Unitarianism in the New Year

Standing here at the outset of another year it seemed appropriate to invite everyone’s reflection upon where we’ve been, and where we’re going, in regards to the future of the American Unitarian Conference and that of Unitarianism in general.

Below is an excerpt from “Unitarianism in America” written by George Willis Cooke at the turn of the last century, aptly entitled “The Future of Unitarianism.” While we don’t necessarily agree with the writer on every point, our hope for posting this is to stimulate some discussion around the issues raised, and therefore your comments are greatly appreciated.

THE FUTURE OF UNITARIANISM

The early Unitarians in this country did not desire to form a new sect. They wished to remain Congregationalists, and to continue unbroken the fellowship that had existed from the beginning of New England. When they were compelled to separate from the older churches, they refrained from organizing a strictly defined religious body, and have called theirs a “movement.” The words “denomination” and “sect” have been repellent to them; and they have attempted, not only to avoid their use, but to escape from that which they represent. They have wished to establish a broad, free fellowship, that would draw together all liberal thinkers and movements into one wide and inclusive religious body.

The Unitarian body accepted in theory from the first the principles of liberty, reason, and free inquiry. These were fully established, however, only as the result of discussion, agitation, and much friction. Theodore Parker was subjected to severe criticism, Emerson was regarded with distrust, and the Free Religious Association was organized as a protest and for the sake of a freer fellowship. In fact, however, Parker was never disfellowshipped; and from the first many Unitarians regarded Emerson as the teacher of a higher type of spiritual religion. Through this period of controversy, when there was much of bitter feeling engendered, no one was expelled from the Unitarian body for opinion’s sake. All stayed in who did not choose to go out, there being no trials for, heresy. The result of this method has been that the
Unitarian body is now one of the most united and harmonious in Christendom. The free spirit has abundantly justified itself. When it was found that every one could think for himself, express freely his own beliefs, and live in accordance with his own convictions, controversy came to an end. When heresy was no longer sought for, heresy ceased to have an existence. The result has not been discord and distrust, but peace, harmony, and a more perfect fellowship.

In the Unitarian body from the first there has been a free spirit of inquiry. Criticism has had a free course. The Bible has been subjected to the most searching investigation, as have all the foundations of religion. As a result, no religious body shows, a more rational interest in the Bible or a more confident trust in its great spiritual teachings.

The early Unitarians anticipated that Unitarianism would soon become the popular form of religion accepted in this country. Thomas Jefferson thought that all young men of his time would die Unitarians. Others were afraid that Unitarianism would become sectarian in its methods as soon as it became popular, which they anticipated would occur in a brief period. The cause of the slow growth of Unitarianism is to be found in the fact that it has been too modern in its spirit, too removed from the currents of popular belief, to find ready acceptance on the part of those who are largely influenced by traditional beliefs. The religion of the great majority of persons is determined by tradition or social heredity, by what they are taught in childhood or hear commonly repeated around them. Only persons who are naturally independent and self-reliant can overcome the difficulties in the way of embracing a form of religion which carries them outside of the established tradition. For these reasons it is not surprising that as yet there has not been a rapid growth of organized Unitarianism. In fact, Unitarianism has made little progress outside of New England, and those regions to which New England traditions have been carried by those who migrated westward.

The early promise for the growth of Unitarianism in the south, from 1825 to 1840, failed because there was no background of tradition for its encouragement and support. Individuals could think their way into the Unitarian faith, but their influence proved ineffective when all around them the old tradition prevailed as stubborn conviction. Even the influence of a literature pervaded with Unitarianism proved ineffective in securing any rapid spread of the new faith, except as it has found its way into the common Christian tradition by a process of spiritual infiltration. The result has been that Unitarianism has grown slowly, because it has been obliged to create new traditions, to form a new habit of thought, and to make free inquiry a common motive and purpose.

In a word, Unitarianism has been a heresy; and therefore there has been no open door for it. Most heretical sects have been narrow in spirit, bigoted in temper, and intensely sectarian in method. Their isolation from the great currents of the world’s life acts on them intellectually and spiritually as the process of in-and-in breeding does upon animals: it intensifies their peculiarities and defects. A process of atrophy or degeneration takes place; and they grow from generation to generation more isolated, sectarian, and peculiar. Unitarianism has escaped this tendency because it has accepted the modern spirit and because to a large degree its adherents have been educated and progressive persons. Its principles of liberty, reason, and free inquiry, have brought its followers into touch with those forces that are making most rapidly for the development of mankind. Unitarians have been conspicuously capable of individual initiative; and yet their culture has been large enough to give them a conservative loyalty to the past and to the profounder and more spiritual phases of the Christian tradition. While strongly individualistic and heretical they have been sturdily faithful to Christianity, seeking to revive its earlier and more simple life.

A chief value of Unitarianism in the past has been that it has pioneered the way for the development of the modern spirit within the limits of Christianity. The churches from which it came out have followed it far on the way it has traveled  Its most liberal advocates of the first generation were more conservative than many of the leaders are to-day in the older churches. Its period of criticism, controversy, and agitation is being reproduced in many another religious body of the present time. The debates about miracles, the theory of the supernatural, the authenticity of Scripture, the nature of Christ, and other problems that are now agitating most of the progressive Protestant denominations, are almost precisely those that exercised Unitarians years ago. The only final solution of these problems, that will give peace and harmony, is that of free inquiry and rational interpretation, which Unitarians have finally accepted. If other religious bodies would profit by this experience and by the Unitarian method for the solution of these problems, it would be greatly to their advantage.

The Unitarian churches have been few in number, and they have suffered from isolation and provincialism. These defects of the earlier period have now in part passed away, new traditions have been created, a cosmopolitan spirit has been developed, and Unitarianism has become a world movement. This was conspicuously indicated at the seventy-fifth anniversary of the organization of the American Unitarian Association, and in the formation of The International Council of Unitarian and Other Liberal Religious Thinkers and Workers. It was then shown that Unitarianism has found expression in many parts of the world, that it answers to an intellectual and spiritual need of the time, and that it is capable of interpreting the religious convictions of persons belonging to many phases of human development and culture. A broader, more philosophical, and humaner tradition is being formed, that will in time become a wide-reaching influence for the development of a religious life that will be at once more scientific and more spiritual in its nature than anything the past has produced.

The promise of Unitarianism for the future does not consist in its becoming a sect and in its striving for the development of merely denominational interests, but in its cultivation of the deeper spiritual life and in its cosmopolitan sympathy with all phases of religious growth. Its mission is one with philanthropy, charity, and altruism. Its attitude should be that of free inquiry, loyalty to the spirit of philosophy and science, and fidelity to the largest results of human progress. It should always represent justice, righteousness, and personal integrity. That promise is not to be found in the rapid multiplication of its churches or in its devotion to propagandist aims, but in its loyalty to the free spirit and in its exemplification of the worth and beauty of the religion of humanity. As a sect, it will fail; but as a movement towards a larger faith, a purer life, and a more inclusive fellowship, the future is on its side.

While recognizing the Unitarian as a great pioneer movement in religion, it should be seen that its strong individualism has been a cause of its slow growth. Until recently the Unitarian body has been less an organic phase of the religious life of the time than a group of isolated churches held together only by the spontaneous bonds of fellowship and good will. Such a body can have little effective force in any effort at missionary propagandism or in making its spirit dominant in the religious life of the country. As heredity and variation are but two phases of organic growth, so are tradition and individual initiative but two phases of social progress. In both processes–organic growth and social progress–the primary force is the conservative one, that maintains what the past has secured. If individualism is necessary to healthy growth, associative action is essential to any growth whatever of the social body. In so far as individual perfection can be attained, it cannot be by seeking it as an end in itself: it can be reached only by means of that which conduces to general social progress.

It may be questioned whether there is any large future for Unitarianism unless all excessive individualism is modified and controlled. Such individualism is in opposition to the altruistic and associative spirit of the present time. Liberty is not an end in itself, but its value is to be found in the opportunity it gives for a natural and fitting association of individuals with each other. Freedom of religious inquiry is but an instrument for securing spiritual growth, not merely for the individual, but for all mankind. So long as liberty of thought and spiritual freedom remain the means of individual gratification, they are ineffective as spiritual forces. They must be given a wider heritage in the life of mankind before they can accomplish their legitimate results in securing for men freedom from the external bonds of traditionalism. Even reason is but an instrument for securing truth, and not truth itself.

Rightly understood, authority in the church is but the principle of social action, respect for what mankind has gained of spiritual power through its centuries of development. Authority is therefore as necessary as freedom, and the two must be reconciled in order that progress may take place. When so understood and so limited, authority becomes essential to all growth in freedom and individuality. What above all else is needed in religion is social action on the part of freedom-loving men and women, who, in the strength of their individuality, co-operate for the attainment, not of their own personal good, but the advancement of mankind. This is what Unitarianism has striven for, and what it has gained in some measure. It has sought to make philanthropy the test of piety, and to make liberty a means of social fidelity.

Free inquiry cannot mean liberty to think as one pleases, but only to think the truth, and to recognize with submissive spirit the absolute conditions and the limitations of the truth. Though religion is life and not a creed, it none the less compels the individual to loyalty of social action; and that means nothing more and nothing less than faithfulness to what will make for the common good, and not primarily what will minister to one’s own personal development, intellectually and spiritually.

The future of Unitarianism will depend on its ability further to reconcile, individualism with associative action, the spirit of free inquiry with the larger human tradition. Its advantage cannot be found in the abandonment of Christianity, which has been the source and sustaining power of its life, but in the development of the Christian tradition by the processes of modern thought. The real promise of Unitarianism is in identifying itself with the altruistic spirit of the age, and in becoming the spiritual interpreter of the social aspirations of mankind. In order to this result it must not only withdraw from its extreme individualism, but bring its liberty into organic relations with its spirit of social fidelity. It will then welcome the fact that freedom and authority are identical in their deeper meanings. It will discover that service is more important than culture, and that culture is of value to the end that service may become more effective. Then it will cheerfully recognize the truth that the social obligation is as important as the individual right, and that the two make the rounded whole of human action.

 – From “Unitarianism in America” by George Willis Cooke