By Rev. A. Powell Davies D.D.
February 24, 1946
In Time news magazine a week
ago there appeared a letter criticizing an article on Unitarianism
which had recently been printed in that journal. The article had
implied that Unitarians hold certain beliefs in common; the letter
denied that this was possible. "Unitarians," it said, "are so
divergent in their beliefs that it is almost impossible to set down
any one thing upon which the group does agree." Which is, of course,
as any thoughtful person might expect, a gross exaggeration. No
movement holds together for as long a time as has Unitarianism
without substantial areas of agreement.
Yet, the mistake which the writer of the letter makes is a very
common one. Because traditional churches are based upon a system of
required beliefs, i.e., upon a creed, he assumes that a church
without a creed can have no basis of agreement. Whereas, for
Unitarians, the deliberate intention not to have a creed is itself a
most emphatic basis of agreement. Let us look at that for a moment
or two. For understanding Unitarianism, it makes a good beginning.
In the first place, Unitarians know the mischief caused by creeds
through all the centuries of Christianity. If, on the one hand,
creeds have been a basis of agreement, who can deny that on the
other they have brought about an endless stream of disagreement?
Indeed, it was worse than that. "Believe as we do," the churches
said, "or we shall excommunicate you." And all too often they went
on to say, "Believe as we do, or we shall have you killed."
It is interesting to remember that the name "Unitarian" was once
given to a number of religious bodies which had pledged themselves
not to persecute one another.1 This was in the sixteenth century, in
Transylvania, and the meaning intended by the name was that of
unity. Those who had made the pledge of mutual toleration had to
that extent banded themselves together and were known as the
"United" or the "Unite-arians." It was soon discovered, however,
that some of those within this league were rejecting the dogma that
God is a trinity, and so the believers in this dogma, who began to
be called the "Trinitarians,", withdrew at once, leaving to the
remainder the name "United" or "Un."
And so it will be seen that from the beginning Unitarians wanted to
end the troubles caused by creeds; and it will also be seen that
some who had this wish were willing to abandon it rather than
associate with disbelievers in the dogma of the Trinity. This was
repeated many times in later history, in one way or another, and
marks the most conspicuous historical division between Unitarians
and Trinitarians. It is only fair to emphasize that Unitarians had
not required the Trinitarians to give up their dogma of the Trinity;
the difficulty was that the Trinitarians insisted upon the
Unitarians subscribing to the Trinitarian belief.
I do not mean by this that Unitarians were always gentle
controversialists while Trinitarians were always harsh. There was
pretty rugged argument on both sides and each can claim its share of
stormy personalities. But the issue between them was as I have
stated it. And in large measure, it still is. The Trinitarian basis
of agreement is a creed; the Unitarian basis is agreement not to
have one. Unity is more likely, says Unitarianism, in the absence of
a creed than with one. For look at the divisions of Christendom!
Moreover, where there is no creed it is easier to follow truth. For
look at the Christian churches of today: those which are trying to
disguise their creeds, the liberal churches which keep their dogmas
out of sight lest they should frighten away the more intelligent
among their members. And look at the traditional churches, the ones
which still uphold their creeds; see how they have to block the
paths of progress, denying even the proved discoveries of science.
Surely, not only unity but truth is safer where there is no creed.
Thus, as I say, the Unitarian churches refuse to make a creed their
basis of agreement, and this refusal is itself the foremost
principle to which, as Unitarians, they have subscribed.
Creeds are divisive. They are also negative; they say "no" to new
truth. They put the dead in the place of the living; they make
yesterday the oppressor of today. It is better, says Unitarianism,
to be affirmative, to be free to believe what persuades you, and to
follow the truth as it grows. If you do not have this freedom, how
can your belief be real? For if your true thought runs contrary to a
creed, how can you make yourself believe the creed? And if your mind
is open--open and honest--then at some time or another it is almost
certain to run contrary to a creed. Are you then to negate your true
belief, to try to put it out of mind, in order to maintain your
creed? If so, what happens to sincerity? If you probe the matter
deeply, must it not be that your belief in creeds is superficial? Or
pretended? And in the last analysis delusive and precarious?
Let a man affirm his real beliefs, says Unitarianism. And if new
knowledge or experience tells him that he needs to change them, let
him change them. His beliefs should most of all be real; nothing
should stand in the way of their persuading him. Let us have, not a
negative church which suppresses men's real beliefs, but an
affirmative one which liberates them. Let us have, not a creed which
stands in the way of plain and honest thinking and impedes sincere
believing, but a determination that religious thinking shall be free
from fetters, and believing natural and real.
It was this determination which brought about American Unitarianism.
Not suddenly, of course, or without relation to the past. We have
already mentioned the first use of the name in Transylvania in the
sixteenth century. We might go farther back. We might go back to the
Arians who refused to believe that a majority vote of the Council of
Nicea could make Jesus a god instead of a man. That was in 325 A.D.
We might even go back to Ikhnaton, pharaoh of Egypt, or to some of
the Old Testament prophets, or to Jesus himself. It is almost
impossible for any authentic scholar to put Jesus on the side of
creedalists, or to show that he believed that he was God. Except
among the Roman Catholics, good scholars have almost given up
trying, and are forced to grope for semblances of evidence outside
If the denominations of Christendom were to begin to write their
creeds today, instead of taking them from the past, they would find
it impossible, and would have to end up either in complete confusion
or as Unitarian. Indeed, their beliefs are so unstable as it is, and
their creeds so great a handicap, that that is almost their
situation even now. Only the Roman Catholics avoid it, and they do
it by a flat denial of all opposing evidence. So that, as I say,
Unitarianism could go back to Jesus; back, that is, to the kind of
religion Jesus taught.
If we wanted to go less far than that, we could remember Servetus,
burned at the stake by Calvin in 1553 because he had written a book
called "Errors of the Trinity." There have been many Unitarian
martyrs, one of the most recent being Dr. Norbert Capek, done to
death by the Nazis in Czechoslovakia. His gallant widow, who is now
trying to rebuild his work, was with us last winter in this
congregation....Or we might go back to Bishop Francis David or to
the Socinians and the persecutions in Poland. Or we might dwell upon
the beginnings of Unitarianism in England. Theophilus Lindsey, John
Biddle, the poet--Milton, the physicist--Isaac Newton, the
philosopher--John Locke; these, among many others, are famous names
which mark the growth of English Unitarianism. But perhaps it is
best to speak of Joseph Priestley, the discoverer of oxygen, a
Unitarian minister who was forced by persecution to escape to the
United States. He was much encouraged in earlier days by Benjamin
Franklin, whose views were also Unitarian. Priestley established the
first Unitarian churches, so known and so called, in the United
States, one in Northumberland, Pennsylvania (1794), and one in
Philadelphia (1796). In 1803 a company of Dutch refugees established
a Unitarian church in Barneveld, New York. Meanwhile, Thomas
Jefferson had declared himself a Unitarian, and Tom Paine had
written his "Age of Reason."
In New England, a movement which had slowly shaped itself through
several generations was maturing towards a Unitarian consummation.
With the turning of the century, the Pilgrim Church of Plymouth
declared itself Unitarian, then King's Chapel, Boston, and with the
rise of Dr. Channing as the foremost spokesman of the movement, one
New England church after another. New churches also began to be
founded, including this Washington church in 1821.
However, it is not our purpose to summarize the movement's history.
Many excellent histories are available.2 What we want to do is to
say as plainly as we can what Unitarianism is. But I wish to point
out this: that in America it grew with the nation's beginnings; it
was the religion of many of the founding fathers and a powerful
influence upon all of them. This was not in the least coincidental.
The attempt to build a free nation of free people was inspired by
faith in the free mind and in the religion of spiritual liberation.
Just as the tyranny of kings had to be ended, so had the
authoritarianism of churches. There was no divine right of monarchs
and neither was there any of priests. Creeds, whether political or
religious, could not be allowed to stand in the way of progress. If
the bondage of superstition were permitted to remain, political
bondage would soon return. For authoritarian churches and political
tyranny tended together. They always had. Each supported the other.
Each was a vested institution, the one with spiritual serfs, the
other with political. And so it was natural that whether by that
name or any other, it was the Unitarian faith which was the
spiritual nurture of American foundations. Freedom must have a
freedom-building faith--and it did.
It was natural that Jefferson should be a Unitarian. It was natural
that John Adams and John Quincy Adams should be Unitarians, too. It
was natural that Abraham Lincoln, though never a member of a
Unitarian church, refused to join a more traditional church, and by
his definition of his own religion identified himself as Unitarian.
It is not a narrow or sectarian matter. It could not be. It is the
avowal in all these cases of the creedless church, liberating the
heart to unrestricted brotherhood and the mind to growing and
It is true that Unitarianism, down to now, has never been accepted
by the multitudes. But it is also true that all American
denominations have been affected by its influence. This may be seen,
for example, in the liberalizing of their theologies, or in the
emphasis upon the practical expression of religion--far stronger in
America than elsewhere--such as is represented by the great work of
Dorothea Dix for the reform of prisons, almshouses and hospitals, or
Dr. Samuel Howe, who pioneered the movement for care of the blind;
or Henry Bergh, who founded the Society for the Prevention of
Cruelty to Animals; or Dr. Henry W. Bellows, who founded the
Sanitary Commission which eventually became the American Red Cross.
These and many others in America, like Florence Nightingale in
England, were Unitarians, and they set a great example.