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In certain quiet nooks of Old England, and, by contrast, in some of the busiest centres of New England, landmarks of religious history are to be found which are not to be easily understood by every passer-by. He is familiar with the ordinary places of worship, at least as features in, the picture of town or village. Here is the parish church where the English episcopal order has succeeded to the Roman; yonder is the more modern dissenting chapel, homely or ornate. But, now and then, among the non-episcopal buildings we find what is called distinctively a ’Meeting House,’ or more briefly a ‘Meeting,’ which may perhaps be styled ‘Old,’ ‘New,’ or ‘Great’. Its architecture usually corresponds with the simplicity of its name. Plain almost to ugliness, yet not without some degree of severe dignity, stand these old barn-like structures of brick occasionally of stone; bearing the mellowing touch of time, surrounded by a little overshadowed graveyard, they often add a peculiar quaintness and solemnity to the scene. Mrs. Gaskell has described one such in her novel Ruth, and admirers of her art should know well that her own grave lies beside the little sanctuary she pictured so lovingly.

Sometimes, however, the surroundings of the ancient chapel are less attractive. It stands, it may be, in some poverty-stricken corner or court of a town or city. Whatever picturesqueness it may have had once has long since vanished. Unlovely decay, an air of desolation, symptoms of neglect, present a mournful sight, and one wonders how much longer the poor relic will remain. Many places of the kind have already been swept away; others have been renovated, enlarged, and kept more worthy of their use. Not all the Meeting Houses are of one kind. Independents, Baptists, and Friends, each possess some of them. Now and again the notice-board tells us that this is a ‘Presbyterian’ place of worship, but a loyal Scot who yearns for an echo of the kirk would be greatly surprised on finding, as he would if he entered, that the doctrine and worship there is not Calvinistic in any shape whatever, but Unitarian.

A similar surprise awaits the visitor to New England, it may be even a greater. For if he should tread In the footsteps of the Pilgrim Fathers and find the ‘lineal descendants’ of their original places of worship at Plymouth, Salem, or Boston, he will find Unitarians in possession. So it is in many of the oldest towns founded by the American colonists of the seventeenth century. In their centres the parish churches, ‘First,’ ‘Second,’ or otherwise, stand forth challenging everybody’s attention. There is no lack of self-assertion here, nothing at all like the shrinking of the Old English Presbyterian into obscure alleys and corners. Spacious, well appointed, and secure, these Unitarian parish churches, in the words of a popular Unitarian poet, ’look the whole world in the face, and fear not any man.’

The object of the present brief sketch is to show how these landmarks have come to be where they are, to trace the thoughts and fortunes of Unitarians from their rise in modern times, to indicate their religious temper and practical aims, and to exhibit the connections of the English-speaking Unitarians with some closely approximating groups in Europe and Asia.

Before entering upon a story which is extremely varied and comprehensive, one or two important points must be emphasized. In the first place the reader must bear in mind that the term ‘Unitarianism’ is one of popular application. It has not been chosen and imposed as sect-name by any sect-founder, or by any authoritative assembly. There has never been a leader or a central council whose decisions on these matters have been, accepted by Unitarians as final. Even when most closely organized they have steadily resisted all attempts so to fix the meaning of ‘Unitarianism’ as to exclude further growth of opinion. Consequently there is always room for variety of opinion among them; and every statement of their principles and teachings must be taken as a sort of average estimated from a survey more or less extended.

Thus the significance of Unitarianism as a feature of modern religious development cannot be grasped apart from its history as a movement of thought. Nowhere is it more necessary than here to reflect that to know what a thing is we must know what it has been and consider what its future naturally involves.

Secondly, amid all the varieties of thought referred to, complicated as they are by the eager advance of some and the clinging to survivals by others, there are two notes to be found undeniably, if unequally, characteristic of Unitarianism. It is both rationalist and mystical. If the historian seems more attentive to the former than to the latter, this must not be taken as indicating their relative importance. Obviously, it is easier to record controversies than to unfold the wealth of profound conceptions. Perhaps we may fairly suggest the true state of the case by the mere juxtaposition of such earlier names as Socinus, Bidle, and Locke, with those of Channing, Emerson, and Martineau; or by a reference to the earlier Unitarian hymns in contrast with those of the later stages.


A brief explanation at the outset may help the reader to follow more intelligently the history of Unitarianism. As is well known, the chief issue between Trinitarians and Unitarians arises in connection with the relation of Jesus Christ to God, questions concerning the Holy Spirit being usually less discussed. There are consequential issues also, bearing upon man’s nature, atonement, salvation, and other subjects, but these call for no remark here. In its full statement, as given for instance in the ‘Athanasian Creed,’ the Trinitarian dogma presents the conception of Three ‘Persons’ in One God Father, Son, and Holy Spirit ’Persons’ with different: functions, but all equal and co-eternal. The Eastern (Greek Orthodox) Church differs from the Western (Roman Catholic) in holding that the Third Person ‘proceeds’ from the Father alone; the Western adds ’and from the Son’ (filioque). The full dogma as given in the ‘Athanasian Creed’ is not thought to be earlier than the fifth century; debates as to the ‘two natures’ in Christ, and the ‘two wills,’ and other abstruse points involved in the dogma, continued for centuries still. At an earlier period discussion was carried on as to whether the Son were of the ‘same substance’ (homo-ousion) or ‘similar substance’ (homoi-ousion) with the Father. The latter view was held by Arius and his party at the Council of Nicaea, A.D. 325. Athanasius held the former view, which in time, but only after many years of controversial strife and actual warfare, became established as orthodox. The Arians regarded the Son, as a subordinate being, though still divine. Another variety of opinion was put forth by Sabellius (c. 250 A.D.), who took the different Persons to be so many diverse modes or manifestations of the One God. This Sabellian idea, though officially condemned, has been often held in later times. Socinianism, so far as regards the personality and rank of Christ, differed from Arianism, which maintained his pre-existence, though not eternal; the Socinian doctrine being that the man Jesus was raised by God’s approving benignity to ‘divine’ rank, and that he thus became a fit object of Christian ‘worship.’ The Humanitarian view, finally, presented Jesus as a ‘mere man,’ i.e. a being not essentially different in his nature from the rest of humankind. Modern Unitarianism, however, usually avoids this kind of phrase; ‘all minds,’ said Channing, ’are of one family.’