Of the weaknesses of New England religious life, none is more apparent than that of Unitarianism, which has its administrative and numerical center in this area. It cannot be denied that Unitarianism has failed to reproduce itself; and, except for participation in the general growth in the population of the country, it has been able to count no significant increase in its constituency. The Universalists have also met an essentially similar fate, attested by the recent association of the two groups for self-preservation. Thus, one may raise the question, why the enfeeblement of a movement which, at the outset, seemed as though it might sweep all else before it?

Origin And Development

Believers in the unity to the exclusion of the tri-personality of God have ideological roots reaching as far back as the Ebionites of the early Church. These Ebionites represent a combination of Jewish-Gnostic teaching. By the fourth century the Arians had arisen to carry on the emphasis. They held that Christ had been brought into being at the beginning of creation, and hence was a creature not of being or substance with the the Father. He was called God because, assertedly, he was next in rank to God and had been delegated the power to create. In the sixteenth century the emphasis of Arius was continued by a group of humanists in Italy, the leaders of which were Laelius and Faustus Socinus. The latter understood his position to be based completely on Scripture, but for him Christ was never more than a miraculously endowed man who effected salvation by setting an example for other men. So, Socinus did not approach orthodoxy as closely as Arius.

The movement spread from Italy to Poland, to Transylvania, and finally through Holland to England, which became the most important single source of later Unitarianism. American Unitarianism arose as early as 1783, independent in many respects of the English movement, but not uninfluenced by it. At the outset it tended to be more Arian than Socinian, and this meant that Christ was considered not just a good man but actually next in rank to God.

Boston was the early center of the movement and William Ellery Channing was its first popular leader. Andrews Norton of Harvard became its theologian. And thus, articulate opposition to orthodoxy began. In the third decade of the nineteenth century Transcendentalism emerged and Unitarianism passed from the status of a heresy to that of a clearly non-Christian philosophy. The early twentieth century saw this philosophical theism replaced in part by a kind of religious humanism. Since the Second World War, there has been somewhat of a “revival” in Unitarian circles. A belief in God is returning to certain Unitarian pulpits. It is the conviction of the writer, however, that this can be only a temporary ebb in the relentless flow of the logic of Unitarianism to a thoroughgoing humanism.

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Speculative Theism

1. Changing and early Unitarianism: the autonomy of the moral sense. Channing and his followers considered their new view true to the Bible. “Whatever doctrines seem to us to be clearly taught in the Scriptures, we receive without reserve or exception” (Baltimore Sermon, 1819). Many of the marks of orthodoxy were present: the doctrines of heaven and hell, the Cross as a necessary ingredient of salvation, and an expressed opposition to the reduction of Christianity to a theology of feeling. However, Channing’s doctrine of self-salvation potentially undermined every orthodox view and rational sentiment that he held. This, as well as his emphasis of the absolute and exclusive unity of God, laid the ground-work for Transcendentalism.

Since man needed to be educated rather than reborn, Channing went on to appeal to man’s moral sense as the basis for his fundamental convictions. The inconsistency of this with a repudiation of theological sentimentalism he did not see. Channing’s weakness was not his emphasis on rationalism, since he really did not take reason seriously. And, once he had made feeling the criterion of truth, it was impossible for him to limit the field. Unwashed as well as full-dress feelings will make their way to the fore, and there is no ground to do anything but to admit them.

2. Emerson and Transcendentalism: the demolition of the Christian edifice. The emergence of Transcendentalism was at once a development from and repudiation of earlier Unitarianism. Following the implicit recognition by Channing of the autonomy of the moral sense, Emerson explicitly cut himself off from specific dependence on the Bible and reason. Though Channing and Norton strove to stem the emerging tide, they succeeded only in stirring up interest in the new views.

Emerson, influenced by the Swedenborgian interpretation of nature in terms of spiritual symbols, accepted nature as the corpus of revelation. His method was, as with Plotinus, mystic vision. The certainty of the deliverances of the intuition transcend even the laws of logic. Transcendentalists were not careful, professional philosophers, but rather poets and literati. But even then, they were more philosophers than theologians. While Channing’s God may have been pale (one gets the impression that He may be still alive), Emerson’s God is hard to distinguish from nature itself.

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This is understandable since it would appear impossible for any speculative philosophy, by itself, to undergird the assertion of the existence of a personal God. Metaphysical realism, for example, does not issue necessarily in a God-concept. A number of varieties of non-theistic views are possible. The theistic alternatives are little better. Most of the usual concepts bear little resemblance to a personal, much less Christian God. If we have recourse to a combination of speculative philosophy and orthodox theology, we find that it depends more on the latter than the former, since it must rest on the historicity of the biblical documents.

In order to reach a God-concept apart from the evidences of revelation, it is necessary to show that the universe demands a personal cause. Empirically, it appears most difficult to support such a postulate, since the opposite view—that of a self-contained and purely natural universe produced by the chance concatenation of matter—presents no logical contradiction and could theoretically account for all data. Further, if one favors the idea of a God, a multitude of questions remain unanswered. Is he friendly, indifferent, or antagonistic to human values? Is he omnipotent or limited? Is he creator or simply the architect of the universe and supervisor of its processes? Simply to consult the evidences of common human experience is to suggest unpopular answers to all these questions.

Perhaps, however, metaphysical idealism may hold the answer. On the surface it seems much more akin to an adequate theistic view. Yet, it is possible to be a metaphysical idealist and hold to a position that begins and ends with the universe, without conferring even a pantheistic title upon it. Further, the allowing of a transcendent ultimate does not necessitate a view of the absolute as personal or unitary. Able idealistic philosophers (e.g. Plato) have held to an impersonal but immaterial, transcendent multiplicity as the ultimate ground of reality. Impersonality also seems to be an attribute of the absolute as conceived by Hegel, Bradley, and von Hartmann—to name a few. What is more, the general objections raised against the theism of metaphysical realism would also apply to metaphysical idealism.

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3. Humanism: the evaporation of philosophical theism. Unitarian theism of the philosophical variety was gradually replaced by religious humanism. God, who has been reduced to a postulate, could be expected to put up very little resistance to complete liquidation. After all, a God who is dead probably deserves, in all respectability, to be buried. And, if nothing else, Unitarians have always been respectable people.

The “Humanist Manifesto” (first draft by Roy Wood Sellars), produced in 1922, asserted the self-existence of the universe, the natural emergence of man in the evolutionary process, the non-existence of an immaterial mind, religion as “those actions, purposes, and experiences which are humanly significant,” and the unacceptability of “any supernatural or cosmic guarantees of human values.” Without the evidence of biblical history through trustworthy documents, only certain broad philosophical arguments on the basis of intuitive insight could stand in the way of such a reduction. Humanism has the recommendation of being more realistic than intuitive, speculative theism.

However, two large incongruities remain. First, why should the humanist continue the “church” meeting at all? Second, what is the source of a binding ethic on a humanistic base? The contradiction in the latter may be put very simply: the religious humanist passes from an affirmation of what is to what ought to be as if there were a necessary connection between them. Humanism-naturalism can only describe; it cannot obligate in any universal, non-hypothetical sense. And hence, ethics, created by man, can be destroyed by man.

4. Contemporary Unitarianism: theism revived. “Believing that the traditional liberal answer of man’s primary and ultimate dependence on his own powers to solve his problems has proved inadequate, it [Unitarianism] is willing to explore new sources of power and truth, most notably Christian theology, existentialist philosophy and the social and personality sciences” (Parke, The Epic of Unitarianism).

Leaven Of An Ideology

Lest orthodoxy be too encouraged by such sentiment, it must be remembered that since the source and criterion of spiritual truth for the Unitarian are the deepest feelings of his “unfallen” nature, his attitude can change overnight. Such instability is necessarily involved in any view except one which depends on an objective series of revelatory acts by an absolute and a personal God.

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The plight of the Unitarians is the plight of all liberals and all denominations under the influence of liberalism. While Unitarianism as an organized movement has not done well, it has, as an ideology, like leaven penetrated all the major evangelical denominations. Protestantism needs, consequently, to remind itself of two things: (1) It has presently within itself the seeds of its own destruction, and (2) this problem can be solved only by establishing itself on God’s infallibly revealed Word. The continuance of reliance on individual moral and spiritual intuition reduces theology to simply a descriptive science of men’s deeds and desires. And hope as well as authority must depart.

Only Biblical Theism Adequate

If the Bread of Heaven from the living God is to be given to man, rather than the stones of human speculation, only biblical theism is adequate to the task. It is not less rational but more rational than other theologies or philosophies of religion which depend in the last analysis on a subjective experience as both the source and criterion of truth. Biblical theism appeals to history and logic as the ground of its credibility, and rests upon the verified revelation of the living God as the authority and power of its message. It sets no store by the moral and religious sentiments of inherently depraved man.


Lloyd F. Dean is Professor of Philosophy, Gordon College, and Editor of The Gordon Review. A lifelong Congregationalist (in which denomination Unitarianism arose) and resident of Greater Boston, he is familiar with religious life in New England. His B.A. degree is from Gordon College; B.D. from Gordon Divinity School; Ph.D. from Boston University.

The Day of Days

The Day of days will surely come
When Jesus Christ will reappear;
He’ll judge the living and the dead,
His voice at last the world will hear.

He’ll come with angels from on high,
The wicked then will be no more;
In righteousness He’ll reign supreme,
Our Saviour whom we all adore.

The wars of earth will all be past
And men forevermore be free;
For Jesus Christ will then be King,
The saints will all rewarded be.

O Day of days! O reign of peace!
When poverty will be no more,
When all the dead in Christ shall rise,
And all our conflicts will be o’er.

God speed the Day! Come, Lord, and reign,
O fill our hearts with endless praise;
Destroy the evil of our age,
And usher in the Day of days.


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