[Please note that Spirit & Truth Fellowship International does not necessarily agree with the full content of this letter, however we think it is a very valuable and historical document that needs to be available online for all to read and study.]


In your last communication you say: “Though somewhat doubtful, after your annunciation that you had settled two months ago the matter, which I supposed might still be in some degree in question, whether I had better resume my pen, I have notwithstanding done so, that I may have the satisfaction hereafter that will arise from the reflection of having done all in my power, not so much to influence and control your decisions, as to aid and direct your inquiries.”

I did not mean, my dear father, to express myself with arrogant confidence; I was merely giving a reason why I called myself a Unitarian. I intended it as a reply to what you had said in regard to collateral doctrines; and I was endeavoring to establish the point, which was clear to my own mind, namely, that, whatever might be my views upon other topics, while I believed in the absolute and unqualified unity of God, I was certainly a Unitarian; and this point, I informed you, had been settled, in my own mind, for the space of two months or more. I am not so settled in any opinion, that I am not willing to hear and candidly to weigh any arguments which may be presented for a different belief.

You say, “it is but too evident that you have had before you the entire strength of one side of the question, the ablest productions of the most powerful minds which have been embarked in this discussion. So far, at least, as human authors have been your resource, one side has had immensely and overwhelmingly the advantage of the other. If your mind had not been made up, as you seem to say it has, I should like you to have read Dr. Miller’s Letters on Unitarianism, and Professor Stuart’s Letters to Dr. Channing. In the former of these, I am inclined to think, you will meet with a different exhibition of the opinions of early and primitive Christians, from that to which you have been recently listening, and to which you have, perhaps, acceded as correct.”

You have accordingly, since writing what I have quoted above, sent me a copy of Miller’s Letters, which I have carefully read. I do not find that his “exhibition of the opinions of early and primitive Christians” at all overthrows the opinion which I have seen, as I think, established by other writers,- namely, that the early Fathers did not believe that the Trinity was taught in the Scriptures, and that those who believed in and contended for this doctrine themselves, did not receive it as it is received at the present day. I have neither time nor strength to enlarge upon this point, but will only say, that Priestley’s History of Early Opinions contains very satisfactory evidence in favor of my position, taken from the writings of the early Fathers themselves.

You seem to be offended because Unitarians insist that such a doctrine as that of the Trinity ought to be explicitly stated in the Bible before we can be required to receive it, and much more, before we can regard it as fundamental. But if Unitarians feel in this way, as I confess they do, it is precisely as your favorite, Dr. Watts, felt. For proof of this, read again his prayer to the Deity, as quoted in my last letter. “Unitarians are right,” you observe, “in saying the important doctrines will be frequently inculcated in the Scriptures, but,” you ask, “are they not wrong in insisting that they must be presented precisely in that form which they choose to prescribe, and that their phraseology must be used?”

Now this is by no means what Unitarians insist upon. They only insist that every fundamental doctrine must be capable of being stated in Bible phraseology. Any proposition, that is of merely human origin, and which cannot be explicitly stated in the words of the inspired volume, they would not consider authoritative; let such a proposition emanate either from a Unitarian or a Trinitarian source.

Again, you say: “If worship to Christ is commanded,—if men and angels are represented (and who can doubt if they are?) as worshipping him,—if the titles, or the attributes, or the works ascribed to God are attributed to him, is it not tantamount to what they profess to want?”

I acknowledge that it might be so if the word worship was always used in one sense, or if Trinitarians and Unitarians always used it in the same sense. But both of them acknowledge that in the Bible it is not always used in the same sense, that is, to denote supreme homage. There is then no other way than for each one to determine the sense in which the word is used in each particular instance, by other portions of Scripture about which there can be no doubt or difference of opinion. There remains, then, the second part of your question, “if the titles” and here again we differ as to our premises, and cannot, of course, come to the same conclusion. Unitarians do not believe that the “titles,” “attributes,” or “works ascribed to God are attributed to Christ,” in the same way or in the same sense. I will not enlarge upon this point here, because it has been fully discussed elsewhere.

In another part of your letter you make the following inquiries. “Have you become so far acquainted with the productions of Unitarians, as to satisfy yourself that, the Trinity excepted, in all other respects they and we are, and ought to be, one people? If you have, I most heartily rejoice at it, and I long to partake of the discovery. Do they believe, as you have been accustomed to hear from paternal and other lips, and accustomed, as I suppose, to believe and feel too,—do they believe in the lost and depraved condition of human nature, in the necessity and nature of the atonement, in the constituents and evidences of regeneration, in the cross of Christ, in self-denial and sacrifices, in non-conformity to the world, and in heavenly-mindedness and other kindred subjects, as you have been accustomed to regard these matters? If so, it is high time we should come together, high time for Trinitarians to confess that they have injured and slandered their Unitarian brethren. I, for one, shall have very much to repent of, to ask God’s and their forgiveness for, and to forsake. And I am ready to do all these things, and to do so with cheerfulness, if any of them can convince me that I have wronged them. I have condemned them in days past, but not, as one of their writers expresses it, ‘without a hearing,’ nor ‘from the unfriendly representations of others.’ If I have (and I certainly have) borne testimony against them, it has been ‘with a good conscience.’ But I think I have ever been, and still am, ready to do them ample justice.”

My dear father, no one, who knows you as I do, would doubt this for a moment. And yet while men make their particular views of the doctrines taught in the Bible necessary to salvation, I do not see how those who differ in their views can come together. The Unitarian is willing to give the name of Christian to all who acknowledge Christ as their divinely commissioned Teacher and Head. “We may safely affirm,” says a Unitarian writer, “that the Scriptural sense of the term Christian, to which it might be wise for Christians to adhere, is neither more nor less than that of a disciple of Christ,—of one who, from a sincere belief in Christ’s divine commission and Messiaship, chooses him for his instructor and his Lord.” But others are not willing to use the term Christian as it is used in the Bible.

In regard to the inquiries you make concerning Unitarians, namely, whether I have found out that there is no difference between them and Trinitarians upon certain doctrinal points, I answer that I think there is a great difference; but differences are to be expected while men’s minds are so variously constituted. Upon fundamental points, that is, those points, a belief in which is necessary to salvation, I do not think there can be any difference of opinion, because I believe they are so plainly revealed that no honest inquirer can mistake them. In regard to all the points mentioned by you in the extract I have made from your letter, Unitarians have a certain belief; it is rather a different belief from yours, but they think, as you do of your views; namely, that they are sustained by the Bible.

“We think, says the Rev. Orville Dewey, “that they (that is, Trinitarians) ought to listen to us, when we make the plea, once their own,”—he had been alluding to the fact that all Protestants had once to defend themselves from charges of heresy;—”that we believe, according to our honest understanding of their import, all things that are written in the Holy Scriptures.

“There is one circumstance which makes the statement of this defence peculiarly pertinent and proper for us. And that is, the delicacy which has been felt by our writers and preachers about the use of terms. When we found, for instance, that the phrase, ‘Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,’ and that the words atonement, regeneration, election, with some others, were appropriated by the popular creeds, and stood in prevailing usage, for orthodox doctrines, we hesitated about the free use of them. It was not because we hesitated about the meaning which Scripture gave to them, but about the meaning which common usage had fixed upon them. We believed in the things themselves, we believed in the words as they stood in the Bible, but not as they stood in other books. But, finding that, whenever we used these terms, we were charged, even as our great Master himself was, with ‘deceiving the people,’ and not anxious to dispute about words, we gave up the familiar use of a portion of the Scriptural phraseology. Whether we ought, in justice to ourselves, so to have done, is not now the question. We did so; and the consequence has been, that the body of the people, not often hearing from our pulpits the contested words and phrases, not often hearing the words propitiation, sacrifice, the natural man, the new birth, and the Spirit of God,—hold themselves doubly warranted in charging us with a defection from the faith of Scripture.”

You will perhaps recollect, my dear father, expressing your alarm, when I told you, after hearing a Unitarian sermon upon regeneration, that I thought it a faithful and Scriptural one, only I missed some of the technicalities, to which I had been accustomed. The substance, I thought, was there, though presented in a new shape; the solid truth I discovered, though divested of its orthodox and popular dress and drapery.

But further, after asserting the firm belief of Unitarians in the Scriptures, Mr. Dewey says, “in the first place, we believe ‘in the Father, and in the Son, and in the Holy Ghost.’ This was the simple, primitive creed of the Christians; and it were well if men had been content to receive it in its simplicity. As a creed, it was directed to be introduced into the form of baptism. The rite of baptism was appropriated to the profession of Christianity. The converts were to be baptized into the acknowledgment of the Christian religion; ‘baptized in the name,’ that is, into the acknowledgment ‘of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.’“

After enlarging upon this baptismal form, he says, secondly, “We believe in the atonement. That is to say, we believe in what that word, and similar words, mean in the New Testament. We take not the responsibility of supporting the popular interpretations. They are various, and are constantly varying, and are without authority, as much as they are without conformity and consistency. What the divine record says, we believe according to the best understanding we can form of its import.

After declaring that Unitarians believe the death of Christ was an atonement, a sacrifice, a propitiation, he says: “But now the question is, what is an atonement, a sacrifice, a propitiation? And this is the difficult question,—a question to the proper solution of which much thought, much cautious discrimination, much criticism, much knowledge, and especially of the ancient Hebrew sacrifices, is necessary. Can we not ‘receive the atonement,’ without this knowledge, this criticism, this deep philosophy? What then is to become of the mass of mankind, of the body of Christians? Can we not savingly ‘receive the the atonement’ unless we adopt some particular explanation, some peculiar creed, concerning it? Who will dare to answer this question in the negative, when he knows that the Christian world is filled with differences of opinion concerning it? . . . . The atonement is one thing; the gracious interposition of Christ in our behalf; the doing of all that was necessary to be done, to provide the means and the way for our salvation—this is one thing; in this we all believe. The philosophy, the theory, theology (so to speak) of the atonement, is another thing.”

“In the third place,” says he, “we believe in human depravity; and a very serious and saddening belief it is, too, that we hold on this point. We believe in the very great depravity of mankind, in the exceeding depravation of human nature. We believe that ‘the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.’“ Then, after assenting to several of the strongest texts upon this point, he says: “We believe that this was not intended to be taken without qualifications, for Paul, as we shall soon have occasion to observe, made qualifications. . . . . First, it is not the depravity of nature, in which we believe. Human nature—nature as it exists in the bosom of an infant—is nothing else but capability; capability of good as well as evil, though more likely, from its exposures, to be evil than good. . . . . Secondly, it is not in the unlimited application of Paul’s language, that we believe. When he said ‘No, not one,’ he did not mean to say that there was not one good man in the world. He believed that there were good men. . . . . Neither, thirdly, do we believe in what is technically called ‘total depravity’; that is to say, a total and absolute destitution of everything right, even in bad men.”

“From this depraved condition, we believe, in the fourth place, that men are to be recovered, by a process, which is termed in the Scriptures, regeneration. We believe in regeneration, or the new birth. That is to say, we believe, not in all the ideas which men have affixed to those words, but in what we understand the sacred writers to mean by them. We believe that, ‘except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God;’ that ‘he must be new created in Christ Jesus;’ that ‘old things must pass away, and all things become new.’ We certainly think that these phrases applied with peculiar force to the condition of people, who were not only to be converted from their sins, but from the very forms of religion in which they had been brought up; and we know indeed that the phrase ‘new birth’ did, according to the usage of the language in those days, apply especially to the bare fact of proselytism. But we believe that men are still to be converted from their sins, and that this is a change of the most urgent necessity, and of the most unspeakable importance. . . . .

“We believe, too, in the fifth place, in the doctrine of election. That is to say, again, we believe in what the Scriptures, as we understand them, mean by that word. . . . . The truth is, that the doctrine of election is a matter either of scholastic subtilty, or of presumptuous curiosity, with which, as we apprehend, we have but very little to do. Secret things belong to God. We believe in what the Bible teaches of God’s infinite and eternal foreknowledge. . . . . We believe in election, not in selection. We believe in foreknowledge, not in fate. . . . .

“In the sixth place, we believe in a future state of rewards and punishments. We believe that sin must ever produce misery, and that holiness must ever produce happiness. . . . . But there has been that attempt to give definiteness to the indefinite language of the Bible on this subject, to measure the precise extent of those words which spread the vastness of the unknown futurity before us; and with this system of artificial criticism, the popular ignorance of Oriental figures and metaphors has so combined to fix a specific meaning on the phraseology in question, that it is difficult to use it without constant explanation. ‘Life everlasting,’ and ‘everlasting fire,’ the mansions of rest, and the worm that never dieth, are phrases fraught with a just and reasonable, but, at the same time, vast and indefinite import. . . . . We believe, then, in a heaven and a hell. We believe there is more to be feared hereafter than any man ever feared, and more to be hoped than any man ever hoped.

“Once more, and finally, we believe in the supreme and all-absorbing importance of religion. . . . . The soul’s concern is the great concern.” But I must bring these extracts to a close, for I find I cannot do justice to Mr. Dewey without occupying more space than my limits will allow. I must refer you to the work itself, [1] where you will find much that must interest you. It is a delightful book. I will only add, that the sentiments contained in these extracts are such as I have met with in every Unitarian work which I have read.

[Please note that Spirit & Truth Fellowship International does not necessarily agree with the full content of this letter, however we think it is a very valuable and historical document that needs to be available online for all to read and study.]


1. Dewey’s Controversial Sermons, published in 1840. Back to top

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