Many of the most influential Americans have been in practical accord with Unitarianism, while not actually connected with Unitarian churches. They have accepted its principles of individual freedom, the rational interpretation of religion, and the necessity of bringing religious beliefs into harmony with modern science and philosophy. Among these may be properly included such men as Benjamin Franklin, John Marshall, Gerrit Smith, John G. Whittier, William Lloyd Garrison, Andrew D. White, and Abraham Lincoln. Whittier was a Friend, and White an Episcopalian; but the religion of both is acceptable to all Unitarians. Marshall was undoubtedly a Unitarian in his intellectual convictions, and he sometimes attended the Unitarian church in Washington; but his church affiliations were with the Episcopalians. John C. Calhoun was all his life a member of an Episcopal church and a communicant in it; but he frequently attended the Unitarian church in Washington, and intellectually he discarded the doctrines taught in the creeds of his church.

Lincoln belonged to no church, and had no interest in the forms and disputes that constitute so large a part of outward religion; but he was one of those men whose great deeds rest on a basis of simple but profoundest religious conviction. The most explicit statement he ever made of his faith was in these words: “I have never united myself to any church, because I have found difficulty in giving my assent, without mental reservation, to the long, complicated statements of Christian doctrine which characterize their articles of belief and confessions of faith. When any church will inscribe over its altar, as its sole qualification of membership, the Saviour’s condensed statement of both law and gospel, ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul and with all thy mind, and thy neighbor as thyself,’ that church will I join with all my heart and all my soul.”[1] This declaration brings Lincoln into fullest harmony with the position of the Unitarian churches.
Eminent Statesmen.

The intellectual tendencies of the eighteenth century led many of the leading Americans to discard the Puritan habit of mind and the religious beliefs it had cherished. An intellectual revolt caused the rejection of many of the Protestant doctrines, and a political revolt in the direction of democracy led to the acceptance of religious principles not in harmony with those of the past. Many Americans shared in these protests who did not openly break with the older faiths. Washington was of this class; for, while he remained outwardly a churchman, he had little intellectual or practical sympathy with the stricter beliefs. Franklin was thoroughly of the Deistic faith of the thinkers of England and France in his time. These tendencies had their effect upon such men as John Adams, Timothy Pickering, Joseph Story, and Theophilus Parsons, as well as upon Thomas Jefferson and William Cranch. They showed themselves with especial prominence in the case of Jefferson, who always remained outwardly faithful to the state religion of Virginia, in which he had been educated, attended the Episcopal church in the neighborhood of his home, sometimes joining in its communion, but who was, nevertheless, intellectually a pronounced Unitarian.

With Jefferson his Unitarianism was a part of his democracy, for he was consistent enough to make his religion and his politics agree with each other. As he would have kings no longer rule over men, but give political power into the hands of the people, so in religion he would put aside all theologians and priests, and permit the people to worship in their own way. It was for this reason that he rejoiced in the emancipating work of Channing, of which he wrote in 1822, “I rejoice that in this blessed country of free inquiry and belief, which has surrendered its creeds and conscience neither to kings nor priests, the genuine doctrine of only one God is reviving; and I trust there is not a young man now living who will not die a Unitarian.”[2] Jefferson’s revolt against authority was tersely expressed in his declaration: “Had there never been a commentator, there never would have been an infidel.”[3] This was in harmony with his saying, that “the doctrines of Jesus are simple and tend all to the happiness of man.”[4] It also fully agrees with the claims of the early Unitarians with regard to the teachings of Jesus. “No one sees with greater pleasure than myself,” he wrote, “the progress of reason in its advance toward rational Christianity. When we shall have done away with the incomprehensible jargon of the Trinitarian arithmetic, that three are one, and one are three; when we shall have knocked down the artificial scaffolding reared to mask from view the simple structure of Jesus; when, in short, we shall have unlearned everything taught since his day, and got back to the pure and simple doctrines he inculcated–we shall then be truly and worthily his disciples; and my opinion is that, if nothing had ever been added to what flowed purely from his lips, the whole world would at this day have been Christian.”[5]

However mistaken Jefferson may have been in the historical opinions thus expressed, we cannot question the sincerity of his beliefs or fail to recognize that he had the keenest interest in whatever gave indication of the growth of a rational spirit in religion. These opinions he shared with many of the leading men of his time; but he was more outspoken in their utterance, as he was more consistent in holding them. That Washington, though remaining an Episcopalian, was in fullest accord with Jefferson in his principles of toleration and religious freedom, is apparent from one of his letters. “I am not less ardent in my wish,” he wrote, “that you may succeed in your toleration in religious matters. Being no bigot myself to any mode of worship, I am disposed to indulge the professors of Christianity in the church with that road to heaven which to them shall seem the most direct, easiest, and least liable to exception.”[6] Intellectually, Franklin was a Deist of essentially the same beliefs with Jefferson, as may be seen in his statement of faith: “I believe in one God, the creator of the universe; that he governs it by his providence; that he ought to be worshipped; that the most acceptable service we render to him is doing good to his other children; that the soul of man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another life respecting its conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental points in all sound religion. As to Jesus of Nazareth, I think his system of morals and his religion, as he left them to us, the best the world ever saw, or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting changes, and I have some doubts of his divinity; though it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it.”[7] Franklin was a member of a Unitarian church in London.
Some Representative Unitarians.

The church in Washington, not having been popular or of fine appointments, has been a test of the Unitarian faith of those frequenting the capital city. It has included in its congregation, from time to time, such men as John Adams, John Quincy Adams,[8] John Marshall, Joseph Story, Samuel F. Miller, Millard Fillmore, William Cranch, George Bancroft, Nathan K. Hall, James Moore Wayne, and Senators Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun, William S. Archer, Henry B. Anthony, William B. Allison, Timothy O. Howe, Edward Everett, Justin S. Morrill, Charles Sumner, William E. Chandler, George F. Hoar, and John P. Hale. William Winston Seaton and Joseph Gales, once prominent in Washington as editors and publishers of The National Intelligencer, were both Unitarians.

In New York the Unitarian churches have had among their attendants and members such persons as William Cullen Bryant, Catherine M. Sedgwick, Henry D. Sedgwick, Henry Wheaton, Peter Cooper, George William Curtis, George Ticknor Curtis, Moses H. Grinnell, Dorman B. Eaton, and Joseph H. Choate. The churches in Salem have had connected with them such men as John Prince, Nathaniel Bowditch, Benjamin Peirce, Timothy Pickering, John Pickering, Leverett Saltonstall, Joseph Story,[9] Jones Very, William H. Prescott, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.[10]
Judges and Legislators.

During the early Unitarian period “the judges on the bench” included such men as Theophilus Parsons, Isaac Parker, and Lemuel Shaw, all of whom held the office of chief justice in Massachusetts. Other lawyers, jurists, and statesmen were Fisher Ames, political orator and statesman; Nathan Dane, who drew the ordinance for the north-western territory; Samuel Dexter, senator, and secretary of the treasury under John Adams; Christopher Gore, senator, and governor of Massachusetts; and Benjamin R. Curtis, of the United States Supreme Court. Other chief justices of the Supreme Court of Massachusetts have been George T. Bigelow, John Wells, Pliny Myrick, Walbridge A. Field, Charles Allen; and of associates in that court have been Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar, Benjamin F. Thomas, Seth Ames, Samuel S. Wilde, Levi Lincoln, and John Lowell. Among the governors of Massachusetts have been Levi Lincoln, Edward Everett, John Davis, John H. Clifford, John A. Andrew, George S. Boutwell, John D. Long, Thomas Talbot, George D. Robinson, J.Q.A. Brackett, Oliver Ames, Frederic T. Greenhalge, and Roger Wolcott. The first mayors of Boston, John Phillips, Josiah Quincy,[11] and Harrison Gray Otis, were Unitarians. Then, after an interval of one year, followed Samuel A. Eliot and Jonathan Chapman.

It has often been assumed that Unitarianism attracts only intellectual persons; but it also appeals to practical business men, legislators, and the leaders of political life. In Maine have been Vice-President Hannibal Hamlin, Governor Edward Kent, and Chief Justice John Appleton. In New Hampshire it has appealed to such men as Chief Justices Cushing, Henry A. Bellows, Jeremiah Smith, and, Charles Doe, as well as to Governors Onslow Stearns, Charles H. Bell, Benjamin F. Prescott, and Ichabod Goodwin; in Rhode Island, Governors Lippitt and Seth Paddelford, Chief Justices Samuel Ames and Samuel Eddy, General Ambrose E. Burnside, and William B. Weeden, historian and economist. Alphonso Taft and George Hoadly, both governors of Ohio, were Unitarians, as were Austin Blair, John T. Bagley, Charles S. May, and Henry H. Crapo, governors of Michigan. Among the prominent Unitarians of Iowa have been Senator William B. Allison and General George W. McCrary. In California may be named Leland Stanford, Horace Davis, Chief Justice W.H. Beatty, and Oscar L. Shafter of the Supreme Court.
Boston Unitarianism.

What Unitarianism has been in the lives of its men and women may be most conspicuously seen in Boston and the region about it, for there throughout the first half of the nineteenth century Unitarianism was the dominant form of Christianity. Of the period from 1826 to 1832, when Dr. Lyman Beecher was settled in Boston, Mrs. Stowe has given this testimony: “All the literary men of Massachusetts were Unitarians. All the trustees and professors of Harvard College were Unitarians. All the élite of wealth and fashion crowded Unitarian churches. The judges on the bench were Unitarian, giving decisions by which the peculiar features of church organization, so carefully ordained by the Pilgrim fathers, had been nullified.”[12] Of the same period Dr. Beecher wrote, “All offices were in the hands of Unitarians.”[13]

These statements were literally true, except in so far as they implied that Unitarians used high positions in order to overthrow the old institutions of Massachusetts and substitute those of their own devising. The calmer judgment of the present day would not accept this conclusion, and it has no historic foundation. The religious development of Boston brought its churches into the acceptance of a tolerant, rational, and practical form of Christianity, that was not dogmatic or sectarian. It took the Unitarian name, but only in the sense of rejecting the harsher interpretations of the doctrine of the Trinity and of election. The members of the Unitarian churches during this period were devout in an unostentatious manner, pious after a simple fashion, loyal Christians without excess of zeal, lovers of liberty, but in a conservative spirit. This simple form of piety enabled the men who accepted it to govern the state in a most faithful manner. They managed its affairs justly, wisely, and in the true intent of economy. Sometimes it was complained that they held a much larger number of offices than was their proportion according to population; but to this John G. Palfrey replied that the people of the state had confidence in them, and elected them because nobody else governed so well.

With the aid of the biography of James Sullivan, judge, legislator, attorney-general, and diplomatist,[14] we may study the constituency of a single church in Boston, the Brattle Street Church. We find there James Bowdoin and John Hancock, rival candidates for the position of governor of the state in 1785. The same rivalry occurred twenty years later between James Sullivan and Caleb Strong, both of the number of its communicants. On the parish committee of this church at one time were Hancock, Bowdoin, and Sullivan, who became governors of the state, and Judges Wendell and John Lowell.[15] Some years later there were included in the congregation such men as Daniel Webster, Harrison Gray Otis, Abbott Lawrence, and Amos Lawrence, who was one of the deacons for many years.

Of the distinguished business men of Boston may be named John Amory Lowell, John C. Amory, Jonathan Phillips (the confidential friend and supporter of Dr. Channing), Thomas Wigglesworth, J. Huntington Wolcott, Augustus Hemenway, Stephen C. Phillips, and Thomas Tileston. Francis Cabot Lowell was largely concerned in building up the manufacturing interests of Massachusetts, especially the cotton industry; and the city of Lowell took his name in recognition of the importance of his leadership in this direction. For similar reasons the city of Lawrence was named after Abbott Lawrence, minister of the United States to Great Britain, who was one of the leading merchants of Boston in the China trade, and was also largely concerned in the development of cotton manufacturing. With these business and manufacturing interests Amos Lawrence was also connected. Nathan Appleton[16] was associated with Francis C. Lowell in the establishment of the great manufacturing interests that have been a large source of the wealth of Massachusetts. Thomas H. Perkins, from whom was named the Perkins Institute for the Blind, was also concerned in the China trade and in the first development of railroads. Robert Gould Shaw was another leading merchant, who left a large sum of money for the benefit of the children of mariners. John Murray Forbes was a builder of railroads, notably active in the financial support of the national government during the civil war, and a generous friend of noble men and interests.[17] Nathaniel Thayer was a manager of railroads, erected Thayer Hall at Harvard College, and bore the expenses of Agassiz’s expedition to South America.

A Boston man by birth and training, who knew the defects as well as the merits of the class of men and women who have been named, has given generous testimony to the high qualities of mind and heart possessed by these Unitarians. In writing of his maternal grandfather, Octavius Brooks Frothingham has said: “Peter C. Brooks was an admirable example of the Unitarian laymen of that period, industrious, honest, faithful in all relations of life, charitable, public-spirited, intelligent, sagacious, mingling the prudence of the man of affairs with the faith of the Christian…. As one recalls the leading persons in Brattle Street, Federal Street, Chauncy Place, King’s Chapel, the New North, the New South,–men like Adams, Eliot, Perkins, Bumstead, Lawrence, Sullivan, Jackson, Judge Shaw, Daniel Webster, Jacob Bigelow, T.B. Wales, Dr. Bowditch,–forms of dignity and of worth rise before the mind. Better men there are not. More honorable men, according to the standard of the time, there are not likely to be…. He joined the church and was a consistent church member. He was not effusive, demonstrative, or loud-voiced. His name did not stand high on church lists or among the patrons of the faith. His was the calm, rational, sober belief of the thoughtful, educated, honorable men of his day,–men like Lemuel Shaw, Joseph Story, Daniel A. White,–intellectual, noble people, with worthy aims, a lofty sense of duty, a strong conviction of the essential truths of revealed Christianity; sincere believers in the gospel, of enduring principle, of pure, consistent, blameless life and conduct. Speculative theology he cared little or nothing about. He was no disputant, no doubter, no casuist; of the heights of mysticism, of the depths of infidelity, he knew nothing. He was conservative, of course, from temperament rather than from inquiry. He took the literal, prose view of Calvinism, and rejected doctrines which did not commend themselves to his common sense. In a word, he was a Unitarian of the old school…. The Unitarian laity in general, both men and women, had a genuine desire to render the earthly lot of mankind more tolerable. It is not too much to say that they started every one of our best secular charities. They were exceedingly liberal in their gifts to Harvard College, and to other colleges as well–for they were not at all sectarian, as their large subscriptions to the Roman Catholic cathedral proved. Whatever tended to exalt humanity, in their view, was encouraged. They were as noble a set of men and women as ever lived.”[18]

This estimate of the Unitarians of Boston during the first half of the nineteenth century is eminently just and accurate. To a large extent these men and their associates in the Unitarian churches gave to the city its worth and its character; and they built up the industries, the commerce, the educational and philanthropic interests, and the progressive legislation of Massachusetts. They were men of integrity and sincerity, who were generous, faithful, and just. They accepted the religion of the spirit, and they gave it expression in daily conduct and character.

[1] F.B. Carpenter, Six Months in the White House, 190.

[2] James Parton, Life of Thomas Jefferson, 711.

[3] Charles W. Upham, Life of Timothy Pickering, IV. 327.

[4] P.L. Ford’s edition Jefferson’s Works, X.220.

[5] Life of Pickering, IV. 326.

[6] P.L. Ford, The True George Washington, 81.

[7] P.L. Ford, The Many-sided Franklin, 174. See Diary of Ezra Stiles, III. 387.

[8] John Quincy Adams, in reply to a question about the church in Washington, said: “I go there to church, although I am not decided in my mind as to all the controverted doctrines of religion.” Years later he said to a preacher in the Unitarian church at Quincy: “I agree entirely with the ground you took in your discourse. You did not speak of any particular class of doctrines that were everlasting, but of the great, fundamental principles in which all Christians agree; and these, I think, are what will be permanent.” See A.B. Muzzey, Reminiscences and Memorials of the Men of the Revolution and their Families, 53.

[9] William W. Story, Life and Letters of Joseph Story, 57, 93. Joseph Story grew away from Calvinism in early manhood, and accepted a humanitarian view of the nature of Christ. “No man was ever more free from a spirit of bigotry and proselytism,” says his biographer. “He gladly allowed every one freedom of belief and claimed only that it should be a genuine conviction and not a mere theologic opinion, considering the true faith of every man to be the necessary exponent of his nature, and honoring a religious life more than a formal creed. He admitted within the pale of salvation Mohammedan and Christian, Catholic and infidel. He believed that whatever is sincere and honest is recognized by God–that as the views of any sect are but human opinion, susceptible of error on every side, it behooves all men to be on their guard against arrogance of belief–and that in the sight of God it is not the truth or falsehood of our views, but the spirit in which we believe which alone is of vital consequence. His moral sense was not satisfied with a theory of religion founded upon the depravity of man and recognizing an austere and vengeful God, nor could he give his metaphysical assent to the doctrine of the Trinity. In the doctrines of liberal Christianity he found the resolution of his doubts, and from the moment he embraced the Unitarian faith he became a warm and unhesitating believer.”

[10] For an interesting picture of New England Unitarianism see Recollections of my Mother (Mrs. Anne Jean Lyman), by Mrs. J.P. Lesley. Mrs. Lyman’s home was in Northampton, Mass. The Reminiscences of Caroline C. Briggs describe life in the same town and under similar conditions. Also Memoir of Mary L. Ware, Memorial of Joseph and Lucy Clark Allen by their Children, and Life of Dr. Samuel Willard.

[11] Edmund Quincy, Life of Josiah Quincy, 532. In a speech to the overseers of Harvard University in 1845, Josiah Quincy said: “I never did and never will call myself a Unitarian; because the name has the aspect, and is loaded by the world with the imputation of sectarianism.” His biographer says: “He regarded differences as of slight importance, especially as to matters beyond the grasp of the human intellect. His catholicity of spirit fraternized with all who profess to call themselves Christians, and who prove their title to the name by their lives.” It was precisely this catholicity of spirit that was the most characteristic feature of early American Unitarianism, and not the rejection of the doctrine of the Trinity. However, Josiah Quincy was undoubtedly a Unitarian, both in what he rejected and in what he affirmed, as may be seen from these words recorded in his diary in 1854: “From the doctrines with which metaphysical divines have chosen to obscure the word of God,–such as predestination, election, reprobation, etc.,–I turn with loathing to the refreshing assurance which, to my mind, contains the substance of revealed religion,–in every nation he who feareth God, and worketh righteousness, is accepted of him.”

[12] Autobiography, Correspondence, etc., of Lyman Beecher, II. 109.

[13] Ibid., 144.

[14] Thomas C. Amory. Life of James Sullivan.

[15] John Lowell, a son of Judge John Lowell, and a brother of Dr. Charles Lowell of the West Church, was the author of an effective controversial pamphlet entitled Are you a Christian or a Calvinist? Or do you prefer the Authority of Christ to that of the Genevan Reformer? Both the Form and Spirit of these Questions being suggested by the Late Review of American Unitarianism in The Panoplist, and by the Rev. Mr. Worcester’s Letter to Mr. Channing. By a Layman. Boston, 1815.

[16] Nathan Appleton’s interest in theology may be seen in his book entitled The Doctrine of Original Sin and the Trinity, discussed in a Correspondence between a Clergyman of the Episcopal Church, in England, and a Layman of Boston, United States, published in Boston in 1859. “I was brought up,” he said in one of these letters, “in the strictest form of Calvinistic Congregationalism; but since arriving at an age capable of examining the subject, and after a careful study of it, I have renounced what appear to me unworthy views of the Deity, for a system which appears to me more worthy of him, and less abhorrent to human reason.” “I can say,” he wrote in another letter, “that the Unitarian party embraces the most intelligent and high-minded portion of the community. It is my opinion that the views of the Unitarians are the best and only security against the spirit of infidelity which is prevailing so extensively amongst the most highly educated and intelligent men in Europe.” See Memoir of Nathan Appleton, by Robert C. Winthrop.

[17] John Murray Forbes: Letters and Recollections, edited by his daughter, Sarah Forbes Hughes.

[18] Boston Unitarianism, 93, 94, 101, 127.

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