Ralph Waldo Emerson was a sterling example of serious religious differentiation between North and South as he resigned his pastorate in Boston due to an inability “to conceal disbelief in traditional creeds.” His “emancipated spirit soared” as he demonstrated that a philosopher could attain great heights in intellectual adventures, and believing one’s own thoughts before religious orthodoxy. To “realize the divine in every man, to be a nonconformist, with virtues that were more than penances . . . was his religion.” It would not take long for people like this to ignite open warfare.
Bernhard Thuersam, www.circa1865.org
New England Unitarians and Universalists
“The deists of the late colonial period and of the infant republic were usually political radicals as well. They advocated independence, fought in the Revolution, and ended their careers supporting the French Revolution and Jeffersonian democracy. Indeed, Jefferson himself was the arch-deist, and for that reason all the more detested by the New England orthodox Federalist of the Fisher Ames sort.
Unitarianism was even more destructive of orthodoxy than was deism. In New England it cut across both Episcopal and Congregational-Presbyterian churches, taking over many whole congregations complete with clergy and church property. In 1785, the Episcopalian King’s Chapel in Boston turned Unitarian under its pastor, James Freeman, and when Freeman was refused ordination by the Episcopal Church he received it from his own congregation acting as an independent religious organization.
The English traveler, Thomas Hamilton, summarized the usual British estimate of Unitarianism:
“Unitarianism is the democracy of religion. Its creed makes fewer demands on the faith or the imagination, than that of any other Christian sect. It appeals to known reason in every step of its progress, and while it narrows the compass of miracle, enlarges that of demonstration. Its followers have less bigotry than other religionists, because they have less enthusiasm. A Unitarian will take nothing for granted but the absolute and plenary efficacy of his own reason in matters of religion. He is not a fanatic, but a dogmatist . . . and [chooses] religion as one does a hat, because it fitted him.”
Their importance and leadership however, were out of proportion to their numbers, for they were largely of the middle and upper classes, representing both wealth and learning. They were strong in the literary and cultural centers of New England.
If Unitarianism was the faith of the well-to-do, well-educated dissenters from the doctrines of Calvin, the poorer New Englanders with liberal ideas, adopted the Universalism brought to American by John Murray in 1770. There was little difference in theology between the two sects; the Universalist merely placed their emphasis on the denial of hell and the doctrine of universal salvation. There were few Universalist churches in the Eastern cities, but they were numerous in the country districts.
Yale College became a hotbed of radicalism — at least in the eyes of conservative divines. Students called each other by the names of French radicals and met to discuss the progress, perfection, and the rights of man. In the words of the author of a history of a neighboring college, “the dams and dykes seemed to be swept away, and irreligion, immorality, skepticism, and infidelity came in like a flood.”
In 1799 only four or five Yale undergraduates professed religion, and in 1800 there was only one church member in the graduating class. “A young man who belonged to the church in that day was a phenomenon — almost a miracle.” By the end of the century, with the appointment of Henry Ware to the Hollis Professorship of theology, Unitarianism was fairly entrenched in the old training school for Puritan divines.”
(Freedom’s Ferment, Alice Felt Tyler, University of Minnesota Press, 1944, pp. 26-29)