UU MInute #63

The Unitarian Controversy

The Unitarian Controversy erupted in 1805 when Henry Ware was appointed the Hollis Chair of Divinity at Harvard. Of course, it had been simmering for some time. The Unitarian Controversy included, first, a doctrinal dispute: the conservatives insisted on trinitarianism and the liberals did not.

Second, there was a meta-doctrinal dispute: doctrine about doctrine. For the conservatives, doctrine was of central importance. For the liberals, not so much. Liberals didn’t talk much about doctrine, and rarely attacked Trinitarianism, preferring instead silence on the subject – which made it hard for the conservatives to point to concrete instances of liberal heresy.

Liberal ministers’
“main emphasis was on the practical virtues of Christian life, and their main opposition was to narrowness of spirit and bondage to creeds, while for the rest they advocated Christian charity, open-mindedness, and tolerance.” (Earl Morse Wilbur)
By 1812 there were at least a hundred liberal ministers in New England, and though they didn’t talk about it much, or regard it as terribly important, most of them were Arian – that is, they didn’t think of Jesus as the full equal of God the Father. Aside from James Freeman at King’s Chapel and William Bentley at Salem, the liberals did not go as far as the English Unitarians -- Theophilus Lindsey, Joseph Priestley, Thomas Belsham -- who held that Jesus was in all respects a fallible human being.

In fact, the liberals terribly resented the accusation of being Unitarians – which, of course, made the conservatives accuse them of it all the more. So that was the third controversy rolled up within The Unitarian Controversy: the controversy over whether the liberal ministers could be fairly called Unitarian.

NEXT: Accepting the Label, Unitarian

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