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Having now followed the fortunes of the Unitarians up to the point where they obtained a recognized position among religious organizations, we need not enter into the minute details of their denominational history. Less than seventy years have elapsed since the passing of the Dissenters’ Chapels Act, and less than a century since the judgment in the Dedham case. The congregational increase, though substantial, has not been great; Unitarians claim rather to have influenced the advance of thought in other denominations than to have created one more sect. At present their numerical strength may be estimated from the following particulars.

In the British Isles and colonial centres there are nearly four hundred places of worship, and a similar number of ministers; in many cases the congregations are small, and the list of ministers includes some that are retired and others who are regarded as ‘lay-workers’ only. There are about five hundred ministers and congregations in the United States. Two or three colleges in England and a similar number in America train students for the ministry, but many join the ranks from other denominations. Women are eligible as ministers, but actual instances are rare. Local unions exist to a fairly adequate extent. In England and America National Conferences meet at intervals; the Unitarian Associations continuously publish literature, send out lecturers, and promote new congregations. There are several periodicals. The most noteworthy in England is the Hibbert Journal, which follows in the line of other reviews of high standard in past years, and which specially illustrates the spirit animating a large and influential section of the body. It is promoted for free and open intercourse between serious thinkers of all schools of theological and social philosophy, and is reported to have a circulation quite beyond that of any similar publication. The ‘Hibbert Lectures,’ connected with the trust founded in 1847 for the diffusion of ’Christianity in its simplest and most intelligible form,’ further exemplify the broad interpretation of this duty. Scholars of different churches have contributed to the series of volumes well known to religious students. The principle followed in general is stated in the oft-quoted phrase ’Free Learning and Free Teaching in Theology.’

It is needful, perhaps, to guard against the inference that the Unitarian movement is only, or in the main, an intellectual one. Since 1833, in consequence of a visit by Dr. Joseph Tuckerman, from Boston, ‘Domestic Missions’ were founded, to promote the religious improvement of the neglected poor, and to-day this kind of work still goes on with much social benefit in our larger cities. Similar benevolence has marked the American side. Many congregations, too, are composed largely of working-people, and in recent years a Van Mission has carried the Unitarian message into the country villages, mining districts, and other populous parts. These aspects of their activity are apt to be obscured owing to a pardonable disposition of Unitarianism to point to the ’great names’ associated with their churches. In the American list, for example, we find Emerson, Longfellow, O.W. Holmes, Bryant, Hawthorne Whittier and Lowell had close affinities; Bancroft, Motley, Prescott, Parkman; Margaret Fuller, Louisa Alcott; and statesmen, jurists, merchants, and scientists too numerous to set down here. Obviously, the English side cannot rival such a brilliant roll; the elite of society has not been here, as in New England, on the side of the newer theology. Yet English Unitarianism has its eminent mimes also, alike in literature, science, politics, philanthropy, and scholarship of various kinds; and the body is credited with a civic strength out of proportion to the number of its avowed adherents, while its philanthropies have been of the same broad and enlightened kind as those which enrich the American record.


More important to the general public is the question of ideas which now prevail among Unitarians. Our preceding sketch has shown some of the results of the freedom claimed by them in one generation after another. We have now to see in what respects the nineteenth century effected a further change.

In the first third of the century there can be no doubt that Unitarians adhered tenaciously, but with discrimination, to the idea of the final authority of the Bible. In this respect they were like Protestants generally, and though they nevertheless brought ‘reason’ to bear on their reading of the Scriptures, other Protestants did the same, if to a less degree. Both in the United States and in England this attitude was still common up till nearly the middle of the century, and instances could easily be found later still. The miraculous element was thus retained, though as we have seen as early as in Priestley’s case there was a tendency to eliminate some part of the supernatural. That a thoroughgoing belief could be stated in good round terms is evident from the following sentence taken from a book issued by Dr. Orville Dewey (1794-1882), one of the most eloquent pulpit orators of his day. The book is entitled Unitarian Belief, its date is 1839. Referring to the Bible the author says, ’Enough is it for us, that the matter is divine, the doctrines true, the history authentic, the miracles real, the promises glorious, the threatenings fearful.’ There is good ground for taking this as a fair example of the ideas prevalent among American Unitarians at that time. Perhaps the statement was made the more emphatic in view of some remarks recently uttered by two young men whose influence, along with more general tendencies, proved fatal to the old doctrine.

One of these young men was James Martineau (1805-1900), who at the age of thirty-one was already known as a writer and preacher far above the average. He was then resident in Liverpool, where he wrote a remarkable little book with the title The Rationale of Religious Inquiry (1886). More than fifty years later he published an even more remarkable book, The Seat of Authority in Religion. There is, indeed, half a century of development between the two books, yet the germinal thought of the second may be detected in the first. The point at issue is where the ultimate appeal should lie in matters of religion. With the keen eye for the weaknesses of his fellow-worshippers which always characterized him, Martineau said, ’The Unitarian takes with him [to the study of the Bible] the persuasion that nothing can be scriptural which is not rational and universal.’ This fixed opinion, which he ranks along with the foregone conclusions of other types of theologian, was just that which we have observed in the general course of liberals from Locke onwards. Though in a note Martineau concedes that his words may somewhat strongly accentuate the common opinion, he represents Unitarians as virtually saying, ’If we could find the doctrines of the Trinity and the Atonement, and everlasting torments in the Scriptures, we should believe them; we reject them, not because we deem them unreasonable, but because we perceive them to be unscriptural. For my own part, I confess myself unable to adopt this language’ not, he says, but that he does think them actually ‘unscriptural.’ ’But I am prepared to maintain, that if they were in the Bible, they would still be incredible.... Reason is the ultimate appeal, the supreme tribunal, to which the test of even Scripture must be brought.’ It abates nothing from the force of these declarations that then, and for some time afterwards, Martineau himself accepted the miracles. The ‘old school’ perceived the sharp edge of such a weapon, and its wielder was during many years regarded as a ‘dangerous’ innovator.

The other young writer to whom reference has been made was Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82), son and grandson of ministers of the liberal Congregational type in New England and himself for a short time minister of the Second Church, Boston. Preferring the freedom of the lecturing platform, Emerson had already withdrawn from the ministry, but in 1838 he gave an ‘Address to the Senior Class’ in the Divinity School, Harvard, which proved a second landmark in the history of American Unitarianism. Nineteen years before, Channing had decisively pointed out that Unitarianism and orthodoxy are two distinct theologies. In the Divinity School Address, Emerson maintained that the idea of ‘supernaturalism’ is rendered obsolete by a recognition of the reality of things. Bringing a gift of pungent prose to the service of a poetic imagination, Emerson startled the decorously dignified authorities of the New England pulpit; he ‘saved us,’ says Lowell, ’from the body of this death.’ He pointed from the record of miracles past to an ever-present miracle. To the illumination of ‘reason,’ which Unitarians had followed so loyally within the proviso of a special revelation he brought the light of a mystic intuition. Some of his elders judged it to be ‘false fire’ perilously akin to the ‘enthusiasm’ which their predecessors had so often condemned. In daring simplicity he urged that there had been ‘noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus.’ ’The soul knows no persons.’ The divine is always latent in the human. Revelation is not ended as if God were dead!

The shock to the old-fashioned minds was immense. Long and far-sounding debate followed, though Emerson, with provoking self-possession, declined to argue. He simply ‘announced.’ This oracular attitude certainly affected some of the younger men greatly, but fortunately for the success of the new gospel one of these younger men translated the oracular into a more popular and reasoned form. Three years after Emerson’s Address, Theodore Parker (1810-60) completed the Unitarian trilogy by a sermon on The Transient and the Permanent in Theology. It may be said to have done for Emerson’s message the kind of service rendered by Huxley to Darwin’s. Parker at once became a marked man; most Unitarian pulpits were closed against him, but a large hall accommodated the vast crowds that came to hear him. It is doubtful if such numerous congregations ever listened to a Unitarian before or since. He continued an arduous work for some fifteen years, but it wore him out before his time. He was an erudite scholar and a prolific writer. Discarding the claims of Christianity to be the only ‘divine revelation,’ he based his clear and always optimistic theism on the broad facts of human experience. Ardently interested in social and political questions, he poured satire without stint on the religious defenders of slavery, and himself dared all risks along with the foremost abolitionists. Such a man could not but count for much; and though his radical views in theology greatly disturbed for many years the conservatives in the body for Unitarianism itself had by this time a well-defined conservative type they could not fail to permeate the minds of the masses.

Of Emerson’s own life-work this is hardly the place to speak at large, but in connection with the development of that ‘Religion of the Spirit’ in which Dr. Martineau sees the culmination of the theological progress of Unitarianism, Emerson’s share must be allowed to be a large one. When Dean Stanley visited America he is said to have reported that he had heard sermons from many pulpits, but ’Emerson was the one preacher in them all.’ It is certain that at one time the style, if not also the thought, of Emerson was extensively copied by the preachers, not always to the gain of solidity. A degree of jauntiness appears in the worse specimens of these imitations, and Lord Morley’s criticism that Emerson himself was too oblivious of the dark side of human suffering and guilt would doubtless apply to much of the Unitarian eloquence at one time inspired by his witching voice.

This, however, is but one side of the American message in the nineteenth century; evidence abounds that a ‘Christocentric’ type of teaching, with adhesion to much of old material of the Gospels, held its own till a generation ago, and its peculiar accent is not without echoes to-day. On the whole it is probable that, as at the beginning of the century, the ‘liberals’ in New England Congregationalism were somewhat shocked at some of the daring views of the Priestleyan Unitarians in England, so even towards its close the general position of thought was more conservative there than was the rule here. Certainly, also, there was a deep, tender tone manifested even where opinion was most radical among the American Unitarians, and of this no better proof can be cited than the large number of hymns of a high order both of thought and expression which have been written among them. They serve to show that a frank acceptance of the evolutionary philosophy by no means necessarily entails the decay of devout personal piety or the loss of beautiful ideals. Among the American hymnists the following are specially eminent, and their productions are often to be found in ‘orthodox’ collections: Samuel Longfellow (brother to H.W.L.), Samuel Johnson, W.C. Gannett, J.W. Chadwick, and F.L. Hosmer.

On the English side other sweet singers have appeared: ’Nearer, my God, to Thee,’ by Sarah Flower Adams, is a world-renowned hymn; and if the names of Channing, Emerson, and Parker cannot be equally matched here in their several spheres, there has been no lack of able and scholarly representatives, and one name at least is of universal reputation. That name, of course, is Martineau. The effective changes from the old Unitarianism to the modern type are best displayed in the story of his long life and the monumental books which bear his name. Reference has been made to his early brilliance; its promise was amply fulfilled in the course of a career more than usually prolonged. The note of original thought sounded in the Rationale (see ) was to be heard again and again in other and more permanent utterances, and not seldom to the perplexity and dismay of many of his Unitarian brethren. Alike in religious philosophy, in attitude to the Scriptures, and in matters of church organization, he found himself from time to time at variance with most of those close around him. His philosophical and critical influence was in large measure victorious; in regard to organization the results were less satisfactory to himself. It will be instructive to observe his progress.

[: third paragraph of Modern Unitarianism: II. Ideas and Tendencies.]

As regards philosophy, it is necessary to remember the influence of Priestley and Belsham. These Unitarian leaders, following Hartley’s psychology, stood for a determinism which was complete. God was the Great Cause of all; not the ‘First Cause’ of the deistic conception, operative only at the beginning of the chain of events and now remote from man and the world, but present and immediate, exhibiting his divine purposes in all the beings created by him. Christianity, in the view of this school, was the means by which God had been pleased to make known the grand consummation of this life in a perfected life to come; Jesus, the Messiah, was the chosen revealer of the divine will, and his resurrection was the supreme and necessary guarantee that his message was true. Martineau, like the rest of his generation, was brought up in this necessarianism; but its tendency, as he reviewed and tested it, was to do violence to certain irrepressible factors of the spiritual life. It is only fair to say, there was even in this Priestleyan school room for a mystical mood; but on the whole it appeared dry and intellectual, lacking the warm and operative forces of a deeper devotion.

It is interesting to find that Martineau himself confessed that the freshening touch upon his own inner life came in a closer contact with evangelical piety. His mind was to the end of his many years readily responsive to congenial impulses, let them come whence they would, and no small part of his service to Unitarianism consists in the broader sympathies which he generated in its circles. To Channing, also, he expressed gratitude for helping to wake in him a new sense of the meaning of life and religion. It was Channing’s characteristic to insist on the significance of personality. The worth, the depth, and also the rights of the Human made so vivid an appeal to his mind as to react on his conceptions of the Divine. Within, a few years after the Rationale was published, Martineau is found making an obvious change of base. He has realized that the externally communicated religion of the old school, however sublime in its proportions, fails to meet the needs or, indeed, to fit the facts of the inner life. Man’s personality rises, in his thought, into touch with God’s; the revelation from without can only be recognized as such by the aid of a revelation within; a real activity, a genuine moral choice, and a resulting character, the marks of a truly living Soul, these are indispensable to an adequate view of the religious life. But all this involves two significant positions, each far asunder from those hitherto put forth there must be Freedom, at least in the moral world; and the Divine assurances of moral values and of loving aid to win them are no longer confined to an outer record. Such a record may yield invaluable service as a heightener and interpreter of individual experience; to the last we find Martineau attaching a profound and quite special significance to the revelation in Jesus of the life of sonship to God, and retaining tenaciously the Christian attitude in preference to one of simple theism. But his system is based on the internal; all the rest, the Church, the Bible, Nature, however august and charged with meaning, is supplementary to that.

In the American field, under the influence of Emerson and the German philosophy, what is called ‘Transcendentalism’ flourished midway in the century, and there as well as in England its extravagances were deplored. Martineau himself, while approaching so nearly to the egoistic centre, was safeguarded from all such vagaries by an all-pervading sense of duty. In his volumes of sermon the Endeavours after the Christian Life, and Hours of Thought on Sacred Things, which remain among the choicest of their kind in our language, his austerity of moral tone is only relieved by an elevation of poetic mysticism till then unknown in Unitarian literature. It was, indeed, his conviction that the body would not write poetry for a generation or two, so dry and prosaic did he find it; but at that very time his own efforts in hymnody on one side and on the other his lyric prose, almost too richly ornate for general wear, were touching new springs of feeling. By and by, he issued in conjunction with others a set of liturgical services, which did much to lend dignity to congregational worship. And what gave unique influence to his ideas was his intimate connection from 1840 to 1885 with ‘Manchester College,’ London, one of the successors to the old ‘Academies’ (now after its several migrations handsomely housed at Oxford). At this college, as professor of mental and moral philosophy and for many years as Principal, he made a deep and lasting impression on the minds of most of the leading scholars and preachers. His great works. Types of Ethical Theory and A Study of Religion, gathered up the harvest of long study and exposition in these subjects, and are the most important of their kind given by Unitarians to the world.

In accordance with what has been indicated, the later attitude of Martineau, and naturally of his pupils though the principle of free and independent judgment is and always has been insisted upon has been radical in respect to Biblical, and especially to New Testament, studies. An influence in this department more direct than his own was formerly found in the writings and lectures of John James Tayler (1797-1869), his predecessor as Principal. This ripe and fearless scholar brought home to Unitarians the wealth of continental literature on the subject. The ‘old school’ stood aghast as the tide of ’German criticism’ overflowed the old landmarks of thought; and when Tayler himself issued a work strongly adverse to the apostolic authorship of the Fourth Gospel distress was extreme. In these matters, however, the tide proved irresistible, and the next generation of preachers and students were among the most ardent translators and popularizers of the new views of Jewish and Christian origins. The ‘free’ character of the pulpits has made the way easier than in most other denominations for the incoming of modern thought in this and other directions.

The influence of natural science upon the trend of Unitarian opinion has hardly been second to that of Biblical criticism. Some names in the list of prominent Unitarians are celebrated in this connection Louis Agassiz (1807-73), for example, on the American side, Sir Charles Lyell (1797-1875) and Dr. W.B. Carpenter (1813-85) on the English side. A son of the last named, Dr. J. Estlin Carpenter, a man of wide and varied scholarship, is now Principal of Manchester College. A field in which he is specially expert is that of comparative religion, and here also is a source of many considerations that have transformed Unitarianism into one of the most liberal types of thought in the modern religious world.

It is not to be inferred, however, that the ‘radical’ tendencies, while predominant, have everywhere prevailed among Unitarians. The ‘conservative’ side continued in the third quarter of the nineteenth century to yield important signs of its existence and fruitfulness, and its vitality is far from exhausted still. The miraculous element has even here been reduced to a minimum, but it has left a tinge on the picture of Jesus which fills the imagination and kindles the reverent affection of many. Among the more gifted representatives of this school we may name the Americans Dr. H.W. Furness (1802-96) and Dr. J. Freeman Clarke (1810-88), and the English John Hamilton Thom (1808-94). Thom’s sermons are ranked among the highest for spirituality and penetration; they certainly had profound effect in stimulating the wise and generous philanthropy of William Rathbone and Sir Henry Tate. A celebrated representative of this side of Unitarianism is Dr. James Drummond, still living, the author of several works of European repute among New Testament scholars, one being a defence of the Johannine authorship of the Fourth Gospel. He succeeded Martineau as Principal of Manchester College. His volume. Studies of Christian Doctrine, is the most important statement of the Unitarian view published in recent years.

As time went on, it fell to Martineau and other leading Unitarians to take up a defensive attitude against the extreme forces of negation. In particular, he came to be recognized as a champion of theism against materialist evolution. Four volumes of ‘Essays’ contain some of his acutest writings on the subject. An address presented to him on his eighty-third birthday celebrated his eminence in this and other ways; it bore the signatures of six hundred and fifty of the most brilliant of his contemporaries, at their head being Tennyson and Browning.

All this strenuous progress, however, was for Martineau dogged by a shadow of peculiar disappointment. In youth he was as ardent a ‘Unitarian’ as any; but, about the time of the Dissenters’ Chapels Act (1844), he and Tayler and some others felt increasing dissatisfaction with the tendency of the more active Unitarians to degenerate into a sect. As we have seen, the same divergence of feeling arose in America, and Channing always strove to keep Unitarianism there from succumbing to denominationalism. The ardour of those especially who had newly espoused the Unitarian view and found it precious to themselves may be easily understood, and they might be forgiven some impatience with the apparent apathy of those who had no great desire to multiply prosélytes. Some of these eager spirits strove to rescue the body from what they evidently regarded as a paralysing indefiniteness. From time to time it was argued that Unitarianism must be ‘defined’ authoritatively; then, and then only, might a triumphant progress be secured. Mixed with such notions was apparently a desire to keep the imprudent and ‘advanced’ men from going ‘too far.’ In one form or other this opposition has persisted till the present; but its acrimony has sensibly lessened as, on the one hand, the ‘denominational’ workers have more fully accepted the principle of unfettered inquiry, and on the other, the lessons of experience have shown that, however eager the Unitarians may be for the widest possible religious fellowship, they are, in fact, steadily left to themselves by most of the other religious bodies, especially in this country. Martineau himself about forty years ago tried to form, along with Tayler, a ‘Free Christian Union’ which should ignore dogmatic considerations; but Tayler died, and so little encouragement was met with outside the Unitarian circle that the thing dropped after two years. Nearly twenty years later, at the Triennial Conference (held in 1888 at Leeds), a remarkable address was given by the now venerable ‘leader’ (whom, as he mournfully said, no one would follow), in favour of setting up again an English Presbyterian system which should swallow up all the many designations and varieties of association hitherto prevailing among Unitarians. The proposal was considered impracticable, and the dream of a ‘Catholicity’ which should embrace all who espoused the free religious position, whatever their doctrines, seemed farther than ever from fulfilment. In later years the idea has, however, continued to be mooted, and some Unitarians hope still to see the development of a ‘Free Catholicism’ in which the traditional distinction between Unitarian and Trinitarian will be lost.

Meanwhile, as has been said, the extension of Unitarian worship and the diffusion of literature goes on with a fair amount of success. In America, thanks largely to the sagacious toil of a remarkable organizer, Dr. H.W. Bellows (1814-82), the Unitarian Association has proved a strong and effective instrument for this purpose, and the British Association, whose headquarters are now in the building where Lindsey opened the first Unitarian Church in 1774, has also thriven considerably in recent years. It is said that the rate of growth in the number of congregations in the United Kingdom has been about 33 per cent during the past half-century; in America the rate is somewhat higher.


It will not be surprising to the reader to learn that a religious body having such a past and being so variously recruited to-day is far from stereotyped in method. At the same time there is practical agreement on the main lines of doctrine.

In worship different forms are used. Many churches have liturgies, adopted at discretion and usually supplemented by free prayer. In others the free service alone is preferred. Lessons are chiefly taken from the Bible, but selections are sometimes read from other devotional literature. Several hymnals have wide acceptance; a few are peculiar to single congregations. The large majority of sermons are read, though extempore address is now less infrequent than formerly. ‘Sacraments’ are not considered indispensable, but the Lord’s Supper is retained in many cases and is regarded as a memorial. The baptism (or ‘dedication’) of infants is also practised.

Ministerial ordination is not considered as imparting supernatural gifts, but as a solemnity marking the entrance of the accredited person into full recognition and office. The congregation makes its own choice of a minister, though in case of its dependence upon outside financial assistance the advice of the managers of the Fund may be offered. The support of the churches and Sunday-schools, etc., is generally by voluntary contributions; endowments exist in some instances. Church membership is usually granted without insistence upon any religious declaration. New buildings are invariably associated with the ’open trust’ principle, the way being thus left open for such changes in worship and opinion as may hereafter seem right. Some churches decline to be known as ‘Unitarian,’ and where that name is adopted it is usual to find with it the explanation that this does not pledge or limit future development or bar the widest religious sympathy in the present.

Reference has been made to Sunday-schools. In this field Unitarians have always been pioneers, and their aims have usually been to promote culture without sectarian zeal. Many large schools continue, as in the past, to form centres of education of the widest type, not only to children but adults. Much interest is taken in social amelioration; some observers have asserted that this interest is more vivid in many quarters than any in matters theological or philosophical.

Statements of the teachings usually accepted in the churches are numerous. One here quoted will fairly represent the general type. It was drawn up by Richard Acland Armstrong (1843-1905), an eager social reformer, a powerful preacher and author, and memorable especially as a popularizer of Martineau’s religious philosophy. Of course, from what has been already said, such a statement is not regarded as an authoritative creed, but simply takes its place as one out of many summaries for popular diffusion.

’Unitarian Christianity teaches that God is our Father, full of love for all of us. It learns from Jesus that the Father listens to our prayers and watches over us with even more tender care than over the lilies of the field and the birds of the air.

’It learns from Jesus too, that however important it may be to have correct views concerning religious matters, it is much more important to love God with all our heart and mind and soul and strength, and our neighbour as ourselves. For he says that these are the first two commandments, and that there is no other whatever that is greater than these.

’It learns from Jesus, also, that the way to enter the kingdom of Heaven is, not merely to hold a correct theology or to receive any outward sacraments, but to “be converted and become as little children” simple-hearted, loving, pure.

’Unitarian Christianity teaches that God our Father claims us all as children, and that when Jesus speaks of himself as God’s Son, he means us all to remember that we are God’s children too, though unhappily we have stained our sonship and daughterhood with many unworthy thoughts and deeds.

’Unitarian Christianity loves the Parable of the Prodigal Son, because it shows so clearly and so beautifully the love and forgiveness of God, and with what tender pity he looks on us when we have sinned.

’Unitarian Christianity believes that God speaks to his children now as truly as he did to the Prophets of old and to Jesus Christ, comforting, strengthening, enlightening them. Conscience itself is his holy voice.

’Unitarian Christianity sees in Jesus Christ a supremely beautiful life and character, a marvellous inspiration for us all, an ideal after which we may strive; and it loves to think of him as our Elder Brother, of the same nature as ourselves.

’Unitarian Christianity does not believe that God will plunge any of his children into everlasting woe. Such a thought of God is a contradiction of his Fatherhood. He is leading us all, by different ways, towards the pure and holy life for which he brought us into being.’

Along with this may be taken the declaration adopted, as a result of somewhat protracted discussions, at the National Conference of Unitarians in America, 1894; it would probably be accepted in all similar assemblies.

’These churches accept the religion of Jesus, holding in accordance with his teaching that practical religion is summed up in love to God, and love to man; and we invite to our fellowship any who, while differing from us in belief, are in general sympathy with our spirit and our practical aims.’