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ON THE ORIGIN AND PROGRESS OF UNITARIANISM AND UNIVERSALISM IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.
In my preceding Letters I have given an account of the causes which have operated, with more or less efficiency, to introduce and promote the doctrines of Unitarianism and of Universal Salvation in New England. It only remains that I should trace, as briefly as possible, the progress of these heresies, and take a summary view of the state of religion in the whole country.
It was not until more than 100 years after the first colonies were planted in New England, that any considerable departures from the orthodox faith of the Congregational churches appeared. About the year 1740, or 45, it began to be suspected that some of the clergy of Boston had become Arminian. But I do not think that there is any evidence which could establish the fact, that any minister, besides the Rev. Dr. Chauncey, had adopted these sentiments at that period, though it is more than probable that several had become not only Arminian, but also Semi-Pelagian, before the death of Dr. Chauncey, which occurred in 1787. It will be remembered that that distinguished man was a great opponent of the Rev. Mr. Whitfield, and of the revival which occurred in 1740–45. He became not only an Arminian of the lowest stamp before his death, but also a believer and a strenuous advocate of the doctrine of universal salvation.
The Rev. Dr. Freeman, pastor of the Episcopal church called King's Chapel, avowed the doctrines of Unitarianism before 1790. At that time, or soon afterwards, there is reason to believe that the greater part of the Congregational ministers of Boston became affected by this heresy. But there was no avowal of it on their part until a much later day. Meanwhile, by the circulation of the writings of Priestly, Belsham, Lindsey, and other distinguished English Unitarian authors, the heresy became more widely diffused. About the year 1804, a Rev. Mr. Sherman, in Connecticut, and in 1810, a Rev. Mr. Abbot, in the same state, avowed Unitarianism." About the same time, the Rev. Messrs. Noah and Thomas Worcester, of New Hampshire, avowed a sort of Arianism. All these things prepared the way for a crisis. This took place in 1815, and was occasioned by the republication, in Boston, of a chapter contained in Belsham's Life of Lindsey, in which an account was given of Mr. Lindsey's correspondence with certain Congregational ministers and laymen of Boston, who, in their correspondence, avowed their Unitarian sentiments, and informed their English correspondent of the progress which these doctrines had secretly made among the ministers of Boston and its vicinity.
The publication of these letters made much noise. There was no longer room for concealment of their sentiments; accordingly several of the ministers of Boston did not hesitate any longer to declare them. Then began a controversy between some of the leading
ministers in that city and its vicinity, including the Rev. Drs. Worcester, Woods, and Professor Stuart, on the side of evangelical truth; and the Rev. Drs. Ware and Channing, on the part of Unitarianism, which was conducted with great ability, and led to a more complete discrimination between the two systems of doctrine, as well as a greater separation of their respective adherents.
That controversy lasted about seven years, and was carried on through the medium of the press. Since that time there has not been much regular controversy between the two parties; but the work of separation has gone on throughout the state of Massachusetts. The result is, that there are now, it is supposed, about 120 or 130 churches in that state which are Unitarian, and probably as many as from 100 to 120 ministers. In Boston, there are 15 or 16 Unitarian churches, and 9 or 10 orthodox Congregational churches; besides five or six flourishing Baptist, three or four Episcopal, and four or five Methodist churches. There are also one or two Catholic churches in that city, and several others, appertaining to different small sects. Evangelical religion has greatly advanced in that city during the last twenty years. In 1807, there was but one evangelical Congregational church in Boston ; at present, there are nine or ten. And though the Unitarian churches have increased, yet it has not been in an equal proportion. As to the Universalists, they have two or three churches.
There are some six or seven Unitarian churches in Maine, and about ten or twelve in Rhode Island and New Hampshire. In Connecticut and Vermont they have not more than five or six in all. So that the entire number of Unitarian ministers in the six New England states does not, probably, exceed 140 or 145; and their churches may be as many as 150 or 160. I do not profess to give the precise numbers, not having the means of doing so; but I am quite sure, that my estimate of their numbers is not below the truth.
In the other twenty states of the Union, (including the new states of Michigan and Arkansas,) there are very few Unitarian ministers and churches. There are perhaps as many as five or six in New York, three in Pennsylvania, one in Maryland, one in Virginia, one in South Carolina, one or two in Georgia, one in Louisiana, and a few in the other states. Their entire number in the United States may be estimated at 150 ministers, 170 congregations or societies, and 170,000 souls, who may be considered as under their instruction and direct influence.
It will be seen from the preceding statements that the Unitarian doctrines have most influence in New England, and especially in Massachusetts. In that state, a large proportion of the wealth of the capital (Boston), and of the other principal cities, is in their hands. They have also the well-endowed University of Harvard, at Cambridge; and a large proportion of the most distinguished civilians, physicians, and other men of influence, hold their sentiments. At the same time it is far from being true, that they are equal in point of numbers to the orthodox Congregationalists, who VOL. I. N.S.
have at least 340 churches and about 300 ministers, in the state of Massachusetts.
The question is often asked, “ Are not the Unitarians increasing rapidly in the United States ?” To this question I think that à negative answer must be given. I do not deny that they are increasing; but I do not think that their increase is either rapid, or proportionate to the increase of the orthodox. Their increase is little more than the natural increase of that proportion of the population over which they have an intluence. Indeed, many wellinformed persons deny that they increase at all, taking the whole country into consideration, for whilst they seem to gain in some places, they obviously lose in others.
As to the Universalists, they are more numerous both in New England generally, and in the other portions of the United States. Their number in Massachusetts may be about the same as that of the Unitarians. It is greater, I believe, in most of the other states of New England, than that of the Unitarians. The same causes which generated Unitarianism also produced Universalism.*
I believe that it may be said, that the Universalism which prevails in the United States is the very lowest species of that error. Few of the believers of that doctrine now hold to the restoration, which Winchester and other more primitive Universalists held. Instead of which they almost universally deny that there will be any future punishment of any sort, and that the only state of punishment is in this life! These are the sentiments of Ballon and others, who are leaders among them.
It is not easy to know the exact number of the Universalists in the United States. I believe that their number of ministers is between 300 and 400, and their congregations are probably from 500 to 600.
On the other hand, the number of evangelical ministers of the orthodox Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Episcopalians, Reformed Dutch, Lutherans, German Reformed, and other and smaller sects, may be safely estimated to exceed 11,000 ministers, 19,000 churches, and 1,500,000 communicants or members.
As to the Roman Catholics, I suppose that the number of their priests must, by this time, exceed 400. They estimate the number of their people (all members who are grown up) at 550,000. If the Protestants were to reckon as members of their churches all who attend their services, and are under their instruction, the number : would be more than 12,000,000.
The preceding statements, though of a very general and summary ... character, are sufficient to convey a tolerably accurate view of the
state of religion in the United States. It will be manifest from what has been said, that the progress of error bears but a small proportion
· * It will be observed, that I use the word universalison, though not strictly proper, simply for convenience, to express the doctrine that all men will be saved.
to that of the truth. Even in New England, if we allow that the Unitarian and Universalist ministers combined exceed 300, they are not more than equal to one third-part of the orthodox Congregational ministers (who exceed 1,000 in number,) to say nothing of the Methodist, Calvinistic Baptist, and Episcopal ministers, who are both numerous and evangelical.
Whatever a union of church and state may have done for the cause of pure Christianity in other countries, it will be hard to find an intelligent Christian in the United States of America, who will not affirm that it is his deliberate belief, that even in the very limited extent to which it gained ground in that country, it was highly injurious to the interests of vital religion. It may have done some good, I will not deny it. But the good which it did has been fearfully counterbalanced by the evil which it also wrought. It was tried in New England, where the Congregational church was in some three or four states, for a longer or shorter period, united to the State. It was tried in the South, in one state, that of Virginia, until the Revolution. And in both cases, it did almost irreparable mischief. The injury which the church in New England received from the embraces of the State, must be evident from what has been already stated. It is remarkable that Unitarianism made no progress in that part of the country, except in the church which was united with the State. The influence of that alliance in Virginia, it may be truly said, was equally bad. The Episcopal church in that state, which was the favoured and dominant church, was in as low a state, as regards piety, before the Revolution, as it was well possible for a church to be. But as soon as the connexion with the state was severed, true religion began to flourish. The Episcopal church in Virginia is now flourishing, and blessed with a devoted and able ministry. Whilst in New England, whatever fears may have once been felt and expressed by some good men, such as the Rev. Dr. Dwight, in the prospect of the sudden disruption, the event has shown that their fears were groundless. The churches now readily support their pastors upon the voluntary plan, and have no difficulty, ordinarily, in doing it. Where help is needed, it is received from the Home Missionary Societies, which have been formed for that express object. Had there never been a union of the church and state in New England, there might not have been, possibly, as many churches formed and sustained; but there would not have been as many large and flourishing churches of Unitarians and Universalists built np and established.
It must needs be that, in the United States, where the population increases at such an amazing ratio, and into which so many thousands of ignorant heterogeneous foreigners are poured every year, great efforts must be made to supply the people with the means of grace. And such efforts, I will venture to say, are there making, as are not paralleled in any other country in the world. The crying exigency is the very thing which was needed to call forth the energies of the church. And although much is said about the thousands of churches there, which are destitute of pastors, yet if this matter were better understood by foreigners, both their surprise and
their fears would be diminished. On this point I venture to make a few observations,—not without having good reason to believe that they are correct. 1. Whilst hundreds of new churches are forming annually in the United States, hundreds are annually becoming supplied with pastors, through the well-directed efforts of Christians united in societies for that purpose, so that it is not an ordinary thing that a church is suffered to be long destitute of a pastor. 2. But few of the thousands of churches which are represented as vacant, do not hear the gospel with more or less frequency during the year. 3. It is reckoned in that country to be very desirable, that each particular church or congregation should have a pastor to labour exclusively for its interests. And in the general estimates which are made on this subject, those churches which do not enjoy this privilege, although they may be often supplied by neighbouring ministers, or have temporary but unsettled pastors, are reckoned as belonging to the class of destitute churches. 4. The earnest representations of the agents and organs of our Missionary and other Societies, which depict what will soon be the state of the country and of the church, unless great efforts be made to furnish the means of grace, must not be taken as being already fulfilled. They are wholly hypothetical as yet, and with God's blessing they bid fair to remain so.
I cannot close these letters without saying, that I consider the most fruitful causes which led to the corruption of the churches in Massachusetts to have been the first and third of those which I have stated, or, in other words, those which filled the churches with unconverted people. The tenth and last named causes perpetuated and extended the mischief; but the other two were the most fatal. If we would preserve the churches from error in doctrine, we must labour to keep those from entering them who are unconverted, and, therefore, unfit to be members of the church of Christ. In other words, that discipline must be maintained without which the church cannot continue pure. No Confession of Faith, no evangelical Liturgy, nor any thing else can keep a church from becoming corrupt whilst the world is allowed to enter it. Churches of unconverted people will soon have unconverted ministers, if they have the power of choosing them. And what security is there that unconverted ministers will not embrace Pelagian and Unitarian errors ? But I add no more to these letters, which have already been too greatly extended; but in closing would express my prayer, that God would deign to bless what I have written, and make it in some way conducive to the good of his church, and that He would be pleased to pour out his Holy Spirit upon his church, and purify, enlarge, and establish it throughout the earth.