UU Minute #64

Accepting the Label, "Unitarian"

When the Unitarian Controversy first erupted in 1805, with the appointment of Henry Ware as the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard, the liberals bitterly resented being called Unitarians. The liberals tended to be Arian – meaning they held that Jesus is divine, more than human, but not equal to God the Father. The liberals did not go as far as the English Unitarians, for whom Jesus was, in all respects, a fallible human being.

Over the next dozen years, as the controversy evolved, the liberals came to accept the label Unitarian.

For one thing, the word “Unitarian” evolved. The label was used for the liberals so often that the word lost any meaning much beyond the people to whom it referred.

For another thing, the liberals themselves evolved, growing closer to being Unitarian in the British sense.

The two wings of congregationalism grew further and further apart. Conservative ministers, increasingly, refused to do any pulpit exchanges with the liberal ministers.

When the Unitarian Controversy broke out in 1805, William Ellery Channing was 25 years old and had been the minister of Boston’s Federal Street Church for two years. He avoided controversy when at all possible, and sincerely hoped for reconciliation among the churches. Yet he found himself more and more speaking out as a champion of the liberals. Finally, in 1819, Channing delivered a sermon called “Unitarian Christianity.” Reprinted as a pamphlet, “Probably no other sermon ever preached in America has had so many readers and so great an influence” (Earl Morse Wilbur)

It was a manifesto for a new denomination.

NEXT: Pulpit Exchanges and a Foray to Baltimore

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