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Standing in the Name of Reason



It seems to me that the origin of American Unitarians is puzzling. How is it, that we Unitarians are evolved from Puritan/Calvinistic roots? Is it not strange, almost bazaar?

Today, I’d like to share with you some stories that come out of this journey, stories of what others have done that brought us here today.


Some call Unitarianism a religion, others, a faith or a fellowship. I call it a Standing…..

Standing in the name of Reason. Standing in the name of Love. Sometimes shaky, sometimes solid, the Mind and the Heart are the two principles that Unitarians have stood for over 250 years. Let’s take a look at how the struggles of Mind and Heart shaped early Unitarians.

In the 1700s, in Eastern Massachusetts and Boston, a stable society had evolved from Puritan roots. And the Puritan temperament of sobriety and order had resulted in a prosperous merchant class.

In 1740 a preacher from England named George Whitefield descended on this scene, looked around, and declared Bostonians had indeed gained wealth but had lost their spiritual power. Soon, Whitefield and others spread over New England preaching an intense religious revival called “The Great Awakening.”

Whitefield charged that Boston “rested only in a head-knowledge.” Whitefield and his fellow revivalists spoke not to the head but to the heart, urging listeners to turn away from the dry pulpit of Boston and find God in a “new birth.” The goal of the revivalists was direct conversion, and the path to conversion was through the emotions.

The revivalists had a great impact. Whitefield’s powerful voice was heard throughout the seaboard, reaching thousands of listeners in one revival alone in Boston Commons. As you might expect, the stoic clergy of New England were alarmed, and appalled.

Theological debates now raged between these revivalists, called “New Lights,” and the “Old Light” clergy. One of these Old Lights was a Congregational clergyman named George Chauncy, who viewed the upheaval around him and answered by calling the emotional exhibit “an insult to human intelligence.”

Those who were swept away by the revival preachers were, in the words of Chauncy, “mistaking…their own passions for divine inspiration and…fancying themselves inspired by the Spirit of God, rather than being under the influence of a over-heated imagination.”

Chauncy declared the wrought up mob felt themselves:

“to be above the force of argument, beyond… a calm and sober appeal to their understanding. The abandonment of reason leaves the enthusiasts beyond the possibility of correction. Since they believe that truth has come to them from the Spirit, they take the attitude that they are certainly in the right, and know themselves to be so.”

“Real religion,” stated Chauncy, “ is a calm, sober, reasonable thing, and is to be judged not by the excesses of emotion but by its moral results in the lives of men.”

Even before the revivalists arrived, an uneasy tension had existed in the Boston clergy. The Calvinist position that the will of God cannot be questioned seemed to some that human reason was then sacrificed. This was especially true in the doctrine of “election,” which held that God chose those who would be saved, and those who were not chosen were powerless to effect their own salvation. Leading the emerging liberal clergy, George Chauncy stood for human choice, human capacity for moral improvement, and God’s gift of reason. These were the basics of a movement that would, decades later, take on the name of “Unitarianism.”

This brings us to the early 1800s, where we find the conservative clergy charging that liberals were moving away from the basics of Christianity, including a belief in the divinity of Christ. They used the label “Unitarians” and they meant it in a pejorative sense. (Yes, it was a slander!) The response to these accusations was an 1819 sermon by William Ellery Channing titled “Unitarian Christianity.”

Channing stated:

“Say what we may, God has given us a rational nature, and will call us to account for it. We may let it sleep, but we do so at our peril. Revelation is addressed to us as rational beings.”

Were these early Unitarians “too much in the head” as Whitefield had charged?

One observer wrote:[c1]

“Rationalism goes only so far in explaining Unitarians. The Unitarians used reason primarily to liberate themselves from Calvinism and in reaction to the excesses of the revivalists. Although they continued to search for rational bases for their belief, the real grounding of their religion was in the emotions.”

Channing saw himself as a reformer not a radical. But his optimistic position on human morality appealed to Ralph Waldo Emerson and other radicals of the next generation. Channing went on to lead these early dissenters, who gradually accepted the term Unitarian.


Now we’ll look at other changes occurring.

We might think that New England in the early 1800s was provincial, but not so. The world of the time was in ferment. The American Revolution was yet fresh. The French Revolution, followed by Napoleon, had alarmed all civilization. Moreover, the Enlightenment was in full swing. Many were influenced by the science of Newton, a system based on learning, reason and order.

Alexander Pope wrote:

“NATURE, and Nature’s laws lay hid in Night: God said, Let NEWTON be! and all was Light.”

With the end of the war of 1812 travel was again open to England and Europe. Publishers in England found that often the majority of book orders came from their former colonies, from the Virginia of Jefferson to the Adam’s of Boston.

The study of German was all the rage. Some young Bostonians traveled to Germany to study the idealistic philosophies of Goethe, Kant and the biblical investigations of German scholars. One of these was Emerson’s older brother, who wrote to Ralph urging him to “learn German as fast as you can.” Before long German scholars were teaching at Harvard.

Mainly because of German scholarship, close scrutiny was given to interpretations of the Bible. A literal sense of the Bible came into doubt to those who saw that the language of the bible was based upon narrow interpretation. Liberal clergy saw the bible as a document of a time and place, a poetic creation, perhaps not the word of God.

These new studies led to debates about the origin of Trinitarian Christianity. Was Jesus, rather than part of the godhead, simply the supreme model for humanity? A rational interpretation of the Bible and of Christian history seemed necessary.

Of course Trinitarians rejected this heresy. It placed final authority in man’s reason rather than in revelation. Since man was in a fallen state, his judgment could not be compared to God’s word, which never changed. The new heresy only displayed man’s innate depravity. That we could consider man’s scholarship over God was unacceptable.

We pause in this story to remember how only a few years later, another man of learning agonized over the accumulation of fact he had gathered, fact which stood in direct opposition to his faith. Yet Charles Darwin, enduring scorn and personal pain, went on to publish his work for the world to judge.


Things would not go easy for these new Unitarians, for it didn’t take long for the next generation to challenge them, and again add to the struggle of Heart and Mind.

In 1829 Emerson was ordained a Unitarian minister and groomed to preside at Boston’s Second Church. But something was troubling him. Soon he asked to be excused from pastoral duties, and in 1832 he resigned.

Emerson was showing an aversion to the Unitarianism he had known in his youth and to the emphasis on reason and logic the scholars at Harvard had introduced him to.

In 1836 Emerson published his first book,  “Nature.” This and later writings called for a religion of direct intuition of God, or the “One Mind” of the Universe. This position confused those oriented to the rational views of Harvard. It was labeled Transcendentalism, but we should keep in mind that Transcendentalism and Unitarianism overlapped and blended for decades to come.

Emerson was asked by some Divinity School students to talk with them. In his journal he wrote:

“I told them that the preacher should be a poet smit with love of the harmonies of moral nature: and yet look at the Unitarian Association and see if its aspect is poetic… A minister nowadays is plainest prose, the prose of prose. He is a Warming-pan, a Nightchair at sick beds….”[c2]

Emerson continued to challenge. He was asked to address the graduating class at Harvard’s Divinity School.  The unsuspecting faculty heard the following remarks:

“I think no man can go… into one of our churches, without feeling that what hold the public worship had on men, is gone or going.”

Emerson went on in strong words to reject biblical miracles. He told his listeners:

“Jesus spoke of miracles; for he felt that man’s life was a miracle….But the very word Miracle, as pronounced by Christian churches gives a false impression; it is Monster. It is not one with the blowing clover and falling rain.”

In Emerson’s view “Monster” denotes a departure from nature, but his use of the term in speaking to graduates and faculty is taken personally and as a theological attack.  Moreover, he added a denial of the personal authority of Jesus. Although Emerson spoke in praise and reverence for Jesus, he also warned against worship of his person rather than his principles.

Again, Emerson’s words:

“Christianity dwells… with noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus. The soul knows no persons.”

To the Harvard faculty Emerson’s remarks were received as a threat to Unitarian teachings. Rather than standing in the name of reason and unity, he stressed individual enlightenment, individual intuition of god, and the individual heart without theology.

And it did not go unnoticed that Emerson echoed all too closely the position of the evangelists. In both, the Heart must lead, not Reason.

Opponents to this new movement labeled it   “pantheism” and “infidelity,” but one supporter, Orestes Brownson, proclaimed it to be “a new vessel, a better Mayflower for the Truth’s escape from her foes.”

Although Emerson had turned away from the controversy he stirred, other Unitarians remained to continue the challenge. The more notable of these were George Ripley, and Theodore Parker.

Emerson had championed introspection and self-reliance as keys to the spiritual life, but Ripley and Parker stressed an outer-directed behavior for the benefit of humanity. This marks a point of departure between the two parties of Unitarians. The future would tend toward the outer directed.

Transcendentalism at this time had become the radical wing of the Unitarians. It was a Transcendental belief that the world’s religious institutions were in evolution: as each faith failed to satisfy humankind’s search for spiritual truth, another must appear, a process that George Ripley called “purification.” Ripley charged that theology lagged far behind this purification.

He stated: “Astronomy has been separated from astrology, chemistry from the search after the philosopher’s stone, medicine from the incantations of magic; but between theology and mythology, a sharp line of distinction yet remains to be drawn.”

Change and progress were in the air, as when Emerson stated that every man “carries a revolution in his pocket.” One can think of Thoreau, who carried in his pocket a personal journal whose ideas would make their way around the world in a quiet revolution.

Theodore Parker also carried on the position of a Unitarian critical of his denomination. Like Emerson, Parker’s argument was against “historical religion.”

In one sermon, Parker shocked his listeners with the following:

“If Jesus had taught at Athens, and not at Jerusalem; if he had wrought no miracle, and none but the human nature had ever been ascribed to him; if the Old Testament had forever perished at his birth,–Christianity would still have been the Word of God; it would have lost none of its truths. It would have been just as beautiful, just as lasting, as now it is…”

As a result of this sermon, Parker was shunned by the Boston Association of Ministers, and was asked to resign. He refused. By challenging these former liberals, Parker had brought the revolt to their very doorstep

And Parker had demonstrated what has been called the “concealed terror” within revolutionary thinking. In other words, if Christ was not sacred, and the Bible not the word of God, then reason, masked as free thinking and skepticism, could lead to the conclusion that God did not exist. The death of God, therefore the death of religion was the concealed terror.


This look into the struggles of early Unitarians is about over.

As the Civil War approached, the issues of slavery, the rights of women, laborers, the indigent, dominated Unitarian attention. Emerson’s introspection and self-reliance gave ground to active social change. This is now the direction preferred by Unitarians.

Unitarianism spread to the Midwest and to the Pacific, and, again, theological challenges followed. It may please you all to know that Western leaders now took up the radical banner. To the West, the eastern Unitarians were still carrying a burden of dogma. Western leaders insisted on a creedless religion tied to an “ethical basis” rather than some theological tradition. These debates continued until 1894 when a National Conference unanimously declared Unitarianism to be uncompromisingly non-creedal.

It is tempting to go on, to talk about the early 20th Century rise of the Humanist movement among Unitarians, and the attempt to reformulate liberal theology on completely non-theistic grounds.

But…it is enough to close by recognizing that Chauncy, Channing, Emerson, Thoreau, Parker and so many others fought America’s fight, that the Unitarian organization of the 1840s was a vital part of American liberalism at that time, that their concerns were much the same concerns facing this fellowship… those old issues of the Mind and the Heart.

Some of us may be content with what we or others have done, but I suspect there are some Emersons and Thoreaus out there, saying “Not enough! I need more and better Reasoning, more Heart and Intuition and even some Wilderness… some Wild Air to breath.”



I would now like to share with you some spinoff stories. As you know, history can be an awful bore… that is, until we find the stories behind the stories.  It is the anecdotes that give flesh and blood to history.

Following our interest in early Unitarians, this first story concerns Joseph Priestley.

In 1794 Priestley, who had been a leader among English Unitarians, came to America after his home and laboratory had been destroyed by a mob. Priestley brought to the Philadelphia area his science and values as a Unitarian liberal (ultra liberal). He argued for a benevolent God, and that the purity of the Christian faith had been corrupted by dogmatic encrustations, and that Trinitarianism had falsely created the divination of Christ. He sought a return to the “simple humanity of Christ.”

Priestley’s friendship with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson is generally known, but less known is that he was instrumental in Jefferson’s brand of personal Unitarianism that he adopted in his later years. Jefferson called Priestley’s work “the basis of my own faith,” and in his old age declared “I trust there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian.” A prophet Jefferson was not.

Of course, there is much more about Priestley to learn and admire. I recommend an excellent and enjoyable book: “The Invention of Air” by Steven Johnson.


Earlier, I spoke of William Channing, author of “Unitarian Christianity,” and a major figure in the formation of Unitarians. Channing had a younger brother, Edward Channing, who is the subject of our second story.

Edward Channing became professor of Rhetoric at Harvard when a young Concord boy was two years of age. That boy, Henry Thoreau, later acknowledged that he learned to write as Channing’s pupil. In fact, a whole New England renaissance was to spring from Channing’s tutorage: Emerson, Thoreau, Oliver Wendel Homes, Sr., Richard Henry Dana, Francis Parkman, and more.

Channing was a strict teacher; he both drove and inspired his students: they must keep a journal, they must discover the world around them, their writing must bear the stamp of their own time and place; they must understand the duties and privileges of an educated person, and the dangers of conformity; like the Roman, Cicero, revered by stoic Bostonians, they must not over-regard the opinions of others, but make their own genius the guide of their lives.

That, my friends, is Pure Emerson, Pure Thoreau! And the marriage of Heart and Mind.

From Cicero around 50 B.C., to Channing, to Emerson and Thoreau…and then out to the world! Ya gotta love it!


Influence and legacy are great subjects. Here is a spinoff off our spinoff:

Oliver Wendel Homes, Sr. became an influential man of letters. His son, Oliver Wendel Homes, Jr., severely wounded in the Civil War, went on to become a Supreme Court Justice. On the day that Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated as President, January 1933, he paid a personal visit to Justice Homes, still on the bench! It is reported that Roosevelt found Homes in his study and asked, “What are you doing, Justice Homes?” The reply: “Improving my mind, Mr. President.”


Our third and last story involves Richard Henry Dana. As a young man Dana, a Boston Blue Blood, felt stifled and signed on as a common hand to sail before the mast. The merchant brig, Pilgrim, sailed around the Cape to the California coast to load hides from the Mexican ranches. Dana experienced the hardships of a sailor and witnessed a brutal flogging. Later, as a young lawyer, he championed the rights of sailors, including legislation against flogging.

Dana went on to become a prominent abolitionists, helping to form the antislavery Free Soil Party in 1848. In 1854 he represented the escaped slave Anthony Burns. But the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 prevailed and Burns was returned to slavery. Many were enraged. Theodore Parker and a young Unitarian radical, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, were involved in a failed attempt to help Burns. Both were indicted but not convicted. Emerson and many Northerners felt that the Fugitive Slave Act forced them into direct complicity with what was clearly a sin. Emerson stated: “This is not meddling with other people’s affairs, this is other people meddling with us.” He called it a “filthy enactment” and added, “I will not obey it, by God.”


Suggested Reading:

The Unitarians and the Universalists,  David Robinson  Greenwood Press 1985

American Transcendentalism,  Phillip F. Gura  Hill and Wang  2007

The Flowering of New England,  Van Wyck Brooks  Houghton Mifflin  1981

American Theocracy,  Kevin Phillips  Viking  2006