Monday, February 22, 2010

Unitarianism of the (Early Post) American Founding Era

Following up on TVD's post that features a letter of WILLIAM E. CHANNING, Minister of the Church of Christ in Federal Street, Boston (one of the most notable American Unitarians of that era) to TO THE REV. SAMUEL C. THACHER, circa 1815, I below feature a letter of Jefferson's discussing Channing and unitarianism.

As we know, to many of the "orthodox" of today and back then, unitarianism is not "Christianity" whatever it calls itself. Ironic in that many/most "Christian Nationalists" are orthodox Christians who likely would term non-Trinitarianism as "not Christian."

But if unitarians are "Christians" then that captures a lot more notable Founders (Jefferson, J. Adams, Franklin, probably Madison, and contemporaries of Channing, Joseph Story and Jared Sparks) as "Christians."

That would bring us closer to a "Christian" Founding.

Here Thomas Jefferson writes to Timothy Pickering (February 27, 1821) commenting on one of Rev. Channing's sermons:


I thank you for Mr. Channing's discourse, which you have been so kind as to forward me. It is not yet at hand, but is doubtless on its way. I had received it through another channel, and read it with high satisfaction. No one sees with greater pleasure than myself the progress of reason in its advances towards rational Christianity. When we shall have done away the incomprehensible jargon of the Trinitarian arithmetic, that three are one, and one is three; when we shall have knocked down the artificial scaffolding, reared to mask from view the simple structure of Jesus; when, in short, we shall have unlearned everything which has been taught since His day, and got back to the pure and simple doctrines He inculcated, we shall then be truly and worthily His disciples; and my opinion is that if nothing had ever been added to what flowed purely from His lips, the whole world would at this day have been Christian. I know that the case you cite, of Dr. Drake, has been a common one. The religion-builders have so distorted and deformed the doctrines of Jesus, so muffled them in mysticisms, fancies and falsehoods, have caricatured them into forms so monstrous and inconceivable, as to shock reasonable thinkers, to revolt them against the whole, and drive them rashly to pronounce its Founder an impostor. Had there never been a commentator, there never would have been an infidel. In the present advance of truth, which we both approve, I do not know that you and I may think alike on all points. As the Creator has made no two faces alike, so no two minds, and probably no two creeds. We well know that among Unitarians themselves there are strong shades of difference, as between Doctors Price and Priestley, for example. So there may be peculiarities in your creed and in mine. They are honestly formed without doubt. I do not wish to trouble the world with mine, nor to be troubled for them. These accounts are to be settled only with Him who made us; and to Him we leave it, with charity for all others, of whom, also, He is the only rightful and competent Judge. I have little doubt that the whole of our country will soon be rallied to the unity of the Creator, and, I hope, to the pure doctrines of Jesus also.



Tom Van Dyke said...

Again, what's most informative about the religious landscape of the era is that even as late as 1821, Jefferson wishes his thoughts on theology to remain secret from the public!

He continues in this letter to Pickering:

"In saying to you so much, and without reserve, on a subject
on which I never permit myself to go before the public, I know
that I am safe against the infidelities which have so often
betrayed my letters to the strictures of those for whom they were not written, and to whom I never meant to commit my peace."

I meself wouldn't place Jefferson with Channing and the majority [according to Channing] of the "Unitarian Christians" of the day. I've seen no evidence Jefferson believed any of "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"

that Channing says is "the prevalent sentiment of our brethren."

As for Franklin, he seemed to be completely agnostic on those things, too, although agnostic, not dead set against them as Jefferson---in my view---was.

Eric Alan Isaacson said...

I'd like to note that Channing's Federal Street Church moved in 1861 to the intersection of Boylston and Arlington Streets, and thus is known today as the Arlington Street Church.

Though I agree with Tom that Channing was indeed a Unitarian Christian, I think it bears emphasizing that Channing rejected both the authority of Christian doctrines and creeds, and their employment to define the scope of religious fellowship. "It has been the fault of all sects," wrote Channing, "that they have been too anxious to define their religion. They have labored to circumscribe the infinite." -- William Ellery Channing, "On Creeds," in II The Works of William E. Channing 294 (Boston: James Munroe & Co., 3d ed. 1843).

Channing's religion was emphatically nondogmatic.

His words on religious education continue to inspire and guide how Unitarian Universalist Sunday school teachers, such as myself, approach our task today: "The great end of religious instruction is not to stamp our minds irresistibly upon the young but to stir up their own."