UNITARISM – VI – THE AMERICAN UNITARIAN ASSOCIATION

VI.
THE AMERICAN UNITARIAN ASSOCIATION.

The time had come for the liberals to organize in a more distinctive form, in order that they might secure permanently the results they had already attained. The demand for organization, however, came almost wholly from the younger men, those who had grown up under the influence of the freer life of the liberal churches or who had been trained in the independent spirit of the Divinity School at Harvard. The older men, for the most part, were bound by the traditions of “the standing order”:[1] they could not bring themselves to desire new conditions and new methods.

The spirit of the older and leading laymen and ministers is admirably illustrated in Rev. O.B. Frothingham’s account of his father in his book entitled Boston Unitarianism. They were interested in many, public-spirited enterprises, and the social circle in which they moved was cultivated and refined; but they were provincial, and little inclined to look beyond the limits of their own immediate interests. Dr. Nathaniel L. Frothingham, minister of the First Church in Boston, one of the earliest American students of German literature and philosophy, and a man of rational insight and progressive thinking, may be regarded as a representative of the best type of Boston minister in the first half of the nineteenth century. In a sermon preached in 1835, on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of his settlement, Dr. Frothingham said that he had never before used the word “Unitarian”, in his pulpit, though his church had been for thirty years counted as Unitarian. “We have,” he said, “made more account of the religious sentiment than of theological opinions.” In this attitude he was in harmony with the leading men of his day.[2]

Channing, for instance, was opposed to every phase of religious organization that put bonds upon men; and he would accept nothing in the form of a creed. He severely condemned “the guilt of a sectarian spirit,” and said that “to bestow our affections on those who are ranged under the same human leader, or who belong to the same church with ourselves, and to withhold it from others who possess equal if not superior virtue, because they bear a different name, is to prefer a party to the church of Christ.”[3] In 1831 he described Unitarianism as being “characterized by nothing more than by the spirit of freedom and individuality. It has no established creed or symbol,” he wrote. “Its friends think each for himself, and differ much from each other.”[4] Later he wrote to a friend: “I distrust sectarian influence more and more. I am more detached from a denomination, and strive to feel more my connection with the Universal Church, with all good and holy men. I am little of a Unitarian, and stand aloof from all but those who strive and pray for clearer light, who look for a purer and more effectual manifestation of Christian truth.”[5]

Many of the Unitarians were in fullest sympathy with Channing as to the fundamental law of spiritual freedom and as to the evils of sectarianism. A considerable number of them were in agreement with him as to the course pursued by the Unitarian movement. Having escaped from one sect, they were not ready to commit themselves to the control of another. Therefore they withheld themselves from all definitely organized phases of Unitarianism, and would give no active support to those who sought to bring the liberals together for purposes of protection and forward movement. Under these circumstances it was difficult to secure concert of action or to make successful any definite missionary enterprise, however little of sectarianism it might manifest. Even to the present time Unitarianism has shown this independence on the part of local churches and this freedom on the part of individuals. Because of this attitude, unity of action has been difficult, and denominational loyalty never strong or assured.

However, a different spirit animated the younger men, who persisted in their effort to secure an organization that would represent distinctively the Unitarian thought and sentiment. The movement towards organization had its origin and impulse in a group of young ministers who had been trained at the Harvard Divinity School under Professor Andrews Norton. While Norton was conservative in theology and opposed to sectarian measures, his teaching was radical, progressive, and stimulating. His students accepted his spirit of intellectual progress, and often advanced beyond his more conservative teachings. In the years between 1817 and 1824 James Walker, John G. Palfrey, Jared Sparks, Alexander Young, John Pierpont, Ezra S. Gannett, Samuel Barrett, Thomas R. Sullivan, Samuel J. May, Calvin Lincoln, and Edward B. Hall were students in the Divinity School; and all of these men were leaders in the movement to organize a Unitarian Association. Pierpont gave the name to the new organization, distinctly defining it as Unitarian. Gannett, Palfrey, and Hall served it as presidents; Gannett, Lincoln, and Young, as secretaries. Walker, Palfrey, and Barrett gave it faithful service as directors, and Lincoln as its active missionary agent. A number of young laymen in Boston and elsewhere, mostly graduates of Harvard College, were also interested in the formation of the new organization. Among them were Charles G. Loring, Robert Rantoul, Samuel A. Eliot, Leverett Salstonstall, George B. Emerson, and Alden Bradford. All these young men were afterwards prominent in the affairs of the city or state, and they were faithful to the interests of the Unitarian churches with which they were connected.
Initial Meetings.

The first proposition to form a Unitarian organization for missionary purposes was made in a meeting of the Anonymous Association, a club to which belonged thirty or forty of the leading men of Boston. They were all connected with Unitarian churches, and were actively interested in promoting the growth of a liberal form of Christianity. It appears from the journal of David Reed, for many years the editor and publisher of The Christian Register, that the members of this association were in the habit of meeting at each other’s houses during the year 1824 for the purpose of discussing important subjects connected with religion, morals, and politics. At a meeting held at the house of Hon. Josiah Quincy in the autumn of that year, attention was called to certain articles that had been published in The Christian Register, and the importance was suggested of promoting the growth of liberal Christianity through the distribution of the printed word. A resolution was submitted, inquiring if measures could not be taken for uniting the efforts of liberal-minded persons to give greater efficiency to the attempt to extend a knowledge of Unitarian principles by means of the public press; and a committee was appointed to consider and report on the expediency of forming an organization for this purpose. This committee consisted of Rev. Henry Ware, the younger, Alden Bradford, and Richard Sullivan. Henry Ware was the beloved and devoted minister of the Second Church in Boston. His colleagues were older men, both graduates of Harvard College and prominent in the social and business life of Boston. The purpose which these men had in mind was well defined by Dr. Gannett, writing twenty years after the event: “We found ourselves,” he said, “under the painful necessity of contributing our assistance to the propagation of tenets which we accounted false or of forming an association through which we might address the great truths of religion to our fellow-men without the adulteration of erroneous dogmas. To take one of these courses, or to do nothing in the way of Christian beneficence, was the only alternative permitted to us. The name which we adopted has a sectarian sound; but it was chosen to avoid equivocation on the one hand and misapprehension on the other.”[6] The committee, under date of December 29, 1824, sent out a circular inviting a meeting of all interested, “in order to confer together on the expediency of appointing an annual meeting for the purpose of union, sympathy, and co-operation in the cause of Christian truth and Christian charity.” In this circular will be found the origin of the clause in the present constitution of the Unitarian Association defining its purposes.

In response to this call a meeting was held in the vestry of the Federal Street Church on January 27, 1825. Dr. Channing opened the meeting with prayer. Richard Sullivan was chosen moderator, and James Walker secretary. There were present all those who have been hitherto named in connection with this movement, together with many others of the leading laymen and ministers of the liberal churches in New England.[7] The record of the meeting made by Rev. James Walker is preserved in the first volume of the correspondence of the Unitarian Association; and it enables us, in connection with the more confidential reminiscences of David Reed, to give a fairly complete record of, what was said and done. Henry Ware, the younger, in behalf of the committee, presented a statement of the objects proposed by those desirous of organizing a national Unitarian society; and he offered a resolution declaring it “desirable and expedient that provision should be made for future meetings of Unitarians and liberal Christians generally.” The adoption of this resolution was moved by Stephen Higginson; and the discussion was opened by Dr. Aaron Bancroft, the learned and honored minister of the Second Church in Worcester. He was fearful that sufficient care might not be taken as to the manner of instituting the proposed organization, and he doubted its expediency. He was of the opinion that Unitarianism was to be propagated slowly and silently, for it had succeeded in his own parish because it had not been openly advocated. He did not wish to oppose the design generally, but he was convinced that it would do more harm than good.

Dr. Bancroft was followed by Professor Andrews Norton, the greatly respected teacher of most of the younger ministers, who defended the proposed organization, and said that its purpose was not to make proselytes. Then Dr. Charming arose, and gave to the proposition of the committee a guarded approval. He thought the object of the convention, as he wished to call it, should be to “spread our views of religion, not our mere opinions, for our religion is essentially practical.” The friendly attitude of Channing gave added emphasis to the disapproval of the prominent laymen who spoke after him. Judge Charles Jackson, an eminent justice of the Supreme Court of Massachusetts, thought there was danger in the proposed plan, that it was not becoming to liberal Christians, that it, was inconsistent with their principles, and that it would not be beneficial to the community. He was ready to give his aid, to any specific work, but he thought that everything could be accomplished that was necessary, without a general-association of any kind. The same opinion was expressed by George Bond, a leading merchant of Boston, who was afraid that Unitarianism would become popular, and that, when it had gamed a majority of the people of the country to its side, it would become as intolerant as the other sects. For this reason he believed the measure inexpedient, and moved an adjournment of the meeting.

Three of the most widely known and respected of the older ministers also spoke in opposition to the proposition to form an association of liberal Christians. These men were typical pastors and preachers, whose parishes were limited only by the town in which they lived, and who preached the gospel without sectarian prejudice or doctrinal qualifications. Dr. John Pierce, of Brookline, thought the measure of the committee “very dangerous,” and likely to do much harm in many of the parishes by arousing the sectarian spirit. He spoke three times in the course of the meeting, opposing with his accustomed vehemence all attempt at organization. Dr. Abiel Abbot, of Beverly, thought that presenting a distinct object for opposition would arrest the progress of Unitarianism, for in his neighborhood liberal Christianity owed everything to slow and silent progress. Dr. John Allyn, of Duxbury, one of the most original and learned ministers of his time in New England, was opposed to the use of any sectarian name, especially that of Unitarian or Liberal. He was willing to join in a general convention, and he desired to have a meeting of delegates from all sects. He expressed the opinion of several leading men who were present at this meeting, who favored an unsectarian organization, that should include all men of liberal opinions, of whatever name or denominational connection.

Those who were in favor of a Unitarian Association did not remain silent, and they spoke with clearness and vigor in approval of the proposition of the committee. Alden Bradford, who became the Secretary of State in Massachusetts, and wrote several valuable biographical and historical works, thought that Unitarians were too timid and did not wisely defend their position. He was followed by Andrews Norton in a vigorous declaration of the importance of the association, in the course of which he pointed out how inadequately Unitarians had protected and fostered the institutions under their care, and declared that closer union was necessary. Jared Sparks also earnestly favored the project, and said that what was proposed was not a plan of proselyting. It was his opinion that Unitarians ought to come forward in support of their views of truth, and that an association was necessary in order to promote sympathy among them throughout the country. Colonel Joseph May, who had been for thirty years a warden of King’s Chapel, and a man held in high esteem in Boston, referred to the work already accomplished by the zeal and effort of the few Unitarians who had worked together to promote liberal interests. The most incisive word spoken, however, came from John Pierpont, who was just coming into his fame as an orator and a leader in reforms. “We have,” he declared, “and we must have, the name Unitarian. It is not for us to shrink from it. Organization is necessary in order to maintain it, and organization there must be. The general interests of Unitarians will be promoted by using the name, and organizing in harmony with it.”

In the long discussion at this meeting it appears that, of the ministers, Channing, Norton, Bancroft, Ware, Pierpont, Sparks, Edes, Nichols, Parker, Thayer, Willard, and Harding were in favor of organization; Pierce, Allyn, Abbot, Freeman, and Bigelow, against it. Of the laymen, Charles Jackson and George Bond were vigorously in opposition; and Judge Story, Judge White, Judge Howe, of Northampton, Alden Bradford, Leverett Salstonstall, Stephen Higginson, and Joseph May spoke in favor. The result of the meeting was the appointment of a committee, consisting of Sullivan, Bradford, Ware, Channing, Palfrey, Walker, Pierpont, and Higginson, which was empowered to call together a larger meeting at some time during the session of the General Court. But this committee seems never to have acted. At the end of his report of this preliminary meeting James Walker wrote: “The meeting proposed was never called. As there appeared to be so much difference of opinion as to the expediency and nature of the measure proposed, it was thought best to let it subside in silence.”

The zeal of those favorable to organization, however, did not abate; and the discussion went on throughout the winter. On May 25, 1825, at the meeting of the Berry Street Conference of Ministers, Henry Ware, the younger, who had been chairman of the first committee, renewed the effort, and presented the following statement as a declaration of the purposes of the proposed organization:–

It is proposed to form a new association, to be called The American Unitarian Society. The chief and ultimate object will be the promotion of pure and undefiled religion by disseminating the knowledge of it where adequate means of religious instruction are not enjoyed. A secondary good which will follow from it is the union of all Unitarian Christians in this country, so that they would become mutually acquainted, and the concentration of their efforts would increase their efficiency. The society will embrace all Unitarian Christians in the United States. Its operations would extend themselves through the whole country. These operations would chiefly consist in the publication and distribution of tracts, and the support of missionaries.

It was announced that in the afternoon a meeting would be held for the further consideration of the subject. This meeting was held at four o’clock, and Dr. Henry Ware acted as moderator. The opponents of organization probably absented themselves, for action was promptly taken, and it was “Voted, that it is expedient to form a new society to be called the American Unitarian Association.” All who were present expressed themselves as in favor of this action. Rev. James Walker, Mr. Lewis Tappan, and Rev. Ezra S. Gannett were appointed a committee to draft a form of organization. On the next morning, Thursday, May 26, 1825, this committee reported to a meeting, of which Dr. Nathaniel Thayer, of Lancaster, was moderator; and, with one or two amendments, the constitution prepared by the committee was adopted. This constitution, with slight modifications, is still in force. The object of the Association was declared to be “to diffuse the knowledge and promote the interests of pure Christianity.” A committee to nominate officers selected Dr. Channing for president; Joseph Story, of Salem, Joseph Lyman, of Northampton, Stephen Longfellow, of Portland, Charles H. Atherton, of Amherst, N.H., Henry Wheaton, of New York, James Taylor, of Philadelphia, Henry Payson, of Baltimore, William Cranch, of Alexandria, Martin L. Hurlbut, of Charleston, as vice-presidents; Ezra S. Gannett, of Boston, for secretary; Lewis Tappan, of Boston, for treasurer; and Andrews Norton, Jared Sparks, and James Walker, for executive committee.

When Mr. Gannett wrote to his colleague, Dr. Channing, to notify him of his election as president, there came a letter declining the proffered office. “I was a little disappointed,” Channing wrote, “at learning that the Unitarian Association is to commence operations immediately. I conversed with Mr. Norton on the subject before leaving Boston, and found him so indisposed to engage in it that I imagined that it would be let alone for the present. The office which in your kindness you have assigned to me I must beg to decline. As you have made a beginning, I truly rejoice in your success.” Norton and Sparks also declined to serve as directors, ill-health and previous engagements being assigned by them for their inability to act with the other officers elected. The executive committee proceeded to fill these vacancies by the election of Dr. Aaron Bancroft, of Worcester, as president, and of the younger Henry Ware and Samuel Barrett to the executive committee; and the board of directors thus constituted administered the Association during its first year.

In the selection of Dr. Bancroft as the head of the new association a wise choice was made, for he had the executive and organizing ability that was eminently desirable at this juncture. He was an able preacher, and one of the strongest thinkers in the Unitarian body. His biography of Washington had made him widely known; and his volume of controversial sermons, published in 1822, had received the enthusiastic praise of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. When he was settled, he was almost an outcast in Worcester County because of his liberalism; but such were the strength of his character and the power of his thought that gradually he secured a wide hearing, and became the most popular preacher in Central Massachusetts. After fifty years of his ministry he could count twenty-one vigorous Unitarian societies about him, all of which had profited by his influence.[8] Although he was seventy years of age at the time he accepted the presidency of the Unitarian Association, he was in the full enjoyment of his powers; and he filled the office for ten years, giving it and the cause which the Association represented the impetus and weight of his sound judgment and deserved reputation.

The executive work of the Association fell to the charge of the secretary, Ezra S. Gannett, who had been one of the most enthusiastic advocates of the new organization. Gannett was but twenty-four years old, and had been but one year in the active ministry, as the colleague of Dr. Channing. He had youth, zeal, and executive force. Writing of him after his death, Dr. Bellows said: “He had rare administrative qualities and a statesmanlike mind. He would have been a leader anywhere. He had the ambition, the faculties, and the impulsive temperament of an actor in affairs. He had the fervor, the concentration of will, the passionate enthusiasm of conviction, the love of martyrdom, which make men great in action.”[9] Throughout his life Gannett labored assiduously for the Association, serving it in every capacity refusing no drudgery, travelling over the country in its interests, and giving himself, heart and soul, to the cause it represented. The Unitarian cause never had a more devoted friend or one who made greater sacrifices in its behalf. To him more than to any other man it owes its organized life and its missionary serviceableness.

Lewis Tappan, the treasurer, was a successful young business man. His term of service was brief; for two years after the organization of the Association he removed to New York, where he had an honorable career as one of the founders of the Journal of Commerce, and as the head of the first mercantile agency established in the country. He was later one of the anti-slavery leaders in New York, and an active and earnest member of Plymouth Church in Brooklyn.[10]

The executive committee was composed of the three devoted young ministers who had been foremost in organizing the Association. Barrett was thirty, Ware and Walker were thirty-one years of age; and all three had been in Harvard College and the Divinity School together. Samuel Barrett had just been chosen minister of the newly formed Twelfth Congregational Church of Boston, which he served throughout his life. He was identified with all good causes in Eastern Massachusetts, a founder of the Benevolent Fraternity, and an overseer of Harvard College. Henry Ware, the younger, was, at the time of his election, the minister of the Second Church in Boston. Five years later he became professor in the Harvard Divinity School, and his memory is still cherished as the teacher and exemplar of a generation of Unitarian ministers. James Walker was, in 1825, the minister of the Harvard Church in Charlestown, and already gave evidence of the sanity and catholicity of mind, the practical organizing power, the wide philosophic culture, and the dignity of character which afterward distinguished him as professor in Harvard College, and as its president.

Thus the organization started on its way, as the result of the determined purpose of a small company of the younger ministers and laymen. It took a name that separated it from all other religious organizations in this country, so far as its members then knew. The Unitarian name had been first definitely used in this country in 1815, to describe the liberal or Catholic Christians. They at first scornfully rejected it, but many of them had finally come to rejoice in its declaration of the simple unity of God. As a matter of history, it may be said that the word “Unitarian” was used in this doctrinal sense only; and it had none of the implications since given it by philosophy and science. Those who used it meant thereby to say that they accepted the doctrine of the absolute unity of God, and that the position of Christ was a subordinate though a very exalted one. No one can read their statements with historic apprehension, and arrive at any other conclusion. Yet these persons had no wish to cut themselves off from historic Christianity; rather was it their intent to restore it to its primitive purity.
Work of the First Year.

If others were disinclined to action, the executive committee of the Unitarian Association was determined that something should be done. At their first, meeting, held in the secretary’s study four days after their election, there were present Norton, Walker, Tappan, and Gannett. They commissioned Rev. Warren Burton to act as their agent in visiting neighboring towns to solicit funds, and a week later they voted to employ him as a general agent. The committee held six meetings during June; and at one of these an address was adopted, defining the purposes and methods of the Association. “They wish it to be understood,” was their statement, “that its efforts will be directed to the promotion of true religion throughout our country; intending by this, not exclusively those views which distinguish the friends of this Association from other disciples of Christ; but those views in connection with the great doctrines and principles in which all Christians coincide, and which constitute the substance of our religion. We wish to diffuse the knowledge and influence of the gospel of our Lord and Saviour. Great good is anticipated from the co-operation of persons entertaining similar views, who are now strangers to each other’s religious sentiments. Interest will be awakened, confidence inspired, efficiency produced by the concentration of labors. The spirit of inquiry will be fostered, and individuals at a distance will know where to apply for information and encouragement. Respectability and strength will be given to the class among us whom our fellow Christians have excluded from the control of their religious charities, and whom, by their exclusive treatment, they have compelled in some measure to act as a party.” The objects of the Association were stated to be the collection of information about Unitarianism in various parts of the country; the securing of union, sympathy, and co-operation among liberal Christians; the publishing and distribution of books inculcating correct views of religion; the employment of missionaries, and the adoption of other measures that might promote the general purposes held in view.

At the end of the year the Association held its first anniversary meeting in Pantheon Hall, on the evening of June 30, 1826, when addresses were made by Hon. Joseph Story, Hon. Leverett Salstonstall, Rev. Ichabod Nichols, and Rev. Henry Coleman. The executive committee presented its report, which gave a detailed account of the operations during the year. They gave special attention to their discovery of “a body of Christians in the Western states who have for years been Unitarians, have encountered persecution on account of their faith, and have lived in ignorance of others east of the mountains who maintained many similar views of Christian doctrine.” With this group of churches, which would consent to no other name than that of Christian, a correspondence had been opened; and, to secure a larger acquaintance with them, Rev. Moses G. Thomas[11] had visited several of the Western states. His tour carried him through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, and as far as St. Louis. His account of his journey was published in connection with the second report of the Association, and is full of interest. He did not preach, but he carefully investigated the religious prospects of the states he journeyed through; and he sought the acquaintance of the Christian churches and ministers. He gave an enthusiastic account of his travels, and reported that the west was a promising field for the planting of Unitarian churches. He recommended Northumberland, Harrisburg, Pittsburg, Steubenville, Marietta, Paris, Lexington, Louisville, St. Louis, St. Charles, Indianapolis, and Cincinnati as promising places for the labors of Unitarian missionaries,–places “which will properly appreciate their talents and render them doubly useful in their day and generation.”

During the first year of its existence the Unitarian Association endeavored to unite with itself, or to secure the co-operation of, the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge, Piety, and Charity, the Evangelical Missionary Society, and the Publishing Fund Society; but these organizations were unwilling to come into close affiliation with it. The Evangelical Missionary Society has continued its separate existence to the present time, but the others were absorbed by the Unitarian Association after many years. This is one indication of how difficult it was to secure an active co-operation among Unitarians, and to bring them all into one vigorous working body. In concluding their first report, the officers of the Association alluded to the difficulties with which they had met the reluctance of the liberal churches to come into close affiliation with each other. “They have strenuously opposed the opinion,” they said of the leaders of the Association, “that the object of the founders was to build up a party, to organize an opposition, to perpetuate pride and bigotry. Had they believed that such was its purpose or such would be its effect, they would have withdrawn themselves from any connection with so hateful a thing. They thought otherwise, and experience has proved they did not judge wrongly.”
Work of the First Quarter of a Century.

Having thus organized itself and begun its work, the Association went quietly on its way. At no time during the first quarter of a century of its existence did it secure annual contributions from one-half the churches calling themselves Unitarian, and it did well when even one-third of them contributed to its treasury during any one year. The churches of Boston, for the most part, held aloof from it, and gave it only a feeble support, if any at all. They had so long accepted the spirit of congregational exclusiveness, had so great a dread of interference on the part of ecclesiastical organizations, and so keenly suspected every attempt at co-operation on the part of the churches as likely to lead to restrictions upon congregational independence, that it was nearly impossible to secure their aid for any kind of common work. Very slowly the contributions increased to the sum of $5,000 a year, and only once in the first quarter of a century did the total receipts of a year reach $15,000. With so small a treasury no great work could be undertaken; but the money given was husbanded to the utmost, and the salaries paid to clerks and the general secretary were kept to the lowest possible limit.

Dr. Bancroft was succeeded in the presidency of the Association, in 1836, by Dr. Channing, who nominally held the position for one year; but at the next annual meeting he declined to have his name presented as a candidate.[12] The office was then filled by Dr. Ichabod Nichols, of Portland, who served from 1837 to 1844. He was the minister of the First Church in Portland from 1809 to 1855, and then retired to Cambridge, where he wrote his Natural Theology and his Hours with the Evangelists. Joseph Story, the great jurist, who had been vice-president of the Association from 1826 to 1836, was elected president in 1844, and served for one year. He was followed by Dr. Orville Dewey, who was president from 1845 to 1847. He had been settled in New Bedford, and over the Church of the Messiah in New York; and subsequently he had short pastorates in Albany, in Washington, and over the New South Church in Boston. His lectures and his sermons have made him widely known. In intellectual and emotional power he was one of the greatest preachers the country has produced. Dr. Gannett served as the president from 1847 to 1851, being succeeded by Dr. Samuel K. Lothop, who continued to hold the office until 1856. Dr. Lothrop was first settled in Dover, N.H., but became the minister of the Brattle Street Church, Boston, in 1834, retaining that position until 1876.

The office of secretary was held by Rev. Ezra S, Gannett until 1831. He was succeeded in that year by Rev. Alexander Young, who held the position for two years. Dr. Young was the minister of the New South Church from 1825 until his death, in 1854. His Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers, and other works, have given him a reputation as a historian. In 1829 the office of foreign secretary was created; and it was held by the younger Henry Ware from 1830 to 1834, when it ceased to exist. Rev. Samuel Barnett was secretary in 1833 and 1834, and recording secretary until 1837. In 1834 the office of general secretary was established, in order to secure the services of an active missionary. Rev. Jason Whitman, who held this position for one year, had been the minister in Saco; and he was afterward settled in Portland and Lexington. Rev. Charles Briggs became the general secretary in 1835, and continued in office until the end of 1847. He had been settled in Lexington, but did not hold a pastorate subsequent to his connection with the Association. In the mean time Rev. Samuel K. Lothrop was the assistant or recording secretary from 1837 to 1847. In 1847 Rev. William G. Eliot was elected the general secretary; but he did not serve, owing to the claims of his parish in St. Louis. Rev. Frederick West Holland, who had been settled in Rochester, was made the general secretary in January, 1848; and he held the position until the annual meeting of 1860. Subsequently he was settled in East Cambridge, Neponset, North Cambridge, Rochester, and Newburg.

It was Charles Briggs who first gave definite purpose to the missionary work of the Association. The annual report of 1850 said of him that he “had led the institution forward to high ground as a missionary body, by unfailing patience prevailed over every discouragement, by inexhaustible hope surmounted serious obstacles, by the most persuasive gentleness conciliated opposition, and done perhaps as much as could be asked of sound judgment, knowledge of mankind, and devotion to the cause, with the drawback of a slender and failing frame.” In 1845 Rev. George G. Channing entered upon a service as the travelling agent of the Association, which he continued for two years. His duties required him to take an active interest in missionary enterprises, revive drooping churches, secure information as to the founding of new churches, and to add to the income of the Association. He was a brother of Dr. Channing, held one or two pastorates, and was the founder and editor of The Christian World, which he published in Boston as a weekly Unitarian paper from January, 1843, to the end of 1848.

At a meeting of the Unitarian Association held on June 3, 1847, the final steps were taken that secured its incorporation under the laws of Massachusetts. In the revised constitution the fifteen vice-presidents were reduced to two, and the president and vice-presidents were made members of the executive committee, and so brought into intimate connection with the work of the Association. The directors and other officers were made an executive committee, by which all affairs of moment must be considered; and it was required to hold stated monthly meetings. These changes were conducive to an enlarged interest in the work of the Association, and also to the more thorough consideration of its activities on the part of a considerable body of judicious and experienced officers. They were made in recognition of the increasing missionary labors of the Association, and enabled it thenceforth to hold and to manage legally the moneys that came under its control.
Publication of Tracts and Books.

One of the first subjects to which the Association gave attention was the publication of tracts, six of which were issued during the first year. In connection with their publication a series of depositaries was established for their sale. David Reed of The Christian Register became the general agent, while there were ten county depositaries in Massachusetts, four in New Hampshire, three in Maine, and one each in Connecticut, New York City, Philadelphia, Charleston, and Washington.[13] For a number of years the tracts were devoted to doctrinal subjects. Several of Channing’s ablest sermons and addresses were first printed in this form. Among the other contributors to the first series were the three Wares, Orville Dewey, Joseph Tuckerman, James Walker, George Ripley, Samuel J. May, John G. Palfrey, Ezra S. Gannett, Samuel Gilman, George R. Noyes, William G. Eliot, Andrew P. Peabody, F.A. Farley, James Freeman Clarke, S.G. Bulfinch, George Putnam, Joseph Allen, Frederic H. Hedge, Edward B. Hall, George E. Ellis, Thomas B. Fox, Charles T. Brooks, J.H. Morison, Henry W. Bellows, William H. Furness, John Cordner, Chandler Robbins, Augustus Woodbury, and William R. Alger. Ten or twelve tracts were issued yearly, those of the year having a consecutive page numbering, so that, in fact, they appeared in the form of a monthly periodical, each tract bearing the date of its publication, and being sent regularly to all subscribers to the Association. In all, three hundred tracts appeared in this form in the first series, making twenty-six volumes.

For nearly half a century none of the tracts of the Association were published for free distribution. They were issued at prices ranging from two to ten cents each, according to the size, some of them having not more than ten or twelve pages, while others had more than a hundred. So long as there was an eagerness for theological reading, and an earnest intellectual interest in the questions which divided the several religious bodies of the country from each other, it was not difficult to sell editions of from 3,000 to 10,000 copies of all the tracts published by the Association. From the first, however, there were many calls for tracts for free distribution. To meet this demand, there was formed in Boston, by a number of young men during the year 1827, The Unitarian Book and Pamphlet Society, for “the gratuitous distribution of Unitarian publications of an approved character.” It undertook especially to distribute “such publications as shall be issued by the American Unitarian Association or recommended by it.” This society also circulated tracts printed by The Christian Register and The Christian World, the call for such publications having led the publishers of these periodicals to give their aid in meeting the demand for pamphlets on theological problems and on practical religious duties. The society also distributed Bibles to the poor of the city and in more distant country places, furnishing them to missionaries and others who would undertake work of this kind. In the same manner they gave away large numbers of books, their list for 1836 including Scougal’s Life of God in the Soul of Man, Ware’s Formation of the Christian Character, and works by Worcester, Channing Whitman, and Greenwood. The call for aid was considerable from the western and southern states; and books were sent to Havana, New Brunswick, and the Sandwich Islands. In the winter of 1840-41 this society was reorganized, an urgent appeal was made to the churches for an increase of funds, and during the next few years its work was large and important.

In the year 1848 was begun a special effort for the circulation of Unitarian books, on the part of The Book and Pamphlet Society, The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, Piety, and Charity, as well as by the Unitarian Association. In that year the second of these organizations sent out circulars to 263 colleges and theological schools, offering to give Unitarian books, to those desiring to receive them; and to 59 of these institutions assortments of books worth from two dollars to one hundred dollars were forwarded. The first request came from the Catholic College at Worcester, and the last from the Wisconsin University at Madison. At the same time the Association was pressing the sale and free distribution of the Works and the Memoir of Dr. Charming, as well as various books by Peabody, Livermore, Bartol, and others.

The Association began to make use of colporters about the year 1847. The next year it had two young ministers engaged in this work, and by 1850 this kind of missionary labor had increased to considerable proportions. Especially in the West was much use made of the colporter, and in this way in many of the states the works of Channing were sold in large numbers. By these agents, tracts were given away with a free hand, and books were given to ministers and those who especially needed them. The Western ministers, almost without exception, served as colporters, selling books and distributing them as important helps to their missionary labors. In many communities zealous laymen took part in this kind of service, and the several depositaries of books and tracts were used as centres from which colporters and others could draw their supplies. As early as 1835 a general depositary had been established in Cincinnati, and in 1849 one was opened in Chicago.

The Association could not have undertaken any work that would have brought in a larger or more immediate return in the way of religious education and spiritual growth than this of the publication of tracts and books. Previous to 1850 a doctrinal sermon was rarely preached in a Unitarian church, and the tracts were the most important means of giving to the members of established churches a knowledge of Unitarian theology. By the same means many other persons were made acquainted with the Unitarian beliefs, and the result was to be seen in the formation of churches where tracts and books had been largely distributed.[14]
Domestic Missions.

The work of domestic missions from the first largely claimed the attention of the Association, and it was one the chief objects in its formation. During the summer of 1826 the members of the Harvard Divinity School were sent throughout New England to gather information, and to preach where opportunity offered. The special object was to make ministers and congregations acquainted with the purposes of the Association. It was found that there was much opposition to it, and that in many parishes there existed no desire to have its mission extended.

Persons of all shades of belief were connected with many of the liberal parishes, some of the churches not having as yet ceased their relations with the towns in which they were located; and the ministers were not willing to have theological questions brought to the attention of their congregations. “The great objection everywhere seems to be,” reported one of the young men, who had travelled through many of the towns of central Massachusetts, “that the clergymen do not like to awaken party spirit. People will go on quietly performing all external duties of religion without asking themselves if they are listening to the doctrine of the Trinity or not; but the moment you wish to act, they call up all their old prejudices, and take a very firm stand. This necessarily creates division and dissension, and renders the situation of the minister very uncomfortable.”[15] The ministers did not preach on theological subjects; and, while they were liberal themselves, they had not instructed their parishioners in such a manner that they followed in the same path of thinking which their leaders had travelled.

It was evident, therefore, that there was work enough in New England for the Association to accomplish, and such as would fully tax its resources.[16] It had turned its eyes toward the West and South, however; and it was not willing to leave these fields unoccupied. In 1836 the general secretary, Charles Briggs, spent eight months in these regions; and he found everywhere large opportunities for the spread of Unitarianism. Promising openings were found at Erie, Cleveland, Toledo, Detroit, Marietta, Tremont, Jacksonville, Memphis, and Nashville, in which villages or cities churches were soon after formed. It was reported at this time that there was hardly a town in the West where there were not Unitarians, or in which it was not possible by the right kind of effort to establish a Unitarian church.

As a result of the interest awakened by the tour of the general secretary, fourteen missionaries were put into the field in 1837. In 1838 twenty-three missionaries visited eleven states, including New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky Alabama, and Georgia.[17] They were men of experience in parish labors, but they did not go out to the new country to remain there permanently. They attracted large congregations, however, formed several societies which promised to be permanent, administered the ordinances, established Sunday-schools, and did much to strengthen the churches. In 1839 seven preachers were sent into the west, and at the next anniversary there was an urgent call made by the Association for funds with which to establish a permanent missionary agent in the field. Something more was needed than a few Massachusetts ministers preaching from town to town with no purpose of locating with any of the churches they helped to organize. Ministers for the new churches were urgently demanded, but few men from New England were willing to remove to the west; and, though recruits came from the orthodox churches, this source of supply was not sufficient.

The repeated calls made for larger resources with which to carry on the work of domestic missions resulted in meetings held in Boston during the year 1841, at which pledges were made to a fund of $10,000 yearly for five years, to be used for missionary purposes. This sum was secured in 1843 and the next four years, so that larger aid was given to missionary activities and to the building of churches. At the annual meeting of 1849 special attention was given to the subject of domestic missions, and plans were devised for largely extending all the activities in this direction. Much interest was taken in the western work during the following years, and slowly new churches came into existence. In 1849 Rev. Edward P. Bond was sent to San Francisco, where a number of New England people had held lay services and formed a church, and in a few years a strong society had grown up in that city. Mr. Bond also went to the Sandwich Islands; but he was not able to open a mission there, owing to ill-health. In the South the work languished, largely owing to the growth of anti-slavery sentiment in the North, with which Unitarians were generally in sympathy.

From 1830 to 1850 the Unitarians were confronted by the greatest opportunity which has ever opened to them for missionary activities. The vast region of the middle west was in a formative state, the people were everywhere receptive to liberal influences, other churches had not been firmly established, and there was urgent demand for leadership of a progressive and rational kind. Here has come to be the controlling centre of American life,–in politics, education, and social power. A few of the leaders saw the opportunity, but the churches were not ready to respond to their appeals.

The work accomplished by the Association during the first twenty-five or thirty years of its existence, the period reviewed in this chapter, was small, compared with the opportunity and with the wishes of those who most had at heart the interests for the promotion of which it was established. Yet there was wanting in no year encouragement for its friends or something accomplished that cheered them to larger efforts. In 1850, at the twenty-fifth anniversary, historical addresses were delivered by Samuel Osgood, John G. Palfrey, Henry W. Bellows, Edward E. Hale, and Lant Carpenter; and a hopeful review of the labors of the Association was presented by the executive committee. First of all its efforts had been directed to securing religious liberty. Then came its philanthropic enterprises, and finally its missionary labors. During the quarter of a century one hundred churches that were weak and struggling, owing to their situation in towns of decreasing population or in cities not congenial to their teachings, had been aided. More than fifty vigorous churches had been planted in the west and south, nearly all of them helped in some way by the Association. There was a renewed call for strong men to enter the missionary field, and it was uttered more urgently at this time than ever before. Special pride was expressed in the high quality of the religious writings produced by Unitarians, and in the nobleness the men and women who had been connected with denominational activities.[18]

[1] An eighteenth-century term for the Congregational churches, which were the legally established churches throughout New England, an supported by the towns.

[2] Boston Unitarianism, 67.

[3] Memoir of Dr. Channing, one-volume edition, 215.

[4] Ibid., 432.

[5] Ibid., 427.

[6] Memoir of Ezra Stiles Gannett, by W.C. Gannett, 103.

[7] The records give the following names: Drs. Freeman, Channing, Lowell, Tuckerman, Bancroft, Pierce, and Allyn; Rev. Messrs. Henry Ware, Francis Parkman, J.G. Palfrey, Jared Sparks, Samuel Ripley, A. Bigelow, A. Abbot, C. Francis, L. Capen, J. Pierpont, James Walker, Mr. Harding, and Mr. Edes; and the following laymen,–Richard Sullivan, Stephen Higginson, B. Gould, H.J. Oliver, S. Dorr, Colonel Joseph May, C.G. Loring, George Bond, Samuel A. Eliot, G.B. Emerson, C.P. Phelps, Lewis Tappan, David Reed, Mr. Storer, J. Rucker, N. Mitchell, Robert Rantoul, Alden Bradford, Mr. Dwight, Mr. Mackintosh, General Walker, Mr. Strong, Dr. John Ware, and Professor Andrews Norton.

[8] John Brazer, The Christian Examiner, xx. 240; Alonzo Hill, American Unitarian Biography, i. 171.

[9] The Liberal Christian, March 3, 1875.

[10] Although Lewis Tappan took a zealous interest in the formation of the Unitarian Association, as he did in all Unitarian activities of the time, in the autumn of 1827 he withdrew from the Unitarian fellowship, and joined the orthodox Congregationalist. In a letter addressed to a Unitarian minister he explained his reasons for so doing. This letter circulated for some time in manuscript, and in 1828 was printed in a pamphlet with the title, Letter from a Gentleman in Boston to a Unitarian Clergyman of that City. Want of Piety among Unitarians, failure to sustain missionary enterprises, and the absence of a rigid business integrity he assigned as reasons for his withdrawal. This pamphlet excited much discussion, pro and con; and it was answered in a caustic review by J.P. Blanchard.

[11] Moses George Thomas was a graduate of Brown and of the Harvard Divinity School, was settled in Dover, N.H., from 1829 to 1845, Broadway Church in South Boston from 1845 to 1848, New Bedford 1848 to 1854, and was subsequently minister at large in the same city.

[12] In writing to Charles Briggs from Newport, under date of July 30 1836, Dr. Channing wrote, “In the pressure of subjects, when I saw you, I forgot to say to you, that I cannot accept the office with which the Unitarian Association honored me.” That is the whole of what he wrote on the subject. No one else was elected to the office for year. It is evident, therefore, that his name should occupy the place of president.

[13] The depositaries in Massachusetts were at Salem, Concord, Hingham, Plymouth, Yarmouth, Cambridge, Worcester, Northampton, Springfield, and Greenfield; in New Hampshire, at Concord, Portsmouth, Keene, and Amherst; in Maine, at Hallowell, Brunswick, and Eastport; and, in Connecticut, at Brooklyn. In 1828 the number had increased to twenty-five in Massachusetts, six in Maine, seven in New Hampshire, one in Rhode Island, four in New York, two in Pennsylvania, and two in Maryland. At the first annual meeting of the Unitarian Association a system of auxiliaries was recommended, which was inaugurated the next year. It was proposed to organize an auxiliary to the Association in every parish, and also in each county. These societies came rapidly into existence, were of much help to the Association in raising money and in distributing its tracts, and energetic efforts were made on the part of the officers of the Association to extend their number and influence. They continued in existence for about twenty years, and gradually disappeared. They numbered about one hundred and fifty when most prosperous.

[14] During the first twenty-five years of the Association, 272 tracts of the first series were issued, and also 29 miscellaneous tracts and 37 reports. The number of copies published was estimated as 1,764,000, making an average of 70,000 each year. Of these tracts, 103 were practical, and 93 doctrinal; and, of the doctrinal, one-half were on the Divine Unity, one-sixth on the Atonement, ten on Regeneration, five on the Ordinances, four on Human Nature, three on Retribution, and two on the Holy Spirit. In the Monthly Journal, May, 1860, Vol. I. pp. 230-240, were given the titles and authors.

[15] From a letter of Samuel K. Lothrop, afterward minister of the Brattle Street Church.

[16] The following letter is of interest, not only because of the name of the writer, but because it gives a very good idea of the work done by the first missionaries of the Association. It is dated at Northampton, Mass., October 9, 1827. “My dear Sir,–I designed when I left you to send some earlier notice of my doings than this; but as it has not been in my power to say much, I have said nothing. Mr. Hall is preparing an account of his own missions, but thinks it not worth while to send it to you till it is completed. The first Sabbath after my arrival I preached here. The second, for the convenience of the Greenfield people, an exchange was made, and I went to Deerfield, and Dr. Willard went to Colrain. There were some unfavorable circumstances which operated to diminish the audience, but they were glad to see and hear him. The fourth Sabbath (which followed the meeting of the Franklin Association) I preached at Greenfield, and Mr. Bailey went to Colrain. I enclose his journal. The fifth Sabbath at Deerfield, and Dr. Willard at Adams in Berkshire. I have not seen him since his return. I have told the Franklin Association I would remain here till November, and in consequence have been thus put to and fro, but expect to preach the three coming Sundays in Northampton. I have offered my services to preach lectures in the week, but circumstances have made it inexpedient in towns where it was proposed. The clergymen are very glad to see me, having feared that the mission was indefinitely postponed. They find the better sort of people in most of the towns inquisitive and favorably disposed to views of liberal Christianity. It is a singular fact, of which I hear frequent mention made, that in elections Unitarians are almost universally preferred when the suffrage is by ballot, and rejected when given by hand ballot. In Franklin county it is thought there is a majority of Unitarians. I have been much disappointed in being obliged to lead a vagrant life, as you know I came hither with different expectations, and hoped for leisure and retirement for study, which I needed much. But it would not do for a missionary to be stiff necked, and so I have been a shuttle. I have promised to go to New Bedford the first three Sundays of November. With great regard, your servant, R. Waldo Emerson.” From this letter it will be seen that Emerson supplied the pulpits at Northampton and Greenfield in order that the ministers in those towns might preach elsewhere.

[17] Fourteenth Annual Report, 14. “They were the following: Rev. George Ripley, Boston; Rev. A.B. Muzzey, Cambridgeport; Rev. Samuel Barrett, Boston; Rev. Mr. Green, East Cambridge; Rev. Calvin Lincoln, Fitchburg; Rev. E.B. Willson, Westford; Dr. James Kendall, Plymouth; Rev. George W. Hosmer, Buffalo; Rev. Warren Burton, Dr. Thompson, Salem; Rev. J.P.B. Storer, Syracuse; Rev. Charles Babbidge, Pepperell; Rev. John M. Myrick, Walpole; Rev. J.D. Swett, Boston; Rev. A.D. Jones, Brighton; Rev. Henry Emmons, Meadville; Rev. J.F. Clarke, Louisville; Rev. F.D. Huntington, Rev. B.F. Barrett, Rev. G.F. Simmons, Rev. C. Nightingale, Mr. Wilson, of the Divinity School; and Mr. C.P. Cranch. Among the places where they preached are Houlton Me.; Syracuse, Lockport, Lewiston, Pekin, and Vernon, N.Y.; Philadelphia and Erie, Pa.; Marietta, Zanesville, Cleveland, and Toledo, Ohio; Detroit, Mich.; Owensburg, Ky.; Chicago, Peoria, Tremont, Jacksonville, Hillsboro, and several other places in Illinois.”

[18] For a most interesting account of the growth of the denomination, see The Christian Examiner for May, 1854, lvi. 397, article by John Parkman.

1,965 thoughts on “UNITARISM – VI – THE AMERICAN UNITARIAN ASSOCIATION”


    Fatal error: Allowed memory size of 54525952 bytes exhausted (tried to allocate 1835938 bytes) in /mounted-storage/home138/sub005/sc20812-ANIG/www/wp-includes/class-walker-comment.php on line 192