Unitarianism and Social Change
Richard Wilson Boynton
Berry Street lecture, 1919
read before the Berry Street Conference
May 21, 1919
On this May morning, at the Berry Street Conference, which he founded in 1820, the year after his great Baltimore Sermon, we may well feel as foremost among the influences which here hover about us that of William Ellery Channing. There is no anecdote, it seems to me, more indicative of the real and abiding spirit of Channing than the following, which I venture to quote at length from his nephew and first biographer—William Henry Channing. It refers to the time of the democratic and mainly peaceable revolution in France, in July, 1830, when a combination of the troops and the populace unseated the last of the Bourbons from his throne, and set up, on the basis of a people's charter, what was hoped would prove a less absolute and more progressive monarchy, with the popular Louis Philippe as king. We read:
Dr. Channing's sympathies were nowise limited to England, warm as was his grateful reverence for the mother-land of the Anglo-Saxons, but cordially embraced all Continental Europe. Heart and hand he held himself pledged, as a faithful brother, to the great party of Liberalism spread throughout civilized nations, and his earnest prayer was for universal freedom by conservative reform—if, indeed, peace could cure the corruptions of centuries. During the great crisis of 1830 he thus expressed his feelings: "Amidst the stupendous events of our age, when the whole civilized world is heaving like an ocean, and the great question of human freedom is at issue, I see not how they who love their race can be indifferent. A great war is going on, that of opinions and principles, and we have too much reason to dread that this will bring on a war of arms and bloodshed. I have no fear of the result, but I shudder at this means of gaining even the greatest good.”
When the news, therefore, of the "Three Days” in Paris reached Newport, his heart leaped up within him in exulting hope; the era of emancipation he had so long been looking for, it seemed to him, had dawned; and he returned much earlier than usual to Boston to exchange congratulations with the friends of constitutional liberty, and to pour out from his pulpit the bright anticipations with which his mind was crowded. To his sorrow, he found but slight response to his enthusiasm, and felt more deeply than ever before how benumbing to high honor and humanity is the heavy pressure of mercenariness. With some of his intimate friends, indeed, and especially with Charles Follen, he held earnest communion on the magnificent opportunity opened to the Continental nations; and his aspirations were constant, that France might be found worthy of her great vocation. . . .
That the freemen of America, especially the young, should be so moderate in their expressions of joy, astonished him. He went back, in memory, to his boyish days (those of the earlier and greater upheaval in France) when the Cambridge collegians had processions, speeches, and bonfires. Now, all was still. One evening, during this period, a graduate called upon him. "Well, Mr. Hillard,” said he, with an accent of sarcasm which few, probably, ever heard from his lips, "are you, too, so old and wise, like the young men at Harvard, as to have no enthusiasm to throw away upon the heroes of the Polytechnic School?” "Sir,” answered Hillard, "you seem to me to be the only young man I know!” "Always young for liberty, I trust,” replied Dr. Channing, with a bright smile and a ringing tone, as he pressed him warmly by the hand
I can find, perhaps, no better augury in our history than that saying, "Always young for liberty,” for the enterprise now to be undertaken,—a discussion of the recent history and developments of the movement in which Channing was a pioneer, and especially its outlook upon the immediate future, which I have chosen to entitle "Unitarianism and Social Change.”
It is already trite to speak of the world of this second decade of the twentieth century as in the throes of a social revolution; parallel, on a larger scale, to that of 1848, greater by far than that of 1830, and probably more fundamental and far-reaching even than the violent convulsion of 1789. We have but just emerged—or, rather, we shall be a long time yet in emerging—from one of those epoch-making cataclysms of human nature which mark forever a date in the annals of mankind. We have been privileged to live through another French Revolutionary and Napoleonic era; only concentrated, foreshortened, and even more overwhelming in its profound disturbance of all earthly relations and values. It has been a volcanic eruption, a cosmic earthquake, the lava-beds of which, when they are once congealed, will be found in retrospect to have permanently altered the social and civic landscape. All that this world war is in the end to signify, our children's children will appreciate better than we can possibly hope to do. A true perspective of its issues is to be looked for only when they can come to be envisaged by the calm, judicial eye of history, one or two centuries hence. We of today are unavoidably subject to the illusion, the false perspective, that always blinds the contemporaries of such world-shaking events; and inclined, by the bias of temperament and education, on the one hand to exaggerate, and on the other hand to minimize, what has happened. To keep a firm and true balance of mind about it all is, just now, our hardest yet most needful task.
There is a sense in which human nature is unchanging, and yet we cannot help observing that it ever changes. It is unchanging in its basic, essential, driving motives; changing in the particular objects toward which those motives drive it. Without committing ourselves to any particular philosophy of history, we can discern in human affairs a certain rational or dramatic advance. It is not forcing the evidence to say that the dramatic factor consists in the successive appearance on the scene of ever new actors or characters. In the present connection, we may rather call them classes, advancing one after another to play their appointed part in the mass-conflict.
President Wilson has told us, and with us the whole wide earth, that the recent war was a struggle of democracy against autocracy; a contest to "make the world safe for democracy.” All the implications of that resounding phrase are far from being unfolded yet. It expresses one of those insights of political genius, the explication and realization of which will dominate the next, perhaps long and tumultuous, act in the drama of civilization. Holding to our figure of the theatre, the wanton invasion of Belgium by militant, imperialist Germany may even now be seen to have rung down the curtain on one setting of the world's broad stage; and the resistance to that aggression by the free democracies of Western Europe and the new world to have rung up the curtain on a profoundly altered scene. This, at least, has already happened before our scarce-believing eyes: Russia, and then Germany, the two stoutest remaining strongholds of divine right and autocratic domination of the many by the few, have suddenly crumbled before the assault of the new mass-forces of radical democracy which, with unspent momentum, are still proceeding to work their as yet undefined will in every Western nationality and in the mutual relations of all peoples.
It is this emergence of the many which is the significant point for us here. A new character upon the world scene has suddenly come to hold the fascinated attention of every competent observer of human things. The undistinguished mob, as we are apt to say at first blush, has sprung forward from its place of humble obscurity in the wings and leaped to the centre of the stage. We are at the appointed hour of the proletariat, the fourth and last estate. The catchword of the moment that best designates this violent uprush of the laboring masses is "Bolshevism.” In order to keep our mental balance, which many seem unable to do in their excitement, we need to translate that somewhat fearsome Russian term into its plain English equivalent of "Radical Socialist." Let us consent to call Bolshevism radical social democracy, the rule of the proletariat, and the Soviets labor and peasant councils, and we can consider the new portent with less inclination to the prevailing hysteria. Democracy, by its basic rule of one vote for every adult citizen, implies the rule of the majority; and as Tocqueville long ago pointed out, this may easily become the tyranny of the majority. There is a kind of poetic justice, which cannot be denied, however truly we may deplore the bloody means employed, in the tyranny of the majority following upon the long and deadening tyranny of the minority. This, at any rate, is what we are liable to have to face in every corner of the world, in the striking hour that now is.
Like every revolutionary assault on an existing order, the first effect of Bolshevism is apparent disintegration. But let us not be too easily misled by appearances. There has been destruction before in the world, as when the Northern barbarians overwhelmed the weakened Roman Empire; and the end thereof has been a new and more splendid construction. As thinkers and leaders, we can afford not to be merely thrown into panic, but ask rationally and calmly whether this may not happen again? I am surely safe in saying that the purpose of the new social democracy—to give it no more offensive name—is positive, not negative. Its program is clear; namely, to turn over the rule of capital, industry, and government to those who have at last come perfectly to comprehend that they, and not those who have hitherto been in control, are in the vast majority; or, better, a determination to introduce and secure juster, more human, working and living conditions for the unregarded masses, those who uphold the pillars of the state, mostly on their bare, unskilled hands. The sounder radicalism of the British Labor Party has decided to include brain-workers with hand-workers. It is, then, a condition and not a theory that confronts us. We have to do something about it, or it is likely to do something with us, which may be far from agreeable. This is what "making the world safe for democracy” means to our coming political rulers. Like William Lloyd Garrison, in his famous prelude to the Liberator, the Bolshevist of to-day is intensely in earnest, he does not propose to retreat a single inch, and he will be heard. As in the largely parallel case of Abolitionism, the entrenched social forces that feel themselves attacked, including the dominating interests and ruling classes of our present capitalistic society, with the exception of a few despised "intellectuals,” are showing their deep-seated fear of this new menace by counter-attacks in the press, and in public and private speech, that for virulence and misrepresentation leave nothing to be desired. Let those ignore this conflict who are bold enough, or foolhardy enough, to put their heads in the sand, ostrich-like, and deny that a menace even exists. I am convinced that it does, and that somehow it will have to be met. Bolshevism offers a program. It is based on a process of argument, and can only be confuted by answering argument, no less sound and cogent for those to whom it is addressed. The new leaders are not afraid of violence—as the old never were, for that matter. If this comes to us in America, as it has already come to Russia and Germany, it will be the most dangerous violence of all—the rebellion of the many against the few. It is a situation before which those can stand pat who feel themselves strong enough to do so, though they may be mightily mistaken in their strength, as were the Russian nobility and the autocrats of Germany; but which all sane and brave men, the appointed leaders of the people, will do well to seek to understand and to overcome by an appeal to right reason, and by a willingness to set up just relations of man to man in every sphere of human contact.
So much for impending social change, and now a few related words as to Unitarianism.
Since Darwin and Spencer, it has become an accepted truth of science that the survival of any organism implies and requires some degree of successful adaptation to the environment in which it finds itself. This law derives superabundant illustration from the wide realm of animal species, but is by no means confined in its operations to the single field of biology. In the higher sphere of the life of nations, it has just had luminous fulfillment in the crashing down of the German Empire through a colossal failure of that great but misguided people to adapt its essentially feudal and strongly nationalist organization and spirit to the requirements of a growing internationalism in industry, trade, colonial adventure, and the exploitation of undeveloped territories and peoples. In the human realm, organism and environment doubtless affect each other reciprocally; we make, at least in part, the surroundings amid which we are able to survive. But a considerable and continuous effort at adjustment is called for, even in religious organizations, of which the outstanding illustration in Christendom is the constant and skilful, if slow, modification undergone from century to century by the Roman Catholic Church. The fitting itself to present-day conditions in the United States on the part of that ancient communion is a marvel of wise and cunning adaptation for survival.
The social environment in which our Unitarian churches have thus far functioned, and attained whatever success they have attained, has been that of bourgeois or capitalistic control of government and industry. In using this term, as in my previous use of Bolshevism, I should like to be understood as speaking with a certain philosophic detachment, and as not, in the first instance, meaning to express by it an attitude of either approval or disapproval. I suppose myself to be stating a simple fact. May I not venture to ask you, for this single hour, to join me in this endeavor to keep a mind free from the irritation of prejudice? Let us begin by being rational, and then we may end by seeing things as they are.
Now the distinctive mark of the existing regime is a practically unrestrained economic and political individualism. Capitalism has favored the policy of unrestricted competition, except where it could gain for itself a position of monopolistic control, resulting in a social order in which the strong have prevailed and prospered, while the weak have been pushed to the wall or perished. Those equipped by inheritance, training, and innate capacity have been the rulers in business, society, and government; those ill-favored and unadapted to the struggle have followed and served the ruling caste. This is the social structure now dominant, with insignificant modifications, among all the leading Western peoples. One hastens to admit its wholly excellent results, in many instances. Our churches, for example, are full of them—men and women who are the fine flower of this unremitting struggle of the generations for the best that life has to offer. That best, as it is exhibited in a normal capitalistic society, is often very rare and very noble. We could all cite admirable persons who exemplify it. However, it has of course its seamy side, which it is beyond my purpose here to dwell upon.
Unitarianism, at least in the United States,—it seems to be otherwise in England,—has been from the beginning, and is still without notable exceptions, the religion of a ruling caste. Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes characterized them aptly as "the Brahmin caste of New England.” The point scarcely requires argument. Look over the typical Unitarian congregation, and you will realize the plain truth of what I say. It is needless to recall in this presence the well-known summary by Dr. Lyman Beecher as to the social standing and public influence of the New England Unitarians of his day. Octavius Brooks Frothingham, in his illuminating historical study of "Boston Unitarianism, 1820-1850,” tells a similar story. Nor is the phenomenon one of Boston or New England merely. You find much the same type of people in all our churches, wherever you go. With scarcely an important exception, our principal church buildings, by a kind of natural gravitation, are found only in the most prosperous and beautiful residential sections of the communities in which they stand. We pride ourselves on the fact, though it is seldom brought out in its explicit economic relations. Unquestionably, to my mind, it accounts in a considerable part for the painful slowness of our growth as a religious body. There are not enough of this kind of people in any community, to whom we can appeal, to make many more Unitarians of the possessing and satisfied classes, and their satellites, than we now have.
Of course, it has to be added that we share this peculiar constituency with the more refined and cultured Protestant communions that are socially conservative, like ourselves. Only, certain churches, the Episcopalian and Presbyterian pre-eminently, appeal to more of them than we do by combining a theological conservatism with the social. Our constituency is thus a special one, in this respect. We are torn by a singular inner contradiction, which it is my intention here to make explicit, and to discuss as the most momentous problem regarding our future. We combine, thus far, intellectual and religious radicalism with social and ethical conservatism. The one is a matter of principle; the other largely of inheritance. The question I am constrained to raise is whether our social inheritance or our declared principle is, in the end, to prevail in our evolution as a religious movement.
For its adequate comprehension, the matter requires rather a large historical orientation. In Unitarianism, as it is now constituted, two divergent streams of social tendency meet and imperfectly mingle. We are the outcome, on the one hand, of two centuries of New England Calvinism, and, on the other hand, of the more recent humanitarianism whose great prophet was Rousseau, and whose moving force in human affairs is the still unexhausted impulse of the first French Revolution. It is a curious fact that our people, on the whole, have represented the former of these factors, the aristocratic, while our prophets in the main have stood for the latter, the democratic. Some day a Unitarian student of divinity may win distinction for himself by preparing a thesis on the influence of the French Revolution upon the mind and spirit of Channing, and the whole movement which he inaugurated. That influence will be found to be neither slight nor insignificant. Dr. Hedge, as is well known, proposed that we should call ourselves Humanitarians, instead of Unitarians, as the more distinctive name.
Recent students in Germany, chief among whom may be named Ernst Troeltsch, professor of Church History in the University of Berlin, have made the striking discovery that there is an inherent connection between the ethics of Calvinism and the regime of capitalistic industrialism which has prevailed, especially in Anglo-Saxon countries, largely with the concurrence of the energetic, striving, individualistic cast of character that Calvinism has everywhere produced. Calvinistic election and predestination were never, in spite of appearances, for another life only; the faithful and obedient, and particularly the industrious and saving, among our forefathers, were elected to material prosperity here, as inevitably as to eternal happiness beyond. Early New England society, as may be seen by the careful rules of precedence among the students of Harvard College, observed well down into the nineteenth century, was stratified, with all the rigor of the Jerusalem above, into those who worked and saved and possessed, and those who failed for whatever reason in their economic duty and in moral self-control. The same is largely true of this society today, and it throws a somewhat cynical light on at least one possible meaning of our principle of "salvation by character.” The saved, in most of our churches, are saved economically and socially as much as spiritually; probably more! A certain self-sufficient hardness, and lack of any passionate social sympathy, remains with us, as one result. All having succeeded about equally well in the struggle for existence we are not as certainly possessed by an unlimited aspiration for the future of humanity. Yet this other element is not wholly lacking, as I must now show. That is fortunate as regards our promise of an effective future; for to it, in all human probability, the future belongs.
I have already intimated that, for foreshadowings of the democratic humanitarianism which seems to be the one assured idealistic outcome of the Great War, we must go to our prophets rather than to the people who have heard, without always accepting, their eloquent counsels. Let me now call as witnesses it this respect our three acknowledged leaders in America - Channing, Emerson, and Parker.
The passage of time has amply confirmed the critical sagacity of Ernest Renan in considering the social writings of Channing to be the better and more significant part of his works. The theological reformation that he led, needful as it was as an escape from the decadent Calvinism of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, appears in the light of today to have been relatively timid and superficial. It was in his social utterances and aspirations that Channing showed the most conspicuous prophetic insight and moral inspiration. As is well remembered, these irritated, at times almost beyond endurance, his wealthy parishioners in Federal Street; and it suffices to recall some of them to see why this must have been the case. The instructive tale is told to admiration in John White Chadwick's unmatched biography. I must content myself with a few excerpts only.
Here, for example, is Channing on the duty of the citizen to his country in time of war. "To the common notion that the able-bodied citizen is bound to fight in whatever conflict may be precipitated by the rashness of the executive and legislative powers,” says Mr. Chadwick, "Channing opposed as frank a negative as to the notion that the policy of a government in time of war is something sacrosanct, not to be criticized by any citizen. If called to take part in unjust wars, he said, let the patriotic citizen deliberately refuse. ‘If martial law seize on him, let him submit. If hurried to prison, let him submit. If brought thence to be shot, let him submit. There must be martyrs to peace as well as to other principles of our religion. Let the good man be faithful unto death.’” Channing might not have felt, if he could have been alive during the last five momentous years, that our participation in the war in Europe was unjust, or forced on a reluctant people by the rashness of its government; in all probability quite the contrary, as most sane Americans felt. Yet it is an interesting speculation what would have happened to him if he had so felt, and had been true to his spoken word, as was his wont. There are in jail today in the United States men of whom Eugene V. Debs, Irvine St. John Tucker, and Roger Baldwin are only the outstanding leaders, because of principles identical with the citation which has just been given from Channing. For myself, I do not agree with their social philosophy. But I tremble for American liberty to see them where they are, with no more general or effective protest than has yet been made.
Let me give a few other typical utterances as garnered up by the biographer. "The conclusion is not to be escaped,” writes Mr. Chadwick, "that, as Channing drew on to the end of his career, his hopes for the improvement of society centered more in the poorer than in the better classes. As Paul turned to the Gentiles, so he to the wage-earners when he found the rich and cultured unable or unwilling to translate his spiritual message into the terms of social justice.” Elsewhere we are told parenthetically, that "his distrust of the rich seems to have steadily increased.” I must now quote a somewhat longer passage to clinch my point.
"The situation, as Channing conceived it,” continues Mr. Chadwick, "was quite bad enough, and his dealing with it frequently took on a revolutionary tone which would be accounted dangerous, if not anarchistic, by those of our own time who scent lêse-majesté in every honest criticism of public men and current policies. That lofty indignation of which Channing was so easily capable and which has been, not unfitly, called ‘the wrath of the lamb,’ found nowhere freer scope than here. To be surprised at Channing's capacity for it is simply not to know what manner of spirit he was of. The social-industrial status was for him frankly impossible: it must somehow be reformed. ‘Important changes must take place in the state of the laboring classes; they must share more largely in the fruits of their toil and in means of improvement. I am a leveller’ ( so goes on this ardent revolutionary, ‘always young for liberty’) , ‘but I would accomplish my object by elevating the low, by raising from a degrading indigence and brutal ignorance the laboring multitude.’ He would do it with their help, mainly by that,” the biographer resumes; "not from above, but from beneath, the elevating power.” And Mr. Chadwick concludes, "The revolutionary bogy had no terrors for his mind.” He quotes Channing further in confirmation: "I see, . . . in the revolutionary spirit of our times, the promise of a freer and higher action of the human mind,—the pledge of a state of society more fit to perfect human beings.” "The present selfish dissocial system must give way.” "No man has seized the grand peculiarity of the present age who does not see in it the means and material of a vast and beneficent social change; . . . a mighty revolution not to stop until new ties shall have taken the place of those which have hitherto connected the human race.” "I have no fear of revolutions. . . . What exists troubles me more than what is to come.” "We must suffer and we ought to suffer. Society ought to be troubled, to be shaken, yea, convulsed, until its solemn debt to the poor and ignorant is paid.”
It would seem too much to expect an equal radicalism from the serene and abstracted Emerson. Yet no very elaborate search through his works will bring up sentences and passages which are not unworthy to stand beside the words of Channing. Thus, on resolute outspokenness: "There are trials enough of nerve and character, brave choices enough of taking the part of truth and of the oppressed against the oppressor, in the privatest circles. Right speech is not well to be distinguished from action.” Again: "It is high time our bad wealth came to an end. I am sure I shall very cheerfully take my share of suffering in the ruin of such a prosperity, and shall very willingly turn to the mountain to chop wood, and seek to find for myself and my children labors compatible with freedom and honor.”
We should naturally expect to find Emerson speaking out "loud and bold” in the lecture on "Man the Reformer,” which he read before the Mechanics' Apprentices Library Association, Boston, on January 25, 1841. Nor is the expectation vain. "The young man, on entering life, finds the way to lucrative employments blocked with abuses. The ways of trade are grown selfish to the borders of theft, and supple to the borders (if not beyond the borders) of fraud. The employments of commerce are not intrinsically unfit for a man, or less genial to his faculties; but these are now in their general course so vitiated by derelictions and abuses at which all connive, that it requires more vigor and resources than can be expected of every young man, to right himself in them; he is lost in them; he cannot move hand or foot in them. . . . We are all implicated of course in this charge; it is only necessary to ask a few questions as to the progress of the articles of commerce from the fields where they grew, to our houses, to become aware that we eat and drink and wear perjury and fraud in a hundred commodities.” "Nay, the evil custom reaches into the whole institution of property, until our laws which establish and protect it seem not to be the issue of love and reason, but of selfishness. . . . Of course, whilst another man has no land, my title to mine, your title to yours, is at once vitiated.”[i]
It is to that valiant Son of Thunder, Theodore Parker, that we should look for the most truculent and scathing denunciations of the social wrongs of his day. Yet, save for bulk and emphasis, both of which went with his crusading temper, we find in him hardly more than resounding echoes of what we have already heard from Channing and Emerson. When it was resolved by a few independent young men "that the Rev. Theodore Parker have a chance to be heard in Boston,” after an experimental year, he preached at his installation at the Melodeon on January 4, 1846, a mighty sermon on "The True Idea of a Christian Church,” which John Haynes Holmes has characterized as "the most epoch-making that Parker ever preached.” He said:
The Christian Church should lead the civilization of the age—it should lead the
way in all moral enterprises, in every work which aims directly at the moral
welfare of man. . .. Its sacraments should be great works of reform, institutions for
the comfort and culture of men. Its one great end should be the building of a state
where there was honorable work for every hand, bread for all mouths, clothing for
all backs, culture for every mind, and love and faith in every heart. . . . Here are
the needy who ask not so much your gold, your bread, or your cloth, as they ask
also your sympathy, respect, and counsel; that you assist them to help themselves,
that they may have gold won by their industry, not begged out of your
benevolence. It is justice more than charity they ask. . . . In the midst of all these
wrongs and sins, the crimes of men, society and the state, amid popular ignorance,
pauperism, crime and war, and slavery too—is the church to say nothing, do
nothing; nothing for the good of such as feel the wrong, nothing to save them who
do the wrong? Men tell us so, in word and deed; that way alone is "safe”! If I
thought so, I would never enter the church but once again, and then to bow my
shoulders to their manliest work, to heave down its strong pillars, arch and dome,
and roof, and wall, steeple and tower, though like Samson I buried myself under
the ruins of that temple which profaned the worship of God most high, of God
most loved. I would do this in the name of man; in the name of Christ I would do
it; yes, in the dear and blessed name of God.
It is superfluous to multiply citations; Parker's many volumes are rich in them, for whoever cares to read. It is time for us now to return out of these echoes of our past to tumults and shoutings that even at this very hour assault our ears and warn us to prepare for the day and the morrow that are to test us as prophets of the soul and saviors of society.
We have just lost out of our fellowship, not another Emerson or another Parker, perhaps, but a man whom our descendants may not hesitate to name in the same breath with these brave rebels and come-outers of the former time,—I mean, of course, John Haynes Holmes. Why is he leaving us? It seems to me that a very essential part of the answer is implied in a passage from a recent sermon, which, if it states the truth about us, may well receive our deepest meditation. I am as clearly aware as any of you of Mr. Holmes's limitations,—of temperament and of method, I should call them, rather than of character and purpose. It may be a severe strain on your tolerance to ask you now to listen to his witness against us, but it is important for my intention here that you should be asked both to listen and to heed. I quote from a sermon of last fall before he withdrew from among us, published in the Messiah Pulpit, and entitled "When is a Liberal Not a Liberal?” He says:
In all matters pertaining to philosophy and theology the average Unitarian is
liberal in the extreme. There is no finer spectacle of the open mind at work here in
America than is to be found in those little churches scattered up and down the
land, where every latest speculation of philosophy, every newest surmise of
Biblical criticism, every most recent and perhaps most extravagant idea of God,
can be safely brought, and discussed by minister and people with as much interest
and reverence as a scientist might devote to a new specimen of flora or fauna. But
how about these same churches when some economic question, like Socialism,
for example, is debated? It is to my mind inexpressibly distressing to see with
what rapidity the open mind of many a Unitarian will close up like a steel trap,
whenever this problem of Socialism is brought to the fore. Here is an idea which
is not even new. It has been worked out with the greatest care, and in the minutest
detail, by master minds in all modern countries. It presents a perfectly definite
platform of social reconstruction, which may be good or may be bad, may be
practicable or may be impracticable, but which is expressive of the hopes and
dreams of millions for a better world. If ever we needed anything in these days, it
is programs of reform in the social field. If there is any one thing on which we
should all be able to agree, it is the need of a complete reordering of political,
economic, and international relationships. Here at least is one proposal which is
offered in good faith, and backed by the conviction and sacrifice of millions of
human beings. And yet I know of many a man, who calls himself a liberal, who
regards any discussion of Socialism, let alone any endorsement of it, as the
rankest heresy. Against this philosophy he closes his mind, just as he closes his
doors against the plague. Which gives us one answer at least to our inquiry,
"When is a liberal not a liberal?”
Is this criticism of us just, or is it not? I am not prepared to admit its entire relevance. Mr. Holmes impresses me more as a skilful rhetorician and brilliant orator than as a close and careful thinker; and I seem to detect in this, as in so many of his utterances, an absolute license of affirmation as well as a certain question-begging quality which prevents my taking it quite at its face value. Our churches are rightly suspicious of economic dogmatism, as they have long been distrustful of theological. To pronounce one's self a party Socialist at the outset is to forfeit their sympathy. At the same time, the statement impresses me as containing more than a modicum of sober truth. It is a fair shot, and hits a weak spot in our armor. Is it not true that our representative Unitarians, both men and women, and our larger congregations generally, are much less open-minded when it comes to any new or radical-seeming suggestions in the economic field than in the theological? The long and hard battle for theological freedom and progress was won for us by the courage and ardor of our forerunners. Is it not essential that the battle of to-day for economic freedom,—the chance for new and even revolutionary proposals in the field of labor and industrial reorganization, of taxes and the tenure of private property, to be openly and candidly discussed in our pulpits and public forums,—should be fought and gained also, if not by ourselves, then by those who shall succeed us in a ministry dedicated to complete and unqualified intellectual and spiritual liberty?
The question brings us back again to the main theme, of Unitarianism and Social Change, with which we began. I then spoke of the period through which the world is passing as being perhaps more revolutionary in its possibilities than any other in human history. How fast and far the impending social change may carry us from our former ways, it is impossible to conceive. It may be, as is intimated in the first number of The Review, a new liberal-conservative journal, just this week making its appearance in New York, "not a real menace, but only a passing cloud.” Yet, in Bolshevik Russia, all the old landmarks seem to have been suddenly and ruthlessly swept away, and a wholly new theory of government—rule by the industrial workers, through their Soviets, or proletarian councils—to have been set up. I do not defend, in any sense, the Bolshevist violence, extreme of theorizing, and superfluity of murder; but if it is true, as some signs appear to indicate, that the bourgeois governments of Western Europe, with our own government involved in the questionable venture, are preparing by a combination of armed force and economic isolation to starve out and destroy this remarkable experiment in self-determination on the part of the Russian people, I for one cannot call that a step toward "making the world safe for democracy.” It is, indeed, an inestimable gain, which we owe chiefly to the brave insistence of President Wilson, to have had a workable, even if still in some details necessarily imperfect, constitution for the League of Nations emerge full-panoplied from the Peace Conference at Paris. But there are other indications, in the imperialistic temper of French and Italian, not to mention British and Japanese diplomacy, and notably in the drastic and humiliating peace-terms imposed on a defeated Germany, that give room for a mood of the blackest pessimism regarding the future of Europe and the world. The warfare of democracy against autocracy is not over yet, by a very great deal!
What social unrest and unsatisfied democratic aspiration on the part of the French and Italian peoples may underlie the momentary successes of the imperialistic aims of their respective governments, remains to be shown. The surprising strength and confidence of the British Labor Party, the radical and far-reaching concessions it has lately wrung from the government and the capitalistic owners and directors of the national industry, may be a token of what will happen in France, Italy, and doubtless Germany as well, when once a condition of relative stability is restored by the signing of the peace treaty. Still, the forces of reaction are alert, now as after every great war, to claim their pound of flesh; and the much-anticipated peace may only portend a fresh triumph for the old imperialism, commercialism, and colonialism which it was fondly hoped the war had forever destroyed. The least we can prognosticate is that the forces on both sides—the forces of progress and those of reaction—stand forth fully unmasked, and that between them a death-struggle is on. What may come to us here in the United States lies as yet in the lap of the gods. Evidently, however, American labor, notwithstanding its sporadic unrest, is still a full decade behind European labor in its development of a clear class-consciousness and of the Socialism or Syndicalism which seem to follow such a development as the night the day.
One thing seems assured—that mighty changes are impending, the full extent of which we are unable to forecast. What is to be the place and part of Unitarianism in this coming epoch of social change? Is there any more urgent or more fateful question before us than this? If so, one does not know what it can be. Are we to continue to tie ourselves, without a qualm of conscience, to the existing capitalistic order of society? Are we to remain satisfied with the reiteration of a gospel of theological liberalism, which a full century of Unitarian preaching and tract-distribution in America has shown can reach only a small and select class of materially favored and sheltered people? Are we to stay forever in this calm little eddy or backwater of American life, to which our moral timidity and social conservatism have thus far confined us, and let some new, radical, un-sectarian movement—Mr. Holmes's Community Church, for example—carry out our principles in their logical application to the whole wide life of humanity, and go frankly to the vast body of the people with a gospel of unstinted democracy, more equal opportunity, and economic justice that they are straining their ears, and largely in vain, to hear from the pulpit as well as from the platform and the press? This is a question to search each one of us here to the very marrow. What is your practice in this respect, and what is mine? More significant still, what is it to be? It is my deep conviction that our people will listen to us on every vexed topic of the hour if we show ourselves competent, informed, undogmatic, as fair to the possessing as to the disinherited classes, and striving to find out of the threatening chaos and dissolution a middle way of reasonable and peaceable reform. If they will not, if this freedom is not now ours, then we must win it, as our fathers won theirs. Otherwise, if we simply stay where we are, turning deaf ears to the urgent call of opportunity, the further purport of Unitarianism, its prophetic leadership in the unpredictable epoch of social change that is opening before us, will be negligible.
But I must make an end. It has been my single-minded endeavor here to state a problem, not to solve one. Our problem I have conceived in the form of a dilemma. All down the slowly-awakening eighteenth and fruitful nineteenth centuries, when the battle was on for freedom and progress in the intellectual and theological realm, the Unitarian leaders were at the head of the line, in the front trenches, holding the points of exposure and danger, leading the van, with the larger hosts of liberal orthodoxy coming up more slowly from behind. To-day, that battle is won, but another and a more resolute is on. It is the battle of a world democracy, of economic freedom and opportunity for all, and of the utmost possible social equality. Where are we to stand in that? Either we must go forward, forward to where Channing, Emerson, Parker, and Holmes are beckoning us on, or we shall go back, and our glory will be departed. I may not have read the signs of the times among us aright; if not, I am most willing to stand corrected. But, thus far, I do not see us going forward, led by our chosen prophets, to possess the promised land. I see us willing to make friends of the mammon of unrighteousness, clinging to the privileges and prerogatives that have come to be ours by inheritance and favor, and camped within our tents while the field of desperate strife is seeing blows given and received, wounds and death dealt to the heroically faithful, and sacrifice for humanity and democracy become once more the stern demand of a living religion. Either we shall rise to answer that demand or we shall not. If we do, and there is no time to be lost, we may regain our place of leadership and persuade the leader who has forsaken us that he belongs among us still, and not outside. If we do not, there will stand written over the tombstone of another dead denomination—dead in its conspicuous sins of omission, dead in its self-indulgent coddling of the past—the awful words of the Lord of today and tomorrow, as well as of yesterday —"Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin!” (Thou art weighed in the balances and art found wanting!)
As we began with Channing, with Channing let us close. In the outspoken preface to his memorable volume of sermons, published in the year 1830, he gave great offence among the orthodox by his unsparing exposure of that "system of denunciation and exclusion in religion” to which he also devoted one of his most effective tracts. It is only needful for us to translate his language out of the theological reference which was chiefly appropriate in that distant day into the economic reference that has become alone significant for us now to see in it a clarion call to a new advance. He writes:—
It was my lot to enter on public life at a time when this part of the country was
visited by what I esteem one of its sorest scourges; I mean by a revival of the
spirit of intolerance and persecution. I saw the commencement of those systematic
efforts, which have since been developed, for fastening on the community a
particular creed. Opinions, which I thought true and purifying, were not only
assailed as errors but branded as crimes. Then began what seems to me one of the
gross immoralities of our times, the practice of aspersing the characters of
exemplary men, on the ground of differences of opinion as to the most mysterious
articles of faith. Then began those assaults on freedom of thought and speech
which, had they succeeded, would have left us only the name of religious liberty.
Then it grew perilous to search the Scriptures for ourselves, and to speak freely
the convictions of our own minds. I saw that penalties, as serious in this country
as fine and imprisonment, were, if possible, to be attached to the profession of
liberal views of Christianity, the penalties of general hatred and scorn; and that a
degrading uniformity of opinion was to be imposed by the severest persecution
which the spirit of the age would allow. At such a period, I dared not be silent. To
oppose what I deemed error was to me a secondary consideration. My first duty,
as I believed, was to maintain practically and resolutely the rights of the human
mind; to live and to suffer, if to suffer were necessary, for that intellectual and
religious liberty which I prize incomparably more than my civil rights. I felt
myself called, not merely to plead in general for freedom of thought and speech,
but, what was more important and trying, to assert this freedom by action. I
should have felt myself disloyal to truth and freedom had I confined myself to
vague commonplaces about our rights, and forborne to bear my testimony
expressly and specially to proscribed and persecuted opinions. The times required
that a voice of strength and courage should be lifted up, and I rejoice that I was
among those by whom it was uttered and sent far and wide. The timid, sensitive,
diffident, and doubting needed this voice; and without it would have been
overborne by the clamor of intolerance. If in any respect I have rendered a service
to humanity and religion which may deserve to be remembered when I am taken
away, it is this. I believe that had not the spirit of religious tyranny been met, as it
was, in this region, by unyielding opposition, it would have fastened an iron yoke
on the necks of this people. The cause of religious freedom owes its strength to
nothing so much as to the constancy and resolution of its friends in this quarter.
Here its chief battle has been fought, and not fought in vain.
Such was our great leader of an earlier day—"always young for liberty”! Are we his worthy followers? It remains to be seen. I, for one, am herewith resolved to risk, if necessary, the studious ease and pleasant harmony of my present situation in our ministry, and in this great day of battle to make the world safe for democracy, to raise my voice with no uncertain sound! In saying this, I have no wish to appear more radical than I actually am. In fact, like most of you, I am a progressive conservative. In what concerns social change, above all, I feel it is our only wisdom to make haste slowly. In matters economic no less than theological I should wish my device to be Channing’s text at Baltimore a century ago: "Prove all things; hold fast to that which is good.” My plea is simply for a frank and fearless handling in our pulpits, in their due proportion, of questions that cannot longer be ignored, with safety to the movement whose immediate future rests in our hands. I prescribe no method, not even that of our prophets of an earlier day who have been so largely quoted. If you can permit one final quotation, in an address that purposely has been to a great extent built upon the contributions of other minds among us than my own, let it be the closing paragraph of a notably courageous, fair, and sensible discussion of "The Problem of Bolshevism” by Professor Robert J. Hutcheon, printed in the April, 1919, Quarterly Bulletin of the Meadville Theological School. I gladly make his plea my own:—
I would plead, therefore, for a sincere, sympathetic, open-minded consideration, on the part of all, of the industrial and social situation of our time. The reactionary and the wild agitator can ruin us between them. Our future depends on the justice, intelligence, patience, and social-mindedness of the vast body of the people who stand between these two extremes. It is for them to interest themselves in all the concrete problems of social justice and labor, for a progressive solution of them that shall maintain the social order while reforming and improving it—in other words, that we shall keep a roof over our heads while our house is being swept and cleaned.
[i] The quotations made above from "William Ellery Channing: Minister of Religion,” by John White Chadwick, and from The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Centenary Edition, are used by permission of, and by special arrangement with, the owners of the copyrights, The Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, Mass.