The Father the Exclusive Object of Worship


Lectures on The Principles of Unitarianism
Lecture 7 – (By J. S. Hyndman, 1824)

[We do not agree with some of the conclusions of this 1824 lecture. For further study please read our articles on Can We “worship” Jesus Christ? and Can We “Pray” to Jesus Christ?]

John 16:23
And in that day ye shall ask me nothing. Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you.

Worship constituting the most solemn service we can render to the Great Creator and Governor of the world, and Christianity professing to teach us all that concerns our duty towards him, the rule by which we should direct our homage must be laid down very explicitly indeed, and so we find it to be. The text, the very text, my brethren, proves that our sentiments as Unitarians with respect to the proper object of religious worship are correct—wholly and undeniably correct. Let orthodox ingenuity be called into exercise, as it frequently is on other points, and what can it do to overthrow the firm foundation upon which our principles rest? Speaking of the day in which he was to ascend to heaven, Jesus in the most express terms declares to his disciples, “In that day ye shall ask me nothing; whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you.” We regulate our worship according to this rule. We are therefore right, and of course the multitude must be wrong in worshipping him who thus declares that when removed from the sphere of sensible communication, they should ask him nothing. Where is there an express command to worship Jesus, as there is here an injunction not to worship him?

But this is not all. Who are declared by Jesus to be the true worshippers? Hear his own explicit words: “The true worshippers shall worship the FATHER in spirit and in truth; for the Father seeketh such to worship him.” Were there no other passage in the whole Bible, which authorizes the Unitarians to restrict their worship to the Father only, this would be abundantly sufficient. It most authoritatively and solemnly commands them, if they would be considered true worshippers, to pay their adoration to no other person or being. By what fatality does it happen, that serious and inquiring Christians never think of this passage; or if they do think of it, by what means do they evade its force? What sense do they affix to it? If those are the true worshippers who worship the Father, how can they be so who worship two other beings besides the Father? Those who worship ‘the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, three persons in one God,’ are never in the scriptures said to be the true worshippers. Those who worship the Father only are. The worshipper of one God, in one person, has, therefore, the express and solemn declaration of Jesus Christ, that he is the true worshipper. All other persons whatsoever are destitute of this high and decisive authority!

But there are many other passages equally striking and authoritative that bear directly upon this subject. Such is the Lord’s prayer itself, given by Jesus Christ for the very purpose of teaching his disciples how to pray. The occasion to which we owe this model of authorized and acceptable worship, is so peculiar, and makes so directly in favour of the worshipper of one God in one person, that had he had the framing of circumstances which should ever decide the matter as he wished it, by the highest authority, and in the most perfect manner, it is impossible to conceive how he could have caused any others to happen, which would have been so conclusive. The disciples of our Lord, as if apprehensive that they might not have been praying aright, or, believing that their divine Master might pour some fresh light upon their minds; or, convinced that he would graciously remove their errors if they were wrong, and establish them in the truth if they were right, with humility and earnestness, asked his counsel and direction. They appear, too, to have been deeply and solemnly impressed with his own manner of addressing the universal Parent; and they were convinced that no one was so well qualified to instruct them in the proper performance of this most important duty. “And it came to pass, (says the sacred historian), that as he was praying in a certain place, when he ceased, one of his disciples said unto him, Lord, teach us to pray, as John also taught his disciples; and he said unto them, When ye pray, say, OUR FATHER which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, for THINE is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory for ever, Amen.”

Now, I not only say that Christians have a right to regulate their worship according to this perfect pattern of prayer, but I affirm that it is their solemn and indispensable duty to do so. If ever the commands of Jesus Christ were authoritative; if ever his directions were complete, they must be conceived to be so in this instance;—for it regards an act the most important upon which he could convey instruction, and the most intimately connected with the great object of his mission. If, however, the general practice of Christians in the present day be right, this example of prayer, instead of being a perfect example of it, is exceedingly defective. It directs the mind to one object, one person, one being alone; and to this one object, person, or being, it gives the name of FATHER. This, therefore, was a most direct and complete confirmation of the great peculiarity of the Unitarian doctrine.

It was a most direct and complete confirmation of the general practice of our Lord’s disciples, who, in common with all Jews, were in the habit of praying to one God in one person; for that the Jews were acquainted with the doctrine of the Trinity, and that they paid their adorations to a triune God, no one pretends to believe, this doctrine being always spoken of as one of the peculiarities of the Christian system.

Here, then, are a number of persons, who had always been in the habit of praying to one God in one person, assembled around a Being who was come into the world on purpose to instruct them in every thing that concerns the Deity. According to the common notion, they had been in the habit of believing a great error, and of acting exceedingly wrong; for, if it be proper to worship the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, three equal persons in one undivided essence,—the worship of one of these persons, the Father only, must be a great error. With the earnestness of sincerity, they beseech their divine instructor to open their minds to the perception of the truth; and, indeed, to enlighten them on this very subject was one great object of his coming into the world. What then does he do in answer to their request? Does he avail himself of this opportunity to remove their error? Does he tell them that they have done well to ask him, for that they have all along been addressing their adorations not to the proper object of worship, but to only a part of that object? Does he say, “You have been in the habit of praying to the Father only. This is wrong, for there are three equal persons in the Godhead, who demand alike the homage of your hearts. There are the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; it is your duty to worship each.” Does he command them, “when ye pray, say,—O God the Father of heaven, have mercy upon us—O God the Son, Redeemer of the world, have mercy upon us—O God the Holy Ghost, proceeding from the Father and the Son, have mercy upon us—O holy, blessed and glorious Trinity, three persons and one God, have mercy upon us.” Does he enjoin them to urge their petitions by such pleas as the following? “By the mystery of thy holy incarnation; by thy holy nativity and circumcision; by thy baptism, fasting, and temptation; thine agony and bloody sweat; by thy cross and passion; by thy precious death and burial; by thy glorious resurrection and ascension; and by the coming of the Holy Ghost.” We know who has commanded us thus to pray; but we know that it is not Jesus Christ. Happily, his own words are placed upon record, and they are: “When ye pray say, Our Father which art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, thine is the kingdom,” &c. We follow his direction; we conceive that we are bound to do so; we think that we are likely to be led into misconception in opinion, and error in practice, by following any other guide; and because this is our belief, and because we act in conformity to it, we are denounced as heretics.

Is it possible that, if Jesus Christ knew that it was proper and necessary for his disciples to pray to three persons in one God, and that to teach them this was one great object for which he came into the world, he would never tell them so; would he allow such an opportunity as the present to escape, without disclosing to them this momentous truth, and would never, that we know of, avail himself of any other occasion to do so? Even supposing, what can never be proved, that his disciples were already fully instructed in the doctrine of the Trinity, it is evident that they were not satisfied with regard to the manner in which they ought to worship it. They were, at least, not sure that they ought to say, “O holy, blessed, and glorious Trinity, three persons in one God.” They had never been in the habit of using such a formulary; and they were not yet convinced that it was their duty to do so. They apply therefore to their master for instruction; and instead of directing them to pray after this new mode, he commands them to employ the language to which they had always been accustomed; for every person knows that the words of the Lord’s Prayer are a selection from the liturgy in common use among the Jews in the days of our Lord.

When the disciples of our Lord perceiving that he was in the daily habit of praying to the Father, and to no other person or being; when this was the practice to which they themselves were always accustomed; when they expressly asked him if this practice were right, and he assured them it was, by directing them to continue the use of the common language,—could they possibly believe that they were to worship two other persons besides the one indicated in the form prescribed? Could they conceive that Jesus Christ himself was one of those other persons? He whose most humble and devout addresses to the Father they so often witnessed, could they imagine that this very Being was the Father, or an essential part of the Father; If so, to whom could they suppose his devotions were addressed? Could they imagine it was God praying to God? [1]

The form of prayer prescribed by our Lord is sanctioned as a model of worship by every passage of Scripture that inculcates the duty of prayer; and the authority of Unitarianism is also confirmed by every instance that the New Testament affords of worship being offered. As to the first, see Rom. xv. 6. Ephes. v. 20. Col. i. 12. & iii. 17. And as to the second, see Ephes. iii. 14. Col. i. 3.

The very circumstance of our being commanded to worship the Father in the name of Christ, is a distinct and direct intimation that Christ himself is not to be worshipped. In all the varied statements of Trinitarianism, I have found nothing that has been adduced to disprove this conclusion, and how is it possible that anything could be, as long as language has a specific meaning? Moreover, are not the words of Christ in our text, “Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name,” placed in direct opposition to putting up petitions to himself, and used in distinction to offering up prayers to the Father?

In what single instance do we find our Lord addressing his prayer in the manner of modern Christians, to a second or third person of the Godhead? In what passage does he address ‘God the Son,’ or ‘God the Holy Spirit,’ or the ‘Triune Deity, three persons in one God?’ Yet surely, if the human nature could speak and act apart from the divine, (which Trinitarians maintain as an essential part of their system, and by means of which alone they attempt to reconcile the circumstance of Jesus offering prayer with his supposed independence of power), we should, upon the Trinitarian hypothesis, have had at least some, if not many, such instances. Our great exemplar would not have left us, as many modern Christians seem to think he has done, imperfect models of devotion. He would not have allowed the ‘first person’ only, to the exclusion of the second and the third, though co-equal, co-essential, and eternal. He would not have allowed his followers to be more full and perfect in their devotions than himself. He would have furnished, both by precept and example, an unanswerable justification of the practice of those who address him in his supposed divine nature through a long series of petitions, saying, “Good Lord, we beseech thee to hear us.” Thus using the very epithet which he certainly rejected.

Let the serious Christian consider how far he is justified in framing his devout addresses to his God, without clear and distinct authority from Scripture, and upon a model altogether different from that which Jesus Christ and his Apostles have furnished; in disregarding that plain injunction of our Lord, upon which there is so much reason to believe that his first followers acted: “In that day ye shall ask me nothing. Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he shall give it you.”

Further, to worship two beings alike, we must entertain towards each the same degree of grateful, loving, and adoring sentiments. But this, according to the representations that are given in Trinitarianism of their respective characters, is impossible. The peculiar offices ascribed to Christ by the popular theology make him the most attractive person in the Godhead. The Father is the depositary of the justice, the vindicator of the right, the avenger of the laws, of the Divinity. The Son, the brightness of the divine mercy, stands between the incensed Deity and guilty humanity, exposes his meek head to the storms and his compassionate breast to the sword of the divine justice, carries our whole load of punishment, satisfies the justice and bears the strokes of the vengeance-teeming hand of the Father, while his own justice is not satisfied. To the Son, therefore, it is that we owe salvation, and by no means to him who exacts for our iniquities a full and fearful payment. Supposing, however, that, according to the common theology, we owe to the Father our salvation in some sense, still the Son must be the supreme object of our affection—to him our greatest gratitude and most fervent praise are certainly due. How is it possible, then, that we can give the same degree of pious worship to the Father that we must give to the Son? And, if not, it is impossible we can be commanded to worship both as God; for to God who is the Father supreme worship is due.

If Jesus be worshipped, he must be so, considered as a person. On the Trinitarian hypothesis, his person is considered as a human nature as well as a divine. But as a nature is a mere abstraction, it is impossible for us to worship his divine nature without at the same time worshipping the human. The supposition, therefore, that we must worship Jesus, necessarily produces the idea that his human nature as well as his divine is to be worshipped; that his humanity is to be deified; that a creature is to receive the adoration of the universe. These arguments have never yet been shewn to be fallacious, and undoubtedly they never can.

But you will conceive that there are certainly some reasons adduced in justification of the practice of worshipping Jesus. There are no doubt a few, and these we shall now examine.—The case of Stephen has been alleged as an example of the worship of Christ. But it must be remarked that, before offering up prayer, Christ appeared to him in vision; and there is every reason to suppose that when Stephen offered up his petition, he either conceived that Jesus was in some manner present with him, or that he saw Jesus as formerly. Now, there is a very wide difference between offering up petitions to a present being, and to one that is not so. 2. It was in the character of “the Son of man standing on the right hand of God,” that Stephen addressed Jesus; for in that character Stephen describes him in his account of the vision. It was therefore as a being distinct from God, and obviously inferior to him, that Stephen regarded Jesus in addressing him. 3. The difference of the posture assumed by Stephen when he addresses God, clearly indicates that supreme worship was not intended in his former address to Jesus; and the different kind of petition he put up to God, supposes that he regarded Jesus as an inferior being. 4. If this instance proves anything, it proves too much; for if it countenance the propriety of giving supreme worship to Jesus, it affords also the precedent for making him a distinct object of worship—for praying to him apart from the first and the third persons of Trinity.

It has been further said that there are some instances in which Jesus is represented as receiving worship from the Jews while he was on earth. A more weak and preposterous idea cannot be imagined. They who urge this seem not to be aware of the latitude of meaning in which the Greek word proskuneo is employed. See, for example, Dan. ii. 46. Gen. xxiii. 7, 12.

The word, in the instances alleged, is in fact the one most commonly used to denote that respect and veneration which men are accustomed to render to their superiors. Had Christ permitted himself to be treated as an object of religious worship, and that in a public manner too, it would not have been overlooked by the scribes and pharisees. On this ground they would not have failed to condemn him as an enemy to the most fundamental principle of the law, the worship of the one God. Their total silence on this point proves that they did not consider the worship that he received as of the same kind as that due to God. The words leitourgeo, latreuo, sebomai, and proseuchomai, are never applied as expressive of the worship that was on any occasion given to Jesus; but universally to that which was given to the Father.

The only other argument for the worship of Christ is drawn from the use of the word epikaleomai in conjunction with the phrase ‘the name of Jesus’ as in Acts ix. 14. xxii. 16. 1 Cor. i. 2. 2 Tim. ii. 22. Now all these passages might with equal propriety be rendered, ‘that call themselves by; that take upon themselves the name of Christ; or that call the name of Jesus upon them.’ These are precisely the same in meaning. The phrase from its frequent occurrence appears to have been a common and well understood form of expression. It occurs frequently in the midst of historical narrative, where the writer is simply stating a fact or designating a class or profession of persons, and where those who profess the name of Christ would have equally well comported with the drift of the passages.

According to a very common form of Hebrew phraseology, the being or person who assumes a peculiar property in anything is represented as calling it by or giving it a name. Thus in Isai. xliii. 1. xlix. 1. Gen. xxvi. 18—22. Isai. lvi. 5. lxv. 15. And as the being who claimed the peculiar property in any thing was said to give it a name; so the thing possessed was said to be called by the name of the possessor. Thus Israel, the ark, the temple, are all said to be called by the name of the possessor. Of this form of speech the examples are very numerous. Deut. xxviii. 10. 2 Sam. vi. 2. Isai. iv. 1. Gen. xlviii. 16. Acts xv. 17. James iv. 7. &c. In exact conformity with this phraseology, he who makes himself the possession, ranges himself under the standard, devotes himself to the cause and service of another, is said to call himself by that person’s name, or perhaps to invoke his name as the name by which he would be called. Of this we have a remarkable instance in Isai. xliv. 5, “One shall say, I am the Lord’s; and another shall call himself by (according to the Septuagint shall call upon) the name of Jacob; and another shall subscribe with his hand unto the Lord, and call himself by the name of Israel.”

It is hardly necessary to observe that the Hebrew word translated boesetai, in the first clause of the verse, may be rendered with equal if not greater propriety as it is in innumerable other passages by the Greek verb epikaleomai, in which class the parallelism to the class of texts referred to in the New Testament would have been as exact as possible. It cannot surely be supposed that the prophet intended or that the writer of the Greek version understood him to speak of any one who should worship Jacob in Israel. Compare Gen. xlviii. 16.

That calling upon the name of Christ does not imply any devout communication with him, or address of prayer to him, may be deduced from the very form of expression employed in Acts ix. 21, “destroyed them who called on this name.” Surely if these auditors of Paul meant to describe the disciples as worshipping Jesus, the expression would not have been “which called on this name,” but rather, ‘on this Jesus,’ or at least, ‘on the name of Jesus.’ We may speak of invoking or assuming a name, but hardly of worshipping it. Paul says, “I appeal before Festus,” literally, “I invoke or call upon him.” Here doubtless a species of invocation is intended; but it is that of an absent person, and implies no more than the acknowledgment of his authority and a desire to await his decision: “Stand at Caesar’s judgment-seat—I invoke his name as that of my lawful judge.” Why may not Christians be said to invoke the name of their Lord and master in a somewhat similar sense—to acknowledge his authority and await his final decision in religious matters, as they do that of the supreme civil magistrate in civil affairs? [2]

That the phrase “calling upon the name of the Lord” bears the sense we give it, was the opinion of the learned Schleusner, himself a Trinitarian. Dr. Hammond, with whom Locke agrees, says that epikaleisthai signifies that to be called by the name of Jesus as by a surname, marking the peculiar union that subsists between believers and Christ, as of a spouse with her husband, and of a slave with his master, who is called by his master’s name. Whether we adopt the passive or middle sense, the words still convey the same meaning, for, as Schleusner remarks, the formulary epikaleisthai onoma unusually signifies to profess some certain person’s religion. The difference in the middle and passive use of the verb is of no consequence.

Among the various senses enumerated by Dr. Clarke, in which this phrase is used, only one implies direct invocation. Dr. Hammond, speaking of the word generally in the New Testament, says expressly that epikaleisthai signifies to be named or surnamed, Matth. x. 3. Luke xxii. 3. Acts i. 23. iv. 36. and in other places, in which it has a passive and not an active signification.

The use of cognomina to epikaleomai is common both in Xenophon and Lucian. The conjunction of epikaleomai with onoma in the sense of religious subjection or allegiance, is an idiom which seems to have been imported into the Greek from the Hebrew, and to have been adopted by the Apostle from the Septuagint.

We have further objections to the doctrine of Christ’s Deity, drawn from its practical influence. We regard it as unfavourable to devotion, by dividing and distracting the mind in its communion with God. It is a great excellence of the doctrine of God’s unity, that it offers to us ONE OBJECT of supreme homage, adoration, and love, one infinite Father, one Being of Beings, one original and fountain, to whom we may refer all good, on whom all our powers and affections may be concentrated, and whose lovely and venerable nature may pervade all our thoughts. True piety, when directed to an undivided Deity, has a chasteness, a singleness, most favourable to religious awe and love. Now the Trinity sets before us three distinct objects of supreme adoration; three infinite persons, having equal claims on our hearts; three divine agents, performing three different offices, and to be acknowledged and worshipped in different relations. And is it possible, we ask, that the weak and limited mind of man can attach itself to these with the same power and joy, as to one infinite Father, the only First Cause, in whom all the blessings of nature and redemption meet, as their centre and source? Must not devotion be distracted by the equal and rival claims of three equal persons? and must not the worship of the conscientious, consistent Christian be disturbed by apprehension, lest he withhold from one or another of these, his due portion of homage?

We also think that the doctrine of the Trinity injures devotion, not only by joining to the Father other objects of worship, but by taking from the Father the supreme affection, which is his due, and transferring it to the Son. This is a most important view. That Jesus Christ, if exalted into the infinite Divinity, should be more interesting than the Father, is precisely what might be expected from history, and from the principles of human nature. Men want an object of worship like themselves, and the great secret of idolatry lies in this propensity. A God clothed in our form, and feeling our wants and sorrows, speaks to our weak nature more strongly, than a Father in heaven, a pure spirit, invisible, and unapproachable, save by the reflecting and purified mind. We believe too, that this worship, though attractive, is not most fitted to spiritualize the mind; that it awakens human transport, rather than that deep veneration of the moral perfections of God, which is the essence of piety. [3] Indeed, the individuality of thought will not permit us to pray freely to more than one object at a time; the very attempt to divide the attention confuses it.

[We do not agree with some of the conclusions of this 1824 lecture. For further study please read our articles on Can We “worship” Jesus Christ? and Can We “Pray” to Jesus Christ?]


1. See Dr. T. S. Smith’s Appeal in behalf of Unitarian Christians. Back to top

2. See Dr. Hutton’s Sermon. Back to top

3. See Dr. Channing’s Sermon, &c. Back to top