"The Meaning and Lessons of Unitarian History”[1]

Earl Morse Wilbur, Starr King School of the Ministry, Oakland, CA

Berry Street Essay, 1920


Read before the Ministerial Conference

May, 1920


I should like to discuss before you, on the basis of our history, and with certain illustrations from it, the outstanding elements or principles which, I think, have given Unitarianism its significance in religious history, and must still largely direct it to-day, unless indeed we are to assume for it a future development which shall make a violent break with its past. Let me at once say, then, that the keyword to our whole history, as I interpret it, is the word complete spiritual freedom. It is toward this that from the beginning until now our leaders have consciously or unconsciously struggled; and it is this that I take it we of to-day most earnestly wish to preserve unimpaired, and to hand on confirmed to those that shall come after us. The achievement of this complete spiritual freedom has been accomplished in our history in three distinct stages. First came the revolt against the bondage to the traditional dogmas as expressed in the historic Creeds, and the substitution of new statements of Christian faith drawn directly from the Scriptures. Next in logical development the realization of a conflict, actual or possible, between Scripture and reason led to the recognition of the fact that, if the soul were to be wholly free, reason must be accepted as the supreme authority. Nearly co-incident with this second step historically, though subsequent to it logically, came the further recognition of the equal authority of other men's reason, for them, which, when put into practical effect, issued in the principle of full mutual tolerance of differing opinions.

Freedom, reason, tolerance—when the full import of these three steps is duly appreciated, it must be seen that they leave the soul of man face to face with God, that all intermediate helps or hindrances which external authority or past tradition have devised may be set aside; that scholastic theology, biblical theology, and natural theology are all outgrown as sources of man's knowledge of God; that in the spiritual life we are entitled with proper safeguards to trust our own religious intuitions of truth and to follow our own religious instincts. In other words, complete spiritual freedom opens the way for that free and independent type of religious experience which, in the best sense of an abused word, may be called Mysticism.

Further than this it would seem in the nature of the case impossible to go. Yet, unless the spiritual life and the religious experience of man are to end as mere individual matters, unless religion is to be conceived as solely a relation between the soul and God, and is to end in a life of sublimated selfishness, one further step must follow in order to justify the cost of spiritual freedom at all. The free vision of God must be applied to the guidance of life and the needs of men. These are the stages, and this is the lesson of the course of Unitarian history as I seem to grasp its essential meaning. Let me now proceed to speak of these step by step, and a little more in detail.

The Protestant Reformation in its early stages sought to emancipate the human spirit in its religious relations by asserting the freedom of the individual from bondage to the authority of the Papal hierarchy; and it asserted the right of private judgment in the interpretation of the Christian doctrine taught in the Scriptures. Nevertheless, though emancipated in theory, Protestantism still remained for the most part in voluntary bondage to Catholic tradition as expressed in the accepted Creeds. After some initial misgivings as to the proper authority of these, the leading Reformers kept to the familiar path. "Safety first” seems to have been their guiding principle; and it has always been safe to remain orthodox, and perilous, or at least inconvenient, to be heretical.

"We do not differ from the Roman Church on any point of doctrine,” declared Melanchthon at Augsburg. Obligation was confessed both to the Creeds and to Scripture on the assumption that the Creeds were simply a systematic expression of scriptural teaching.

It is at this point, where the first promise of the Reformation began to be more or less aborted, that the Unitarian movement begins. The Nicene and Athanasian Creeds blocked the way to reform of doctrine with their menacing sign, "Thus far, but no further.” Enter now, with their protests, on the one hand the Anabaptists and on the other that great pioneer of spiritual freedom, Servetus. In the boldest way and without apology Servetus flatly attacked the Athanasian doctrine of the Trinity. It was not that he objected to the notion of a divine Trinity per se or even to the word, though he disliked that as unscriptural; but if the doctrine were to be held it ought to be in the form in which the Bible taught it.

Servetus was only the first, indeed, of a long succession of those whose reverence for tradition made them wish to keep a scriptural doctrine of the Trinity, as they called it, while rejecting the only form of the doctrine which the Church has ever authorized. The current form of the doctrine he found not only unscriptural but confusing to the mind and chilling to the heart, self-contradictory and an obstacle to piety. The particular arguments of Servetus are to-day as obsolete as is (at all events among Protestants) the scholastic form of the doctrine of the Trinity which he opposed; but his principle remains our inheritance, for he was simply trying to clear out of the way what he deemed an insuperable obstacle to the free and reverent approach of the spirit of man to the Father in heaven and to His divine Son, Christ.

Servetus was no Unitarian in the proper sense of the term and he would have been utterly scandalized could he have foreseen the way in which we were to state our doctrine to-day; but all over Europe he started many minds in the direction of Unitarianism by the bold example he set of calling in question the truth and authority of Creeds which had for a thousand years been employed to confine the free action of the human spirit in its thought of God. Undeterred by his tragic fate many other courageous thinkers followed his lead, read, copied and circulated his writings and quietly or sometimes openly spread his thought. He left no developed system of theology as did Melanchthon, Calvin or Socinus; he founded no school of thought, and had hardly a professed disciple; yet for far more than a century we find scarcely an important thinker among the liberals of Europe who does not show distinct traces of his fertilizing influence; while of those first pioneers who preceded organized effort in our movement, there is not one who was not profoundly influenced by him.

What Servetus tried to do by the appeal to Scripture and reason together the early Anabaptists, who are also our historical and spiritual ancestors, accomplished by the direct way of Mysticism when they made both their denials and their affirmations on the authority of what they deemed the inward witness of the Holy Spirit as interpreter of the Scripture to which they, too, professed to appeal as the final word of God. And it is noteworthy not only that some of the most outstanding leaders among the Anabaptists of the first generation of the Reformation were anti-trinitarian, and also anticipated with surprising clearness other doctrines which we claim as our own, but also that it was out of Anabaptist elements in Poland that the first Unitarian churches there were for the most part organized; that Anabaptists assisted in preparing the way for Unitarianism in Transylvania.; that it was their successors, the Mennonites in Holland, who gave our Polish brethren in exile there their most friendly reception; and that Anabaptists were among the earliest and most influential of the pioneers of our movement here in England. Wherever we meet them we find them already emancipated from the Creeds of men's invention, and seeking inner light upon the word of God.

Now all that Servetus in the one way and the Anabaptists in the other had done was of course no more than to take but the first step toward complete spiritual freedom, making their escape from the strict bondage of the Creeds only to a far more elastic bondage to the Bible. Indeed the Bible is itself so emancipating a book, the free expression of spirits singularly free from the traditions of men, that this step long sufficed and was even regarded by those who had taken it as thene plus ultra. Thus Socinus, the first to organize the free theology into a coherent and well developed system, although the followers who were called after his name have often been blamed or praised for grounding the Socinian theology in reason, is in the first edition of the Racovian Catechism, which he drafted but did not live to finish, scrupulously and rigorously biblical in the support he adduces for his positions, and only on the rarest occasions does he object to the traditional theology on mere grounds of reason.

His contemporary, Francis David, was a far bolder spirit, and one who never stopped to count the cost of taking the next step; and he is, of all our spiritual ancestors of the sixteenth or even of the seventeenth century, perhaps the nearest in doctrine and in spirit to modem Unitarianism. Yet even he did not throw off the mild yoke of scriptural authority. In his dispute with Socinus on the rightfulness of offering worship to Christ, which for him ended so tragically, David based his arguments as strictly as did Socinus himself on the "impregnable rock of Holy Scripture,” and when Unitarians of Transylvania who came after him ran into some of their wildest vagaries they did it in pursuance of a yet stricter and more consistent scripturalism than he had himself used.

For a full century after our movement began the Apostles’ Creed was still accepted by the Antitrinitarians, and was persistently set by them in contrast to the other Creeds which they rejected, precisely on the ground that it was scriptural while those were not.

It was thus long before this first step in our journey toward complete spiritual freedom, the step of emancipation from the rigorous authority of the Creeds, was followed by the next logical step, that, of emancipation from the far less oppressive authority of the word of Scripture. Indeed it is only within the memory of some of ourselves that we have seen the next step fully, freely and joyfully taken and that we have reached a point where no spokesman for us, I think, any longer appeals to Scripture as final authority for our faith, but where it is cited, if at all, it is so only as a classical illustration of our faith. Yet long before it was clearly perceived and without misgiving avowed that both the right of private judgment in interpreting Scripture and the claim of the guidance of the Holy Spirit in interpreting it really implied the subordination of scripture authority to the authority of reason in the soul of man, another long step had been taken, which logically should have followed and not preceded. This was the step toward freedom through mutual tolerance.

Both the Socinians of Poland and the Unitarians of Transylvania clearly perceived almost at the beginning of their history that their own claim to exemption from obedience to the authority of the Creeds of the past logically and morally involved a similar freedom from the pressure of any other man's opinion in the present. In other words, full personal spiritual freedom of necessity implies full mutual tolerance.

As early as 1567 our brethren in Poland resolved that each should follow his own conscience in cases where there was difference of view as to practice, and that in matters of faith they should claim no authority over one another, leaving it to God in His own time to separate the tares from the wheat. This resolution, it is true, had reference only to internal differences which threatened to disrupt the infant Church; but not long afterwards our brethren made overtures to other Protestant Churches of the Kingdom for fellowship in Christian effort on this same basis of mutually-recognized freedom as to faith.

It was the persistent refusal of the other bodies to join in presenting one united front of all Protestantism in Poland that made possible the ultimate crushing success of the Roman Catholic reaction in that country. Even our Socinian forefathers in Poland, however, could not bring themselves to give their principle of tolerance unrestricted application; for when a few free spirits moved more rapidly than the rest and proclaimed views as to the person of Christ which anticipated the full humanitarianism of our thought, they were without hesitation excommunicated from the Church as being no longer Christian.

Quite independently of the movement in Poland, but as an outgrowth of the same spiritual emancipation, King John Sigismund of Transylvania, the only monarch in all history to whom our faith can lay claim, under the persuasive arguments of the Unitarian Bishop, Francis David, at the Diet of Torda in 1568 took the most advanced step as yet attempted in the direction of toleration in religion, decreeing that "no one shall be made to suffer on account of his religion, since faith is the gift of God.” Yet here, as in Poland, it was felt that there were limits which must not be disregarded; and David himself was the first to be brought to book and ended his life in prison for his conviction that the Scripture did not sanction divine worship to Christ.

This principle of religious tolerance when more fully appreciated and developed eventually became one of the most conspicuous marks of Socinianism. It had been anticipated in germ in the first edition of the Racovian Catechism; but it was writ large and in full in the later editions of it which were published in Holland by the Socinians who had come to live in exile there, and had found a congenial atmosphere in that home of religious freedom.

It was in no small measure the contribution of Holland itself to the liberal movement, and had its source there in the toleration policy of William the Silent. It spread its benign influence to England in the Latitudinarian movement of the Anglican Church as well as among the Independents of the time of the Commonwealth; thence by the way of Holland again it reached America three centuries ago in the persons of the Pilgrims, and later in the mellowing influences of the eighteenth century which spread thither from the broad thinkers of both the Church of England and the Dissenting bodies.

The claiming and granting of complete tolerance in religion has thus been one of the most significant marks of our movement; and although it has too often degenerated into an attitude of indifference as to the content of teaching, provided the condition of the teaching were only kept free, it still deserves the encomium pronounced upon it a generation ago by one of our most distinguished adherents: "Religious toleration, the most precious fruit of the past four centuries.”[2]

It was not until late in the seventeenth century that our movement began clearly to enter upon the remaining stage of progress of which I have spoken, and to complete its winning of spiritual freedom in asserting that the reason within the soul of man is sovereign over every competing claimant for authority. Socinus had made timid advances in this direction, but had not ventured to suggest that reason was more than the interpreter of scripture teachings; that it might set itself up as the criterion by which they were to be judged; that Scripture might hence be wrong and reason right.

The later editions of the Racovian Catechism, however, issued in Holland, do not hesitate to proclaim the clear supremacy of reason in the field of religious teaching; while the Socinian commentators may fairly be called the fathers of the rational, as distinguished from the dogmatic exposition of Scripture.

The latest adherents of our movement in Holland, indeed, before it lost its individuality by absorption in the liberal wing of Dutch Protestantism, have moved so far from the half-way position of Socinus that they are no longer willing to accept the designation "Socinian,” but instead prefer another, hitherto objectionable, and frankly call themselves "Unitarian.”

This last step in our progress, the frank and conscious adoption of the supreme guidance of reason in religion, seems to me quite the most significant of the three, for nothing has been more characteristic of the Unitarian movement since it found itself, nothing is more distinctly characteristic of it to-day than the element of reason in it, and I confess that it has always amazed me that in the lists of our principles that have been widely accepted, that of reason has been so commonly overlooked. We speak of freedom, of course; of fellowship, which is another aspect of tolerance; of character, which is the practical personal test; and even of our recent discovery of service; while reason is passed by without mention as negligible; yet it is only with this last step that the complete spiritual freedom which I set forth as the goal of our movement becomes achieved, at least in theory. As a matter of fact the real and full achievement of it never was reached on the Continent of Europe, but was reserved for England and America, for at this point we cease to be able to trace Unitarianism as a separate movement on the Continent. The Roman Catholic reaction in Poland dispersed its followers to the four winds, and only few and scattered remnants survived, while in Transylvania our movement, though surviving, was so cut off from the main currents of European life and so oppressed in its history that for a hundred and fifty years it remained an almost stagnant side-channel, receiving no currents from the main stream, and contributing none to it.

When we cross the Channel to England we find again that the first step in our history consists in the struggle to cast off the fetters of the Athanasian Creed, which has been kept the more prominent in English religious thought by the fact that the canons of the Church of England to this day require that it be used in public worship thirteen times a year. When they had won this step English Unitarians long rested in quiet content under the gentle authority of Scripture, and were well satisfied with maintaining simply that their system could be better supported by proof-texts than could that of Orthodoxy.

The spirit of tolerance, which we have seen was to mark our next step on the Continent, had by now been brought over by John Locke from Socinian circles in Holland, and it became so widely diffused and accepted in eighteenth century England that no special struggle for that phase of spiritual freedom had to be undertaken.

But it was not until far on in the nineteenth century that the final step is achieved in the full and frank transference of spiritual authority from an external seat to an internal. The accomplishment of this stage, I hardly need say, is largely the contribution of James Martineau, whose own personal history epitomizes much of the history of our movement, and who early in his life laid down in his Rationale of Religious Inquiry the outlines which he so fully and persuasively elaborated in the Seat of Authority in Religion of his maturest years.

Hastening over the sea at last to America we find the same history again re-enacted, only now more rapidly and to a more consistent and definite conclusion. The dogmas of the Creeds are quietly laid aside in the eighteenth century; the necessary dependence upon a biblical foundation for religion is outgrown before the end of the Civil War; and honest respect and unquestioned tolerance of radical and conservative for each other is at length taken for granted in the last century.

Inasmuch as I have in print sketched at some length the successive stages of that process, in a paper on the First Century of the Liberal Movement in American Religion,[3] I shall assume the risk of supposing that you have read it. Enough to say of it, in brief, that in America, as previously on the Continent and in England, the history of Unitarianism is the record of an escape from Creed to Scripture, and from Scripture to the freedom of an independent spirit directly illuminated, inspired and guided by God.

The whole history of Unitarianism must be of absorbing interest to any one who is concerned in the expansion of the human soul, and above all to us who inherit the gains which it has brought us. It is surprisingly rich in its record of struggle, sacrifice, heroism, martyrdom for the supreme interests of the soul. Its development of thought and its contributions to the stream of contemporary civilization are rewarding to any one who will trace them out. But the essential meaning which all these more visible manifestations overlie and largely conceal from the onlooker, I believe, is found in the elements of which I have spoken at such length: a progress toward complete spiritual freedom, which is secured through emancipation from all external authority, and is made permanent by reliance only upon the authority within. And see where this leaves us! It leaves us finding God and learning His truth, gaining His inspirations and receiving His comfort, through our own religious experience rather than by relying upon the experience of any prophets and saints in the past or any priests in the present.

This is what I take to be the fundamental quality of true Mysticism—the taking of one's religion at first hand—and it is this that we find expressed in most of those hymns and prayers which I take to be the truest index of what is the living soul of the Unitarian movement to-day. Of course, even this is not the ultimate goal with which we may rest content. Even the most perfect spiritual freedom is to be valued only as a means—means to a more perfect knowledge of God and communion with him. And even these in turn are not ends in themselves; for if they were the end of religion would be wholly selfish. More perfect knowledge of God and more fervent love to Him have still to issue in more complete obedience to His will; and that leads us beyond merely our relations with God over to our relations with men, and our contribution to the whole common life of man. But to pursue this branch of the subject would take me too far from the history of the past, which was the theme with which I set out to deal.

This whole consideration of the meaning of our history also casts some illumination on the frequently raised question whether our work is not now done and whether it is not now at length time for Unitarianism to retire from the field. Well, if the history of Unitarianism taught us that the principal meaning of the movement has been a purely doctrinal one and that the goal we have aimed at has been nothing more remote than that of winning the world to acceptance of one form of doctrine rather than another; then, if it were true that Protestant theology is now predominantly Unitarian, it would naturally follow that the purpose of our existence had been fulfilled. But if, as I have tried to make clear, the doctrinal aspect is but a temporary phase, and if Unitarian doctrines are only a sort of by-product of a larger movement, whose central motive has been the quest for spiritual freedom, then our work is not yet finished; in fact, we have thus far done hardly more, as we have removed the obstacles which dogma had put in our way, than clear the decks for the great action to follow.

Our vital task still remains, in common with that which falls to every other Christian church, the task of inspiring Christian characters and moulding Christian civilization, the task of making men and society truly Christian, the task of organizing the kingdom of heaven upon earth.


[1] Original from the Earl Morse Wilbur Collection, Starr King School for the Ministry, Graduate Theological Union Archives, Berkeley, California.  On the top of the manuscript is noted:  "*Address at Berry Street Conference, Boston, May, 1920; and before Lancashire and Cheshire Provincial Assembly, Liverpool, June, 1925; also printed in Transactions of Unitarian Historical Society (London), iii, 350-360, 1926,” which is the version used here.

[2] President Charles W. Eliot, in a "Motto for a World's Fair Building,” at Chicago, 1893.

[3] Tract No. 289, American Unitarian Association.