Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Rev. Samuel Miller: Unitarians Aren't "Christians"

But he couldn't figure out what to call them.

Rev. Samuel Miller was a professor at Princeton and corresponded with and about America's Founding Presidents. He was an orthodox Calvinist (in fact one of the few notable ones that supported Jefferson).

In this book written in 1821, Miller denies Unitarians the title "Christian." The Unitarians, who thought of themselves as "Christians" so responded:

... Dr. Miller professes to submit his Reply to the "Christian public;" and it is certainly very unreasonable in him to complain, that we should decline our agency in forcing it upon a class of persons, whom he holds not to be Christians.


It is no wonder, that Dr. Miller, after denying to us the name of Christians, should be puzzled in deciding what to call us. "There is a real difficulty," he says, "in giving a convenient name to these persons as a general body." We beg leave to tell him, that this is a difficulty of his own making. We have never asked him to be at the trouble of giving us a name. We are perfectly satisfied with the one, by which we have always chosen to call ourselves; and really we cannot see, why he, or any one else, should think it so great a tax upon his courtesy and condescension to give us the "distinctive title," which he says, and which we allow, we have "assumed." The difficulty of giving us a name, he informs us, arises from the circumstance of our "differing so materially among ourselves." Does he mean by this, that Trinitarians do not differ equally as much? The truth is, the differences among them are vastly greater, than among Unitarians, not only in regard to the distinguishing doctrine of their faith, but all the leading doctrines of Christianity. And yet, we have never found any "difficulty" in giving them a name, because we are entirely willing they should have the one, which they have "assumed." Whether it be, or be not, a title, which designates their opinions, is no concern of ours. It is enough that they choose to adopt it. If they misname themselves, it is an affair of their own. We do not see in what respect we have any ground of complaint, or any right to interfere.


King of Ireland said...

Not much has changed today has it? This is the problem with taking this approach that depends on soteriology to define the founding era.

It is much more clear where they all stood in regards to political theology.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Indeed. The question of the Trinity seemed to present no obstacle to unitarian John Adams and his Calvinist cousin Sam Adams in firing up the revolution.

That Miller was a Rev. is no surprise: orthodox clergymen were the ones who stirred up this issue.

Paul Swendson said...

I am a Unitarian Universalist, and I am happy to admit that I am not a Christian. Personally, I could care less about the titles that others might want to give me, particularly since Christians cannot agree among themselves about what that title supposedly means.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I was thinking today about the parallels of our Supreme Court Justices and the interpretation of the Constitution to tribal religious elders (traditions) and scripture.

Rev. Miller, being a Calvinist, couldn't help but think that God had revealed what a Christian was/is in scripture, and it was his interpretation. Problems become evident when those in power think they have the only "correct" view in such matters....before the Reformation, Catholicism defined a Chrstian, and it was "too bad" if you disagreed.

The Catholics, at least, weren't embarassed by affirming "power" in an earthly Pope, while Calvinists hide behind "God" as interpreted in scripture...

The Founders wanted a level playing field when it came to religious matters. The government was not to "take sides" in regards to religious conviction and commitment.

The problem today, is when a Muslim wants our government to affirm the right to "honor killing". This is where the ethical value of life trumps the value of liberty in our judgments. But, then where does that judgment end, in regards to discrimination? Do the religious have the right to discriminate against others in regards to employment? Are the relgiious able to define themselves and their values, apart from governmental intervention?

King of Ireland said...


I think this brings up a good question in that you seem to be doing a good job at finding some people that were not Evangelicals and using them to mess with the Evangelicals. The question is if this is not a "Christian Nation" of what do we call it?

Driving a wedge between Christians does not make this an "Enlightenment" nation. Or does it?

My take is that once your thesis that it was not an Evangelical founding is proven correct(which is at best half true) then where do we go from there?

In other words, in proving your case against Barton you are losing your case to label the founding anything but Christian thought. Which I would guess from reading you over the years is ok with you. My question is when do we get to the point where, "Where do we go from there?" is actually discussed?

Jonathan Rowe said...

How about a "unitarian nation"?

King of Ireland said...

According to Frazer they were such a weak group that you cannot even count them as a denomination? Your thesis only goes so far. At the end of it we still are left with many questions. Why not start getting to some of these?

Jonathan Rowe said...

Weak in terms of social establishment. Yet, the "key Founders'" minds were dominated by such secret heterodox theology.

Frazer explains all this in his thesis. Though, he does give some useful analogies about ideas having consequences and elites who possess ideas not well reflected by the masses get into positions of power and enact those ideas.

Consider the Straussians. I'm not big on Leo Strauss conspiracy ideas. But there were a few of them who had GW Bush's ear and influenced his policy making even though probably a fraction of one percent of the US population knows who Leo Strauss was.

Frazer also gives an analogy to counter culture ideas of the 60s. He poses men like Joseph Priestley as Abbie Hoffman's of his day. Not popular among the masses, but influential in various power circles.

King of Ireland said...

The key founders theory is crap. If anything the preachers that got your average person involved had the most influence and we know that no where near all of them were Unitarians. Cannot have your cake and eat it too.

Neither can Frazer.

Tom Van Dyke said...

As we know, the American unitarian "pope" William Ellery Channing explicitly separated them from Priestley's successor, Thomas Belsham:

You, my friend, well know, that Mr. Belsham is not acknowledged as a leader by any Unitarians in our country. I have heard from those, who are thought to approach him most nearly in opinion, complaints of the extravagance of some of his positions, as unjust and prejudicial to the cause which he has undertaken to defend.

The invocation of Priestley confuses more than it reveals.

How about a "unitarian nation"?

It might be fair to say there was a "unitarian minimum," the same sense being conveyed by "Judeo-Christian," meaning Biblical but nonTrinitarian.

Indeed the unitarians believed far more about Jesus than Jews do:

[Channing again]:

"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."

The problem with "unitarianism" as a 21st century term is that it's confused with its successor church, Unitarian Universalism, which has little to do with Founding-era unitarianism. As our friend Paul Swendon avers above,

"I am a Unitarian Universalist, and I am happy to admit that I am not a Christian."

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Political philosophy is important to know and understand, as it is what drives the interests upon earth.

I don't respect those that want to influence those "at the bottom" to do some sort of bidding "from God"...not only does it smack of manaipulation, it is deceptive unless one really believes in what they "preach"...

Jonathan Rowe said...


Frazer notes Mayhew, Chuancy, West, Howard and others as "key Patriotic Preachers" and they were unitarians.

Likewise Locke probably was a secret unitarian. His Jesus was Messiah standard for "Christianity" formed a lowest common denominator among Trinitarians, Arians and Socinians as "Christians." That's why one of Locke's orthodox critics accused him of secretly peddling Socinianism. Locke couldn't come out and answer honestly, were he a unitarian, and that's because it was still an executable offense at that time in Great Britain. So he danced around the issue.

Jonathan Rowe said...

All of the terms have potential problems, not the least of which "Judeo-Christian."

I could go for ecumenical Providential as long as its understood that Jews, Christians, Trinity deniers and doubters, Mormons, Muslims all worship this Providence.

Jonathan Rowe said...

As we know, the American unitarian "pope" William Ellery Channing explicitly separated them from Priestley's successor, Thomas Belsham:

Yes just like the Baptists separated themselves from the Congregationalists.

But, if we want to group the Baptists and Congregationalists (those of whom in their churches that held to their official creeds) under the rubric of "orthodox Christianity," we can also group Arians and Socinians under the rubric of "unitarianism."

Tom Van Dyke said...

Not in America. In the very least, the minority status of Priestleyans needs to be acknowledged among the American unitarians, a minority themselves.

If one wants to be informative, of course. Not so much if one's purpose is something else.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Arians and Socinians are grouped together because they are both "unitarians." If you want numbers crunch as to who had more followers, go ahead. It's no different than demographic breakdown of the different sects that professed Trinitarianism. The "orthodox" in America at the time certainly had no problem putting Arians and Socinians together and then further lumping them in with the Deists.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Anyone reading your last post on Belsham would have to walk away with the impression his beliefs represented American Unitarianism, when the fact was he got quite a bit of blowback for it.

But if it's all about umbrella terms, there's simply not much real information being presented.

Jonathan Rowe said...

To Christians who believe in a Triune God, once you subordinate Jesus to the Father, it's 6 and 1/2 dozen of the other.

Tom Van Dyke said...

The "orthodox" in America at the time certainly had no problem putting Arians and Socinians together and then further lumping them in with the Deists.

As we have seen, this is an ignorance shared by some readers of Daily Kos, if not that whole echo chamber, since there was not a single dissenting voice, not even the original author's.

However, should we add weight to the sledgehammers of the brutes in the culture wars, or use our unique position as citizen-historians to sharpen the scalpel of historical truth?

This here American Creation blog has become a resource for earnest scholars, much like passionate amateur astronomers still discover comets. We have real value when we do our job conscientiously. I bet not one out of a hundred accredited historians are aware that Thomas Belsham was a sore point with New England's unitarian clergy, who basically wished he'd shut up.

Barely 50 out of 100---if that--- know much about the "Unitarian Controversy" atall, except it had something to do with the Trinity and deism. [True the first, deism barely atall.]

Since this is your great area of interest, Jon, I would hope that you'd appreciate me accompanying you on your inquiry, and assist in sharpening the scalpel of history.

The fact is, I was completely unaware meself of the problem and theological gulf between English unitarianism and [Joseph] Priestley-ism and the New England "unitarian Christians" of William Ellery Channing until your published your essay. The name "Belsham" rang a bell, and led me back to my previous readings of Channing of the same period.

Since my original comment citing the Channing's disavowal of Belshom has somehow disappeared, I suppose I should overcome my constitutional laziness and mainpage it. It's a damn interesting distinction, of which scarce few are apparently aware.

in the meantime, somebody ought to do something about Daily Kos, and people's impression there that many of the Founding Fathers were deists who believed in a creator, but one who made Hisself scarce and left man all on his own.

Any volunteers? Any crusaders for historical truth? [Heheh.]

[Not you K of I. You been there, done that.]

King of Ireland said...

"[Not you K of I. You been there, done that.]"

Learned a lot from it Tom. But afraid it does no good. Those with an open mind like Chris Rodda will come to blogs like this and Jon and James Hanley's new blog that replaced Positive Liberty and we can have a civil dialogue.

Stirring up a bunch of people that already have their minds made up causes undue stress.

I also do not blame Chris for not getting caught up in it either frankly. Look what happened to Jon at Dispatches where most would probably tend to agree with him. I used to take her with a grain of salt but through our interactions here I really have gained a whole lot of respect for her.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Several Questions for you all here:
1.) Weren't many of the Founders messengers of the Enlightenment via Freemasonry?

2.)Would the unitarian affirm "one God" and be a way to bring about "religious unity" in the world? Is this the point?

3.)Where is b.p. abbott? He hasn't responded lately.

4.)Can I thank all of you for your diligence in researching and writing about the issues that are important to you? What is your ultimate purpose or agenda?

Mark D. said...

The proper theological title for a Unitarian, from an orthodox Nicene perspective, is simple: Arian.

Jonathan Rowe said...


But not if those Unitarians are Socinian.

Tom Van Dyke said...

You're going to keep pumping Priestley and the Socinians even after reading how William Ellery Channing disawowed them?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Then account for Channing saying the Socinian---Belsham---unitarianism is NOT what the unitarian preachers of New England believed, or otherwise you're not making full disclosure of the relevant material.

It's incumbent on you to show Socinianism's influence in the US or else you're---how did you put it with that fundamentalist gentleman---throwing spaghetti against the wall.

Jonathan Rowe said...

"It's incumbent on you to show Socinianism's influence in the US..."

W/o going in to further detail (which I will as time goes on) Joseph Priestley was, conservatively speaking, the spiritual mentor to Jefferson, J. Adams and Franklin.

From those three alone, the Socinian influence on America becomes immense.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Jefferson wasn't Socinian, he was a theistic rationalist. Adams rejected Socinianism [or outleast Priestleyism] outright. Wouldn't even sit in Priestley's church. Franklin was simply agnostic on Christian doctrine.

If you show Priestley's influence, it wouldn't necessarily be the soteriology, Socinianism or probably even unitarianism---in fact, it will probably be despite them.