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.

NEXT: Our Puritan Roots