seems to be likewise mystical as opposed to Enlightenment rationalism.

But the point is Mormons believe in a divine resurrected Jesus Christ as Messiah. That's very Christian. It's the very same logic that holds "Mormons aren't Christians" which also holds "unitarians aren't Christians."

Tom Van Dyke said...

You may want to give some thought and reading into my last comment re Protestantism.


The history of Christianity, notably since the sixteenth-century Reformation, is littered with prophets and seers who have reestablished “the true church,” usually in opposition to the allegedly false church of Rome, and then, later, in opposition to their own previously true churches. There are many thousands of such Christian groups today. Most of them claim to represent the true interpretation of the Bible. A smaller number lay claim to additional revelations by which the biblical witness must be “corrected.” One thinks, for instance, of the Unification Church of Rev. Sun Myung Moon. There are other similarities between Mormonism and the Unification Church, such as the emphasis on the celestial significance of marriage and family. According to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, “Gods and humans are the same species of being, but at different stages of development in a divine continuum, and the heavenly Father and Mother are the heavenly pattern, model, and example of what mortals can become through obedience to the gospel.”

Some have suggested that the LDS is a Christian derivative much as Christianity is a Jewish derivative, but that is surely wrong. The claim of Christianity is that its gospel of Jesus Christ is in thorough continuity with the Old Testament and historic Israel, that the Church is the New Israel, which means that it is the fulfillment of the promise that Israel would be “a light to the nations.”

While it is a Christian derivative, the LDS is, by way of sharpest contrast, in radical discontinuity with historic Christianity. The sacred stories and official teachings of the LDS could hardly be clearer about that. For missionary and public relations purposes, the LDS may present Mormonism as an “add-on,” a kind of Christianity-plus, but that is not the official narrative and doctrine.

A closer parallel might be with Islam. Islam is a derivative of Judaism and Christianity. Like Joseph Smith, Muhammad in the seventh century claimed new revelations and produced in the Qur’an a “corrected” version of the Jewish and Christian scriptures, presumably by divine dictation. Few dispute that Islam is a new and another religion, and Muslims do not claim to be Christian, although they profess a deep devotion to Jesus. Like Joseph Smith and his followers, they do claim to be the true children of Abraham. Christians in dialogue with Islam understand it to be an interreligious, not an ecumenical, dialogue. Ecumenical dialogue is dialogue between Christians. Dialogue with Mormons who represent official LDS teaching is interreligious dialogue.

Unlike the Christian Unitarians who sought to distill Christianity, the LDS has a deep extra layer of revelation.

Tom Van Dyke said...

IOW, unitarianism was 'heretic' only in what it refused to believe, whereas the LDS is heretic for its extra beliefs.

See also its different conception of God the Father. There is an irony in that God of the Christian Deists--indeed of the "deists" themselves--more closely resembles Jehovah ontologically than does the Mormon one.

Jonathan Rowe said...

"unitarianism was 'heretic' only in what it refused to believe, whereas the LDS is heretic for its extra beliefs."

Arguably Mormons are heretics because the like the unitarians reject the Nicene Trinity.

I don't understand the comment on the different conception of God the Father.

The response from the "orthodox" folks is that Jehovah Himself is Triune in His nature. He is not the "Father" in contradistinction to the Son. I'm not sure what the technical name for this doctrine is, but a great deal of orthodox Christianity teaches the pre-Incarnate Jesus was the Person of God who directly dealt with man in the Old Testament (not His Father).

Tom Van Dyke said...

I don't understand the comment on the different conception of God the Father.

You need to. It is FAR more important than the Trinity, which is doctrinal small change in comparison.


In order to compare and contrast the Mormon concept of God with the biblical/Christian concept of God, we must first fully understand what we mean by the biblical/Christian concept.

Though there are numerous aspects to God's nature that we could examine (such as that He is a Trinity), for our present purposes it is sufficient to say that the God of biblical Christianity is at least (1) personal and incorporeal (without physical parts), (2) the Creator and sustainer of everything else that exists, (3) omnipotent (all-powerful), (4) omniscient (all-knowing), (5) omnipresent (everywhere present), (6) immutable (unchanging) and eternal, and (7) necessary and the only God that exists.


Brigham Young clearly understood the logic of Smith's theology: "How many Gods there are, I do not know. But there never was a time when there were not Gods and worlds."16 Thus, Mormonism is a polytheistic religion which denies that God is a necessary being who has eternally existed as God.

Mormonism therefore teaches that certain basic realities have always existed and are indestructible even by God. In other words, God came from the universe; the universe did not come from God (although he did form this planet out of preexistent matter). For Mormonism, God, like man, is merely another creature in the universe. In the Mormon universe, God is not responsible for creating or sustaining matter, energy, natural laws, human personhood, moral principles, the process of salvation (or exaltation), or much of anything. In fact, instead of the universe being subject to Him (which is the biblical view), the Mormon God is subject to the universe. The Mormon God is far from omnipotent. He is not the God of the Bible.

Jon Rowe said...

All of that is just a different can of worms -- other than rejection of Nicene orthodoxy -- on the Mormon's heresy.

After reading such I think Ben Franklin ought to be credited as a Founder of Mormonism.

I'm not really interested in making the Mormon case, but thinking of our late great friend Mark and his private sentiments, the notion that the Mormon God "is not the God of the Bible" is contentious.

There is a philosophy or hermeneutic that ascribes to God the above noted attributes that gets imputed to the "biblical God" arguably for good reason. But Mormons also have their reasons that they can trace to the OT and NT, citing verses and chapter, to make their case.

"Mormonism therefore teaches that certain basic realities have always existed and are indestructible even by God. In other words, God came from the universe; the universe did not come from God (although he did form this planet out of preexistent matter). For Mormonism, God, like man, is merely another creature in the universe."

This is a very interesting passage. Newton and Clarke who were huge influences on the American Founding, especially the unitarians, while not perhaps teaching exactly what Mormonism teaches, also didn't teach the "biblical" position that Dr. Beckwith posits.


Tom Van Dyke said...

I'm glad you're looking this stuff up, but the difference between Clarke and Newton vs. Aquinas is not a difference in kind, it's only hairsplitting, and Feser merely illustrates that the former are simply Aquinas's philosophical inferiors.

The Mormon conception of God is nowhere near classical theism; Clarke's is.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Feser's stuff is admittedly a bit high falutin', but he is the expert on the philosophy of metaphysics. If I understand him right, he's saying that Clarke and Newton held God to be derivative of the universe, not vice versa. I think that's a bit more than hairsplitting. It seems reminiscent of how Mormons view God's relationship to things like time/space/matter and and energy.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Feser's just showing the holes in where their cosmology leads. But they do not say God is derivative of the universe. They may be somewhat at odds with Aquinas on this point, but as Feser says, it's because of the self-contradictions inherent in their position.

The whole point of metaphysics, to attempt to derive the question of existence [Being] via reason, is dependent on avoiding self-contradiction.

Fifth, the position Craig attributes to Newton is not really a coherent one, at least not on a Thomistic metaphysical analysis. For the position in question essentially holds that time and space cannot not exist and yet are not divine attributes. But if they cannot not exist, then time and space must be purely actual and there must be in them no distinction between essence and existence. But in that case they are divine attributes, since only of God can these things be said. On the other hand, if they are not divine attributes, then they must not be purely actual and there must be in them a distinction between essence and existence. In that case, though, it is false to say that they cannot not exist, since anything that is less than pure actuality, and anything in which there is a distinction between essence and existence, can in principle fail to exist.

So, there just is no sense to be made of the idea that there is something distinct from God that he cannot not create. If he cannot not create it then that is only because it cannot not exist, in which case it is purely actual and subsistent being itself and thus really identical with God. If it is really distinct from God, then it is not purely actual or subsistent being itself, and thus it can fail to exist and God can refrain from creating it. The supposed middle ground position between pantheism on the one hand, and affirming the contingency of time and space on the other, is an illusion.

Tom Van Dyke said...

This is still classical theism, and not contrary to Aquinas. And per above, this is not the Mormon conception of God. God is not derivative of the universe: To the contrary, he is by definition the Necessary Being--

Clarke’s “Argument from Contingency”:


1. Every being that exists is either contingent or necessary.

2. Not every being can be contingent.

3. Therefore, there exists a necessary being on which the contingent beings depend.

4. A necessary being, on which all contingent things depend, is what we mean by “God”.


5. Therefore, God exists.