UNITARIANISM AMONG THE AMERICAN BAPTISTS. MY INVESTIGATION OF THE SYSTEM. MY CONFERENCES WITH SOME OF OUR MEN WHO ADOPTED IT. ALSO WITH DR. KIRKLAND OF HARVARD UNIVERSITY, DR. FREEMAN OF BOSTON AND OTHERS. GENERAL REMARKS ON THE SYSTEM. MY CONCLUSIONS AGAINST IT.
FORTY YEARS AGO, a small company of our strong men, mostly ministers, began to falter in their course, and eventually went over to the Unitarian side. Most of them, up to that period, had stood firmly on the orthodox platform.
The head-quarters of this defection was at Providence, R.I., although a few of the men who were involved in it resided at no great distance, in the same State, and in the adjoining regions.
As is usual in such cases, the men in question were very zealous in propagating their new opinions. And as my acquaintance with them had been of long duration, and very familiar, I was at once placed in a position to hear much of their reasoning in favor of their new system of doctrine, and against the orthodox creed. Works of different kinds were handed me to read, and an abundance of others were recommended for my perusal.
Thus situated, I resolved to set about a thorough examination of the whole Unitarian controversy, from first to last; and for this purpose I went over the most approved authors for and against the Trinitarian doctrine, with a determination to follow my convictions of truth on this subject, wherever they should lead me. Hitherto my mind had been at ease on the divinity of Christ, and on all that pertains to the Trinitarian creed. Like the Christians of the early ages, or before the rise of Arianism, I received this creed as a part of the Christian religion, with all the mysteries connected with it, which I did not feel bound to explain, nor at liberty to reject.
I had been accustomed to rank the anti-Trinitarian party under two heads, namely, Socinians and Arians, but I soon found my views on this point were very imperfect, and that their subdivisions were much more numerous. Wardlaw, on the Socinian controversy, has pointed out ten shades of difference among this people, varying from Humanitarianism to high Arianism. The first class make Jesus Christ a mere man, the son of Joseph and Mary, who was born, lived and died, like other men. This class, of course, reject the idea of his atoning sacrifice for sin.
The high Arians, on the other hand, make the Son of God a super-angelic being; they speak of him in the most exalted terms, and ascribe to him the highest
character that a finite being can possess. Bat still his eternity and proper divinity they refuse to admit.
By this time I felt prepared to canvass matters with more freedom and confidence with my non-juring brethren, between one of whom and myself, in the early stage of my discussions of this kind, the following brief dialogue ensued:
A. Good morning, brother, B.; I want to convince yea that I am not such a heretic as you suppose, after all my objections to my old creed, which I, with others, have believed without due investigation.
B. You have always been a strong advocate for the doctrines of the Trinity, and of the Divinity of Christ; none of us have defended these doctrines with more confidence and decision than yourself.
A. This I confess with regret, and can only say with the apostle, when I was a child, I spake as a child, but when I became a man I put away childish things.
B. All children must have time to grow; if you have got ahead of your minor brethren, be patient with them in their childhood; in due time they may become men. But tell me, my brother, what latitude you are in, and whether you find yourself in the torrid, the temperate, or the frigid zone of Christianity.
A. I am in the temperate zone, to be sure; and your unkind insinuation about the frigid tendencies
of the liberal system are founded in mistake. I find no less disposition than formerly to advocate with fervor the vital principles of the gospel, and if they will let me and my people alone, we shall pursue the even tenor of our way, as we have thus far done since I renounced the absurdities of my old orthodox creed. (A., as yet, held his position as pastor of an orthodox Baptist church. This connection, however, was soon afterward dissolved.)
B. As far as my experience in these matters has gone, there is a natural coldness in what you call the liberal system; and if I am not mistaken in my observations, those who embrace it in preference to the orthodox faith, soon entertain different views of human nature, and of all that pertains to sin and redemption; they also make but little account of that vital experimental religion, which you have heretofore so strenuously enforced.
A. I have no idea of going thus far in the doctrinal speculations in which I am now engaged.
B. Permit me again to enquire, what advances you have made in these speculations, and what sort of a theological skeleton you have got up, by yournew anatomatizing process? John Huss, in his day, published a piece entitled, The Anatomy of Antichrist, in which he exhibited all the different parts of the body
of the Man of Sin, and their operations. Show me some of the bones of your skeleton, and I will give you my opinion respecting them. Some anatomists, we are informed, are so skillful in their art, that when you show them a bone, they will inform you to what animal it belonged, and from what part of the animal it came. I do not pretend to be thus expert in theological anatomy, but still I have some general idea of the different parts of the broad Unitarian platform.
A. I begin with the great first principle of true religion, the divine unity; and my main object, in all I say and do, is to assert and maintain this unity, in a consistent and intelligible manner; and my investigations thus far have led me most decidedly to reject the old Trinitarian notion of three persons in the godhead of equal dignity and power. The downright tri-theism of this creed I can no longer endure.
B. Please to give me your present opinion of the character of Jesus Christ, in distinction from your former belief.
A. Well, I have no fellowship with the Humanitarians, who make Christ a mere man; they go as far in one extreme as the Trinitarians do in the other. The real Son of God, in my estimation, is exalted far above prophets and apostles, angels and archangels, and all the most glorious beings in the universe; indeed, I ascribe to him the highest titles of honor and
perfection, except those which imply underived and essential divinity.
B. Well, my good brother, you have now come to the point, and have shown me some of the bones of your skeleton, which certainly belong to the Arian system; and at present I shall set you down as an Arian of the strongest kind. Indeed, the term "high Arianism" would not be improperly applied to the doctrines you have now advanced. And yet your most lofty conceptions, and most labored expressions in my opinion fall infinitely below the Scripture account of the genuine character of the Son of God.
At this point, with mutual expressions of fraternal respect, we parted from each other.
In the course of my investigation and inquiries concerning the new theory of my dissenting brethren, I observed, on their part, a growing disposition to lower the standard of piety and to tolerate almost all sorts of opinions except those of the orthodox class; but on these I found them exceedingly severe. I also noticed that the old-fashioned ideas among the Baptists, respecting human depravity, conviction and conversion, and what they call the religion of the heart, were but lightly esteemed among the smooth theologists of the liberalschool; and, furthermore, that by many of these men, as they advanced in their course, all such fanatical notions were treated with ridicule and contempt.
And still more, I ascertained that Unitarians of the highest culture and of the greatest influence were Universalists at heart. This information I obtained in the following manner: when I was collecting materials for my work on All Religions, in which I exhibit the sentiments of all sects and parties in their own language, I called on prominent men of all creeds, in the principal cities, from Boston and vicinity, to the city of Washington; and among the rest I had free conversations with Dr. Kirkland, then President of Harvard University, and with Dr. Freeman, then pastor of the King's Chapel, so called, in Boston. I spent an evening with Dr. Kirkland, but our conversation was of a general character, he referred me to Dr. Freeman, who, at the time, was regarded as the corypheus of the party in this country, with whom I spent a much longer time. This was at a time when Unitarianism was rapidly gaining ground in Massachusetts, especially in Boston, often at the expense of the old orthodox party. I found this amiable old gentleman very free and communicative, and apparently entirely willing to open to me the depths of the Unitarian system. While we were discussing the probabilities of the future theology of Harvard College, I well remember his remarks, and the emphasis with which they were made. To the question, "whether Unitarianism was sure to continue the predominant
theology in that institution?" he answered, "No there is no certainty that our doctrine will continue in the ascendant there for a great length of time. You may live," continued he, "to see great changes at Cambridge, and so you may at Andover."
The main design of this episode I will now bring out: after the venerable old man had made some free disclosures of the primordial principles of the Unitarian faith, I said, "Why, you must then be Universalists at bottom." "So we are," was his quick reply, "as we have no idea of the endless punishment of the wicked."
A little before this interview there had been a very sharp controversy between two strong men, the one a Universalist, of Boston, he other a Unitarian, of Charlestown, an adjoining town, on some denominational affairs, in which they combated each other with all the acrimony of rival sects. Referring to this collision, I inquired of my aged friend why it should so happen, since both agreed as to the final destiny of all mankind? "This," said the doctor, "I will explain in a few words, and I hope to your entire satisfaction:
"1. The Universalists highly value their name; they seek to make capital with the multitude out of their favorite dogma from which their name is derived, and always hold it out in a prominent manner
before the people for its ad captandum effect, while we suffer this dogma, to which our most thinking men subscribe, to remain quietly at the bottom of our system.
"2. The Unitarians are generally men of superior intelligence, and many of the laity are in high positions, which can not be said of the mass of the Universalists, and the defenders of the liberal creed depend more upon the power of reasoning than on popular declamation.
"3. There is nothing very strange or unusual in the disagreement in question; the advocates of the endless punishment of the wicked, while they agree on this point, have endless discords and jangles among themselves on other matters."
My main object in all conversations of this kind was to ascertain facts respecting all parties, but not to debate on creeds or opinions.
At this point we slid off to other subjects.
The more I examined the system of the Unitarians, the less I was inclined to embrace it, and at the same time the more thoroughly I was persuaded that the vitality of religion was less likely to remain and flourish with the liberals than with the orthodox, notwithstanding all the arguments urged by the liberal party to show that the orthodox creed tends to inactivity and neglect of practical religion. By degrees I became
convinced that the Unitarian system, besides subverting my belief in the doctrines of the Trinity and the Divinity of Christ, would naturally superinduce, in my mind, different views of human nature, of human depravity, of the work of the Holy Spirit on the minds of men, and of all that pertains to the experience and life of a Christian. I early set about examining all the objections which were urged by my new teachers against the orthodox faith, particularly with regard to its mysteries, which, as they maintained, no rational being ought to be called on to believe. The doctrine of the mysterious union of the divine and human nature of Jesus Christ, I observed, was exceedingly offensive to the men now in view; and while pondering over the subject, and preparing for my next interview with them, I fell in with some old writings which afforded me material aid in combating their subtle arguments and expositions. The following brief extracts exhibits the spirit of these writings:
"Divinity alone is too high to converse with man; humanity alone is too low to converse with God; but Jesus Christ, by uniting the divine and human nature in his own person, was qualified to lay his hands upon both, and bring them into a state of perfect reconciliation."
"That three beings should be one being, is a proposition
which contradicts reason, that is, our reasons but it does not from thencefollow, that it can not he true; for there are many propositions which contradict our reason, and yet they are demonstrably true. One is, that the very first principle of all religion, the being of God. For, that any thing should exist without a cause, or that any thing should be the cause of its own existence, are propositions equally contradictory to our reason; yet one of them must be true, or nothing could have existed. All these difficulties arise from our imagining that the mode of existence of all beings must be similar to our own, that is, that they must exist in time and space, and hence proceed our embarrassments on the subject. We know that no two beings, with whose modes of existence we are acquainted, can exist on the same point and space, and that therefore they can not be one. But how far beings whoso mode of existence bears no relation to time and space, may be united we can not comprehend. And, therefore, the possibility of such a union we can not positively deny.
"To attempt to explain a mystery is absurd. A mystery explained is a mystery destroyed; for, what is mystery but a thing not to be understood?
"Great is the mystery of godliness, God manifest in the flesh," etc.
As I looked around on the lives of the members of the different parties in question, I found, as I supposed, among the orthodox, a superior activity in religious concerns of all kinds, notwithstanding all that was said against them by the liberals of the fatalism of their creed, and the obtuseness of mind, and indifference of feeling, which, as they affirmed, it was calculated to produce. Among this class of professors of the Christian religion, according to my apprehension, there was much more of that godly sorrow for sin, of that selfdenial, and cross-bearing spirit which the Saviour has enjoined on his disciples, and of that charity, without which, according to the gospel, we are nothing, than among those who professed to be far their superiors in Christian knowledge and graces. Among the adherents of the old obnoxious creed I observed the active friends of missions, at home and abroad, and of the various institutions of benevolence which were then beginning to receive a large share of the attention of evangelical Christians of different denominations. In a word, among the believers and advocates of the Trinity, and of the proper divinity of Jesus Christ, and his vicarious atonement, I found those whom I had always regarded as the best of Christians, and whose ideas of mans ruin and remedy, of the conflicts between the flesh and the spirit, of the worthlessness of human merit, and of salvation
by grace alone, were what I had always most cordially approved.
Some of those who went over to the Unitarians afterwards fell back to the orthodox faith, and one of our ministers of this class gave me an account of his experience while under the influence of Unitarian principles. This man had a more than ordinary share of mental power, and was accustomed to close thinking on religious subjects.
According to his description, while on Unitarian ground, he was often astonished at the easement of mind which he generally felt as to all those heart-searchings and compunctions of conscience, which he experienced under his previous orthodox belief. Indeed, what he had before regarded of great importance in the life of a living Christian, seemed on the new theory to be of little account, provided the external duties of religion were correctly performed.
I have thus related some of the leading facts of my experience in the Unitarian school, and have presented some of the reasons which led me to give the parting hand to those of my Baptist brethren who continued in it.
During the long time which had elapsed since I commenced the study and discussion above alluded to, I had said nothing on the subject to the people of my charge, either privately or in my public discourses,
but I knew that many of them well understood the conflicts and embarrassments in which I had been involved, and from my silence respecting them, had become suspicious of my leaning towards the Unitarian creed, and with a view to set matters right, and to allay any fears of my friends, I engaged in the preparation of a series of discourses, in which, according to my ability, I embodied the principal arguments on which the opposers and defenders of the orthodox system rely for the support of their respective opinions. These discourses, seven in number, I delivered at intervals to my congregation; and as by this time I had become somewhat familiar with all parts of the controversy, I was enabled, from a full conviction of its truth, to take a firm stand on the orthodox side. All the fearful forebodings of my friends, as to my theological opinions, were thenceforward dispelled.
It is now about two-score years since the process above described was undergone, and all my observations since have disinclined me more and more from entering the Unitarian pale. I do not say that good men are not found in it, but their goodness is in spite of their creed, which is too easily embraced by unrenewed men. This system, as I understand the matter, leans to formalism rather than to spirituality in the concerns of religion; to a growing remissness to communion and baptism, whether of adults or infants; to
a contentment with mere pulpit eloquence, instead of heart-searching preaching; and to wellregulated forms of religious worship rather than to devotional exercises. And I have been led to suppose, that faithful church discipline, according to gospel rules, is rarely administered by churches of this class. And finally, in the early operations of the liberal party I found them excessively illiberal towards all men and all orders who dissented from their creed. But for some time past, as I am informed, a portion of them have shown a disposition to come back, in some degree, to old-fashioned practical piety, and to be dissatisfied with the system which, after all, has but little heartfelt piety in it, either in theory or practice.
As I understand the thing, there is a constant downward tendency in the Unitarian system, so far as its doctrinal creed is concerned, on the part of those who follow their speculations to their final end, till little is left of the gospel but its name; and I have often wondered that men who have gone this whole course should continue to adhere to the name and to the forms of the Christian religion.
[David Benedict, Fifty Years Among the Baptists, 1860; rpt. 1977, pp. 145-159. -- jrd]