UU Minute #56

Reaction to the Great Awakening: Beginnings of American Liberal Religion

In the 1730s, the Great Awakening revivalist movement swept through the colonies, with itinerant preachers going town to town whipping up religious enthusiasm, emotional excess and fervor, and promoting a reactionary dogmatism. The Great Awakening produced a permanent division between its supporters who saw in the revival the hand of God, and its critics who saw only madness and raw emotion.

Against the Great Awakening, the liberal clergy increasingly united in defining reason and tolerance as the basis of religion, increasingly turned to liberal books and colleagues for support, and thus, became increasingly liberal.

Liberalization in New England churches occurred gradually. Rather than explicitly renounce doctrines with which they disagreed, preachers stopped emphasizing them, then stopped mentioning them at all, and only eventually came to consciously abandon them. Because of Congregational Polity, control of the church was in the hands of the local congregation – and if a congregation liked their minister, there was no higher authority to enforce orthodoxy.

So, some of the clergy began drifting leftward, bringing their congregations along. One of these was Charles Chauncy. In 1727, at age 22, Chauncy was ordained as an assistant minister of Boston's First Church, one of the most important in churches in New England. In 1762, at age 57, Chauncy became that congregation’s senior pastor. He served First Church in that capacity for 25 years more – in all, a 60-year career at First Church, until his death at age 82.

Charles Chauncy never called himself a Unitarian, but his ideas paved the way for those did, so we’ll learn more about Charles Chauncy in our next thrilling episode.



UU Minute #55

The Great Awakening

Almost 300 hundred years ago, the Great Awakening swept through the English colonies in America. It was a religious revival movement in the 1730s. Traveling preachers went from town to town holding revival meetings drawing large outdoor crowds for highly emotional experiences.

When you remember that the first colleges in the colonies – Harvard, William and Mary, Yale -- were founded with the main purpose of training clergy, and that the local minister was typically the only person in town with higher education, and that Sunday morning was the preacher’s platform for demonstrating his sophisticated training, then you get a picture of religion in the hands of the experts. Everyone else was supposed to quietly follow the expert’s instructions as best they could – as presented in sermons that were long, closely-reasoned, dry theological arguments read from manuscript.

The Great Awakening, however, encouraged ordinary people to make a personal connection with God instead of relying on a minister. At a time when religion in America was steadily declining, the Great Awakening reinvigorated interest in religion, and offered many people intense, emotionally consuming religious experience.

Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” exemplified the preaching of the Great Awakening. The implicit message was that a deity who was ruled by emotion demanded emotional worship.

The Great Awakening produced a reaction against its over-emotionalism and a renewed case for a rational approach. There were no known Unitarians in the colonies at this time, but the intellectual forebears of Unitarianism emerged out of this reaction to the emotionalism of the Great Awakening.

NEXT: Reaction to the Great Awakening: Beginnings of American Liberal Religion


UU Minute #54

The Cambridge Platform: 1648

In UU Minute number 41, we learned that religious conflict in 17th-century England was more about polity than theology. The Church of England had Episcopal polity – rule by the bishops. Dissenting congregations had Presbyterian polity – rule by groups of elders called presbyters.

In America, Puritans, criticized by Presbyterians for having no governance, eventually decided they did need to formalize their polity. It would be neither Episcopal, nor Presbyterian. It would be a polity based on covenant: Congregational polity. The Cambridge Platform of 1648 spelled out what that meant.

A church consists of those who profess faith, live pious lives, and enter into covenant together.
The covenant is both among members and with God -- and must be lived out within Christian community.
Members are not admitted to a church without due consideration, and should not leave without due consideration.
Leadership roles include pastors, who communicate Biblical wisdom, teachers, who run the schools and communicate knowledge, and ruling elders, who oversee church administration.
Each church is free to choose its own officers, and call and ordain its own minister.
Although churches are autonomous – each distinct and equal – churches are also bound to each other in a covenant – a communion of churches shown in six ways:
  • taking thought for each other's welfare;
  • consulting and advising each other;
  • admonishing concerning church offenses;
  • allowing members of one church to fully participate and receive the Lord's Supper in another church;
  • sending letters of recommendation when a member goes to a new church; and
  • financially supporting poor churches.
The Cambridge Platform of 1648 is the foundational document of Congregational Polity – the polity we still follow today.

NEXT: The Great Awakening


UU Minute #53

Our Puritan Roots

Joseph Priestley founded the Unitarian Church of Philadelphia in 1796 – the first church on American soil to bear the name Unitarian. But that church was a bit of a historical cul-de-sac: it didn’t lead to a denomination and didn’t generate any other Unitarian churches. The Unitarianism from which we today descend came out of Boston, not Philadelphia, and it came from Puritan congregational churches around Boston adopting Unitarian theology.

The Plymouth colony, begun in 1620, and the Massachusetts Bay colony, begun in 1630, consisted of religious separatists without a strong political tradition other than the sense of being bound in covenant, as modeled in the Bible. These Puritans felt need for neither a creed nor a specific structure of church governance – after all, they were God’s people bound together by covenant, and that was enough.

We have certainly come a long way from the Puritan Calvinist theology. Where Calvin saw total depravity, we see inherent worth and dignity of every person. Where Calvin taught predestination, we emphasize freedom. For Calvin, the central problem of being human is an inner corruption called sin. For us, the central problem is disconnection in need of loving relationship.

But we retain from those Puritan settler colonists a sense that we are a people of covenant and not of creed.

There was a dark side of the Puritan covenant: namely, that the colonists believed that that their covenants with God made them God’s chosen people and therefore justified exterminating the indigenous people who were outside of the covenant. Still, creedlessness and covenant – albeit an open and welcoming covenant – continue to be central to Unitarian Universalism today.

NEXT: The Cambridge Platform: 1648


UU Minute #52

The Priestley Riots

You’ll recall that Theophilus Lindsey founded England’s first Unitarian church in 1774, in London. In 1780, the Birmingham New Meeting called Joseph Priestley to be its minister. Under his ministry the congregation became England’s second Unitarian congregation. Priestley was 47.

In 1782, Priestley published A History of the Corruptions of Christianity. He argued that primitive Christianity had been Unitarian, that Jesus Christ was a mere man who preached the resurrection of the body rather than the immortality of a nonexistent soul.

With Priestley now the leader of the Unitarian dissenters, Unitarianism was a revitalized movement. Congregations began springing up around England.

Then came the French Revolution. Unitarians supported the political upheaval across the channel, seeing in it the prospect of humanity freed from despotism and superstition. Conservative leaders in England, however, were horrified by French peasants overthrowing the social order. As England grew increasingly frightened by the turmoil in France, Unitarians were attacked for supporting the revolution – denounced as enemies of church and state. Hostility to dissenters broke out in the Birmingham Riots of 1791, also called the Priestley Riots, since he was a central target of the rioters’ ire.

Rioters attacked or burned four Dissenting chapels, twenty-seven houses, and several businesses. As the rioters approached the Priestley house, he and Mary, his spouse, barely had time to evacuate. They fled from dissenting friend to friend. Priestley's valuable library and his laboratory were looted and razed to the ground, his manuscripts lost in the flames.

Joseph and Mary Priestley fled to London, and three years later – 1794 – sailed for America where, as we have seen, Joseph Priestley established a Unitarian Church in Philadelphia before settling in Northumberland.br>

NEXT: Our Puritan Roots


UU Minute #51

Phlogiston: The Element that Wasn't

The phlogiston theory of combustion, first proposed in 1667, said any flammable substance contains an element called phlogiston, and burning releases it. When a log is all burned up, the fire stops because all the phlogiston has been released out of it and absorbed by the air. Growing plants then absorb this phlogiston from the air, which is why plant matter burns so well.

The phlogiston theory also explained why a fire in an enclosed space would go out: because the air in that space had absorbed all the phlogiston it could, so no more could be released into the air.

Pretty cool theory. Explains a lot. Completely wrong. We now know the process of combustion is just the opposite: when something burns, it’s not releasing something into the air, it’s taking oxygen out of the air and oxidizing with it. Which bring us back to Joseph Priestley, a founding figure of Unitarianism and famous for discovering oxygen.

Preistley focused sunlight on mercuric oxide in a glass tube, which released a gas. Priestley noted that candles burned brighter in the gas and that a mouse was more active and lived longer while breathing it. After breathing the gas himself, Priestley wrote:
"The feeling of it to my lungs was not sensibly different from that of common air, but I fancied that my breast felt peculiarly light and easy for some time afterwards."
Joseph Priestley had discovered oxygen! Only he called it “dephlogisticated air.” You can see what he was thinking: that candles burn brighter because this special dephlogisticated air could better absorb phlogiston released from the candle.

Have you ever encountered something new and delightful – but got completely backwards what it was and how it worked? If so, you’re in good company.

The path of discovery, whether in science or in our spiritual lives, is a collective enterprise. We do it together. We need each other.

NEXT: The Priestley Riots


UU Minute #50

New Meaning

Here’s something for you: Joseph Priestley believed in Phlogiston – his whole life, apparently.

Let me set the stage. Ashuman ideas and concepts change and evolve, we redefine what words mean. Take the case of “planet.” The word originally meant wandering star. When we learned that those objects we’d been calling planets weren’t stars at all, we might have said, so there’s no such thing as a wandering star, no such thing as a planet. Instead, we redefined the word to fit our new understanding of those objects in the sky to which we’d been referring.

Or take the case of “atom.” The word originally meant “indivisible.” When we learned that they were divisible after all, we might have said, “those things we’ve been calling atoms aren’t atoms.” Instead, we redefined “atom” to fit our new understanding of those objects to which we’d been referring.

This process fascinates me because many of us reach a point in our religious life where we make that sort of choice: either conclude that there’s no such thing as something – God, or freedom – or we redefine the word, and adjust our conception of it. Usually, in the history of evolving human beliefs, we take the route of redefining terms. It is rare that we opt to say something simply doesn’t exist. For instance, even though the humors theory of health and temperament is thoroughly discredited, we don’t say there’s no such thing as blood, phlegm, or bile. We just reconceptualized the role of these bodily fluids.

But for phlogiston, science collectively took the unusual step of declaring it just plain doesn’t exist.

And we’ll have to pick up from there in our next thrilling episode.

NEXT: Phlogiston: The Element that Wasn't