The History and Present Duty of the Unitarian Church in America

Edward Everett Hale

Berry Street Lecture, 1892


An Address Delivered Before the Berry Street Conference,

Boston, Massachusetts, May 25, 1892



I have been asked to speak to the brethren on the history of the Unitarian Church in America and on its present duty.


I hope that my friends know me well enough to know that I would not have accepted one part of this request without the other.


For it is one of the absurd habits of our little company, particularly in this Anniversary Week, to coo cheerfully in congratulation, looking back on what we have attained, as if we were already perfect.  We talk of achievements of our church, which nobody else remembers, and arrogate for ourselves positions which to anybody else would seem simply ridiculous.  Not to speak of this self-conceit, excepting to laugh at it. I will state in general as a good working rule, that it is always better to look forward and not back.  That is to say, if we look back it is simply as today, that we may look forward with more certainty.


Your committee wrote me the following pleasant note, bearing in mind that I have just now been passing what is said to be Moses’ standard of the period of an average life, namely, three score years and ten.


"It may assist you somewhat in shaping your concio ad clerum if I tell you what was in our minds in asking you.


You represent to us, and still more to younger men, the traditions of the best days of Boston Unitarianism.  You have been here where you have seen all and have done much to make Boston the illustrious centre of our faith.  We want you to tell us whence we have come, what we are here fore, and whither we are going.  We want no especial subject so much as we want you, - that which ahs been and is the central inspiration, - why you have been willing to serve a small denomination so zealously, and be a plain parson when you might be a bishop.  It seemed to us that you must have a rich fund of experience out of which might flow one of the most inspiring of scriptures.”


Looking back in that spirit and for that purpose, we see clearly enough a curious difference between our attitude now and what it was then.  The Unitarian movement then meant a Massachusetts affair.  We now begin at least to talk of the Unitarian Church of America.  I can just remember the change in the constitution of Massachusetts by which the salaries of our ministers here began to be paid by those who wanted to pay them instead of being paid to them in part or wholly by the towns, as schoolmasters are paid now.  This change alone made for our community here a greater revolution than people at the time thought it would, or than is generally remembered now.  Again, we were fifty years ago hardly out from our controversy with orthodoxy and most of our preachers laid much more stress on the importance of that business than anybody would now.  Once more, we were then only beginning to recognize the truth which everybody feels now, that whatever any other church is, our church is simply and entirely the church of the Present Holy Spirit.  In comparison with other churches therefore, we take much less interest than they in ritual, in organization and in dogma.  These distinctions alone make the Unitarian Church of America today a very different reality from what the Unitarian Churches of Massachusetts and the neighborhood were in 1842.  In those days, no one used such a phrase as "The Unitarian Church of America.”  We owe the phrase to [Sylvester] Judd-whose little book on "the Church,” published in 1854, is well unto study now.  I doubt if the phrase "Unitarian Church of America” could have been uttered in a Berry Street Conference in 1840 without a storm of indignant criticism which would have consumed the day.


Dr. Palfrey, the dean of the Divinity School, was one of the strict disciplinarians, a good organizer, and, for instance, on of the founders of the A. U. A., of which he was afterwards president.  Talking familiarly with me one day, he said of Massachusetts history, in the period between 1810 and 1830, "We governed Boston and we governed Massachusetts, and they let us do it, because we did it so well.” We do not govern Boston or Massachusetts in the same sense now, and as your committee have indicated, it is worthwhile we should know why.  At the same time we ought to know how to govern Boston and Massachusetts, not to say the country, and or ought to know why we do not.  For virtually the same questions which that anecdote suggests, are suggested by another.  It is now about twenty years since I met by appointment the editor of one of the leading Orthodox papers of America.  I was at that time, I think, writing their weekly article in "Personal Religion” because they liked our views better than their own.  When we were alone, he said, "I want to ask you what is the matter with your Unitarian movement: [why it does] would call especially popular in the line of what you would call the general drift of the century and not opposed to it.


I said to him that it was because the aristocracy of Massachusetts had tried to preach the gospel to the people of America, but for the lack of a miracle of Pentecost they could not speak the language.


I say again that the two questions are virtually one.  How did the Unitarians of Massachusetts, having the visible and conceded leadership of Massachusetts, manage to lose it?  And second, why is it that the Unitarians of America, standing on a platform which every body admits sound and working for a set of principles which every body admits popular, are hardly known in the country at large as an effective force in its affairs?


The basis of the Puritan church is the practice of private judgment in matters of religion by all the people.  On the other hand, the habit of a professional clergy always comes out in a wish to substitute their own private judgment for that of their congregation. A Puritan Church, largely and in good faith managed by its laity, therefore is comparatively indifferent to symbols or creeds, while the Presbyterian church or the Episcopal Church, or the Roman Catholic Church, or any church which is carried on chiefly by its clergy, will be attaching great importance to its symbols and its formulas. So fast and so far as our educated clergy get the upper hand in political or in ecclesiastical affairs, the rights or privilege of private judgment will be understated.  So fast and so far, on the other hand, as the church is on a real Puritan basis every man among the laity, having his own confession, it will be impossible for anybody to attach much importance to any of the consecrated symbols.


Remember that the old New England states, and they only of the forty-four, were founded by the Independent part of the English Puritans.  Remembering this, you have the key to the history of the birth of the Unitarian movement in Massachusetts.  You have at the same time the explanation of the separation of our religion, and New England religion generally, from that of the rest of the country.  That is to say, the first twelve Puritan churches when they met in conference at Cambridge, as early as 1645, could not even then make a confession of faith obligatory on each and all.  Each one of those hard-headed men who had crossed the ocean to be rid of a bishop was unwilling to make a little bishop out of his minister or a little [star]-chamber out of any assembly of ministers.  So ti is that these churches in their formation only covenanted to "work together in the faith of the gospel,” but did not dare state in brief what that faith was.  True, they trusted and hoped that their churches would substantially agree in doctrine. They got so far that, in 1648, in their second and last synod, the synod approved the doctrine of the Westminster Confession.  But they never brought the separate churches to do this, nor the General Court. They rested on a conviction that the Holy Spirit would compel them to agree.  In 1646, sixteen years after the beginning, the General Court, in an address to their friends in England, where charge had been made of the indifference of our churches to vital doctrine, acknowledges that each church has its own covenant and is able to use no stronger phrase as to unity than the [unworkable] words "In substance - for aught we know – they all agree.”  "For aught we know.”  The General Court, made up of laymen – as […] as that meant to […] – that it has no […] engine.


Even when the original emigrants […] – Cotton Mather, - who would have gladly seen some uniform formula, - in a letter to Lord [Burnington] of the date of 1718 [says], "…No church upon the earth at this day so notably makes the terms of communion run parallel with the tremors of salvation, as they are made among this people.  The only declared basis for union among them is that sold, vital, substantial piety, wherein all good men of different forms are united.  And Calivinists with Lutherans, Presbyterians with Episcopalians, Pedo-Baptists with Anabaptists, beholding one another to fear God and work righteousness, do with delight sit down together at the same table of the Lord; nor do they hurt one another in the Holy mountain.”


Cotton Mather would have been glad enough to write down a hard and fast statement and impose it on all the churches.  But he knew he could not do it more than he could move a mountain into the sea.  When, about 1745 Whitfield, whit his stiff Calvinism, came up here again and again, he was horror-stricken to find that not one of these churches was pledged to any doctrinal system which he considered evangelical.  He found enough hard-and-fast preachers who lamented such laxity and as much as he did.  Probably in all cases where such preachers had the whip hand of the congregations, they succeeded in establishing a Calvinistic creed.  But this was because, in the gradual decline Dorchester, and many other of the churches formed in the first century, when Puritanism still fought for the right of private judgment, and regarded it as more important than any correctness of doctrinal statement.


When [you] find that the Third church in Boston [and] the First in Charleston are orthodox churches, any […] is able to account for the difference [in] the pastoral opinion of the preacher – and his authority [on] his laymen as [far] back as 1750 – For no church, I think, which got tangled up in a Whitfield Creed then […] became

 Unitarian eighty years after.


I hope my younger friends have not thought this historical excursus too long.  I assure them that the root of the matter is here.  It makes no difference whether the church is a Unitarian church or an Orthodox church.  If it [is] on the Puritan basis, and the layman has a real share in its affairs, sooner or later it works out free.  This is the reason for the Andover revolt of today.  And my friends who point out, wisely enough, that the new Andover Theology is as limited as the old, seem to me not to apprehend the value of the spirit of freedom which is shown when Andover kicks in the traces, and refuses its creed.  I know very well that a Congregational church can be made over into a Presbyterian church.  This was done early in Connecticut, and it is the reason why Connecticut is Orthodox today.  But it was never done in Massachusetts, and that is the reason why Massachusetts was Unitarian, and is substantially Unitarian now.


Here is my reason for saying always that the real tyrant who holds in bondage four-fifths of the states of America, is the Presbyterian church in its organization.  If we can show the people at large that religion is something wholly different from ecclesiastical organization, we shall fulfill the mission that is given to us for the nation.  We never had that to do in Massachusetts.  It had been done for us unconsciously by Cotton and Winthrop and the fathers of our churches.  But the Dutch Reformed Church, the Episcopal church, the Presbyterian Church, and to a certain extent the Methodist church, are organized and carried on by their preachers, by a priesthood.  This priesthood was different from the people, was not in touch with the people, and did not want to be in touch with the people.  It meant to tell the people what their religion was, and in four states out of five of the American union, it does that office for the people today.  When our friend John Brooks founded an institute for young men by the Providence railroad crossing in Roxbury, he went in a cordial and liberal spirit to the Catholic priest, to explain to him that he had no quarrel with the Church of Rome.


            "All I want,” said Brooks, "is to teach these young men to think for themselves.”

            "And that is precisely what I do not want,” said the other.  "I propose to do their thinking for them.”


            We shudder at this, but that is precisely the duty which the clergy of the organized churches in all communions but ours and that of the Congregational Orthodox church, are attempting all the time, and in which, for two centuries, they have succeeded.


            I have substantially answered the first of my two questions.  For our fathers, the leaders of the Unitarian movement in Massachusetts, were, by one and another accident of position, an aristocracy in Massachusetts.  Saying in the pulpit the most radical things about the dignity of human nature, too many of them believed, as one of them once said to me, that the Unitarian gospel would go nowhere where people did not have silver forks and napkins with their dinner.  You see this in the mere elegance of the type of their tracts; you saw it in their silk gowns in the pulpit; in the black morocco cases to their sermons; you heard it in their coquetry with the Episcopal church, in their eagerness to have decorous forms of service, as they toyed with this and that fragment of a liturgy.  More than one political tie threw them into line with the Federalists; many of them had the daintiness of Federalists, and their distrust of the rank and file.  For instance, they did not know that there was such a communion as the Free-Will Baptists close at their side, practically saying what they were saying, and wanting to do what they were doing.  The did not see, and they did not care, that the great Methodist communion was Arminian through and through; it was their natural ally; it had got hold of the people by means which they were too dainty to use.  After the Methodist church had formed itself as one of the most important communions in America, it was still long before our decorous preachers could understand that in the Methodist church there is quite as good scholarship as in ours, and that, in the wide range of their clergy there are men quite as much interested in literature as are we.  It is perfectly true that Harvard College led the advance in the brave and delicate criticism of the Greek texts.  It is perfectly true that Harvard College, in the outset, led the advance, I may say again, in the creation of our early literature.  But long after other colleges and the students in their theological schools were close at the side of our men, you could hear rigmarole talked at our annual meeting about our leadership in literature, in criticism, and in science, which fortunately never went outside our walls, or it would have made us simply ridiculous.  I remember hearing our dear friend Dr. Bellows say once that we were "the hymn-writers of all Christendom.”  I went across to the nearest Presbyterian church in New York and took their new hymn-book, to find that out of six hundred hymns there were only nine which could be spoken of as having Unitarian authors.  We had, and to a certain extent we still have, this preposterous glamour surrounding us that, because our grandfathers, as I said, were the aristocratic leaders of Massachusetts, we, their grandchildren, are the democratic leaders of America.  I am glad to think that the audience which I address sees the folly of this ostrich-like delusion.  Every gentleman who comes into this body from the ranks of the Methodists, of the Episcopalians, of the Presbyterian church, of the Baptists, or of the Catholic church, does us more good than he is aware of, by rudely shattering this fetish or idol before which the Unitarian born is so apt to do homage.  If I am to state in a few words for the gentlemen before me of another generation, what I believe to be their duty, if they mean to take and keep the lead of the United States, it will be in urging them to abandon forever such worship of the past, and to give themselves frankly to the life of the present.  Keep in touch with the rank and file.  Go out into the highways and the byways.  Do not distress yourselves about those men who have been asked to […] dinner of freedom now for eighteen hundred years and have refused the invitation.  Let the Presbyterian church go inspect its oxen, let the Methodist church go marry a wife, let the Episcopalian church go measure a farm, but do you go out into the highways and the byways and beg men to come in.  First, second, and last, your business is religion – that men may know God, and may work in His service.  It is very simple religion.  The whole of it is summed up in three words; faith, hope, and love.  And one man deserves this religion as well as another.  He has as much right to it as another.  That is what you are saying all the time as you write your sermons; see that you act on what you say in your ministry and in every form of your address.


            I hope what I say does not seem inconsistent.  The tyrant who has his thumb on the throat of real religion is the creed-bound church.  But our business is not so much to attack the form of organization as it is to quicken the life of the men and women who have been bowed down, neglected and despised and rouse them to the freedom of the sons and daughters of the living God.  And, so far as we were ever misled by any daintiness into thinking that this people that knoweth not the law is cursed for its ignorance, we are to repent in sackcloth and ashes, and to devote ourselves to working out the gospel which we always pretended we believed.  To go back to the convenient metaphor with which I started:


            We have been for […] years using our […] against the truth part of America which is organized in garrisons.  I […] that the garrisons may be left […] to […].  They seem in many instances to be firing dynamite under their own casements.  Our business is rather with the […] truths of America which is outside the garrisons – to quicken them with the […] of pure and […] religion.  We are not so much to hammer theology into the clergy as we are to inspire the rank and file with religion.


            I can illustrate what I mean when I speak of neglect of opportunity by this story.  And intelligent man—who had broken loose from the Roman Catholic church—said to me "Massachusetts is full of discontented Catholics.”  I said I know that.  "Why does not the Unitarian church go for them?”  I said "I do not know.”  I suppose in fact that in [four or five] hundred of our tracts you would not find twenty allusions to the Church of Rome.  I do not [believe] you would find three tracts which show any conscious […] that since the American Unitarian Association was founded, […] million children of the Roman Church have come or been born into America.


            I do not […] you would find [ten] tracts which referred to intemperance or moral purity.


            I do not believe you would find [five] which had any reference to the moral questions involved in gambling.


            I do not think you would find one which refers to the social change produced by the manufacturing system: […] that as late as 1807 -  [Fulton invented] the steamboat and as late as 1831- the Railroad has […] with the locomotive.  I am not sure that for the […] between 1830 and 1840 you could make […] existed or that it was considered.  I do not remember an allusion to the moral questions involved in the co-operation of workmen – in the systems of trade, [unions] or of nationalism.  I [doubt] if there are […] of the Spiritualist movement in America – and so I might go on.  I should find in the five hundred three hundred and ninety admirable [assaults] on the Trinity and the [Five] Points of [Calvin].


            A few words now as to what is possible in the present and in the future.


            Beginning with the novelty even of rapture, of a free and genuine criticism of the New Testament, the young preachers of that generation, Cazneau Palfrey, Henry Bellows, Freeman Clarke, really thought that mankind was going to enter the kingdom of heaven by force of a true rendering of the four gospels.  Then came the higher rapture of the transcendental philosophy, as men began to feel that the Holy Spirit would lead them into all truth without ancient manuscript or without tablets of stone.  There was an era of ten or twenty years when men really thought that the simple and unadorned truth of the original gospel was going to overthrow every form of book-made folly, that seven smooth stones from the book were enough for the overthrow of all the giants of the medieval theology.  It has taken us more than a generation to find out  that we had much more to do than to displace falsehood.  The real enemies of pure religion in this country are the great ecclesiastical organizations.  We have steadily attacked their theology, but against their organization we have never directed any systemic attack.  I should say this was wise.  To a […] observer, they hold their way serenely and think perhaps that their progress is wholly unaffected by the buzzing of our flies around the chariot as it moves stately on.


To the day of his death, our wonderful friend, Dr. Bellows, went and came with the notion that within a year or two, we should see the whole honeycombed temple of old Orthodoxy tumble over.  He knew that the foundation was gone on which it was built, and he let that metaphor sweep him away.  Not long before his death, he met Dr. McCosh of Princeton at dinner.  I can easily recognize the courtesy of his manner in approaching Dr. McCosh on the curious question how much he supposed modern thought, the higher criticism, the materialistic drift of the age, affected the organization of the Presbyterian church.  To his real amazement, Dr. McCosh told him that these agencies did not affect the organization of the Presbyterian Church at all.  Indeed, Dr. McCosh did not seem to know that there were any such agencies, certainly did not know that they had anything to do with the foundation of churches.  It was just as if I should ask Mr. Reynolds some day if he were not afraid that the passage of bicycles on Bowdoin St. or the grinding of street organs would soon shake down the solid walls of the Unitarian building.


It has taken us more than a generation to awaken from the dream of the fathers, who supposed that at the bold summons of our confident and light-hearted freelancers, those stately fortresses were going to surrender which hold the organized forces of the evangelical churches.  Indeed, we are only beginning now to find out that an ecclesiastical organization may hold its own, long after it has become indifferent to the truth which it was founded to establish.  Thus, the Presbyterian Church, the admirably continued working body set in order by John Calvin and John Knox, was in their mind an army well contrived for the overthrow of the Pope of Rome, and to promote the right of private judgment.  But the Presbyterian Church of today is wholly indifferent to the right of private judgment, accepts as a foregone conclusion the present sway of the Pope of Rome and exists simply—to keep the Presbyterian Church in existence.


So completely has that church lost eight of the objects for which churches are founded that in the vestry of my own church, I have heard a doctor of divinity express the same surprise when I explained to him the apparatus of the Charity bureau, as he would have felt if he had found a chemical laboratory there.  Within two years, I counted ninety subjects of sermons in one [number] of the […] Review, any one of which would have been as appropriate in the fifth century as in the nineteenth.  One suggestion that Hospital Sunday would be a good thing to preach about was the only intimation that church or pulpit have anything to do with the relief of human suffering.  That journal has now added a department on social science, but I believe this addition is due to my criticism on what was then a fairly typical number.


Yet we hear it constantly said that Orthodoxy is dead or that Calvinism is dead, or that Evangelicalism is dead.  This is probably true, in large measure, with the laity.  The truth seems to be that if, a hundred years ago, fifty years ago, twenty or ten, you talked to American laymen, you found that nine tenths of them were always Unitarian and never had been anything else.  The average layman of America has no theology which would be accepted in any of the schools and his religion is very simple.  He believes there is a Power above him and around him, he knows he shall live forever, he has read and he remembers a great deal of the best in the Bible, and according as his gives his conscience more sway or less, he tries to put in practice the excellent working rules for life which he has found there.  For the rest, he is willing to take for granted that there is a science of theology, but he leaves that to the experts.  He is exactly as I, who should not know a nerve from a tendon if I saw them, send for a surgeon when I am lame.  Or it is as a man who does not know what the words […] or habeas corpus mean, entrusts much of his prosperity and success to a lawyer who does know.  We, in our innocence, are surprised that the intelligent laymen of America, while they have as simple a religion as this, are willing to have their churches managed and led by a little company of priests, who say they believe in the five points of Calvin, in the verbal inspiration of the Bible, and other things which their congregations may not believe at all.  But this is because we are in New England unused to that entire separation between priest and people just like the distinction between surgeon and patient, which belongs to all ecclesiastical orders except our own.  I was sitting not long since at the dinner table of a Presbyterian elder.  "Pray do not think,” he said, "that I believe the Westminster Catechism.”  I said of course I supposed he did, for I knew he was an officer in the church.  "No!” said he, "That is my minister’s affair.  I told him publicly that I did not believe these things.  I told him that must be distinctly and squarely understood.  He said they wanted my business abilities as an elder.  I told him they could have it on those terms, but on those only.”  We shudder at this, but I do not myself see that it is a particle worse than the position of the Episcopal church, which would gladly receive me to its communion as a layman while it would never let me star in its pulpit as a priest.  It has a creed for its clergy, and another for its laity.  This is the position of all the evangelical churches in fact, as it was always the acknowledged position of the church at Rome.


Here, then, the two branches of my subject come together.  I think we have outgrown that notion of fifty years ago that the walls of the Orthodox Jericho were going to fall down merely at the blast of our trumpets, however well they were blown, or however true were their message.  Toa  certain extent we have found out that men are better off when they do not live in fortresses, when they go and come as the light hearted free lances do, today high up on the clear mountain and tomorrow in the lush herbage of the valley.  Our business is what it always was, if we had known it, not so much to break up the theology of the priests-that may be left to its own rust and dust-but rather to encourage and give life to the religion of the people.  Our business is, as it always was, to keep in touch with them.  We say they are kings and priests.  We say they are God’s children.  We outhg to show them that we know what we are talking about and that we believe what we say.


The […] theology of the country expresses itself in its political constitutions.


First.  Men are born upright having never fallen.  This is the statement of universal suffrage.


Second.  Every man may do what he things right—if he does not interfere with his neighbor.  We are all kings and priests.


Third.  Each man may rise to the highest dignity and office—and the schools shall be so [arranged] that he can.  Universal education—of the very best for all.  This is the end of all […].


It is no bad basis of a theology.  Let us-in our […] and in our word-quicken it with the present life of the present God-encourage men with the […] of immortals living in a present heaven-as in show them their duty to their brothers and their sisters-and we shall build on the practical theology-an […] religion.