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THE CONGREGATIONAL MAGAZINE.
ON THE ORIGIN AND PROGRESS OF UNITARIANISM
IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.
(To the Editor.) I know not by how many persons the question has been addressed to me since my arrival in Europe-How has it happened that Unitatarianism gained an entrance into the churches in the United States, and by what means has it been enabled to make so great progress as it is reported to have done in some portions of that country, which was settled, in many cases, by men of eminent piety and pure doctrine? This is an important question, and one which ought to be answered with care. And this is what I now propose to attempt, through the medium of your excellent Journal. I shall endeavour to accomplish this task in as brief a manner as possible, and shall probably be able to include the subject in some six or seven letters of a moderate length,
I would remark, at the outset, that it is not wonderful that Christians in Europe should be astonished to hear that the heresies of Unitarianism and of universal salvation should have gained access to the churches in America, and made the progress which they have done, especially when they learn that this has taken place chiefly in New England, which, of all the portions of the United States, was settled by colonies of men distinguished by their piety and soundness in doctrine. It is natural that they should desire to know what were the causes of such a departure from the true faith in communities which were blessed with such an origin, and planted amid circumstances so favourable, as one would suppose, to the permanency of the great principles which their founders held, and for the better
Vol. I. N. S.-Vol. XX.
maintaining of which they hesitated not to forsake a civilized land for an inhospitable wilderness. What could have been the causes which produced such results, so unexpected, so pernicious ? Surely they must have possessed a mighty potency to produce such effects amid so many circumstances of a counteracting nature.
As it was in New England that the departures from the true gospel, of which I am about to speak, took place, and to which they are even yet chiefly limited, I shall confine my remarks and statements which I am about to make almost wholly to that part of my country; for there will be no difficulty in accounting for the Unitarianism and the Universalism which is to be found in the other portions of that country, when we have once learned correctly their origin in New England. In fact, it is almost wholly by emigration from the New England States that these doctrines have received the comparatively limited diffusion which they have gained in other states.
And in order to prepare the way for a better understanding of this subject, I propose to occupy the remaining portion of this letter with a very brief historical notice of the New England States, and some account of the character of the Pilgrim Fathers, as they are called, who were the founders of the colonies out of which those states have grown up.
The first English settlement which was made in New England was made by a part of the congregation of the Rev. John Robinson, which bad been driven with their pastor by persecution from the north of England to Holland in the year 1608. Having remained, first at Amsterdam, and afterwards at Leyden, 12 years, a part of his followers returned to England, and sailed from Plymouth in that country, and reached what is now called Massachusett's Bay, and founded a town in 1620, which they named Plymouth. Their number was about 100 persons. After incredible hardships, their settlement began to assume the appearance of prosperity. In less than ten years their colony increased to 300 persons.
In 1628 a new colony went out from England, and founded the town of Salem; and in 1630 another and much larger colony was sent out, and founded Boston. This colony and that of Salem were under one government, of which John Winthorp was the chief, or governor. From these original colonies many new settlements were made in their respective vicinities. As they were all situated on Massachusetts Bay, they were not far from each other, and as they advanced in numbers they began to act in concert, and from the year 1643 occasionally held meetings or congresses of delegates from each town for the purpose of concerting measures for their common defence against the Indians. The colonies of Plymouth and Boston (or Massachusetts Bay as it was called) were united in the year 1692, and thenceforth constituted but one commonwealth, and were governed by the provisions of a royal charter.
At an early period after their settlement colonies went out from those on and around Massachusetts Bay, and formed settlements in what was afterwards called the Provinces, and at present the States of Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. At a later period Maine and Vermont were added to the number of New England colonies or commonwealths. The population of these various districts augmented gradually. Many difficulties had to be encountered, one of the most formidable of which was the hostility of the native tribes of Indians. Several destructive wars were waged with them, which ended in the subjection of the Aborigines. Meanwhile the work of clearing away the forests, building towns and cities, establishing schools and churches, founding colleges, &c. went on; and at the end of eighty years the New England colonies embraced a population of near 100,000 souls. From that epoch (1700) the increase of the population was rapid and without interruption, excepting during the two French wars as they are called in 1745-49 and 1754-63, when England being at war with France involved the colonies in a war with the Canadas, (which then belonged to France,) and the war of the revolution in 1775-83. During those three periods of war, New England, in common with the other portions of what now constitutes the United States, suffered much. It was only, however, a temporary depression. The present population of the six New England States, viz. Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, is not far from two millions and a half. And probably there is not on the globe a country better supplied with a well-educated ministry, or the means of popular education. There is probably not a district containing a sufficient population, which has not a school. Besides many academies or high schools, there are twelve colleges, some five or six theological seminaries, and I know not how many medical and law schools in these six States.
Having given a sufficient sketch of the history of New England, I now proceed to describe, very briefly, the character of the men who were the founders of the New England colonies, and the authors, under God, of those blessed institutions which have produced many good fruits.
1. The colonists who planted the standard of Christianity and civilization on the shores of New England, were actuated by the noblest motives which could influence men. It is true that they were oppressed and denied some of their dearest rights in their native land: but this could have been borne, nor was redress impossible ; or they could have remained in Holland, and there worshipped God in a manner congenial to their feelings and their conscience; but they chose to emigrate to an almost unknown land, to inhospitable shores, to an unsubdued wilderness,--and this chiefly for the noble purpose of “ extending the kingdom of the Redeemer.” In the statement of the reasons given by the emigrants from Leyden for their removal is the following: “Fifthly and lastly, and which was not the least, a great hope and inward zeal they had of laying some good foundations, or at least to make some way thereunto, for the propagating and advancement of the gospel of the kingdom of Jesus Christ in those remote parts of the world; yea, although they should be but as stepping stones unto others for the performance of so good a work." Eliot and the Mayhews, Sergeant and Brainerd did not forget this. Their descendants, although, alas, they almost forgot it, are now, blessed be God, in these days, endeavouring, in some measure, to fulfil the high object which their fathers had in view. Where should the missionary spirit be constantly felt if not in the land which it peopled ? May that spirit long burn in every christian heart in New England, for she owes it to the country, to the world, to Christ, to fulfil the high destination which, in the choice of her pilgrim fathers and the providence of God, has been assigned to her. Somewhat of the same spirit influenced many of the individual emigrants in the other colonies which settled in the United States; but not comparable, as to extent, and not at all as to organized form, to that which influe enced the colonization of New England.
In vain shall we seek a parallel to this in the colonies of other times or countries ;-an escape from oppression, and often, from the restraints of law; a restless curiosity and a spirit of hazardous enterprise; commercial pursuits and love of gain; political measures for the increase of power, or the subtraction of a redundant population, were the causes which led to the planting of all the colonies in the old world, and, excepting New England, in the new world also. A desire to extend the kingdom of God had nothing to do with the colonies sent forth from Egypt and Phænicia, from Greece, from Carthage, and from Rome; and it had little, very little to do in those which went forth from Spain and Portugal, from France and Holland, and from Denmark and Sweden, in modern times.
2. Very, many of the first settlers in New England were descendants of the most respectable families in England, and made great sacrifices in going to that land. This was remarkably the case with the colony which founded Boston and the neighbouring places. They were not convicts which were transported for their crimes. They were not men who fled from justice to find an asylum in that wilderness. Nor were they an ignoble rabble, driven from their native but famished land by starvation; but they were, almost to a man, in good circumstances in their native country; and not a few were, for those times, wealthy. The respectability of Winthrop, and Stoughton, and Ames, and Chauncey, and Sherman, and Hobart, and Fisk, and Johnson (the founder of Boston), and his wife Lady Arabella, and many more who might be named, is well known. Almost every important town in New England was settled by respectable emigrants, many of whose descendants are now to be found in those places, inheriting not only their names, but also their virtues and their respectability.
3. They had a noble regard for their father-land, and interest in its customs, and its civil and religious institutions. Although they had suffered wrong, and felt it deeply, yet they could never forget that they were English, nor lose their love for England. One reason why the congregation of Mr. Robinson in Leyden did not choose to remain in Holland was, that “their posterity would, in a few generations, become Dutch, and so lose their interest in the English nation; they being rather desirous to enlarge his majesty's dominions, and to live under their natural prince.”
4. The first settlers of New England were generally pions, and many of them eminently so. Their religion was strict, affecting their whole conduct; cheerful in the main, though somewhat stern ; their morality was excellent; their observance of the Lord's day most rigid and exemplary. They were industrious, frugal, and temperate to a remarkable degree. No people on earth ever acted more from principle in every thing. Custom and habit had their influence; but custom and habit with them were founded in principle: they were, emphatically, men of principle. They had great regard for the word of God and its precepts; they paid great deference to the divine authority, and but little to that which is human, when not supported by that which is divine: they carried their religion into every thing; it was a constituent quality of every action,-a pervading element, whose influence was seen and felt everywhere. They were remarkable for their regard to providences : they saw God's hand in every event.
5. In doctrine they were “uncorrupt." The fall of man, his total alienation from God, the supreme divinity of Jesus Christ, atonement by his sufferings and death, the necessity of regeneration by the influence of the Holy Spirit, the perseverance of believers in holiness, and their kindred truths and doctrines were cordially embraced and faithfully preached. They had their defects no doubt, and their manner of exhibiting truth was not always felicitous and skilful : yet, the great doctrines of the bible were fully, faithfully, and, in general, successfully delivered. Their ministers were much such men as were their contemporaries Owen, Howe, Baxter, and Bates. The religious instruction of their children was faithful and wonderfully successful: no subject was felt to be more important than this by the pilgrims; and it is remarkable what a blessing attended their solicitude and their efforts.
6. No people on earth ever estimated the importance of learning at a higher rate than did the colonists who settled in New England. They were themselves an educated people; they were an intelligent people; they brought with them the love of letters: there were few, if any, among them who could not read. One of the first subjects to which they turned their attention, was suitable provision for the establishment of common schools and academies; and but few years rolled away before they founded a noble institution for the preparation of ministers of the gospel, and of men to manage the affairs of state. Many of their ministers were men of uncommon literary attainments. Not a few were well acquainted with the languages in which the scriptures were originally written, as well as with other branches of knowledge. Several of them gave ample proof of their proficiency in biblical literature, by the numerous, and, for that period, valuable books which they wrote. They were indefatigable students, and performed an amount of labour, in conjunction with study, which is perfectly astonishing to men of our day. The number of books written, sermons preached, and vigils kept, by some of these giants of the olden time, almost surpass belief. Cotton, Wilson, Hooker, the Mathers, Chauncey, Thatcher, Whiting, Sherman, Elliot, &c. were men of extensive learning.
It is not maintained that these men were,-in biblical criticism and interpretation, in some branches of natural science and mental