With the threat of denominational schism looming, the theologically conservative American Anglican Council recently gathered in Dallas to discuss a possible realignment of the global Anglican Communion. Earlier this year when the Episcopal Church U.S.A. confirmed the appointment of Rev. Canon V. Gene Robinson as bishop of the New Hampshire diocese, conservatives were outvoted by liberals, who control many of the denomination's leadership positions.

In the constellation of American denominations, the Episcopalians are far from alone in facing this doctrinal controversy. Similar questions about biblical authority and interpretation threaten the unity of the United Methodist Church, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, each of which harbors frequently antagonistic conservative and liberal factions.

Nor are Episcopalians alone in the annals of history, especially in the "Land of the Free." In America's open marketplace of religion, church splits are a frequent reality. In fact, the vigor of denominational debate today is reminiscent of the contentious mid-nineteenth century schisms, when the Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists split over slavery along predominantly regional lines.

Yet the starkest historic precedent for Episcopalians may lie with New England's Congregational-Unitarian divide during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. From radically different theological stances, the Congregationalists and Unitarians engaged in vitriolic fights over the legacy and inheritance of their predecessor—New England Puritanism.

Post-1776, Congregationalism suffered the social, political and economic aftereffects of the war. Political frenzy supplanted religious fervor as New Englanders contributed more of their time and money to secular causes. In addition, the free spirit of the era siphoned off a considerable number of Congregationalist adherents in favor of other religious sects, including the Free Will Baptists, the Shakers, and—a group rising within their own ranks—the Unitarians.

Among these groups, the Unitarians posed the greatest threat. Heavily influenced by German biblical criticism, Unitarians rejected doctrines such as Christ's divinity, the necessity of conversion, and original sin. Instead they encouraged adherents to cultivate their innate spiritual resources, which they argued would lead to an enlightened life. This rationalism had many secular supporters, most notably Revolution hero Thomas Paine.

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For Congregational leaders, who adopted the traditional Puritan view of America as a "city on a hill," the grave situation in post-revolutionary New England threatened to corrupt the soul of their sacred nation and church. Seeing their nation floundering in its infancy, Congregationalists sprang into action. Though many elements of the far-flung Second Great Awakening did not take hold until at least 1830, the revival fires already burned in New England during the late 1790s and early 1800s. Congregationalism reclaimed its vitality through numerous education, missionary, and tract societies, whose two-fold purpose was to evangelize the frontier and revive wayward New Englanders

This Congregational movement's early leader was Jedidiah Morse, who relentlessly attacked the Unitarian rebellion-from-within. Still, despite revival and missionary advances, Congregationalists lost Harvard College, their primary training ground for clergymen, in 1805 when the school appointed a Unitarian to the school's critical faculty position. Considering the appointment a critical bellwether of the university's theological drift, Morse and other conservatives increasingly disassociated themselves from the Unitarians. They began leaving Unitarian-saturated churches in the hands of their opponents to found their own. They also founded an orthodox school, Andover Theological Seminary, to provide young pastoral aspirants an alternative to Harvard.

Despite the Harvard setback, Congregationalists pushed on with their agenda of frontier evangelism and moral reform. Lyman Beecher, the most significant Congregational evangelist of the era, sought to convict New Englanders of their depravity and emphasized that Christian faith must find practical form in visible benevolent activity—a lesson obviously learned by his daughter, Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Yet while Beecher encouraged revival and missionary work, Congregationalists still faced a number of unresolved political issues. Massachusetts did not abolish its state-established church until 1833, so many Congregationalists and Unitarians still convened together in individual parishes during the early nineteenth century. Predictably, conflict abounded when these churches had to appoint a new minister. As conservative Congregationalists and liberal Unitarians fought bitterly over the parishes' theological direction, conservatives threatened to leave if a church hired a Harvard graduate.

But in 1820 conservatives suffered a seemingly major setback. Hearing the case of one such congregation in Dedham, the Supreme Court of Massachusetts, led by Unitarian Chief Justice Isaac Parker, ruled that any group separating from the rest of the parish forfeited their rights to church property and recognition as an established church. Consequently, 3,900 Congregationalists from 81 churches left behind property valued at $600,000.

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Despite holding a monopoly on church assets, as well as social and political influence throughout New England, the Unitarian cause entered a period of decline shortly after the Dedham decision, according to Earl M. Wilbur, author of Our Unitarian Heritage: An Introduction to the History of the Unitarian Movement.

"The consequence of all this was that they settled back complacently, and showed far less zeal in promoting their cause than did the orthodox, fondly believing that without any particular effort on their part Unitarianism would ere long sweep the whole country as it had already swept eastern Massachusetts … Perhaps the charge that hurt the Unitarians most, and had the most truth in it, was that whereas the orthodox were deeply in earnest about their religion, zealous, self-denying, and full of missionary spirit, the Unitarians were lukewarm, often indifferent to their church, lax in religious observances, and opposed to missions."

Whatever else we can conclude from the cautionary tale of the Unitarian Controversy, this much is clear: Nobody wins a schism. The church emerges from such splits with an increasingly fractured and diminished voice in the public square. Battered, too, is the ideal (probably unattainable, but no less worthy) of the "City on the Hill": a nation whose beacon is the church.

Related Elsewhere

Also read today's dispatch from the American Anglican Council's conference

Christian History Corner appears every Friday on Christianity Today's website. Previous editions include:

Our Brothers and Sisters, the Episcopalians | The Episcopal Church needs our help. Here's why we should give it.
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Learning From the Other 9/11 | Words kill. So teachers, watch what you say. (Sept. 11, 2003)
The Lord of the Rings: What Harvest? | A reader's guide to the best of epic fantasy (Sept. 5, 2003)`
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J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, a Legendary Friendship | A new book reveals how these two famous friends conspired to bring myth and legend—and Truth—to modern readers (Aug. 29, 2003)
The Ten Commandments, How Deep Our Debt | The words of the Decalogue run like a river through not only the church but also English and American history. (August 22, 2003)
Muscular Christianity's Prodigal Son, College Sports | In the wake of a basketball scandal at a prominent Christian university, we take time to remember the Christian roots of college athletics. (August 15, 2003)
Palestinian Christians, Strangers in a Familiar Land | They've called the Holy Land home for centuries, but they've never actually governed themselves. (August 8, 2003)
Liberia's Troubled Past—and Present | The nation's history explains why the current conflict succumbs to, yet simultaneously transcends, the stereotype of African tribal wars. (August 1, 2003)
Medical Missions' African Legacy | For generations, missionary doctors have healed body and soul in Africa. (July 25, 2003)
European Christianity's 'Failure to Thrive' | Why Christendom, born with an imperial bang, is now fading away in an irrelevant whimper. (July 18, 2003)
Where Have All the Classics Gone? | These days it's a triumph when a movie is simply inoffensive. But we can do better than that (July 11, 2003)
From Beer to Bibles to VBS | How America got its favorite summer tradition. (July 3, 2003)
The African Lion Roars in the Western Church | Anglican liberals are fretting, conservatives rejoicing, and all are scrambling to their history books: whence this new evangelical force on the world scene? (June 27, 2003)