[The following are excerpts of a paper submitted in April for Senior Honors research in the Department of History and Political Science, School of Arts and Sciences, Longwood College, Virginia. Bibliographical information in the footnotes has been edited to conserve space. We believe the author sheds needed light on how the Christian convictions of American Unitarianism were destroyed by Emerson’s assault on the Bible and his assertion that all people are divine. Sounds like “ye shall be as gods” (Gen. 3:5 – KJV)].


The late church historian, Sydney Ahlstrom, calls the Christian Unitarians “An American Reformation.” He draws a comparison between the Protestant Reformation of 1517 and the establishment of the Unitarian church in America in the early seventeenth century. The Unitarian church was considered liberal by other denominations because it did not adhere to the orthodox teaching of the Trinity and denied the complete sinfulness of man. This liberal stance was rooted in Enlightenment philosophy of reason and logic. The Unitarians utilized these Enlightenment ideals to develop their theology. Rather than taking everything by faith like many of the other denominations did, the Unitarians stood apart in their thinking. The result was a rational faith.

The Unitarian congregation was centralized in New England. As the denomination grew in the nineteenth century it began to spread throughout the United States. The congregations of many Unitarian churches consisted of the elite upper class in Massachusetts. Unitarianism was the religion of the educated and refined of New England. In a letter to her brother, Harriet Beecher Stowe stated that all of the trustees and professors of Harvard College were Unitarian. Prominent Unitarians included men like Andrews Norton, Charles Chauncy, President John Adams, Daniel Webster, and Alexander Hamilton. Unitarians emphasized experiences of God through reason, logic and rightly interpreting the Bible.

During the early to mid-nineteenth century the Unitarian denomination experienced a counter-reformation, which started with the Transcendentalists. The Transcendentalists were a constituency within the Unitarian church that desired to reform the church. They wanted to rid the church of its rationalism and infuse a naturalistic religion. The movement away from a rational religious understanding to a naturalistic one necessarily would include transforming the Unitarian view of God. The Transcendentalists were writers and thinkers like Henry David Thoreau, Theodore Parker, George Ripley, and most importantly, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Many of the Transcendentalists were brought up in the Unitarian church. They preached the idea of finding God through nature and natural experience. The Transcendentalists’, especially Emerson’s, ideals of individuality and self-reliance moved Unitarianism from corporate experience and traditional worship to an emphasis on individual worship.

As a prominent figure in the Transcendentalist movement, Ralph Waldo Emerson also led the reaction against Unitarianism. Emerson’s father, William Emerson, was a minister of the First Church of Boston, which was a Unitarian congregation. Like his father, Ralph Waldo Emerson was an ordained Unitarian minister. On July 15, 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered his famous “Divinity School Address” to Harvard Divinity School. In his address Emerson presented the idea of breaking free from the traditions of institutionalized religion, denounced organized religion as a whole, and stated that every man was divine.

The divinity school address caused a great stir among Unitarian leaders. Andrews Norton, who was in the audience at the Divinity Hall address, abhorred Emerson’s ideas and wrote a response entitled, “The Latest Form of Infidelity.” Others, such as Theodore Parker, embraced the address and found the message liberating. As a member of Emerson’s Transcendental Club, Parker agreed with Emerson and felt that the Unitarian church was too caught up in tradition.

The Transcendentalists’ teachings helped to divide the church into the Unitarian fundamentalists and the liberal Transcendentalists. The Transcendentalists “fundamentally” helped to move Unitarianism away from its foundations in Enlightenment thinking as well as biblical Christianity. And consequently, moved the denomination closer to the other Protestant mainstream denominations of America. The thesis of this paper is that Emerson was the primary force in shifting the Unitarian church away from revealed religion towards natural religion.

Few religious scholars have discussed the Unitarian controversy, as well as the impact of the Transcendentalists on the Unitarian denomination. Moreover, scholars have not closely examined the intellectual influences on both the Unitarians and the Transcendentalists. Similarly, few scholars have closely analyzed Emerson’s true discontent with the church, which led to the Transcendentalist movement, or the various responses to Emerson’s address. This study reveals how religious thinking is never static, but is always in a constant state of transition. Within a period of thirty years during the early nineteenth century, the Unitarian church changed from a rational scriptural faith into a natural religion. These changes were nothing new, however. Even today religious transformation and growth still exists. David Barrett, professor of missiometrics (the science of missionary work) at Regent University, states concerning the rapid growth and expansions of religions in the world today, “The main thing we’ve discovered is that there is enormous religious change going on across the world, all the time. It’s massive, it’s complex, and it’s continual.” The book of Ecclesiastes also claims this, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

The two events that initiated the changes in the Unitarian church was the essential establishment of the congregation by Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing and the Divinity Hall Address delivered by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson was the chief liberal of the liberal Christians; he embraced the fashionable philosophies of his time and stood against the Christian doctrine within the Unitarian congregation. While it is not the case that every person within the denomination adopted his views, Emerson’s natural philosophy influenced enough people that schism, evolution, and reestablishment necessarily occurred. This is religious transformation at its finest.

Unitarian Background

The American Unitarians were a distinct denomination of Christians with devoted roots in Puritan Congregationalism. The Puritans were a Protestant group who departed Europe in the fifteenth century to escape religious persecution. In 1620 the Puritans arrived in America. They desired a religion that emphasized a more biblical approach to faith, rather than the traditional position taken by the Anglican Church. They believed that each congregation should be autonomous. As the primary established religion in the New World, the Congregationalists grew into the primary Protestant denomination in America. It was out of this religious establishment that the Unitarian congregation developed.

During the early eighteenth century pastors witnessed a decline in church attendance. In order to compensate for this decline and to ensure the salvation of all, ministers revived Calvinism. John Calvin (1509-1564) developed the concept of “covenant theology.” This theology was based upon the idea that man was utterly depraved and wicked because of original sin. The punishment for this sin was eternal damnation. In order to escape this punishment one had to come into a covenant with God. Those entering into this covenant were known as “visible Christians” or “the elect.” The revival of Calvinism is attributed to the Congregational minister Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758). In 1731 Edwards preached a sermon entitled “God Glorified in Man’s Dependence.” In this sermon Edwards emphasized Calvinism and the idea of God’s absolute sovereignty in relation to salvation. Edwards, along with other prominent clergymen such as George Whitefield, delivered emotionally charged sermons in a series of revivals between 1740 and 1742.

In these revivals, known as the Great Awakening, ministers emphasized the wretchedness of man and claimed that without repentance, one would face an eternity in hell. The Great Awakening resulted in not only the conversion of the masses, but also the polarization and establishment of other Christian denominations. The Great Awakening produced a split between the Congregational rationalists and the Congregational emotionalists. The emotionalists looked down upon those speaking against the fanatical movement. They believed that in order to gain salvation one must undergo a conversion experience. The rationalists did not believe in the overemotional responses that the revivalists required for salvation.

One specific rational group, the Unitarians, gained its drive for development because of their stand. During the first Great Awakening Unitarian minister Charles Chauncy (1705-87) wrote Seasonable Thoughts (1743), which opposed the overemotional revivalism of the time. Chauncy urgently encouraged others not to tolerate the fanatical movements: “Is it not the command of GOD, that they [those who partook of the revivalism] be rebuked sharply, that they may be found in the Faith; not giving Heed to the Commandments of Men, that turn from the Truth? And can we satisfy our Consciences, while we live in the Neglect of so plain a Duty? An’t we very Cowards in the Cause of Christ?” To the Unitarians, Christianity was not to be based upon fleeting emotions, but the progress of intellectualism and dedicated obedience to Scriptural principles. Despite the Unitarian opposition, the revivals proceeded and as a result, these revivals produced a more emotional, less rational basis for the Christian faith, as well as less educated disciples.

Opposition from the emotionalists during the Great Awakening strengthened the Unitarians’ convictions. Even though they opposed the fanatical movements, however, the Unitarian denomination still belonged to the Congregationalist body. Later in its development the Unitarians standing within the Congregationalist society would change. It is in this context that the development of the Unitarian Church as a denomination grew.

In addition to the split between rationalists and emotionalists, Congregationalists also divided between liberals and orthodox. The liberals during early American history were those who did not adhere to the primary Christian doctrine as stated in basic church teachings. The liberals of the early American period denied the doctrine of the Trinity, believing Jesus as the Son of God, not God the Son. They believed in salvation for all men, not just the elect, as well as the inerrant Word of God. They also rejected the utter depravity and sinfulness of man. Jesus Christ was not just the Son of God, but also the chief example of moral excellence.

The liberals believed the redemptive work of Christ was not redemption from sin, but rather the perfection and progress of humanity. In pursuing to live holy and moral lives, the liberals looked to Christ as the Son of God who was obedient to God in all ways. For this reason Christ was honored. Because the liberals did not believe in the utter depravity of mankind and that a divine element still remained in man, there were high hopes for the progress of mankind. Humanity was not resting “in the hands of an angry God,” but rather in the hands of a loving Father who cared for each individual and desired for each person to come to a knowledge of Him, His Son, and the goodness of the world. In sum, the liberals held more to the Apostles Creed than the Nicene Creed.

In contrast, the more conservative Congregationalists held to the Nicene Creed and believed that man was completely sinful and needed salvation. The salvation from sin came from the atoning work of Jesus Christ. The sinfulness of man caused a division between man and God. This sin could be accounted for if one accepted God’s grace through the saving accomplishment of Christ on the cross. They believed in the doctrine of the Trinity, which states that God is composed of a “godhead” which is composed of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Each of these “persons” composes a single entity, namely God. They, like the liberals, believed that the Bible was the inerrant word of God. These primary differences between the liberals and conservatives within the Congregationalist organization would become a source of contention and result ultimately in a permanent schism between the two.

During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the liberal rationalists increased their strength and power within the Congregational church. Liberals strengthened their power within the church by gaining control of Kings Chapel in Boston between 1776 and 1787. Prior to the American Revolution the congregation at Kings Chapel was chiefly Anglican, because the church housed a high population of Tories. After the end of the Revolutionary War, the rector and his aide were deported back to the Old World. With their absence, the church experienced a greater amount of religious openness that enabled the congregation to worship freely. James Freeman (1759-1835), a Harvard graduate, was called to be the lay reader of the church. Freeman introduced a revamped Book of Common Prayer. In 1782 Freeman expressed his delight in his liberties by stating, “They [the congregation] allow me to make several alterations in the service, which liberty I frequently use.”

The liberties Freeman took were primarily in regard to his views on the Trinity. Freeman’s views on the Trinity are not specifically spelled out but it can be asserted based upon the changes in the service that Freeman made that he did not view the Trinity as scriptural. Freeman dropped the Nicene Creed, a primary doctrinal creed of Christianity, retained the Apostles Creed, and modified references to the second and third person of the Trinity (God the Son and God the Holy Spirit). These changes were more appropriate for his Unitarian preference. In the tradition of his Puritan forefathers Freeman believed that his alterations were in support of advancing the pure word of God. In the Preface to the Liturgy Freeman writes, “The Liturgy, contained in this volume, is such, as no Christian, it is supposed, can take offence at, or find his conscience wounded in repeating. The Trinitarian, the Unitarian, the Calvinist, the Arminian will read nothing in it which can give him any reasonable umbrage.” Despite his Unitarian “tendencies” Freeman was ordained on November 18, 1787 by the congregation of King’s Chapel. Kings Chapel became the first Unitarian church in America.

In 1810, liberal Congregationalists also assumed the leadership of Harvard College, making it the center of Unitarian education. In the early nineteenth century, Hollis divinity professor David Tappan and Harvard President Joseph Willard died. The opening of these two positions sparked a great controversy known as “The Unitarian Controversy.” Orthodox minister and Harvard supervisor Jedidiah Morse demanded that the positions go to orthodox men. This demand opened a doctrinal dispute between the liberals and the orthodox of Boston. In the end, Morse lost and Henry Ware (1764-1840), a liberal minister, accepted the position of Hollis Professor. In 1806 the Harvard Presidency went to liberal Samuel Webber. Four years later John Thorton Kirkland, another liberal, took the presidency and added three more faculty members to the liberal ranks, one of whom was John Quincy Adams. From that point Harvard College remained the stronghold of Unitarian education.

The primary result of the Unitarian takeover of Harvard was stronger discontent between the Unitarians and the Trinitarians within the Congregational society. At the point when the Unitarians seized control of Harvard College and the Unitarian Controversy began there ceased pulpit exchanges. Prior to the split in the Congregationalist churches between the liberals and orthodox both Unitarians and Trinitarians shared pulpits and delivered sermons. This was primarily due to the fact that the Unitarians did not press doctrinal issues until 1812. Denying the right of the liberals to speak was very injurious to the church. This act deemed the liberals as outcasts. With the schism between the two sects, Dr. Gannett, a Unitarian, rightly stated, “We are a community by ourselves.”

In 1819, William Ellery Channing articulated the basic doctrines of Unitarianism in a speech entitled Unitarian Christianity. [1] This speech was given in Baltimore at the ordination of the Reverend Jared Sparks. In his speech, Channing emphasized two major tenets of the Unitarian faith: 1) the principles used to properly interpret Scripture and 2) the doctrines that were conceived from the interpretation. From these two tenets the theological basis of the Unitarian faith was established. [2] In the speech, Channing elaborated on the Unitarian doctrines of a single God (as opposed to a triune divinity), universal salvation, and the inherent moral perfection of God, which enabled man to overcome the bonds of sin and walk in moral perfection.

Channing’s speech was emblematic of the rationalists’ faith. The Unitarians’ emphasized the use of logic and reason to understand scripture. In Unitarian Christianity Channing called for both liberal and orthodox Christians to use their logical mental faculties: “God has given us a rational nature, and will call all of us to an account of it.” [3] Moreover, the Unitarians had a high regard for the Bible, believing it the inspired word of God. In respect to the Bible the Unitarian attitude was similar to that of Anglican William Chillingworth who said, “The Bible, the Bible, I say, the Bible only, is the religion of Protestants.” Unlike their Puritan ancestors, however, the Unitarians’ faith focused more on the New Testament. It is this emphasis on the Bible as the infallible word of God and the use of logic that helped formulate Unitarian doctrine.

Part of their logical interpretation of Scripture included the logical principle of non-contradiction. This law states that if two things are slightly different in any way they are not the same. Channing emphasized the use of this principle and exemplified the Unitarian mindset when he stated, “we believe that God never contradicts, in one part of Scripture, what he teaches in another; and never contradicts in revelation, what he teaches in his works and providence. Their doctrinal reasoning might look like this syllogism:

1. The Bible says that God is not a man (Num. 23:19).
2. If the Bible says God is not a man, then Jesus, being a man (Acts 2:22; 1 Tim. 2:5), is not God.
3. Therefore, Jesus Christ is not God.


1. The Bible says that God wants all men to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth (1 Tim. 2:4, italics mine).
2. If the Bible says that God wants all men to be saved, then salvation is available to all people, not just the “elect.”
3. Therefore, salvation is available for all people.” [4]

The Unitarians were devoutly monotheistic in their faith and worship. Their rejection of the Trinity prompted their orthodox opponents to label them “Unitarians.” To Unitarians, a triune God was inconceivable and illogical because it could not be logically interpreted from Scripture. In Unitarian Christianity, Channing requested evidences of the Trinity in Scripture: “We challenge our opponents to adduce one passage in the New Testament, where the word God means three persons, where it is not limited to one person, and where, unless turned from its usual sense by the connexion, it does not mean the Father.” Although some historians state that the Trinity was not the primary tenet of the liberals’ faith, it was clearly the cause of much dialogue between the liberals and the orthodox.

The Unitarian Christianity speech was given primarily to clear up misconceptions that the Congregationalist brethren had about the Unitarians. Orthodox Congregationalists commonly criticized the Unitarians for their reliance on reason. The orthodox also argued that even though doctrines such as the Trinity were indeed illogical and unsound, there was no reason to disbelieve them, for God was so immense and so great that He and His ways were outside of reason. The conclusion to their argument is that one cannot truly know God for He is outside reason. The Congregationalists, like their Puritan ancestors, believed that God was knowable and could be experienced especially through prayer and devoted Scripture reading. In fact the necessary requisite condition for salvation was some type of conversion experience. The primary contradiction arises when the orthodox believe that God is knowable and understanding His Word can come through reason, logic, and experience. Yet He is unknowable because He cannot be conceived by reason. [For further study read Can we really know God?]

One of the orthodox complaints was that relying too heavily on logic and reason would negate the role of miracles within Christianity. Despite their heavy use of logic and reason the Unitarians still made room for the reality of miracles. Thus, the miracles performed by Jesus and specifically his resurrection was the historical event from which the Unitarians received their faith. Within their interpretation of the Bible, the Unitarians emphasized the miracles of Christ as evidence of the truths of Christianity. Miracles were acts or occurrences that were against what was known in natural law (i.e., walking on water or turning water into wine). Miracles, however, are not in accordance with logic. They were based either upon experience or upon faith. Despite the lack of logical consistency of miracles, belief in miracles was, and still is, one of the basic essentials of the Unitarian faith and Christian apologetics.

Because of their strong emphasis on reason and inspiration of Scripture most Unitarians shied away from emotional experiences and mystical, naturalistic philosophy. [5] They denounced personal religious experiences as a necessity for salvation. Although they did not deny the possibility of personal conversion experiences, the Unitarians thought that the requirement of a conversion experience to be admitted into the church was quite unnecessary and outright evil. Their antagonism towards conversion experiences was based upon their conception of God and salvation. Instead of believing in a personal religious conversion the Unitarians believed in a universal salvation.

In their eyes, God took on fatherly qualities, as portrayed by Jesus. Channing stated, “To give our views of God in one word, we believe in his Parental character. We ascribe to him, not only the name, but the dispositions and principles of a father. We believe that he has a father’s concern for his creatures, a father’s desire for their improvement, a father’s equity in proportioning his commands to their powers, a father’s joy in their progress, a father’s readiness to receive the penitent, and father’s justice for the incorrigible.” Using logic the Unitarians believed that it was inconceivable that man was evil by nature while having a good and morally perfect Creator. As a loving father, God desired all of His children to be saved, not just the “elect” of which the Congregationalists spoke. The Unitarians believed that it was the love and goodness of God, rather than the fear and intimidation of hell or God, that would cause repentance and thus lead to conversion. The Unitarians did win out on this point in debates with the orthodox denominations.

All in all, Unitarian Christianity essentially demarcated the differences between the liberals and orthodox within the Congregationalist church. With Channing’s speech the Unitarian liberals were officially ostracized from the ranks of Congregationalism.

With their separation from the orthodox Congregationalists, the Unitarians spread their rational gospel through an organization dedicated to its cause. Like other religious groups in the early 1800s, the liberal ministers recognized that in order to strengthen their convictions they needed an official network of churches. [6] In order to provide support for Unitarian beliefs, William Ellery Channing began the Berry Street Conference of liberal ministers in 1820. This group provided direction for the church in the midst of heightening opposition from orthodox congregations.

In 1825, the official culmination of the liberal ministers’ efforts occurred with the establishment of the American Unitarian Association (AUA). This organization enabled American Unitarianism to become a denomination. The Congregationalists officially recognized the AUA during this year. The AUA helped solidify and expand the Unitarian faith and gave the worshippers a sense of community. The members of this group were the great liberal ministers and thinkers of their time. Men like William Ellery Channing, Andrews Norton, Dr. Henry Ware and others made up the organization to “diffuse the knowledge and promote the interests of pure Christianity throughout our country.” The group published pamphlets and aided Unitarian congregations around the country. Some of the congregations were out of touch due to the geographical barriers that separated the eastern United States from the west. [7] To resolve this problem, the AUA developed a missionary system in which a minister was paid to travel from congregation to congregation in order to see that the churches were in good standing.

Following the establishment of the AUA the Unitarian denomination grew rapidly. By 1825, there were 125 Unitarian congregations within the American Unitarian Association. Along with the momentous expansion came notable adherents to the faith. Harriet Beecher Stowe commented to her brother that “all the literary men of Massachusetts were Unitarian; all the trustees and professors of Harvard College were Unitarian; all the elite of wealth and fashion crowded Unitarian churches; the judges on the bench were Unitarian.” These members included President John Adams, Daniel Webster, and Alexander Hamilton. By blending the Enlightenment ideals of logic and reason with faith in the miracles of Scripture, the Unitarians created a rich intellectual tradition. The pace at which the church was progressing would come to a quick halt, for little did they know that out of their own flock would come another source of opposition. &

© 2002 by Brandon T. Walker


1. Channing’s speech was said to be the second most circulated pamphlet in America, second only to Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (1776). Back to top

2. This format is important to note, because to the Unitarian mind it was first necessary to gain an understanding of what the Scripture said, and then derive a proper doctrine, not the other way around. This is contrary to many other Christians of the time, who had first determined their doctrine and then interpreted Scripture accordingly. Andrews Norton stated in his Inaugural Discourse at Cambridge, “When he comes to the study of the scriptures, in proportion as he removes all the accumulated rubbish of technical theology, under which their meaning has been buried, and obtains a distinct view of it, he will discern new and very striking evidence of the truth of our religion.” Back to top

3. William Ellery Channing, Unitarian Christianity. From Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism, by Conrad Wright, p. 55. Some of the philosophers who are credited with founding these Enlightenment ideals were Unitarian in their theological beliefs. For example, John Locke (1632-1704) is noted as the chief promoter of empiricism. Locke was a Unitarian but was unwilling to openly admit his holdings. Likewise, Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) was an Enlightenment thinker and rejected the doctrine of the trinity. John Locke formulated one of the primary Enlightenment ideals of empiricism. In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690) Locke argued that human knowledge was not gained through innate ideas. Each human was born tabula rasa, literally a “blank slate.” Knowledge, according to Locke, was recorded through impression of the senses. This philosophy is called empiricism. These impressions could then be reflected upon and ideas created by them. Thus the world was perceived with the body’s sensory faculties, ideas were formed by the impression, and the ideas accurately represented reality. Both Congregationalists and Unitarians used this idea of empiricism. Back to top

4. Please note that salvation was available to all people according to the Unitarian faith. The availability does not ensure salvation to all but merely makes it accessible by all. They did not believe that everyone would be saved until later. The answer to question 64 in Part III Questions on the New Testament of the Worcester Cathecism states, “They [The apostles] preached that Jesus, who was crucified, was the Messiah, i.e. the Christ, the Son of God, and the Saviour of men; and that sinners who repent and believe in his name, should be saved.” See Ahlstrom, An American Reformation. Back to top

5. As naturalistic philosophy it should be understood that the early Unitarians did not see a separation between the Creator and Creation. Creation was not all there was and mystical philosophy like that of Hegel and Coleridge were given little regard due to their illogic. Science was used in order to understand the world around them and natural religion was that of understanding the natural laws which God had placed around his creation. Back to top

6. In 1836 Orestes Brownson began the Society for Christian Union and Progress. See The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism by William Hutchison, p. 25. Christian denominations developed societies and organizations that advanced the spread of the gospel. Organizations like the American Bible Society began mass production and distribution of Bibles. Other organizations provided tracts and educational materials. The Unitarians were included in this movement. Back to top

7. During the nineteenth century the Unitarian church spread all the way to the West Coast. Back to top

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