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1783, modified their prayer-book, so as to omit the doctrine of the Trinity, and thus became the first distinctively Unitarian Church in America. As the years passed, the old Calvinism was giving way to liberal sentiment; often imperceptibly, sometimes with storm and struggle, as winter turns to suminer. From 1815 to 1825, controversy grew hot; lines of theological antagonism were drawn; churches and men took sides. Old Congregational churches were divided; and as the majority voted, their name, history, prestige, and strength were carried to Trinitarian or Unitarian ranks. So stand the first churches in Plymouth, Salem, Boston, and many other towns, maintaining their ancient congregational liberty and usages, yet Unitarian in faith and fellowship. Meanwhile, new churches were planted in Charleston, Washington, Philadelphia, and New York.
During this eventful decade, Channing,
in 1780, settled over Federal Street Church in 1803, then in the prime of manhood, with early ripeness of spiritual fruitage, became, by eloquence of tongue and pen, the popular leader of the Unitarian movement. At the ordination of Jared Sparks in 1819, as minister of the church in Baltimore, his discourse expounding Unitarian Christianity made a profound sensation throughout America. Less a controversialist than practical preacher, seeking the truth of things, putting the law of love into moral and social reform, and kindling the aspiration for holiness, free inquiry, philanthropy, and spiritual culture, were the burden of his ministry. And, in the words of his biographer, the appropriate motto of his life was Holiness, Truth, Humanity..
What, therefore, was and is Channing Unitarianism? As represented by Channing, the Unitarian movement bears a twofold phase.
1st. An affirmation of faith. The whole theological conception of God as Trinity, the Father a despot, man totally depraved, this life a mere probation, the next life an inheritance of doom, and Jesus a sacrificial substitute for the penalties of sin, offered to relieve the Deity from a dilemma in the administration of the universe, was swept away with protest as a dogmatic accretion on the gospel. In its stead was affirmed a larger faith in the one good God, the living, loving Father of all souls; in man his child, liable to fall, but capable of standing erect and ascending divinest summits; in this life as a real part and beginning of the life eternal; in the life to come and its fresh opportunities and in
destructible hopes; in Jesus as beloved son of God and brother of mankind, the embodiment and representative of that divine life, whose principles, laws, and truths, like the axioms of mathematics, run their lines through the universe and are eternal.
2d. The Unitarian movement, as represented by Channing, is also an embodiment of principles, independent of special theologic belief, and larger than any sect, - principles of freedom, progress, truth seeking, brotherly fellowship, practical righteousness, which pledge church and soul to study and practice of Christianity, and, whether Unitarian or Trinitarian in opinion, constitute one a liberal Christian.
The Unitarian leaders were willing, in the large fellowship and free faith of Congregationalism, to maintain the unity of the church unbroken. They would have borne their testimony to truth as they saw it, urging all others freely to do the same, and would have preached practical Christianity, as if the doctrine of the Trinity had never been heard of. The necessity of separation was enforced by the Trinitarian side, withdrawing fellowship, pushing controverted opinions as tests, and making charges that rendered it impossible to stay. After the break had come, it was with no desire to repeat old bigotries, or to build a new sect: it was to do their own part in the vineyard that the American Unitarian Association was formed. To do this or to do nothing was their only alternative.
Others will to-day pay fitting tribute to the memory of the fathers. As we tenderly mention their names, and recall their virtues and worth, may their devoted self-sacrifice inspire our hearts to like fidelity. Conspicuous among them, as the eager, zealous young spirits who were the active organizers of the Association, were Ware, Walker, Barrett, and Gannett. From the early record we here reprint the account of its origin.
"A proposal to form a Society embracing the objects of the American Unitarian Association was brought before the Berry Street Conference on the morning of May 25, 1825, when an anonymous communication suggesting such a measure was read by the scribe. The Conference did not think proper to take any order on the subject, but notice was given that a meeting of gentlemen would be held for its consideration in the vestry, at four o'clock, P.M.
"A meeting was accordingly held in the Berry Street vestry at four o'clock, P.M. Rev. Henry Ware, D.D., of Cambridge, was
chosen moderator. After some discussion, it was voted that it is expedient to form a new society, to be called the American Unitarian Association. Voted, that a committee of three be appointed to carry the preceding vote into effect. Rev. James Walker, Lewis Tappan, Esq., and Rev. E. S. Gannett were appointed this committee. Adjourned to ten o'clock, A.M., of the next day."
At the adjourned meeting, held in Berry Street vestry next day, Dr. Ware not being present, Rev. Nathaniel Thayer, D.D., of Lancaster, was chosen moderator. The Committee reported a form of constitution, containing eight articles, to which a ninth was added: 1st, declaring the name to be The American Unitarian Association; 2d, its objects to be to diffuse the knowledge and promote the interests of pure Christianity throughout our country; 3d, inviting Unitarian Christians throughout the United States to unite and co-operate; 4th, fixing the pecuniary terms of membership at an annual subscription of $1 per year, or a single payment of $30 for life; 5th, appointing as officers a president, fifteen vice-presidents, a secretary, a treasurer, and three directors; 6th, the last five officers to meet once a month for the active management of the funds and work; 7th, an annual meeting, for election of officers, and other business provided for; 8th, provision for filling vacancies on the Board; 9th, provision for amendments to the constitution.
Rev. Dr. Ware, Rev. James Walker, Ichabod Tucker, Esq., and Rev. Henry Ware, Jr., as nominating committee, proposed as officers a list of gentlemen, who were unanimously chosen.
Thus was organized the Association, — seeking no sectarian upbuilding or propagandism, but proclaiming principles that would destroy sect and sectarianism. It began its career amid the doubt and distrust of many on whom its leaders counted as friends. There was no question of its good purpose. But its very liberality rendered its task difficult. It was to rally the widely scattered and unknown forces of liberal Christianity, without rallying cry of partisan appeal. Its problem was to create union in the service of freedom. But the dread of sectarian tendency caused many earnest friends of the Unitarian faith and the liberal principle to regard the Association with lukewarmness and apathy.
Channing, elected first president, declined the office; and, elected a second time after ten years, again declined it, and wrote from Newport to his young colleague, Gannett : "I was a little disappointed to learn that the Unitarian Association is to commence
its operations immediately." His feeble health requiring a colleague, caused him to shrink from all superfluous burdens. With little fitness for executive administration, his genius wrought best in the ideal realm. Yet he lacked not sympathy with its principles or purpose. Some of its earliest and chief tracts were his own. At some of the early meetings he spoke in its behalf. At the fourth annual meeting, in Federal Street Church, in 1829, we hear him as a leading speaker, saying: "A voice has gone from this city to distant parts of the country, assuring them that Unitarianism must and shall be put down; that men of property are ready to sacrifice to this object; and that distant parts must, in some way or other, lend a helping hand." Standing at the foot of the east stairway of the pulpit of the old Federal Street Church, in presence of a crowded assembly, he describes the " coalition," or, he again terms it, the " 'conspiracy," "working by joint clamor, joint wealth, joint appeals, to the passions of the ignorant, and by exciting the odium of prejudice." With one hand resting on the baluster, and the other raised in emphatic gesture, his countenance kindling and his eye flashing, his voice rings out the prophecy which time fulfils, In this way Unitarianism must not and shall not be put down."
Representing the Unitarian movement, Channing also somewhat represented that distrust of associated action which has shorn liberal Christianity of its possible strength, and postponed to a later day the solution of the problem of union in the service of freedom. And now that Channing is in his grave, a good Providence, that works better things than the wisest plan, has ordered it that this same Association celebrates its Semi-Centennial by publishing his word anew, and, more than any other human instrumentality, is sending to all mankind Channing's own noble word for freedom, progress, truth, and righteousness.
The organization has from the first continued substantially the same, with occasional slight experiments of change, under the delusion that only the machinery needed mending, instead of needing larger resources to carry it. Fifteen vice-presidents were chosen, not for active service, but to borrow the influence of honored names. In 1836, it was voted to enlarge the number to a council of seventy; but this proved impracticable, and was never carried into effect.
The work of the secretary was at one time divided between two, for domestic and foreign correspondence. At one time it has
been reduced to an office agency; at another, enlarged to that of an active missionary.
In 1847, the Association was incorporated by the legislature, and recognized by the law of the State, as a body capable of holding and administering trusts.
During the first ten years Rev. Dr. Bancroft was president; since which time this office has been held in succession by Rev. Dr. Nichols of Portland, Judge Story, Rev. Dr. Dewey, Rev. Dr. Gannett, Rev. Dr. Hall of Providence, Rev. Dr. Lothrop, Rev. Dr. Hedge, Rev. Dr. Stebbins, Rev. Dr. Palfrey, Hon. Henry Chapin of Worcester, and Hon. John Wells of Boston. Ezra S. Gannett, then recently settled as colleague of Channing, and full of zeal for the faith, was, perhaps of all others, most earnest in the founding of the Association. He prepared its constitution, putting his whole soul into the work; was secretary for five years, afterward upon the executive committee, and still later its president; and, while life lasted, the Association's devoted and never-failing friend. Successive secretaries have been, besides Henry Ware and John G. Palfrey, for a short time assistant secretaries for foreign correspondence, Alexander Young, Samuel Barrett, Jason Whitman, Charles Briggs, Frederic W. Holland, Calvin Lincoln, Henry A. Miles, James Freeman Clarke, George W. Fox, Rufus P. Stebbins, Charles Lowe, and R. R. Shippen ; also, temporarily as assistant secretaries for the West, Carlton A. Staples, Charles H. Brigham, and S. S. Hunting.
Beginning with Dr. Bancroft as president, and Judge Story as first on the list of vice-presidents, composed of fifteen of our most distinguished laymen, and with James Walker, Henry Ware, Jr., and Lewis Tappan as first executive committee, the Board has through the half century held the most honored and trusted names among our laymen and ministers. There was little change through the first decade. It does not seem to have been lack of confidence in the men, but only because liberal Christians had not learned to work together for their faith and principles, that from the first the Association has wielded but a small fraction of the contributions so lavishly poured out by the Unitarian people in a multitude of enterprises for education, philanthropy, and religion.
The first annual meeting, held at Boylston Hall, was thinly attended. During the first year the receipts were not quite $1,300; and only nine names were on the list of life-members. In Boston, only sixty-five persons offered the annual subscription; and of