Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Spirit of the Pilgrims

There is much great stuff in this 1831 book now available on google. It's written by orthodox figures and it details what happened when unitarianism started coming out of the closet.

You can read the following historical account in the book: In Virginia, in the 1780s, Enlightenment unitarians Jefferson and Madison teamed with evangelical baptists to separate Church & State, arguing religious establishments violated the rights of conscience. In 1780 Massachusetts where secret unitarianism was brewing, their state constitution held the standing order of "Protestant Christian" Congregational Churches could be supported with government aid without violating the "rights of conscience." Eventually, "Protestant Christians" of the unitarian bent openly preaching their doctrines got their hands on establishment aid (and the Dedham decision held by law that "unitarianism" was "Protestant Christianity" and consequently eligible for such aid) and the orthodox shrieked that this fake Christian form of "infidelity" was now the "established religion" of Massachusetts. And surprise surprise they now came to understand that evangelicals Isaac Backus and John Leland were right that religious establishments really did violate the "rights of conscience." THAT is what ended Massachusetts' religious establishment in 1833, the last state to disestablish.

Some brief highlights: On page 283, the author claims unitarianism as a form of infidelity that differs almost not at all with deism, but confusingly claims the "label" Christian and that the Bible teaches its principles:



Infidels, who have renounced the Christian religion, have established a system of their own, which they call Natural religion. Creation is their Bible, and they insist that the principles they embrace are everywhere to be read upon the fair face of nature. Many persons will perhaps be surprised, on being informed that this system is, in all essential points, the same with that which is avowed and defended by Unitarians. The only difference is, the Infidel acknowledges that the Bible teaches a faith totally different from that which he receives; while the Unitarian declares that this same system is that which the Bible teaches. The Unitarians of Massachusetts, and Paine, Hume, Gibbon, &c., "harmonize almost entirely in their religious sentiments. The only question between them is, whether the Bible exhibits those views of religion, which they mutually entertain." I do not here assert, that Unitarians agree with Infidels in discarding the Bible, but that the same truths which Unitarians profess to learn from the Bible, Infidels avow and defend. Paine, in his "Age of Reason," gives us his religious belief. The subjoined extracts from that notorious publication authorize the above remarks.


Such is the religious faith of Paine. He believes in the existence of God; in the perfection of his moral and natural attributes; that religion consists in imitating him; and that there is a future state of accountability. Now is not this the same system, which Unitarians insist that Jesus Christ and the apostles taught? We would not only remark, that Unitarians believe all this; but does it not comprise the fundamental principles of their faith? Does not this creed embrace everything which they deem essential in the instructions of Christ? Would not a sober person, declaring this to be his faith, be admitted to any Unitarian church? Thus do both parties believe the same system of doctrines, and the only question between them is, Do Jesus Christ and the apostles teach it? I appeal to any Unitarian, candid or uncandid, whether Unitarianism and this pure Deism of Tom Paine is not essentially the same thing? Such an one, to be consistent, should say to Paine, "My friend, you are right; but then you ought not to abuse the writers of the Bible, for they agree with you entirely. If you will examine the Bible more critically and rationally, you will perceive that yours is that pure and holy faith which the Scriptures inculcate."

Unitarians discard those peculiar doctrines which are usually regarded as the essential principles of Christianity. Paine renounces these also; and he renounces the Bible for teaching them. He thus agrees with Unitarians, not only in what they believe, but in what they do not believe.

1. The Trinity. "The ambiguous idea of a man God; the corporeal idea of the death of a God ; the mythological idea of a family of Gods; and the Christian system of Arithmetic, that three are one, and one is three, are all irreconcilable, not only to the Divine gift of reason that God hath given to man, but to the knowledge that man gains of the power and wisdom of God."

2. Divinity of Christ. "The Scriptures represent this virtuous and amiable man, Jesus Christ, to beat once both God and Man."

"As to the Christian system of faith, it appears to me as a system of Atheism; a sort of religious denial of God. It professes to believe in a man, rather than in God."

3. Atonement. "Is the gloomy pride of man become so intolerable, that nothing can flatter it, but the sacrifice of the Creator?"

The writings of the apostles "are chiefly controversial; and the subject they dwell upon, that of a man dying in agony on a cross, is better suited to the gloomy genius of a monk in a cell, than to any man breathing the open air of creation."

"It is an outrage offered to the moral justice of God, by supposing him to make the innocent suffer for the guilty, and also for the loose morality, and low contrivance of supposing him to change himself into the shape of a man, in order to make an excuse to himself for not executing his supposed sentence upon Adam."

I thought "that God was too good to do such an action, and also too Almighty to be under the necessity of doing it."

If it were not known that these extracts were from "Paine's Age of Reason," every one would suppose that they were taken from some Unitarian sermon or periodical. There certainly is a strong family resemblance.


Surely, the Infidel and the Unitarian are brought into very close alliance. They believe the same doctrines. They discard the same. The chief labor of Unitarians now seems to be, to advocate the religious system of Paine, and endeavor to prove that it is taught by Jesus and his apostles.*

And on page 274 one author rails on Joseph Priestley and shows how Trinitarianism and Unitarianism are theologically irreconcilable as they worship different gods:

Mr. M. insists that the "Trinitarian, who believes that Christ was [is] God," can with propriety "go to the communion table with a Unitarian, who believes him to have been an inferior, created, dependant being." He may not be aware, perhaps, that he is at points on this subject, not only with Trinitarians, but with the most respectable Unitarians. "I do not wonder," says Dr. Priestley, "that yon Calvinists entertain and express a strongly unfavorable opinion of us Unitarians. The truth is, there neither can nor ought to be any compromise between us. If you are right, we are not Christians at all; and if we are right, you are gross idolators." "Opinions such as these," says Mr. Belsham, "can no more harmonize with each other, than light and darkness, than Christ and Belial. They who hold doctrines so diametrically opposite cannot be fellow-worshippers in the same temple."—Does our author believe that the primitive disciples would have gone to the Lord's Table with professed idolators? Yet some American Unitarians have not hesitated to say, (with Dr. Priestley, as above quoted,) that those who worship the Lord Jesus Christ are idolaters.

No doubt these writings are "loaded" towards the evangelical-Trinitarian perspective. Many unitarians argued they were NOT with the Deists and were Bible believing Christians. Further, after studying the writings of Priestley et al., while they did sometimes claim that Trinitarianism was idol worship, elsewhere they stated, more or less, as long as Trinitarians learned to downplay that doctrine, they COULD worship at the same table together because both worshipped God the Father. In the end most orthodox Trinitarians proved to be FAR less accepting of the Unitarians than vice versa. But then again that's just "spiritual discernment," something many orthodox pride themselves in possessing in abundance and something unitarians went out of their way towards which to be indifferent.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Again, this is a theological argument, and once again made by a clergyman. One thing most of the Founders agreed on was that the clergy are professional theological troublemakers.


More interesting and relevant would be whether the very orthodox Samuel Adams had problems with his cousin John's unitarianism, and how that affected their working together to make the American revolution.

And thx for the pointer about the Congregationalist-unitarian schism. Once again it appears to me that those of the modernist bent use politics and legal manipulation to get what they want rather than argument and persuasion. But I'll have to prove that. For now, it's just a slander.

Double ;-)

King of Ireland said...

This sounds like Frazer could have written this. Good find Jon. May prove that they were arguing the same things we do here at American Creation.

The question is whether his claim is true. It seems that the biggest thing that divided these two groups was not so much the Trinity but original sin and its consequences.

I am wavering on original sin in the sense of total depravity and possibly beginning to rule it out all together based on some conclusions I have come to about Genesis. These issues are not as black and white as some would like to make them.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Original sin is interesting. Certainly there's a fatalism and negative psychological dynamic in thinking of man as fundamentally flawed.

And even as they believed in human progress, of that can-do optimism unfettered by the past and by fatalism---truly the font of the belief in an "American exceptionalism---the most "Enlightened" of the Founders like John Adams and James Wilson also questioned the human intellect ["reason"] as being incapable of genuine honesty. They attached "reason" to the passions.

Or as I like to say, if you can't lie to yourself, who can you lie to?

Still, there was some level of belief in Calvinism of some level of "perfectibility" of man or at least his institutions. One of our contributors once postulated a straight line between the Pilgrims and today's New England liberals. Let's see if I we get her back to opine.

I'll enter here that Madison's greatest contribution to the framing of the government's structure was to set competing interests against each other so that tyranny was a practical impossibility. This isn't idealism or theology, but a quite practical---a posteriori---conclusion about how man is wired.

And I'll gratuitously throw in my man GK Chesterton here:

"Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved."

Whether he was being serious or waggish...well, he was always both.

Lori Stokes said...

Hm, can I still stand behind my claim that Congregationalism led straight to Progressivism? And can I ever prove it?!

I'll try to do the first. The way I see it is that Congregationalists and those of other Protestant strains who lived in New England during the Revolutionary period found that the old Puritan righteous anger they were so used to living with was perfectly suited to opposing Britain (Britain denied the perfectibility of America and Americans). What had been strictly religious zeal for making oneself more ready to receive God's grace (Congregationalist) quickly and powerfully became zeal for political justice and equality.

After the Revolution, this energy poured into creating the new federal and state governments, to figuring out the nuts and bolts of a representative democracy. This became the "religion" of New England, and was a good plank to leap onto as traditional Congregationalism quickly died out.

By the 1820s, the religion of political reform began to return to church as social reform. Abolitionism was a good example of a social reform that was best taken up through religious channels, according to New Englanders. There were others--from ending poverty and helping orphans to getting prostitutes off the streets.

Congregationalism drew the line at this activity, which was 100% about trying to perfect society on Earth and only tangentially about perhaps becoming closer to God through such activity. Those who liked the new social reform religion became Unitarians and Universalists. Those who hated the new social religion remained in their Congregational churches, dwindling, until by the 1850s there was really nothng to distinguish a Congregationalist church from any other Protestant variety, and the name meant nothing.

So it was Puritan/Congregational zeal that was stretched to include politics and then social reform. The righteous anger, damnation of those who fell short, and certainty of God's blessing on their activities were all Puritan inheritances for the U/Us. It is ironically necessary that for them to use this Puritan legacy, they had to separate from the remaining Congregationalists.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Thx. It does seem interesting that the flavor and intensity of say, abolitionist rhetoric matched that of say, a Jonathan Edwards sermon.

I don't detect that in the European model.

Like William Wilberforce's famous 1787 anti-slavery speech:

"I wish exceedingly, in the outset, to guard both myself and the House from entering into the subject with any sort of passion. It is not their passions I shall appeal to I ask only for their cool and impartial reason; and I wish not to take them by surprise, but to deliberate, point by point, upon every part of this question. I mean not to accuse any one, but to take the shame upon myself, in common, indeed, with the whole parliament of Great Britain, for having suffered this horrid trade to be carried on under their authority."

And by contrast, of course unitarian Julia Ward Howe's "Battle Hymn of the Republic."