Wednesday, June 11, 2008

"I Think, Therefore I Am...a Unitarian"

I have always been amazed at the propensity of many within American society to classify our founders as either strictly Deists or orthodox Christians. Whether in political circles, religious congregations or college classrooms, it seems as though this “custody battle” for the religious legacy of our founders will never be resolved. Christian Nationalists, who refuse to recognize even the possibility that America’s founders embraced a belief other than orthodox Christianity, have embarked on a crusade to “save” America’s “Christian” origins from the clutches of evil secularists. On the other side of the coin, radical secularists, clothed in the robe of scholarly arrogance and superiority, have countered their Christian foes by attempting to eradicate any and all traces of Christian sentiment in the legacy of our founders. Though I must admit my belief that both sides in this ridiculous argument are missing the mark, I am also compelled to recognize the fact that the Christian right is more at fault for its efforts to revise or “save” America’s founding legacy. While there are a number of secularist scholars who remain steadfast in their views, their numbers seem virtually insignificant when compared to the army of the Christian Nationalists.

This ongoing argument between Christian and Secularist is something I have written about many times in the past. Though I tend to be a centrist in my views, I believe that there is a sensible answer to this seemingly ageless debate. The answer does not rest on one’s ability to successfully debunk the Deist or Christian views, but instead centers on the true religion of America’s key founders: Unitarianism

The roots of Unitarian doctrine, though deeply entrenched in the rationalism of the Enlightenment, can be best explained by one of its earliest supporters. The Reverend Charles Chauncy of Boston became one of the earliest proponents of rationalism and intellectualism. These beliefs ended up putting him at odds with one of the heroes of the Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards, who supported a passionate and emotional communion with Deity. In his pamphlet, Seasonable Thoughts on the State of Religion in New England, Chauncy lays out the case for intellectualism in religion. In response to the explosion of emotionalism brought on by the Great Awakening, Chauncy writes:

“Men may open to us the Temper of their Minds, in a Relation of their Experiences: But even here, we are liable to be deceived. They may be mistaken about their own State; and what is worse, may represent Things different from what they really are: so at the best we only judge in this case upon Supposition. And as there is so much Hypocrisy in the World, it would be but Prudence to hear Men’s Declarations, respecting themselves with a heedful caution. It may perhaps be a Truth here, as well as in other Cases, Actions speak louder than Words.”
In this declaration, Chauncy not only promotes the benefits of rational thought, but suggests that personal emotional communion with the divine should be taken with a grain of salt. In essence, Chauncy invokes the doctrine of Unitarianism.

For those who supported Chauncy’s assertions, along with other intellectual beliefs that were being tossed around, rational thought in a religious context became a strong belief, which liberated the mind from the tyranny of pious ministers. As John Locke and other Enlightenment philosophers had argued, mankind was a free agent. Historian Sydney Ahlstrom points out in his book, A Religious History of the American People the following:

God’s grace and mercy were needed, to be sure; yet with regard to the nature of man and human ability, these liberal ministers showed perhaps a greater measure of confidence than any significant group of churchmen in Reformed tradition. And what buoyed their confidence above all was the exhilaration of national independence, the economic and social advances of the American people, and the great destiny (already manifest) of this New World democracy. The idea prevailed widely that “this new man, this American” was a new Adam, sinless, innocent – mankind’s great second chance. Nowhere was it given so well-rooted a Christian interpretation as among these New England liberals, whose ideas on man were far more determinative than the ideas about Godhead which later won them the name “Unitarian.”
Naturally, critics of this new “infidel” doctrine went on the attack, labeling early Unitarians as essentially closet atheists. After all, these “infidels” had publicly challenged the religious status quo of Christian orthodoxy. Even contemporary Christian Nationalists follow the same formula as earlier Christian zealots in their attacks on Unitarianism, which they see as nothing more than Deism in disguise. Unitarian doctrine, however, was not merely an infusion of Deist ideology, but was an incorporation of both Christian and Deist principles. As the Reverend William Ellery Channing stated:

Let us learn the distinction between Trinitarianism and Unitarianism. Many use these words without meaning, and are very zealous about sounds. Some suppose that Trinitarianism consists in believing in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. But we all believe in these; we all believe that the Father sent the Son, and gives, to those that ask, the Holy Spirit. We are all Trinitarians, if this is the belief in Trinitarianism. But it is not. The Trinitarian believes that the one God is three distinct persons, called Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; and he believes that each is the only true God, and yet that the three are only one God. This is Trinitarianism. The Unitarian believes that there is but one person possessing supreme Divinity, even the Father. This is the great distinction; let it be kept steadily in view…I am persuaded, that under these classes of high Unitarians many Christians ought to be ranked who call themselves orthodox and are Trinitarians (Reverend William Channing, 1798. Quoted in Sydney Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People, 395).
Reverend Channing further explains the rationale of Unitarian thought when he writes:

It seems to me of singular importance that Christianity should be recognized and presented in its true character…The low views of our religion, which have prevailed too long, should give place to this highest one. They suited perhaps darker ages. But they have done their work, and should pass away. Christianity should now be disencumbered and set free…It should come forth from the darkness and corruption of the past in its own celestial splendour, and in its divine simplicity. It should be comprehended as having but one purpose, the perfection of human nature, the elevation of men into nobler beings (Reverend William Channing, The Essence of the Cristian Religion, 1798. Quoted in Sydney Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People, 399).
While Reverend Channing was a more Christian-leaning Unitarian, his statements help to illustrate the fact that Unitarianism was an incorporation of both Deist and Christian philosophy. The fact that Channing openly questions Trinitarian doctrine is of note because it illustrates the fact that Unitarianism relied heavily on the rationalism of enlightened Deism. This explains why Unitarians such as James Madison were so vehemantly opposed to orthodox Trinitarian Christianity, but not opposed to the doctrines of Christ. In his Memorial and Remonstrance, Madison openly attacks Christianity as it had been practiced, but also defends the “pure” religion of Christ:

experience witnesseth that eccelsiastical establishments, instead of maintaining the purity and efficacy of Religion, have had a contrary operation.During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution. Enquire of the Teachers of Christianity for the ages in which it appeared in its greatest lustre; those of every sect, point to the ages prior to its incorporation with Civil policy. Propose a restoration of this primitive State in which its Teachers depended on the voluntary rewards of their flocks, many of them predict its downfall. On which Side ought their testimony to have greatest weight, when for or when against their interest?
This understanding of Unitarian doctrine also helps us to understand why George Washington refused to take Communion, but still regularly attended the Episcopal Church. As Sydney Ahlstrom states, “For the Unitarian…the Lord’s Supper was regarded more and more as neither a sacramental ‘means of grace’ nor a ‘converting ordinance,’ but as a simple memorial” (Religious History, 391). For the orthodox Christian, however, Communion still remained an extremely important ordinance and expression of public faith and piety. For Washington to omit such a practice from his personal religious practices is a perfect illustration of his Unitarian leanings.

In conclusion, it it important to note that each of our key founders -- Madison, Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Monroe, Hamilton, Adams -- were profoundly impacted by Unitarian philosophy. This explains why these men were able to both embrace AND reject Christian doctrines. Unitarianism was the key religion of our mainstream founders, and it allowed them the flexibility to believe -- or disbelieve -- as much or as little of the Christian faith as they personally saw fit.


Brian Tubbs said...

Good explanation of Unitarianism, but I disagree with your assumption that Washington was a Unitarian. I'll give you Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. Not Washington.

I will concede that it's POSSIBLE he was a Unitarian, but not likely.

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