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MARKED as was the change in the oratory and the scholarship of New England during the first quarter of the nineteenth century, the change in the dominant religious views of a community which had always been dominated by religion was more marked still. From the beginning till after the Revolution, the creed of New England had been the Calvinism of the emigrant Puritans. In 1809, William Ellery Channing, then a minister twenty-nine years old, wrote of this old faith in the following terms:
“Calvinism teaches, that, in consequence of Adam's sin in eating the forbidden fruit, God brings into life all his posterity with a nature wholly corrupt, so that they are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all that is spiritually good, and wholly inclined to all evil, and that continuaily. It teaches, that all mankind, having fallen in Adam, are under God's wrath and curse, and so made liable to all miseries in this life, to death itself, and to the pains of hell forever. It teaches, that, from this ruined race, God, out of his mere good pleasure, has elected a certain number to be saved by Christ, not induced to this choice by any foresight of their faith or good works, but wholly by his free grace and love; and that, having thus predestinated them to eternal life, he renews and sanctifies them by his almighty and special agency, and brings them into a state of grace, from which they cannot fall and perish. It teaches, that the rest of mankind he is pleased to pass over, and to ordain them to dishonour and wrath for their sins, to the honour of his justice and power; in other words, he leaves the rest to the corruption in which they were born, withholds the grace which is necessary to their recovery, and condemns them to most grievous torments in soul and body without intermission in hell-fire for ever.' Such is Calvinism, as gatherer! from the most authentic records of the doctrine. Whoever will consult the famous Assembly's Catechisms and Confession, will see the peculiarities of the system in all their length and breadth of deformity. A man of plain sense, whose spirit has not been broken to this creed by education or terror, will think that it is not necessary for us to travel to heathen countries, to learn how mournfully the human mind may misrepresent the Deity."
“How mournfully the human mind may misrepresent the Deity!” You will be at pains to find nine words which shall more thoroughly express the change which the Renaissance brought to the leading religious spirits of Boston.
The resulting alteration in dogmatic theology has given to the new school of New England divines the name of Unitarians. According to the old creed, which held salvation from Adam's fall to be attainable only through God's grace, won by the mediation of Jesus Christ, the divine character of Christ was essential to redemption; without his superhuman aid all human beings were irrevocably doomed. But the moment you assumed human nature to contain adequate seeds of good, the necessity for a divine Redeemer disappeared, and redemption became only a matter of divine convenience. The second person of the Trinity having thus lost his mystic office, the third spread wing and vanished into the radiance of a new heaven. In this glorious region the New England Unitarians discerned singly and alone the one God, who had made man in his image. One almost perfect image they recognised in Jesus Christ; a great many inferior but still indubitable ones they found actually to populate the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
Although this radical change in theology was what gave Unitarianism its name, the underlying feeling which gave it being had little concern with mystic dogmas. Whatever the philosophy of primitive Christianity, the philosophy of traditional Christianity had for centuries taught the depravity of human nature; this dogma the Puritans had brought to New England, where they had uncompromisingly preserved it. Now, whatever your philosophy, this dogma does account for such social phenomena as occur in densely populated lands
where economic pressure is strong. In our own great cities you need a buoyant spirit and a hopefully unobservant eye to perceive much besides evil; and if you compare Boston or New York with London or Paris, you can hardly avoid discerning, beneath the European civilisation which is externally lovelier than ours, depths of foulness to which we have not
The Europe of Calvin's time seems on the whole even more pervasively wicked; and more wicked still seems that decadent Roman Empire where Augustine formulated the dogmas which at last Channing so unfalteringly set aside. If you chance to believe in Hell, most people in crowded dense societies really seem bound thither; and those who have the strength morally to resist such environment seem by contrast totally different from the mass of humanity.
We need hardly remind ourselves, however, that up to the time of Channing the history of America, and particularly of New England, had been a history of national inexperience. When Cotton Mather wrote his “ Magnalia” in the closing seventeenth century, his purpose was to prove that during the first seventy-five years of New England there had Aourished and lived and died there so many regenerate human beings that a man of sense might almost statistically infer New England to be specially favoured by God. The
The governors of the region, and its preachers and teachers, not to speak of their many godly servants and followers, had revealed Christian graces to a degree which Mather's common-sense held to evidence an unprecedented outpouring of divine grace.
In this contention there was an element of truth; compared with other races, the Yankee people, released for generations from the pressure of dense European life, found a considerable degree of goodness surprisingly practicable. This social fact resembled a familiar domestic one: an eldest child is apt to be angelic until some little brother gets big enough to interfere with him; and if by chance no little brother appears, the angelic traits will very likely persist until the child goes to school or
otherwise comes in contact with external life. Up to the
So even by the time of Edwards, Calvinistic dogma
In a society like this, Calvinistic dogma seems constantly further from truth, as taught by actual life. If everything which men do is essentially damnable, if they can be saved from eternal punishment oniy by the divine redemption which comes to the elect through Christ, the incarnate son of God, men ought continually to behave abominably. However true
to experience in dense old worlds, such habitually abominable conduct was untrue to the national inexperience of America, and particularly of renascent New England. The social structure of this region had been pretty rigid from the beginning. Well into the nineteenth century the clergy maintained much of their pristine social lead; and this partly because of a trait which remained unaltered throughout the rise and the decline of Unitarianism. As a class, they were deeply earnest and sincerely truthful. Even in the eighteenth century, then, a considerable number of these ministers, particularly of the region about Boston, began insensibly to relax the full rigour of dogmatic Calvinism. There was no formal break, but in the utterances of Boston pulpits you were less and less apt to scent hell-fire.
When good Dr. Freeman, then, minister of King's Chapel, was compelled to revise the Anglican Prayer Book, and found himself conscientiously disposed so to alter the liturgy as obviously to modify the dogma of the Trinity, he may not have felt half so radical as time has proved him. After the interval of a century, his King's Chapel liturgy, still in use and sometimes held to mark the beginning of Boston Unitarianism, presents a startling contrast to most older forms of Christianity on this continent. Its insistence on the divine unity of God, and on the loving inspiration of God's word, undeniably implies a tendency to regard Christ only as an excellent earthly manifestation of God's creative power. He seems no longer a mystic being whose divine interposition is needed to preserve humanity from destruction.
The question of his essential nature is rather neglected. Half-God and
half-man, if you choose so to believe, he is not exactly God. Men need him not as a redeemer, but as an example.
The King's Chapel liturgy was published in 1785. About twenty years later, Harvard College succumbed to the temper which the liturgy embodies. The chief theological chair at Harvard is the Hollis Professorship of Divinity, — at present