The Road To Unitarianism (2)

This is the second of a two-part series. In part 1 we considered the origins of Unitarianism.

The Unitarian faction within the Congregational church continued to grow in the early nineteenth century. The apex of the internal movement was the 1819 “Baltimore Sermon” by Rev. William Ellery Channing. Preaching at an ordination service at First Independent Church of Baltimore, Channing delivered a systematic argument for Unitarian theology. Prior to that, Unitarians had defended their theology against the orthodox but never went on the offensive with a well-reasoned treatment of their own positions. Over the next few years, the existing tension between the Trinitarians and Unitarians within the Congregational church reached a fever pitch, and a group of former Congregationalist ministers formed the American Unitarian Association (AUA) in 1825. More than one hundred Unitarian congregations left the Congregational church over the next ten years and joined the AUA. The Trinitarian Controversy within the Congregational church had come to an end, but dissent soon arose within the AUA itself.

Trinitarians in the Congregational church had acted as something of a governor to the Unitarians in an attempt to restrict their theology to a liberal form of Christianity. Unitarians shed these external constraints when they formed the AUA. Outside forces no longer could restrict the evolution of their theology. Reason alone governed the newly-formed Unitarian institutions, not tradition. Consequently, some Unitarians began to push the boundaries of their doctrine beyond traditional Christianity. Transcendentalism provided an avenue for the theology to continue to evolve. Transcendentalists claim that spiritual truths are found within every person, not in ancient texts or religious sages. The divine communicates directly to an individual’s heart, not to a prophet or the keeper of religious tradition.

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Harvard Divinity School Address in 1838 elevated Transcendentalism to new heights. Emerson had surrendered his Unitarian ministerial credentials six years earlier due to his inability to partake of the Lord’s Supper in good conscience. According to Emerson, bread and wine could not lead people to devotion, and Jesus had never intended to establish a permanent rite. In his address, he charged the students to pursue God’s continual incarnation and revelation within their souls, not in the person of Jesus or ancient writings. He explained, “It is the office of a true teacher to show us that God is, not was; that He speaketh, not spake.” Emerson concluded his monumental address:

I look for the hour when that supreme Beauty, which ravished the souls of those eastern men, and chiefly of those Hebrews, and through their lips spoke oracles to all time, shall speak in the West also. The Hebrew and Greek Scriptures contain immortal sentences, that have been bread of life to millions. But they have no epical integrity; are fragmentary; are not shown in their order to the intellect. I look for the new Teacher, that shall follow so far those shining laws, that he shall see them come full circle; shall see their rounding complete grace; shall see the world to be the mirror of the soul; shall see the identity of the law of gravitation with purity of heart; and shall show that the Ought, that Duty, is one thing with Science, with Beauty, and with Joy.1

The steady growth of Transcendentalism created a division in the AUA. Transcendentalists pressed for radical religious freedom, while the more traditional Unitarians (if such a thing exists) desired to maintain a liberal version of Christianity. The lack of a common confession and authoritative ecclesiastical governing body allowed Unitarian theology to progress without restraint. The independence that resulted from the establishment of their own ecclesiastical institutions allowed Unitarians to advance their theology far beyond the rational Christianity of Servetus and Socinus. Unlike their anti-Nicene forefathers, most American Unitarians rejected the inspiration of Scripture, the veracity of miracles, and the mediatorial role of Jesus. Unitarian theology continued its evolution and progressed beyond liberal Christianity and even Theism. Today, many Atheists belong to the Unitarian Universalist Church.

American Unitarianism’s split from the Congregational church and the establishment of its own ecclesiastical institutions holds lessons and warnings for Reformed Christians:

1. Confessional and governmental boundaries must be in place in order to ensure faithfulness to the original cause. As noted above, while they remained within the Congregational church, Unitarians advanced their theology only as far as the Trinitarians allowed. The denominational order restricted them from getting what they thought they wanted. After they founded their own institutions, they were free to do as they pleased. The progressives quickly expanded the boundaries, while the traditionalists attempted to maintain some sort of rooting in historic Christianity. The absence of confessional and governmental confines, however, prevented any limitations on theological evolution. American Unitarians had fought the Trinitarians for freedom of conscience but when they achieved it, like a riderless horse they lacked all restraint and ran themselves to death, at least in the eyes of the traditionalists.

Multiple Reformed denominations have exhibited self-destructive tendencies following a split due to theological differences. After the Presbyterian Controversy and the exodus of confessionalists/ conservatives, the PC(USA) raced toward Barthianism (evidenced in the Confession of 1967) and moral laxity. Traditionalists in the denomination (e.g. The Layman) have attempted to maintain adherence to the Westminster Confession, but the loss of the strong conservative contingent has allowed the progressives to continue to expand the boundaries of acceptable belief and practice. I suspect that many of those in the PC(USA) who tried and convicted J. Gresham Machen in 1936 would have followed him to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church had they known what would become of their denomination.

The OPC nearly fell victim to a confusion of mission shortly after its founding. Carl McIntire and others attempted to import certain Fundamentalist idiosyncrasies, such as abstinence from alcohol and theater-going, into the OPC’s mission of faithfulness to the Westminster Confession of Faith. Following much turmoil, McIntire and his cohorts split from the OPC to found the Bible Presbyterian Church, but great damage had been done to the fledgling denomination.

2. Movements must establish institutions if they are to endure. Upon the expansion of religious freedom in the United States in the early nineteenth century, Unitarians began to found their own ecclesiastical institutions. In addition to the establishment of their own denomination, the AUA, they founded Meadville Theological School (1844) and Lombard College (1851). The two institutions later united to become Meadville Lombard Theological School. Early in their history, Reformed Christians, following Martin Luther, recognized the importance of institutions and wrote confessions, established organizations of churches, and founded academies for theological training. Today’s networks, alliances, coalitions, movements, etc. will have a greater chance of survival if they establish institutions that will remain long after the deaths of their founders.


1. Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Divinity School Address (New York: All Souls Unitarian Church, 1938).

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  1. Scott
    I recently saw a endorsement of Andrew T. Lincoln’s recent book ‘Born of a Virgin?’ by Pete Enns in which he suggested that this appraisal by Lincoln -that the virgin birth is highly questionable-would naturally require a ‘rethinking’ of the deity of Christ and the Trinity. Hmmm, like Yogi Berra once said ,”It’s like deja Vu all over again.”

  2. Thank you for this series. As one who long ago came out of the UPUSA I have often wondered what could have gone wrong, and I think your analysis reveals the factors necessary for understanding that history. The more I study the confessions, the more I realize what a mercy of the Lord they are and the more convinced I am of their great value to the Church and how theology can go off the rails when the church neglects and forgets them. It’s been truly pointed out that Machen was a confessionalist, not a fundamentalist.

  3. I went to a Congregational church for the first time a couple months ago. I knew what they believed but had never been to a service and just wanted to see what they did/said. It was truly blasphemy. They referenced God as a female, had a dance number that meant absolutely nothing. They talked about themselves and praised themselves with their moralism. I can’t remember much else as I had to make myself forget because it was so repulsive.

    I spoke with a member there and of course they didn’t preach the law (or the gospel) but I asked her, “I’m feeling really guilty about many things in my life, what can I do, do you have any good news for me? She was concerned but had no answer except to try harder and maybe try talking to the pastrix about it. I didn’t bother, I just wanted to see what the average member would say. I knew the pastrix would offer no relief. Next door to this church is a PCUSA church with their love of Barth.

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