Unitarian Principles And Doctrines
Charles H. Brigham
Berry Street Essay, 1871
"Who art thou that judgest another man's servant? To his own master he standeth or falleth. Let every man be fully persuaded in his oven mind." -ROMANS xiv. 4, 5.
THESE words of Paul to the Romans are suitable to preface a statement of the principles and doctrines of the Unitarian sect of Christians. Those who deny to this sect the name of Christian show only their want of acquaintance with its writing and its preaching. It is very easy to make the charge of "infidelity" against a religious body; but to intelligent minds those who make this charge only exhibit their own want of charity or knowledge. Men do not build churches, hold public worship, support ministers and spend money in works which look exactly like Christian works, and are just what other churches do which call themselves Christians, while all the time they are infidels or atheists. There are some absurdities so patent that they refute themselves, and bring confusion upon their prophets; and to say that Unitarians who have churches in America, and England, and France, and Holland, and in Switzerland, and Germany, and Austria and have had them for hundreds of years; who pray in Christ's name, and sing hymns in his honor, and commend his example, and repeat his characteristic works - to say that a sect of this kind is not "Christian," is one of the absurdities that would be incredible, if men were not found foolish enough to utter it. A similar utterance was that of those Pharisees who ventured to say that Jesus could not be God's prophet, because he did not keep the Sabbath day ii, their fashion. More sensible men at once answered them that the acts of the healer, and the words of the teacher, proved sufficiently that he was a prophet from God. There were "blind leaders of the blind" in Judea 1800 years ago, and there are blind leaders of the blind in our time. And there are no persons whom these words of Jesus more accurately describe than those who deny the Christian name to a religious body of whose ideas and principles they are ignorant, which they take no pains to know, and who only care to foster the illusion of those who know as little of it as themselves. Paul has words of this class of men, too, in that first letter of his to Timothy, where he speaks of persons 11 desiring to be teachers of the law: understanding neither what they say, nor whereof they affirm."
There is no need of refuting a charge which refutes itself to a thoughtful mind from the facts which cannot be denied. But a simple statement of Unitarian principle, and doctrines, which might be made throughout from the very words of Jesus, may show more clearly the folly of the charge so loosely brought. We separate the principles from the doctrines, since the first are the working force of a religious body, the second only its temporary, possibly its shifting, opinions. Every church must be judged by its principles, by its ideas, by the ideas which move it and give it power. Now, no church has principles more distinctly defined, more universally admitted, than the Unitarian Church. The Episcopal, or Presbyterian, or Baptist, or Methodist bodies cannot be surer of their ideas than the Unitarian. There are certain principles, on which all our churches, all our ministers, all our men and women, communicants and non-communicants, whatever their different notions about one or another dogma; certain principles, upon which all are agreed, which all in our body recognize and magnify.
1. The first of these principles is the grand Protestant principle of the right of private judgment. We hold to this in the fullest extent. We say that every man has a right to form his creed for himself, from his own investigation, thought, and conviction, and that no one has a right to hamper him in the process of finding this, or to dictate to him by authority what he shall believe; that there shall be absolute and perfect freedom for all men in coming to religious truth as much as to any other truth. We say that no councils, no synods, no catechisms, no fathers of the church, no doctors of the church, no preachers, no editors, whether of the ancient time or the present time, have a right to lord it over the souls of men, or to say what they must or must not believe. Every man must settle that for himself. Catechisms, councils, wise men, may help him in his decision, but cannot decide for him beforehand. This is a principle which every Unitarian Church in this country or in Europe maintains with all positiveness, and from which no temptation could draw it away. Every Unitarian asserts the right of every man to think for himself in coming to his saving belief.
2. A second principle of the Unitarian Church is, that no one can be required or expected to believe what is contrary to reason, or what seems to be so; that reason is the arbiter of truth, and that all truth is to be tested by reason. Unitarians hold that reason was given to man as his light and his guide, that this is the "logos" of which John speaks, and that the only faith which is good for any thing is that which reason accepts. All beyond this is profession, -- phrases, but not truth; of no use to any one. All Unitarians are rationalists in this sense, that they do not wish or intend to say that they believe any thing which seems to them to be mathematically, metaphysically, or morally untrue, contrary to the accepted laws of science or of soul, --anything which is absurd to the reason, or revolting to the conscience. They will not believe a mathematical falsehood, or a falsehood of any kind, though it may be called a mystery and pretend to be revealed by an angel. Every church in the body, every intelligent member in the body, holds to this principle, however high or deep their thought of God and Christ may be. We are all rationalists in vindicating reason as the ground of faith.
3. A third principle of the Unitarian Church is, that no man is infallible; that no creed can be framed that shall be beyond the reach of error, or that shall not be open to change; that no form of words or even of ideas can set forth the absolute truth as it is in the mind of God. The wisest men make mistakes, and they make mistakes in interpreting and deciding religious truth as much as in interpreting and deciding any other truth. There is no infallible teacher, there is no infallible church, and there never can be. A thousand men, or a million men, agreeing to say the same thing, do not make that thing true. A doctrine is not true because it has been repeated for a thousand years in thousands of churches. The Catholic Church is not infallible, in spite of its claim to own the Holy Spirit. The Protestant Church, in any branch, is not infallible, in spite of its claim of going by the letter of the Bible. There never was a saint or a prophet, since the church began, who could say that he was exempt from the possibility of error. All Unitarians hold to their principle. We have no infallible standard in the word of any man, or in the words of any set of men.
4. A fourth principle of the Unitarian Church is, that no creed can contain the whole of religion; that religion, religious faith, cannot possibly be summed up in the words of a creed. No formula, however ingeniously phrased and arranged, can possibly contain all that the soul believes and feels about man and God and the relation between them. Religion is broader, deeper, higher than any creed can possibly be. A creed may attempt to tell what faith is, may tell some things which we believe, but it falls short of expressing all our belief even now, much less all that we may believe hereafter. It may have five articles or thirty-nine articles, or a hundred articles, and still be inadequate. It may be very simple or very complex, very clear or very obscure, and still fail to conclude all faith. Some Unitarians like creeds, while others do not; but all agree that a creed can never be a finality, never be fixed for all time, and for the substance of all faith, never stand as the barrier to all farther religious advance. There is not one Unitarian, anywhere, in any Unitarian Church, who sums up the religion of all men, or even his own religion, in the words of any creed.
5. A fifth principle of the Unitarian Church is, that there can be, and that there ought to be, no uniformity of religious faith. Differences of faith are inevitable. Men cannot all believe alike more than they can look alike or act alike. Their faith will vary with their temperament, with their education, with their habits of thought, with the influences around them. Some will be able to believe what others cannot possibly believe. Some will accept readily what others cannot be persuaded to accept. All attempt to establish one creed for the various branches of the church is preposterous. Sects and parties in religious things are as natural and as necessary as they are in secular things. And it is just as impossible to force unanimity upon the major points as upon the minor points of the creed. All men cannot be made to see God in exactly the same way, or to find salvation in exactly the same way, more than they can be made to take precisely the same view of Baptism and the Sabbath. This principle of permitted and inevitable diversity of religious opinion is one which all Unitarians, whether of the right wing or the left wing, most strenuously maintain.
6. A sixth principle of the Unitarian Church is, that sincere faith is the only true faith; that a mere form of words or phrases does not express a man's faith, unless he knows what he is saying. A man's creed is not what he utters with the lips, but what he utters with the mind and heart; not what he repeats following the dictation of a priest, but what he repeats out of the motion of his own soul. His real belief is not his professed belief, but his honest belief, be this much or little, be this identical with, or different from, his professed belief. Every thing which one adds to his honest conviction is superfluous, however it may coincide with the dogmas of the church. It is a principle of all Unitarian Churches, that saving faith is not in form of sound words, but in the sense of clear ideas; that sincerity is the prime requisite in all religious statements and confessions. They will never ask a convert to say that he believes one jot or tittle more than he does sincerely believe, even if he may be kept out of the kingdom of heaven by the defects of his faith. Strict and perfect sincerity is the avenue by which they would send forth their confession of belief.
7. A seventh principle of the Unitarian Church is, that character is better than profession of any kind, and that profession without character is good for nothing. The character of a man tells what he really believes better than his words can tell this. The acts of a man, his general tone of thought and habits of life, are the expression of his real creed. We look for his belief at what he is, and not what he says he is. We ask for better proof than any declarations, specially made. The creed is written in the life, and the world reads it from the man's life. Every article must be practically witnessed by the general tenor of the man's acts or words. This all Unitarians assert, whether they have a creed or not, that the creed is second to the life, and must never be made the evidence or the substitute for the righteousness of the man. They infer no man's Christianity from the ease and readiness with which he repeats the phrases of the catechism; but they look first at the work which he does, at what he shows himself to be, whether his life and acts have any resemblance to the acts and life of the Christ. That is first, last, and always their test of the Christian character.
These which we have mentioned, -- the right of private judgment; reason as the arbiter of truth; that no man is infallible; that no creed can contain the whole of religion; that difference of faith is necessary and inevitable; that sincere faith is the only true faith; and that life and character prove real belief; -- are principles admitted by all Unitarians. Turning from these to speak of doctrines, we have to say at the outset, that no person can pretend to tell more than the average faith of the body to which he belongs. The Unitarian Church have not, and they never will have, any authoritative creed, any series of articles of which one may say, "that is the creed of the sect," any thing which corresponds to the Augsburg Confession of the Lutherans, or to the Westminster Catechism of the Presbyterians, or to the Thirty-nine Articles of the English Church. One who attempts to tell the doctrines of the Unitarian body must gather these from his study of the books which have been published by leading writers, and from his general acquaintance with the men and women of the body. He can only speak from impressions, and he has no right to commit any one else to his opinion.
The first and highest doctrine of a religious system is the doctrine of God. If there is no doctrine of God, there can be no theology. What do Unitarians, in their average faith, believe of God?
1. They believe in the existence of God, and in his personal existence; that he is a personal being, with mind, will, feeling, and power, all infinite; that his attributes of infinite knowledge, infinite power, infinite love, all inhere in a substance which is real. They do not attempt to show the form of this great person, to show the mode of this infinite existence, to show what kind of a being -- a self-existing being -- who never was born and who can never die -- is. They simply say that they believe that there is a God: they are not atheists.
2. Then, in the second place, they believe in God as the Creator of all the things which are in the universe, giving in the beginning the germ of all worlds, and establishing the laws of generation and development, by which the universe has become what it is; that what we seem to see, and what we call matter, existed originally in the Divine thought; that God is the author of all being, mediately, or immediately; that all things come from God, on earth or in heaven.
3. In the third place, Unitarians believe that God is a just God; in other words, that he rules the world by laws which are sure, unvarying, impartial, and universal; that there is nothing in the universe which is not subject to law; that spiritual processes are as much under the dominion of God's law as material processes, -- every being, high and low; a grain of sand, or a planet in its orbit; the flowers of the morning faded at night, or the cedar of Lebanon with its thousand years; the meanest reptile, and the greatest man; every thing that has being, is subject to a law which the Infinite Ruler keeps for it. They say that God's will is just, because it is according to law, and that when men have discovered the law of any being's life, they have found the Divine justice concerning it. The sternest Calvinist could not believe in the justice of God more absolutely than the Unitarians believe in it. The laws of God are his decrees, and he has decrees for every thing that he has made. There are no exceptions to these laws; what seem to men the exceptions, are only the result of laws which they have not yet discovered. God is the Infinite and Supreme Ruler of all the things that are made.
4. In the fourth place, Unitarians believe that God is a loving and tender Father, having in infinite measure all that love for his creatures which earthly parents have for their children; that God's creatures are his children; that he loves them all, blesses them all, wills the best good of them all, and is never weary of loving them. This fatherly love is his providence for them, --general for all together, special for every one. Unitarians do not believe in any partial providence, any love or care which is for one family and not for another, one people and not for another, one race and not for another, one church and not for another, one age and not for another; -- but in a providence which extends to all ages, all churches, all races, all peoples, all families, all men, and all creatures, special always, because always present and never wanting. The fullest idea of an ever-present, ever-active, ever-tender, ever-kind love of the Father of all creatures is the Unitarian idea of Providence. In their idea God can never be a hating God, can never cease to love and care for any of his children. His love is incomprehensible, only because it is so immense and infinite, so much beyond all human love.
5. And the name of the Unitarian body suggests another peculiarity of their belief concerning God, --in his Unity. They believe that he is one, not divided in his Deity, not dual, or triple, or quadruple, or centuple, but strictly one. They believe that he exists in one being and one person, that all his manifestations are gathered and concentrated in this single personality. They speak of him as one person in describing his work. They address him as one person when they pray to him. His being is single and singular. It is not the society of Gods of which Unitarians think when they think of God. They keep this conception of unity because it is simple, is rational, and best explains the work of Providence and Creation. They believe in the unity of God as distinguished from Pagan Polytheism, or from philosophical Trinities, such as those of India and Greece, and such as those of the church-creeds. They find it entirely possible to worship God the Father without having any other God to divide his worship. And in worshipping God the Father, they worship the God whom Jesus himself worshipped, and whom his word has taught them to worship.
This, then, is what the Unitarians believe of God: that he exists as a person; that he creates all things; that he is just, as he rules by law; that he loves, as an Infinite Father, all his children; and that he is one God, not divided in his essence. How his being is, what it is, what is his form, they do not know, they do not care to know. The finite cannot comprehend the infinite. And they say of God, that no searching can find him out, and that all dictation of what he must be and what he must do, is foolish and irreverent. They affirm, as much as any sect, the mystery of the Godhead; only it is to them real mystery by its greatness and fulness, and not by its mathematical enigma. God is the eternal wonder of the human soul, so high, so vast, so complete in glory, that no thought can attain his being; --but he is in no sense the puzzle of the soul, vexing it continually by an existence which seems false and wrong, according to the laws of thought. The mystery of the Godhead in the Unitarian creed is not the part of God which lies nearest, but the outlying greatness which shades the farther circle, and is lost in the infinite distance.
Next to the doctrine of God, in a system of theology, is the doctrine of Man. What do Unitarians believe concerning Man?
1. They believe, in the first place, that in his physical nature man is part of the orderly system of organic creations. He makes one of the series of animated and organized beings. He has wants, instincts, desires, in common with other animals. He eats, drinks, sleeps, walks and runs, rises and rests, utters sounds, and communicates his feeling as beasts, birds, and insects do. The structure of his frame is not essentially different from the structure of other animal frames. It has the same proportion and adjustment of bone, and nerve, and muscle, of heart and brain. Man is animal, is born as animals are born, dies as animals die, in bodily organization, has the same limitations to his physical being. His spiritual nature exempts him from none of the physical laws. He is as much under these laws, subject to physical conditions, as the humblest creature of God. Anywhere on the earth, man has his place and his share in the physical order of the earth. Physically, he is not more wonderfully made than any plant or crystal.
2. But Unitarians believe, in the next place, that man is at the head of this series, is the highest and most important of all the visible works of God's hand. They believe in the dignity of his nature, that he is, and was meant to be, Lord of Creation, the master of the forces of the world, and of the lives below him; that he has larger powers, finer feeling, quicker perception, greater range of action, than any of the other beings with which he stands in line; that there is nothing above him in this world, and that the imagination can conceive nothing of which his nature is not capable. They believe that man has an intelligence more perfect, a will more energetic, than any brute beast; that he has, in short, a nature more spiritual than any, -- that man has a soul. Concerning the nature of that soul, they hold differing opinions. There is no uniform Unitarian psychology, as there is no uniform orthodox psychology. But upon the fact that man has a soul, they are generally agreed. The spiritual worth and dignity of the human soul is more insisted upon in the writings of the Unitarians than in the writings of any religious sect.
3. And then Unitarians believe that this spiritual dignity is a possibility of the whole human race, and is not the property or prerogative of any particular portion of the race. They are far from maintaining that all men are actually equal, in the life that they have, but they maintain that all men are potentially equal, in what they may become, and that they have the same spiritual rights. They have all the same Father, no matter where they are born, under what sky, in what corner of the earth, to what custom of life, to what kind of influence. The savage is a man, and has the rights of a man. The negro is a man, and has the rights of a man. The idolater is a man as much as the Christian. Woman is human, and human rights are hers. Unitarians have no dogma about the first human pair, or the first creation of the race; where it was; in Asia or America; when it was, six thousand years ago, or six hundred thousand years ago; in one pair or in one hundred pairs, or by development from lower races; but they believe in the unity of the human race, as men everywhere have moral sense and religious sense, and may be educated to a spiritual life and into a kingdom of heaven. All men are spiritually children of God.
4. Yet, on the other hand, Unitarians believe in the actual imperfection of men. None, anywhere, are as good as they might be, as good as they ought to be. All men are sinners, to use the common word, because they transgress laws which are appointed for their physical and spiritual welfare This transgression is sometimes voluntary and deliberate; men know that they are transgressing. Oftener it is involuntary, and is discovered only by the penalty which it brings. Unitarians say that even the best man, who is most careful of his heart and way, is not perfect; that he does, or says, or thinks what is not best, that he makes mistakes, that he violates law. There is no one who is in all things wholly righteous. On the fact of sin, Unitarians have a doctrine as positive as the doctrine of any sect. All men are sinners, all women are sinners, all children even, are sinners, in the sense that they do what they ought not to do, and leave undone the things which they ought to do. All who violate the laws of their being commit sin, and will be punished for that sin; the smallest or the greatest violation of law has its inevitable penalty.
The condition of man as a sinner, as a transgressor of law, makes it necessary to have a doctrine concerning Deliverance from Sin, -- concerning what, in the ecclesiastical dialect, is termed "Salvation." What is the Unitarian doctrine of Salvation?
1. Unitarians believe that salvation is deliverance from sin itself, -- from its influence, its mastery, its inner force and outer force. They do not expect or ask for deliverance from the penalties of sins committed, or from the penalties of sin while the sins themselves are retained. They believe that the only way of escaping the punishment of sins is to get rid of the sins themselves. They do not believe in sin as an abstraction, but in sins as realities. The best way, and the only way, of getting rid of sin is by dealing with sins as realities, as things, and not as an influence in things. Deliverance from sin is wrought by rectifying the sources of transgression, by substituting right principles for wrong principles, right affections for wrong affections, a right direction of life for a wrong direction of life, by getting temptations out of the way, by purifying passions and appetites.
Unitarians believe that the method of salvation varies in the case of different persons. Where men are conscious of any violation of law, the first step must be repentance and a resolution to change from such violation. Where they are not conscious of such violation of law, the evil must be remedied by better surrounding influences and better education. The ordinary means of saving men from sins are training them from childhood in the way of virtue, giving them good precepts and good examples, encouraging all that is pure and righteous in their conduct and conversation, keeping around them an atmosphere of purity, removing all that imbrutes and debases. As so much of the sin of men comes from the circumstances of men, -- their mode of life, their society, the influences around them, --they will be saved by setting these circumstances right, by making them more comfortable. As so much of sin comes from disorder in the physical frame, salvation comes in sanitary reforms, in better air, more light, more exercise, more physical health. Unitarians believe that men are saved by the application of the remedy exactly to the need; not by any arbitrary and artificial scheme which is the same for all, and has no connection with the special offence, but by the remedy that belongs to the disease. They would not deliver one person from melancholy by the same process which is to deliver another from drunkenness. They would not save one person from jealousy as another is saved from the habit of stealing. The salvation must be adapted to the offence, whatever that offence may be. Salvation has its difference in degree as well as its difference in kind. A great deal more of it is needed in some cases than is needed in other cases. Those who are spiritually wise need very little of it; those who are spiritually blind and ignorant need a great deal of it. It is much more difficult in some cases than in other cases; more difficult when the sin is of habit and temperament than when it is of sudden temptation, and not natural; more difficult when it is bound up with interests and passions than when it stands aside from the daily course of life. There are some occupations and positions in life in which deliverance from sin is extremely improbable, some callings in which life seems only possible through continued sin.
Unitarians believe in change of heart, where the emotion and direction of the heart need to be changed, but the saving change in their theology means always a change of life and action; a coming back from violation of law to obedience to law. Salvation is the reconciliation of the life to the laws of God, the restoration of the transgressor to obedience. In this work all the change is in the life, spirit, and purpose of men; there is no change in the Divine Father or in his laws. God does not repent; only man repents. God does not alter his work or his counsels; only man changes his work and his counsel. Unitarians do not believe in any transaction between God and man in this matter of salvation, or any scheme by which Divine attributes are adjusted in a work which is wholly the concern of the creature. Change of heart and life does not merely guarantee salvation, not merely win this, -- it is salvation. The salvation comes in the obedience to law, not merely after the obedience to law. Unitarians believe in future salvation as identical with present salvation; and hold that the only real salvation is present salvation. A man is saved in the spiritual world as he is saved in the natural world, -- by obedience to the laws of his being.
The most important influence in this deliverance of the soul and life of man from sin is the Christian religion. This saves men in most civilized lands; though Unitarians believe, too, that heathen religions have saving qualities, and that the Chinese are saved from sin by the teachings of Confucius, the Persians by the teachings of Zoroaster; that men are made better by the moral truths even of idolatrous faiths. But they believe that the best of all religions -- the religion which gives the highest, broadest, and most spiritual salvation -- is the religion which holds the name of Christ. They accept Christ as the Saviour of those who become his disciples, and know his Gospel; and as indirectly the Saviour of many who are not called by his name, and are not conscious that they know his Gospel. The average Unitarian faith exalts the salvation which is from Christ, and gives it all the practical force which it has in any creed. No epithets of honor are too strong to describe this great salvation.
But the Unitarian idea of this salvation is not that it is mystical, unnatural, outside of the ordinary ways of influences, but strictly according to the natural way of influence. Christ saves men by his teaching, by telling them what is just, pure, good, true, noble, and divine, by giving them good instruction, by giving them right moral and religious ideas. He is the great teacher, whose words are wiser than those of prophets and sages. Christ saves men by his example; showing in his own conduct and conversation, as we read his biographies, what way of life, what kind of intercourse, makes men happy, and gives a clear conscience and the sense of God's nearness. Christ saves by the spirit of his work, which was in healing and blessing men. Christ saves by his fortitude in suffering, instanced in many ways, but especially by his death upon the Cross; which is, moreover, the supreme sign of self-devotion and sacrifice. Christ saves, as he shows in his word and his act, in his life and death, the incarnation of the Divine spirit, -- the life of a Divine Man. In speaking and thinking of the salvation of Christ, Unitarians do not separate the human from the Divine in his nature, or one part of his life from another. Men are not saved by his miraculous birth, or by his miraculous death, or by any thing in his history that is apart from practical adaptation to the human soul. Men are saved by forming his life within their lives, by becoming like him in spirit, in purpose, in virtue, and in faith, by the whole of his life, and by the general influence of his work. They are saved by the Christianity which has got into the customs of society, which has been fixed in the statutes and laws, which has entered into the relations of life, of business, of the State, or of the Church. Among Unitarians there are various views of the nature and the being of Jesus of Nazareth. Some think that he was different by constitution from all other men, with no human father; while others think that he was what his own Apostles supposed him to be, the son of Joseph the carpenter, and that he had brothers and sisters, as the narrative says. Some think that he lived in an angelic state before he was born, while others give to him no more pre-existence than to any man. Some think that his rising from the dead was in the flesh with which he died, while others think, like the women at the sepulchre, that it was a spirit which appeared in the form of man. But whatever these differing views about the kind and degree of the humanity of Jesus, all Unitarians believe that he saves men by natural influence on their hearts and lives, as he teaches them, shows them their sin, inspires them to seek better things, and demonstrates to them the kingdom of God, the man of God, and the life of God. All Unitarians find this sufficient, without any scheme or contrivance by which God has to appease his own wrath in the slaughter of an innocent person for the sins of a guilty world. In the Unitarian phrase, the word "atonement" always means, as it meant in the one place where it is used in the New Testament—reconciliation; and that reconciliation is in bringing the souls of men to sympathy with God and his laws. The Unitarian Christology is of one who prepares the souls of men to be the dwelling-place of God's spirit, of a mediator who gives to the soul the message and the substance of the life of God; who showed in a simple human life of compassion, love, and faithfulness, the visible inspiration of God.
And this leads us to say that Unitarians believe that there is a special influence of the spirit of God upon the souls of men. They believe that men are inspired, are quickened, are enlightened and energized by this divine influence; that it is in the word of prophets and in the acts of saints. They believe that there was inspiration in the ancient time, and that there is inspiration in the modern time; that there is a faith in spiritual things, a sight of spiritual truths, which is not the result of investigation, or of logical process, but which is given directly, which comes in conscious communion with God. They believe that prayer is the natural and the effectual method of this communion with God, that the Divine Spirit always comes near to the souls of men when they pray sincerely, when they pour out their souls in petition for spiritual gifts, or recognize the providence and love of a living God. Unitarians use prayer, and believe in it, though they attach to it no superstitious ideas, and do not think that its influence is in any sense supernatural. They believe in prayer as wholly according to the spiritual law; as the necessary way of gaining graces of the soul, and of holding conscious intercourse with God. They have not all the same philosophy of its working. Some think that it may move the mind of God, while others see its effective work in the minds and hearts of men. But all confess that it has its place in the way of the spiritual life, and that inspiration comes through prayer.
Unitarians believe, as really as Evangelical sects in their prayer meetings, that men may he and ought to be inspired to-day as truly as in any former day; as really, too, as Roman Catholics, that inspiration ought to be, and that it is, in the Christian Church. They have a very positive doctrine concerning the Church. They say that the Church is the spiritual union and fellowship of all Christian men and women, of all men and women who have the spirit of Christ in their hearts and are trying to do his work; that it is not to be fastened in any sectarian enclosure, or described by any sectarian name; that no denomination of Christians has a right to call itself "the" Church, exclusive of other denominations; that all righteous and God-fearing men and women, who are trying to realize the kingdom and justice of God, as revealed by Christ, are in the Church, members of the Church, whether they belong to any particular Church or not, whether or not they have taken any sectarian name; that the Holy Spirit admits men to the Church, and not the laying on of a priest's hands or the uttering of a few phrases; that a great many persons are in the Church who have never confessed their faith before men, and have never gone through any process of conversion that they have known. Unitarians believe in the "Holy Catholic Church" in the largest sense of that phrase, not as meaning Roman Catholic, or Anglo-Catholic, or Presbyterian Catholic, or Catholic with any local or sectarian prefix, but as meaning the whole company of those who have been influenced by the great salvation. The Church is as wide as the world and as wide as the presence of the Lord. They believe, as Paul believed, that even a multitude of the heathen, without knowing it, are in the Church of Christ; that the only Church which Christ formed, or intended to form, was this spiritual Church, which knew no distinction of name, and had no rejection of any who might wish to come into it. Unitarians do not believe in a Church which bars or bolts its doors to any that wish to come in, or which sets in the gateway any barrier or test of human opinion or human creed. They believe in a free Church, not in a fenced Church, in a Church which is recruited always and is never full.
Unitarians have no doctrine of Sacraments, except as all obligations, all solemn promises, are sacraments. Baptism they call a sacrament, as it is a pledge of a man or woman for themselves, or for their children, that they will try to realize the righteousness of God in their own lives, or in the lives of their children. Unitarians have no holy-water, and pray when they baptize that the man may consecrate himself or his children by that sign of purification. The external act is only a sign, and they regard the manner of administration as of no importance, whether it is by touching the forehead or plunging the body. Marriage is a sacrament, as it is the promise of two souls to keep spiritual union, and to be faithful to one another in the most momentous of earthly relations. The Lord's Supper is a sacrament, as it renews from time to time the promise of brotherly love. Unitarians attach no superstitious ideas to this so-called rite. It is not to them a repetition of the tragedy of Calvary, or a peculiar privilege of men initiated into a secret society, or a reward of religious merit; -- in no sense an awful mystery. It is simply a memorial feast, calling to mind the last supper of Jesus and his disciples, and signifying the relation which the disciples of Jesus always bear to one another. Some Unitarians attach more importance to this memorial than others, but all agree in making it a means of religion, and not in any sense an end. None that I know would keep any person away from the Lord's table who may wish to come there, whatever his name, his profession, or his character. Unitarians believe that the communion of the Lord's Supper ought to be always free, as it was free in the beginning, and they have no measure of fitness for it. They make their invitation to it as broad as was the invitation of Paul and Timothy. The Lord's Supper which they believe in is not the Mass of the Catholic Church, or the solemn symbol of the Evangelical elect, separated from the world, but the memorial feast as they find it in the Scriptures of the New Testament.
Unitarians take the books of the Bible as the record of the teaching of God to the Jewish people and to the early Christians through their, wise men and their prophets. Their doctrine of the Bible is, that it is a collection of books on various subjects, -- historical, biographical, poetical, and moral, of various value, but mostly with a religious bearing and purpose. The inspiration which they find in the Bible is an inspiration of the men whose story is told, not an inspiration of the words and letters. The Old Testament is the literature of the Jewish people; the New Testament is the early Christian literature. Unitarians prize the Bible as much as any sect; use it in their churches, use it in their homes, gladly assist in its circulation; but they do not make an idol of this sacred book, and worship its name. They prize it for the ideas which it holds, and the truth that it contains, and do not make more of it than it really is, or contend that it is what it never claims to be. To them the Bible is in the words of men, -- Hebrew and Greek, Latin and English; and it has the characteristics of human thought and speech, even while it tells the will of God.
And the Unitarian doctrine of the Sacred Day is that it is the Lord's Day, which preserves in memory that great event in the life of Christ which took away from his followers the fear of death. They do not think of this day as the Jewish Sabbath, loaded with prohibitions, a day on which it is sinful to walk or ride, to laugh or to be joyful, but as a day for the exercise of all the best and freest natural affections. It is no more sacred in itself than any other days of the week, and has no moral code peculiar to itself. The Unitarian doctrine is that the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath; that there is no more reason for wearing sad countenances when men worship together than when they work together. The dignity of the day comes in the spiritual quickening which it gives; in its associations with what is beautiful, and pure, and friendly, and fraternal; in its separating men from selfish cares and joining them in common prayers for mutual good; in giving them experience of the heavenly life, which is the immortal life. On the Lord's day, men feel their true life, and they have this more abundantly.
And the Unitarian doctrine of death is, that it is only a change in the condition of life, not an extinction of life itself. It has no power to destroy the soul, but all its work is in taking vitality from the bodily frame, and leaving the parts of this to dissolve and enter into new material forms. The soul, the living spirit of the man, unclothed from its mortal part, assumes now a spiritual body, suited to a new world and new needs of life. The philosophy of the spiritual world is not uniform with Unitarian believers. Some have it nicely drawn out, and can make pictures of it, while with others it lies vague and undefined. But all that I know agree in rejecting the crude notion of the resurrection of the physical body, and in denying any necessary union between the soul and body after death has parted them. Most Unitarians believe in the recognition of departed friends, that Souls which have been joined on earth in love will still keep union in the spiritual world; that in the disembodied world there are near societies, families and kindreds, though the physical ties exist no longer. There are some who think and speak of Heaven as a place; but the faith of the wisest treats Heaven as a state, which may be as real on the earth as beyond the earth.
In regard to rewards and punishments in the future life, Unitarians have no doctrine separate from their general doctrine of law and its violations. They believe that all good deeds have their inevitable reward, cannot fail to bring the happiness and peace which they deserve, but that the thought or expectation of personal happiness, here or hereafter, is not the proper motive of Christian virtue. Men should do good, because that is right, because that is the will of God, not because it will give them some individual blessing. So they believe that every sin has its penalty which cannot be escaped, and that the spiritual penalty of sin will endure as long as the sin lasts, and until it shall have wrought its due and needful reformation. How long in time this will be, they cannot tell; but they believe that God's counsel will not fail through man's transgression, and that it is the Lord's will that not one of his rational creatures should utterly and for ever perish. They expect, in the consummation of all things, the universal reign of the Lord.
This is a rapid and concise statement of the average Unitarian opinion upon the principal points of religious doctrine. Unitarians claim that these views are rational, and can be maintained without doing violence to reason; that they are Scriptural, and can be justified from the spirit and from the letter of the Christian record, rightly read; that they are agreeable to the best instincts of the soul; that they are harmonious with the science of nature, and with the needs of human life; that children can understand them, and that the mature mind does not outgrow them; that they are good to live by, and that they are good to die by. This system of doctrine has satisfied, and still satisfies, the wisest men and the best men; men who are honored, trusted, and loved; men who are listened to respectfully, and are followed by the praise and reverence of the whole community. Three of the American Presidents have been members of the Unitarian Church, and two others have given this faith in substance as their creed. Of Judges, Governors, Senators, Congressmen, elected by votes of the Evangelical sects, who have professed this faith, the list would be a very long one. The most distinguished of the writers of the country, in history, in poetry, in philosophy, in art, are nearly all Unitarians. The ablest public speakers find inspiration in these views of God and man. So far as great names lend credit to any doctrine, this Unitarian doctrine certainly has it. But it has in quite as large measure the better credit of noble and beautiful lives, of saintly men and women, who rise, a cloud of witnesses, to tell what it has done for them. The worst bigot in Massachusetts would not dare to call Governor Andrew an "infidel," though he was as faithful to care for his Sunday-school class in the Unitarian Church of the Disciples as for the wounded in the hospitals and the soldiers in the field. No faith has ever been more ready to prove itself by works of love and mercy than this faith. If it has not sent many missionaries to fight against idolatry in heathen lands, and substitute for this idolatry the creeds of Augustine or Calvin, it has sent far more than its proportion of missionaries into the waste places at home, into the haunts of wickedness, to convert the blind, and the erring, and the sinful. No one can deny that Unitarian Christianity makes ministers of practical righteousness.
Unitarians are not indifferent to the good-will of the Christians around them. They do not like to be misrepresented, or to be treated as outlaws, even by ignorant and bigoted men. But they can stand alone, and are not to be driven from their position by any slanders. They will hold fast to what they believe to be truth, even if they are denounced as unbelievers, or are denied a place in the great salvation. They want no Heaven which is won by compromise or hypocrisy; and they will lose the society of men whom they respect rather than be false to the word of God as it is spoken to their souls. They hold their doctrine not as a finality or a perpetually binding creed, but as ready always to revise and improve it, as the spirit of God shall give them more light and knowledge. They own no master but the great Teacher, the great source of spiritual wisdom, and they are content to abide his judgment. They ask no triumph or success, but the triumph which truth shall give them, as shown in the logic of their argument, and as shown in the lives of their confessors.