Tuesday, January 6, 2015

J.D. Bowers: "From Consensus to Conflict, to Contact A Reappraisal of the Early History of American Unitarianism"

J.D. Bowers is one of the great modern scholars of Unitarianism. Check it out here. A taste:
... [T]hose who followed Priestley s teaching and continued to link English Unitarianism with its manifestations in America, took on a new character as they struggled to contend with losing their identity, dwindling numbers, and little influence over the direction of liberal religion in the nation.

However small the legacy, it was still visible and represented a potential threat. The sustained prominence of Unitarianism in England, Priestley s stature (even in death), lingering pockets of support, and new challenges all seemed to sustain Priestleyan Unitarianism. Certainly Channing felt the pressures. In the years leading up to his formal proclamation he spent considerable energy both denouncing Priestley and making sure that all ties between Socinians and Arians were severed. Channing s evidence was less based on theology and more based on the prevailing sentiment of the majority of ministers throughout New England. In giving to the whole collection the name Unitarianism and in exhibiting this to the world as the creed of the Liberal Christians in this region, is perhaps as criminal an instance of unfairness as is to be found in the records of theological controversy. [9] Twenty years later, nearing the end of his life he called Socinianism a millstone around the neck of Unitarianism and lamented that Dr. Priestley s authority had fastened this doctrine on his followers. He later noted that with Priestley, I have less sympathy than with many of the Orthodox. I hold little sympathy with the system of Priestley and Belsham, and stand aloof from all but those who strive and pray for a clearer light, he noted.[10] It was clear that if being associated with Priestley was what it meant to be a Unitarian, then Channing, nearly thirty years after Priestley s death, wanted nothing to do with such tenets. Thirty years of vehement opposition and hostility had not yet assuaged the anger or dimmed the force of Priestley, something which Channing intended to end. In a sermon delivered before First Unitarian Church, Philadelphia, Channing refused to mention Priestley by name and yet spent the bulk of the homily denouncing his theological ideas, noting that Priestley s ideas had done real harm to the liberal movement and to Unitarianism. The rejection of Christ s divinity was simply not acceptable.

Enter Belsham and the English Unitarians. It was Belsham who denounced Channing and who maintained that it was his attempts to deny association between English and American Unitarianism that were the most destructive. Arians were polytheistic, he noted, and were oblivious to the consequences of their own positions. Unitarianism, had it been allowed to follow Priestley s theology, would have fared far better in the American religious landscape since Socinianism was not a theological hypocrisy. Arians were not, simply put, Unitarian.[11]

Thus, the vast majority of American Unitarians throughout the 1820s and the following decades clearly sided with Channing and identified with the Arian theology. The game was won. ...
Hat Tip: JMS.

1 comment:

JMS said...

Jon - thanks for the "hat tip"and for making AC readers more aware of J.D. Bowers' pioneering scholarship on Unitarianism in late-18th & early-!9th century America. Anyone interested in delving deeper should take a look through Bowers' book,"Joseph Priestley and English Unitarianism in America."