From Consensus to Conflict, to Contact

From Consensus to Conflict, to Contact

A Reappraisal of the Early History of American Unitarianism
J.D. Bowers
Associate Professor of History
Northern Illinois University

First Annual Conrad Wright Endowed Lecture
Unitarian Universalist Historical Society
Cambridge First Unitarian Church
Cambridge, Massachusetts


Good evening.  I am deeply honored to be the invited speaker for this event, the inaugural lecture endowed in the name of a scholar whom I greatly respect, Conrad Wright.  I would like to thank all of the members of the UUHS and its leadership, especially Rev. Gordon Gibson, Rev. Mark Harris, and the entire Board of Trustees for extending to me this opportunity.  I also want to thank Dr. Wright, Dr. Dean Grodzins, and Andover Harvard Theological Library Archivist Ms. Fran O’Donnell.  Each has extended me their assistance over the years.

It is a pleasure to be able to share with you what I have spent so much time pondering and exploring.  I first came to know about Joseph Priestley when I was just a young boy.  Far from being a precocious child, my familiarity with him was simply a matter of circumstance.  Indeed, I grew up just four blocks from the Joseph Priestley House and Museum and spent a great deal of time playing in what was once his traditional English garden and stretch of lawn running from the house to the river.  Long before I came along, his lawn had been bisected by first the canals and then the railroads of the industrial era.  In my childhood the lower section of the lawn was, and remains to this day, a Little League Baseball field.  It was therefore baseball that brought me to Joseph Priestley and I hit my first home run in his former front yard.

I am here tonight not to reject or question the scholarship of those who have so ably cover the field of American Unitarian history before me; indeed, I am deeply indebted to all of them.  I do, however, hope to broaden the perspective, slightly shift the focus, and establish a mutually compatible yet somewhat alternative understanding that relies on the reality of transatlantic connections, patterns of American religious development and denominational growth, and moments of contact when the Unitarian landscape in America included the English Socianian theology of Joseph Priestley and inherited English Unitarian practices.

Priestley once wrote, in defense of his beliefs and practices and in response to challenges from both Trinitarian and liberal opponents, that, In my opinion, those who are usually called Socinians (who consider Christ as being mere man) are the only body of Christians who are properly entitled to the appellation of Unitarians.  Those who believed in the preexistence of Christ, the coeternal Jesus, Priestley firmly noted, can have no claim. [1]

Priestley had every reason to believe this position to be true and defensible, especially during his years in the United States.  It was his theology that then occupied center stage among the English Unitarians, flowing from his joint efforts with Theophilus Lindsey to establish the church, marked by the opening of Essex Street Chapel in 1774.  Likewise, his theological views and organizational ideas were openly espoused, accepted, and followed by the small yet growing group of Unitarians in America, the only group then identifying themselves as such, an identifiable group among the cacophony of groups then vying for attention within the new nation s religious landscape.

This is not to deny that there were others.  The Liberal Christians, as those on the fringes of Congregationalism, particularly in Boston and throughout New England, were called, held a theologically-based unitarian belief on the god-head.   But they had yet to distinguish themselves on the basis of that belief or the name alone.  The struggles over this issue and its ramifications for Congregational beliefs, identity, association, and membership remained willfully hidden and downplayed, so as to not spark open dissension and division that could harm Congregationalism in the larger religious community.

However, as the New England Liberal Christians and their followers struggled to keep these issues contained the English immigrants of Philadelphia and surrounding regions, inspired by Priestley s leadership and teachings, forged ahead and entered into the fray of the evolving religious community within the country and dared to openly occupy the radical fringes of the spectrum.  They declared themselves Unitarian in belief and membership, they espoused the ideas against the charges of heresy and despite the enmity and widespread opposition it brought upon them, and they claimed both the name and the theology 25 years before William Ellery Channing was ever willing to do the same.  Organized as a formal and legal society, the Philadelphia Unitarians were the first to openly lay claim to the denomination in the United States.  And if, as George W. Burnap once noted in a letter to the AUA, organization if far mightier than argument, then we can understand how we should revise our views on the history of Unitarianism in the United States.  But we can also use Burnam s argument to understand how and why the earliest group lost their identity and have not fared well in historical accounts of the Unitarian faith in America.

I have chosen the title of my talk this evening, From Consensus to Conflict, to Contact: A Reappraisal of the Early History of American Unitarianism, very carefully.  Consensus, conflict and contact are three models of religious analysis that have been put forward by several scholars as a way of problematizing the past and adding complexity to stories that have been to neatly told for the sake of narrative, civic ideals, or even as a way of keeping the scholarship on religion from riling up the masses.  Both Catherine Albanese and Martin Marty find this tripartite categorical model compelling for the simple fact that it forces us to take a step back and reappraise what we know and the prisms through which we have viewed that knowledge.  The end goal is to get to a position within the scholarly narrative that results in contact and thus provide a way to develop ever larger and more diverse narratives.  The conflict model, writes Albanese, emphasizes contentiousness and contests for recognition, status, and a fair share of the benefits accorded to the various religious traditions and groups.   But a contact model seeks to & include more.  Its argument is that conflict has been only one of a series of exchanges between religious peoples&and explore all of [the] exchanges. [2]  For too long the dominant model seems to have been one of conflict (or even consensus) focusing on the ways in which theological or institutional religion clashed.

Indeed, Will James s Varieties of Religious Experience provides some context on this very subject.  While James intended to examine only the meaning and purpose assigned to religion by the individual through their practices, beliefs, and customs, he did step away from the individual to examine the collective process, on that he found steeped in conflict.  James observed that when a denomination was in its formative stages that they underwent a period of inwardness which was tumultuous and complex and the result of competing beliefs.  This inwardness ended when one set of beliefs prevailed and was understood to be the groups identifying tenets.  This involved a natural tendency to expunge all vestiges of the competing beliefs and rewrites its historical narrative to coincide with the new reality, on its way to setting up an orthodox set of beliefs and staving off any future inspirations for dissent.[3]

The period of history that I am talking about seems to match James s identified sequence of developments almost perfectly.  I contend, however, that we should look again.  While there is little questioning that conflict was present, it was also a time in which contact was a significant part of the narrative and gives us a different perspective on the past.

First, we can see the process at work if we examine the accounts of Unitarianism that have been passed down to us from the period we are discussing.  Working backwards, starting with Daniel Rupp s 1844 work,Religious Denominations in the United States, a revision of his earlier workHe Passa Ekklesia, we find an account of American Unitarianism that was written by the Rev. Alvan Lamson of Dedham (MA).  Lamson s account, self-proclaimed as a truthful history of a unique, New England-based faith with its origins solely in the American past, completely omits all references to Unitarianism abroad, making no reference whatsoever to Priestley or English Unitarianism, and even thirty years after Channing s declaration of an assumption of the Unitarian title calls the New England believers Unitarian Congregationalists .[4]  This stance was similar to that expressed in another work written that same year by Robert Baird, who noted the longstanding homogenous character of the Unitarians and noted, in contrast to Priestley s beliefs that Unitarians were only Arians or decided Calvinists and rejected all claims of association with England formal or informal, theological or social as slander.[5]

Earlier writings, however, tell a different story.  In 1836 John Hayward sReligious Creeds and Statistics of Every Christian Denomination in the United States acknowledged the presence of Socinians in America but distinguished them from Unitarians.  The former was just a sect which believed that Christ was a mere title, while the latter were a Christian denomination with much in common with the Congregationalists save one small theological difference.[6]

Going back even earlier the story becomes increasingly complex and more steeped in contact between the Unitarianism from England and that emerging within New England.  In both the 1817 edition of Hannah Adams sDictionary of All Religion and Religious Denominations and James Mease s account of religious societies in Philadelphia, the Socinians not only make an independent appearance but are firmly declared to be the only avowed and recognized Unitarian society in the United States.  Mease laid the foundations of the faith at the feet of the theology, practice, and presence of the then-late Priestley.[7]  For her part, Adams s account of Unitarianism was spread throughout six different entries one each for Socinianism, Anti-trinitarianism, Humanism, Humanitarians, Arians, and Unitarians.  In her earlier editions the entries on Socinianism and Unitarianism were virtually identical, but in the 1817 edition she made it clear that the issue of Unitarian identity was contested.  Arians, Socinians, Humanitarians, and all Anti-trinitarians, she wrote, have an equal right to the denomination. [8]

Thus, by looking back we begin to see the emergence of a more complex story with multiple perspectives and a time when a different theology than the one espoused y Channing in 1819 was identified with the moniker and denominational identity of Unitarianism.

Who were these earlier Unitarians and where were they located?  The cohort of Socinian believers and adherents (for it would not be right to claim any sort of formal denominational structure) was spread throughout the United States, consisted mostly of English émigrés, and were led by ministers and others who had been directly influenced by Priestley during his years as a teacher or influenced through his writings in the course of their private study.  Not restricted to any one region, Priestleyan Unitarians were in Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Maine, Kentucky, Maryland, and Virginia.  They utilized the catechism drafted by Priestley and Lindsey in the 1780s, were often lay led, and used Priestley s published writings and sermons as their service texts.  While the New England liberals were still professed Congregationalists, not yet ready to take up a separate denominational identity, the Priestleyans were the only professed and avowed Unitarians.  And all the while they sought an association with the like-minded liberal Congregationalists, only to be rebuffed.

The failed association was lamentable.  But it also helps us account for why the first Unitarians lost their identity and were forced, throughout the period from the 1820s through the early 1900s.  While there is not enough time in this talk to detail the life and ministry of James Kay and his compatriots on the religious frontier, which I recount in Chapter 6 of my book, Joseph Priestley and English Unitarianism in America, those who followed Priestley s teaching and continued to link English Unitarianism with its manifestations in America, took on a new character as they struggled to contend with losing their identity, dwindling numbers, and little influence over the direction of liberal religion in the nation.

However small the legacy, it was still visible and represented a potential threat.  The sustained prominence of Unitarianism in England, Priestley s stature (even in death), lingering pockets of support, and new challenges all seemed to sustain Priestleyan Unitarianism.  Certainly Channing felt the pressures.  In the years leading up to his formal proclamation he spent considerable energy both denouncing Priestley and making sure that all ties between Socinians and Arians were severed.  Channing s evidence was less based on theology and more based on the prevailing sentiment of the majority of ministers throughout New England.  In giving to the wholecollection the name Unitarianism and in exhibiting this to the world as the creed of the Liberal Christians in this region, is perhaps as criminal an instance of unfairness as is to be found in the records of theological controversy. [9]  Twenty years later, nearing the end of his life he called Socinianism a millstone around the neck of Unitarianism and lamented that Dr. Priestley s authority had fastened this doctrine on his followers.   He later noted that with Priestley, I have less sympathy than with many of the Orthodox.  I hold little sympathy with the system of Priestley and Belsham, and stand aloof from all but those who strive and pray for a clearer light, he noted.[10]  It was clear that if being associated with Priestley was what it meant to be a Unitarian, then Channing, nearly thirty years after Priestley s death, wanted nothing to do with such tenets.  Thirty years of vehement opposition and hostility had not yet assuaged the anger or dimmed the force of Priestley, something which Channing intended to end.  In a sermon delivered before First Unitarian Church, Philadelphia, Channing refused to mention Priestley by name and yet spent the bulk of the homily denouncing his theological ideas, noting that Priestley s ideas had done real harm to the liberal movement and to Unitarianism.  The rejection of Christ s divinity was simply not acceptable.

Enter Belsham and the English Unitarians.  It was Belsham who denounced Channing and who maintained that it was his attempts to deny association between English and American Unitarianism that were the most destructive.  Arians were polytheistic, he noted, and were oblivious to the consequences of their own positions.  Unitarianism, had it been allowed to follow Priestley s theology, would have fared far better in the American religious landscape since Socinianism was not a theological hypocrisy.  Arians were not, simply put, Unitarian.[11]

Thus, the vast majority of American Unitarians throughout the 1820s and the following decades clearly sided with Channing and identified with the Arian theology.  The game was won.  But with new challenges came new needs and not everyone was as adamant about the need to strike a blow for a homogeneous character of Unitarianism.  Many were quite content to adopt (nee readopt and reinstate) a broader definition that encompassed liberalism s many strains and valued diversity as a strength not a weakness, as it was once characterized by Channing.  True enough, such a stance was clearly out of step with the prevailing trends within American Protestantism, but if the history of modern Unitarian Universalism teaches us anything it is that being out of step with the mainstream has been a valued characteristic within the faith.

I wish to end my considerations of Priestley with the words of one of those who stood against Channing s efforts.  F.W.P. Greenwood, editor of theUnitarian Miscellany, presents a clear view of the bi-communalism within the faith.  If you will permit me to quote him at length it will, I hope, reveal much.

We hold it out duty to remark that we were not pleased with the manner in which [Channing] speaks of Dr. Priestley.  It is true that the merits of Unitarian Christianity are not indivisibly linked with the character of any one of its advocates; but it seems to us that if there is one man to whom, more than to any other, Unitarians can look with confidence, and point with pride, as the honest, zealous, pious, unwearied, distinguished champion of their principles, Dr. Priestley is that man.  If the Orthodox see fit to revile him, and speak of him as an instance of the injurious tendency and influence of Unitarianism, we can only say that we wish we had many more like him. [12]

Greenwood went on:

In short, Dr. Priestley was a good as he was great.  In our opinion, he is not a man to be disclaimed.  We regard his memory with a fond reverence.

Given that the period between the 1780s and 1819 was one in which the struggles over Unitarian identity were fluid, it is easy to see why Priestley and the Socinians were granted the public identity as America s first Unitarians.  It was not a comfortable identity and one that they would not hold onto in the following decades.  But for a time it was clearly theirs.  The two groups, for one cannot call them wings of the same faith as both did not agree on their fellowship, clearly occupied similar space within the religious landscape.  They shared ideas, approaches, and even a name, but they did not share a path to their common vision for themselves or humanity.  They were at one both similar and different, both Unitarians but not theologically aligned.  What Priestley left undone, Channing accomplished as he institutionalized and formalized the structures of the beliefs into a denomination that was better able to engage the breadth of the nation s emerging religious dynamics.  But that should not and does not negate that it was Priestley and his followers who initially stepped forward, clearly announced their beliefs, and earned the appellation of Unitarian within America.

The year 1900 was a watershed moment.  May of that year marked the 75thanniversary of the founding of the AUA.  The celebration was one that sought to honor the fundamental achievements of Channing.  But the organizers also acknowledged that there were several other very influential figures and that the history of Unitarianism in America was not a monolithic history with a single stranded heritage.  In planning for the events a multitude of ministers were invited and the complex history of liberal Christianity was elucidated despite the fact that many in the movement had themselves walked almost completely away from Christian beliefs.  Chief among these newly acknowledged influences was Priestley.  His role, his ideas, his theology had taken on renewed importance as Unitarianism had been forced to contend with its own internal developments (such as Transcendentalism and Humanism) as well as the external challenges that persisted.  Unitarians, in 1900, needed Priestley as much as they needed Channing, if not more.[13]

I would be remiss if I did not bring this matter into the present day.  For this audience I need not dwell on the many twists and turns of the history of Unitarianism and Universalism and their eventual association.  But if we were to consider which of the two early groups won, Priestleyan or Channing Unitarians, we must honestly conclude that over the long run it was neither.  When the President of the UUA, the Reverend William Sinkford, challenged the faithful five years ago to possibly, maybe, kind of permit the reinstatement of the language of the divine into the discourse of the denomination, it was clear to all that present-day Unitarianism was not the Christian-based faith of the two men who two centuries ago fought over its name.  Neither Priestley nor Channing would recognize the denomination today and yet I can state with some confidence that both would cherish the contact with the liberal process and both would stand united behind the Reverend Sinkford in his quest.

It is in this light that I draw my conclusion: Priestleyan Unitarianism once again needs to come into the historical picture of Unitarianism s American past.  The denomination has never been and never will be completely New England in its orientation; predominantly, yes, completely, no.  This crack in the veneer is far from trivial or insignificant; rather it is one that exposes a whole new set of questions, new lines of analysis, and recaptures an essential element of Unitarian identity, practice, and influence

Thank you.


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[1] Priestley, A History of the Early Opinions Concerning Jesus Christ, in Works, 6: 48.

[2] Catherine Albanese, American Religious History: A Bibliographical Essay, online,, pp. 5-7; Accessed February 1, 2008.

[3] William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature (New York: The Modern Library, 1999), 369.

[4] Daniel Rupp, Religious Denominations in the United States (Philadelphia,1861), 593.

[5] Robert Baird, Religion in the United States of America (Glasgow, 1844), 625-627.

[6] John Hayward, Religious Creeds and Statistics of Every Christian Denomination in the United States (Boston, 1836).

[7] James Mease, The Picture of Philadelphia (Philadelphia, 1811).

[8] Hannah Adams s Dictionary of All Religion and Religious Denominations (Boston, 1804).

[9] Channing to Samuel Thacher, June 20, 1815.

[10] Channing, as quoted in Bowers, pp. 179-180.

[11] See Belsham, Memoirs, 209-212.

[12] F.W.P. Greenwood, Dr. Channing s Sermon, in Unitarian Miscellany, 208-11.  Quoted in Bowers, pp. 8-9, 13.

[13] See Bowers, 239-243 for a complete discussion of this event and the changes it signified.