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.