William Edwards Huntington.

The Religious history of New England; King's chapel lectures online

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ancient and venerable institution." It matters not whether
this view was correct or not, certainly he entertained it as
a settled conviction, and its effect upon his feeling depended
upon his belief of the fact rather than upon the fact itself.
Dr. Morse must have been uncomfortable in Charlestown,
a Yale man not theologically sympathetic with the neigh-
boring Harvard ministers, and deeply distressed by the signs
of theological change which he saw all around him — and
then this attack upon his reputation which he believed to
be inspired by theological animosity — what wonder if he
lost his head and let bitterness into his heart!

But whatever may have been the part taken by personal
feeling in the case of Pearson and Morse, the mass of the
clergy and laity were little affected by such trivial matters.
And there was abundant occasion for profounder feeling.
Harvard College was founded to provide a supply of learned
ministers for the churches, and for a century and a half it
had admirably discharged that function. But it appeared
that the College which had held the loyalty of all, to the
funds of which pious souls had contributed, some out of
their sufficiency, others out of penury, had fallen into the
hands of a party who were determined to make it a training
school of ministers out of harmony with the theological past
and doctrines dear to the heart of the contemporary religious
life of New England. So religious feeUng was outraged and


bad blood was stirred up. Epithets were bandied back and
forth. The Liberals no more liked to be called infidels than
their opponents would have liked to be called fools. Neither
side had a monopoly of piety or intelligence. Of course
it was cruelly unjust to brand high-minded conscientious
men, such as composed the Liberal party, both clergymen
and laymen, with deceit, evasion, and hypocrisy, and re-
sentment was natural on both sides. To call bad names
always stirs up bad blood. Epithets are the epitaphs of
good will. But the ill feeling was increased and consolidated
by a most unfortunate event with far-reaching consequences
— I refer, of course, to the controversy which found its legal
settlement in the famous Dedham Case.
r' For a correct understanding of this crucial point it is
necessary to recall the history of the relations between the
church on the one hand and the town, precinct, or society
on the other with respect to the settling of ministers. In
colonial times, the church alone was authorized to call and
settle a minister with no reference whatever to the other
inhabitants of the town, all of whom, however, were liable
to taxation for the support of a clergyman in whose selection
they had had no voice. Of course, since church members
alone possessed the franchise, others had no right to vote
in any of the affairs of the town and were expressly forbidden
by colonial law to meddle with ecclesiastical matters. At
the beginning of the provincial period, after the religious
qualification for voting had been aboHshed, a law was passed
conferring the right of election upon the town, but this was
promptly changed, and by the law of 1693, it was provided
that the church should elect the minister and, when its choice
should be concurred in by the town, the whole town should
become liable for his support. But suppose the town should
not concur ? This was provided for by the law of 1695,
which decreed that in case of such disagreement the church


should call a council: if its decision were favorable to the
church, the town must acquiesce; if unfavorable, the church
must proceed to a new selection. Under this law, the prac-
tice became general, although not universal, of electing a
minister by concurrent vote, the church taking the lead,
although occasionally by agreement the church and the
town, or parish, voted together. In the Bill of Rights, how-
ever, it was enacted that " the several towns, parishes, pre-
cincts, and other bodies politic, or religious societies, shall,
at all times, have the exclusive right of electing their public
teachers and of contracting with them for their support and
maintenance." By the Law of 1799, the churches were con-
firmed in their accustomed privileges respecting divine wor-
ship, church order, and discipline, but apparently this
provision did not include the choice of minister, which re-
mains where it was left by the Constitution in the hands of
the town or society. This was a most extraordinary provision,
for it exactly reversed the colonial principle and allowed
the church as such no rights whatsoever in the selection of
a minister. It has been suggested by high authority that
the phrasing was influenced by the practice of Brattle Street
Church, where many of the most prominent legislators wor-
shipped, which had long been accustomed to the calling of
a minister by church and parish acting together as one.
However this may be, it may well be doubted whether the
full import of the law was apprehended by either its framers
or the people who adopted it. In fact, examination of the
law in connection with earlier enactments, and the provi-
sions empowering the Legislature to require the towns to
provide Gospel privileges and to enjoin the inhabitants to
attend public worship, suggests that the article in question
was intended to preclude the Legislature from imposing a
minister of its own choice upon the town (as had been
possible under earlier laws) so that the phrase exclusive right


was intended to exclude the Legislature. However that
may be, there the law stood subject to interpretation by
the courts should occasion arise.

And occasion did arise. It became necessary for the First
Parish and Church in Dedham to procure a new minister.
The society elected Mr. Lamson, whose sympathies were
with the Liberals, but for that very reason the church was
opposed. Nevertheless the society, with the advice and
consent of a council, proceeded to ordain Mr. Lamson as
minister of the church and parish. Whereupon the majority
of the church seceded, among them the deacons in whose
custody was certain property belonging to the First Church.
I say the majority of the church seceded, because that was
admitted in the trial as a matter of fact, although Dr. Lam-
son emphatically afiSrmed that the concession was made
only in order to secure a decision on first principles and that
in reality it was a minority of the church which withdrew.
Such of the members of the church as retained their con-
nection with the parish appointed new deacons, who sued
their predecessors, still claiming to be deacons of the First
Church in Dedham, to recover the property belonging to
the church. So the case came before the courts and was
decided by an opinion rendered at the October term (1820)
of the Supreme Court by Chief Justice Parker. In brief,
the opinion was as follows. The property of the church
vests in the deacons of the church to be used for the support
of public worship in the town or parish to which the church
belongs whereof they are deacons. The church, being an
unincorporated organization and incapable of existing apart
from a society, must be identified by its connection with a
parish. Hence, the First Church of a town is the church
which is in connection with the First Parish. The Court
even went so far as to hold that "as to all civil purposes,
the secession of a whole church from the parish would be


the extinction of the church, and it is competent to the mem-
bers of the parish to institute a new church or to engraft
one upon the old stock if any of it should remain, and this
new church would succeed to all the rights of the old in
relation to the parish." Furthermore, the Court held that
in conformity with the provision of the Constitution the soci-
ety was wholly within its rights in calling and settling Mr.
Lamson without regard to the protest of the church, which
had no rights in the premises. Thus, the decision of the
Supreme Court was wholly in favor of the Liberals and by
virtue of it in all cases where church and society disagreed
in the choice of a minister, and the former or any portion
thereof withdrew, the meeting-house and all the endow-
ments of the church remained with the church in connection
with the original parish. Hence it is that many of the FirstJ
Churches in New England are now in Unitarian fellowship. ^

To say that this decision provoked a storm of indignant
protest from the Conservative party would be putting the
case quite too mildly. But its worst effect was to bring the
bad blood, already stirred, to the boiling point of wrath.
The Unitarians who fell heir to the property of the ancient
churches were accused of robbery and plunder. As a boy
in one of the Congregational churches in Boston I used to
hear, although not from the pulpit, that " the Unitarians
stole our churches " and it was not until many years after-
ward that I learned that the " robbery " was by order of the
Supreme Court of the Commonwealth.

Even at this late day, it takes but little to fan the embers
of outraged feeling into a hot flame of resentment, but per-
haps a word may be permitted from one who stands far
enough removed in time from the controversy to have none
of the original feeling, and whose early prejudices were
wholly with the conservative side, as to the way in which
the old dispute appears to one, at least, of the present genera-


tion. That the decision of the Supreme Court was legally
sound must be assumed. It would be presumptuous for a
layman, whether Unitarian or Orthodox, to question it.
And indeed the Constitution was perfectly explicit in vesting
the society alone with the right to elect a minister. But
the law had not changed the usage, which continued to be
as it had been for more than a century, that the church took
the lead in electing, leaving the parish or society to concur
if it saw fit. The practice and the law therefore did not agree,
but, as the Court pointed out, legal questions must be de-
cided by the law and not by custom. But it was precisely
that conflict between law and custom which added bitter-
ness to the controversy. Should a church of God's elect
have its minister appointed for it by a society of technical
" reprobates," in whom the Spirit of God was not and who
had no living connection with the great Head of the Church ?
Such a view was monstrous in the eyes of piety. No wonder
that feeling ran hot and high. And let me frankly say that
this seems to me just one of the cases where it is necessary
to distinguish clearly between law and justice. A distin-
guished Chicago lawyer once remarked to me that the
courts are not an agency for the establishment of ideal
justice, but are simply part of the police system of the state
for the settling of disputes. Law and Justice are not neces-
sarily identical. Of course, ideally they should be, and in
fact, ordinarily, substantial justice is reached on legal prin-
ciples, but frequently, in practice, cases arise where the dis-
tinction is indispensable if one would honor his sense of
justice on the one hand and retain his respect for the law on
the other. The highest sense of justice in a community is
often in advance of legislation. That the decision of the
Supreme Court was in harmony with the law, as the law
then was, must be conceded. No one familiar with the repu-
tation and character of the Supreme Court of Massachusetts


can for a moment suppose that its decision was affected
by the theological predilections of its members, whatever
they may have been. But one may grant this and yet, with
all respect to the Court, be permitted to affirm that its de-
cision does not seem equitable, particularly in view of the
practice which had prevailed here in New England, both
before and after the adoption of the Constitution. Yet, one
may ask, would it not have been decent and honorable, not-
withstanding the decision, for those whom it favored to
make fair division of the property thus put into their hands
and share proportionally with the seceders ? Yes, that
would have been just, and in Dedham if the seceders from
the parish who held the property had made such a propo-
sition (so far as I can ascertain there is no evidence that
they did), the Unitarians would probably have been willing
to accept the compromise and the case would have been
kept out of the courts; but, since the funds were trust funds,
after the Court had decided as to their proper trustees,
would it then have been lawful to put them, or any portion
of them, into the hands of those who according to the Court
were not their legal custodians ? The bitter misfortune
through all this painful controversy is that the case was per-
mitted to go to the courts at all, but when it actually came
before the Court it of course had to be settled in accordance
with law. And one can but admire the splendid loyalty to
conscience which inspired the conservatives to depart from
an organization which they deemed hostile to the Christian
faith and accept the clearly foreseen consequences entailed
by the separation. They were willing, be it said to their
glory, to forfeit the accumulations of years, to labor and
sacrifice in the upbuilding of new churches which should
perpetuate the ancient creed. The law was against them,
but a zeal for the truth as they saw it led to spiritual results
far exceeding their material loss.


By 1825, then, the Unitarians were well established in
Boston and eastern New England, with some churches in
the interior of Massachusetts which looked to Harvard
College for their ministers. But on the whole the back coun-
try was untouched by this Unitarian movement: for their
ministers, the churches had, as a rule, Moderate Calvinists
who were now definitely arrayed against the Unitarians.
But at this very time, currents of population were setting
towards the cities, the most energetic and enterprising young
men and women from the country towns began to stream
into Boston. What followed may be told best in the words
of Theodore Parker, who a few months before his death
wrote thus :

No sect had ever a finer opportunity than the Unitarians to advance
the religious development of a people. But they let it slide, and now
they must slide with it. In 1838 the Unitarians were the controlling
party in Boston: the railroads were just getting opened and it was
plain the Protestant population of the town would soon double. Young
men with no fortune but their character would come in from the coun-
try and settle and grow rich; the Unitarians ought to have welcomed
such to their churches; to have provided helps for them and secured
them to the Unitarian fold. Common poUcy would suggest that course
not less than a refined humanity. But they did no such thing: they
loved pecunia pecuniata, not pecunia pecunians. They were aristo-
crats and exclusive in their tastes, not democratic and inclusive. So
they shoved oS these young country fellows, and now rejoice in their
very respectable but very Uttle congregations. The South of Boston
is not in the Unitarian churches. A church of old men goes to its grave,
one of young men goes to its work.

In the main Theodore Parker was right. The newcomers
into the city brought with them for the most part prejudices
against the Unitarians implanted in their home churches on
the countryside, and there was no attempt to remove those
prejudices and welcome them to the Unitarian churches.
Even those who came from Unitarian homes in the back


country found their warmest welcome here in orthodox
churches. One speculates sometimes what would have
happened, for example, if Dwight L. Moody, coming from
a Unitarian home and church in Northfield, had been re-
ceived into one of the Unitarian churches of Boston as he
was into Mount Vernon Church, although his reception even
there cannot be called exactly cordial. May a Boston boy
bear witness to the fact that in the seventies neither he nor
any of the common people among whom he lived would
have presumed to enter this building (King's Chapel) at
the time of worship, any more than he would have had the
impudence to enter, unbidden, a private residence on Beacon
Street. I do not say that this feeling was just: I do aver
that it existed as an inheritance from an earlier time. And
the fact is that on the whole young men and women coming
from the country found their religious homes elsewhere \ \/
than among the Unitarians. And so appears a striking
anomaly. The Unitarians were liberal in theology but con-
servative in wellnigh everything else. The orthodox
churches were filling up with young men who were conserva-
tive in theology but progressive in almost everything else.
That does not put the case quite fairly for, theologically,
the Unitarians, while liberal, were not progressive. They
believed that they had returned to the oldest and purest
form of Christianity, so that in a very real sense they held
themselves to be, theologically, the true conservatives.
They believed stoutly in divine revelation, especially through
Christ, but also in the New Testament, and indeed in the
Bible as a whole when correctly interpreted; they had no
notion of progress beyond what was written, especially in
the words of Christ. The Unitarians were the cult of the
arrived, but in orthodox churches filled with vigorous, am-
bitious, progressive youth from the countryside there was
the worship of pilgrims.


Into the further history of the Unitarians, externally con-
sidered, I do not care now to enter. In addition to what has
been said, it should be observed that the material progress
of their churches was hindered by other causes. They
were Congregationalists to the core with an almost morbid
dread of ecclesiastical domination which might interfere
with individual Uberty, hence there was a deeply rooted
prejudice against organization and central control even of
the most elementary and indispensable kind, which has per-
sisted even to this day and has undoubtedly hampered their
efficiency. Furthermore, this same respect for individual
freedom has given them also a prejudice against what is
called proselyting, which has extended to missionary work,
home as well as foreign, and to the rehgious education of
their young people. This has given rise to queer misunder-
standings. It has been said, for example, that the Unitarians
have no confidence in their own religion, else they would be
more active in its propagation, since one who knows he has
a good thing is always prompt to push it. In reality, how-
ever, the argument should run in precisely the opposite
direction: it was the very confidence in their own religious
convictions which encouraged the Unitarians to believe
that they would make their way by their own reasonable-
ness, and this because they trusted so fully the inherent
reasonableness of mankind. They themselves had been led,
very gradually, to their position and they believed that all
men were under similar guidance and therefore would come
to it eventually of their own motion. Meanwhile, why
should they force the educative process ? This was oddly
analogous to the Calvinistic view against which they were
vehemently protesting, but they were unconscious of the fact,
and their attitude of religious inactivity appeared to them
as the logical outcome of their fundamental faith in the dig-
nity of man as a reasonable being. That they have taken


but little interest in foreign missions is undoubtedly true,
but it must be remembered that until very recent times the
motives appealed to for foreign missionary interest and the
methods employed in the prosecution of the work could not
commend themselves to Unitarians. They did not believe
that the heathen world was tumbling into hell over the
Niagara of death. On the contrary, they believed that
God in his fatherly mercy was guiding all his children and
that through other faiths and forms than the Christian he
was bringing them to himself. Hence, they could not in
consistency with their deepest convictions participate in
foreign missionary work as it was conducted until very
recently. They would have sympathized, for example,
much more cordially with Cyrus Hamlin's work than did the
American Board. Nor has their home missionary work
been particularly extensive or effective for somewhat the
same reason. To be sure, after the Civil War came a period
of organization in which some of the old prejudices and fears
have disappeared. But the progress of Unitarianism during
the last seventy-five years has been theological rather than
material, and of this I propose to speak in the next lecture.


In the last lecture, while using, as I frequently did, the
terms " Liberal " and " Liberal Christian " to designate the
left wing of the standing order I was painfully reminded of
the feeling which once came over me on reading in a Chicago
newspaper an advertisement of a convention of " Liberal
Physicians " to be held in one of the smaller cities of Illinois.
There was no subsequent account of the proceedings by
which one could ascertain the principles and methods of the
organization, nor were there illustrations to show what man-
ner of men the delegates were. Unfortunately, the latter
omission left a reader's fancy free to conjure up a picture of


the company — glib and pretentious " Smart Alecks " dis-
persed among pompous white- whiskered " old doctors "
wearing frock coats and white ties, all blatantly declaiming
against the " regulars " of whatever school. It was not an
agreeable picture, and very likely it was wholly unfair, yet
it inspired a strong and enduring dishke for the word in
ecclesiastical usage. If the designation means open-minded,
free from prejudice, equally ready to discard the false, not-
withstanding its antiquity, or to accept the true despite its
novelty, then indeed the appellation is honorable: but by
the same token it is impudent to make of it a party name as
if aU others than those bearing the label were besotted with
prejudice, stupid and ignorant conformists in thought and
practice. A similar objection was expressed by Channing,
who in a letter to Thacher, under date of June 20, 18 15,
wrote as follows :

I have used the phrase or denomination Liberal Christians because
it is used by the Reviewer [in the Panoplist, of Dr. Morse's American
Unitarianism] to distinguish those whom he assails. I have never been
inclined to claim this appellation for myself or my friends, because as
the word liberality expresses the noblest qualities of the human mind,
— freedom from local prejudices and narrow feelings, the enlargement
of the views and affections, — I have thought that the assumption
of it would savor of that spirit which has attempted to limit the words
orthodox and evangelical to a particular body of Christians. As the
appellation, however, cannot well be avoided, I will state the meaning
which I attach to it.

By a Liberal Christian, then, I understand one who is disposed to
receive as his brethren in Christ all who in the judgment of charity,
sincerely profess to receive Jesus Christ as their Lord and Master.
He rejects all tests and standards of Christian faith and of Christian
character, but the word of Jesus Christ and of his inspired apostles.
He thinks it an act of disloyalty to his Master to introduce into the
Church creeds of fallible men as bonds of union or terms of Christian
fellowship. He calls himself by no name derived from human leaders,
disclaims all exclusive connection with any sect or party, professes


himself a member of the Church Universal on earth and in heaven,

and cheerfully extends the hand of brotherhood to every man of every
name who discovers the spirit of Jesus Christ.

According to this view of Liberal Christian, they cannot be called
a party. They are distinguished only by refusing to separate them-
selves in any form or degree from the great body of Christ. They
are scattered, too, through all classes of Christians. I have known
Trinitarians and Calvinists who justly deserve the name of Liberal,
who regard with affection all who appear to follow Jesus Christ in
temper and life, however they may differ on the common points of
theological controversy. To this class of Christians, which is scattered
over the earth, and which I trust has never been extinct in any age,

Online LibraryWilliam Edwards HuntingtonThe Religious history of New England; King's chapel lectures → online text (page 9 of 27)