UU Minute #61

Liberal and Conservative Congregational Churches of Massachusetts

Once the American Revolutionary War ended, the gulf between the liberal Congregational Churches of Massachusetts and the conservative Congregational Churches of Massachusetts resumed and began growing. Liberalism grew, which alarmed the conservatives. Some conservatives began to demand that members affirm a creed and candidates for ministry be examined to ensure their theology was sound. These ideas further intensified the division, as the liberals countered with defense of religious toleration.

Once again we see the linkage between Unitarianism’s two central, animating ideas: critique of the trinity and support for toleration. That linkage, as we saw, first arose in reaction to the 1553 execution of Miguel Serveto, and was embodied in the development of Unitarian churches in Transylvania and in Poland.

By the year 1800, there were 200 churches east of Worcester County, and 125 of them were liberal in their theology. Massachusetts clergy of the time were all trained at Harvard college which was now seen as a hotbed of heresy. The Cambridge Platform of 1648 had established Congregational Polity, and 150 years later the conservatives were kinda regretting it.
“The congregational polity of the churches offered no overarching authority by which a standard could be established or deviation could be discovered and disciplined.” (David Bumbaugh)
There wasn’t much they could do across congregations, so the fighting flared within congregations – typically at times of ministerial succession. When one minister retired or died, the choice of the next one brought out the divisions in the congregation.

The major cross-congregational conflict – the conflict from which the Unitarian denomination in America would be born – was over who would fill a professorship of divinity at Harvard College. We’ll look into that in our next thrilling episode.

NEXT: The Hollis Chair of Divinity

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