Unitarian Church Is Founded Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The founding of the Unitarian Church in the midst of the Unitarian Controversy, a religious debate between liberal and orthodox Congregationalists, marked the birth of a leading institution of religious and social reform in the United States.

Summary of Event

The roots of Unitarianism go back to sixteenth century Spain and the teachings of Michael Servetus Servetus, Michael (1511-1553). Unitarianism in the United States developed from an independent movement resulting from a split in the Congregationalist churches in Massachusetts during the nineteenth century. Unitarian Church Christianity;Unitarian Church Boston;Unitarian Church Channing, William Ellery Massachusetts;churches Congregationalists;and Unitarianism[Unitarianism] [kw]Unitarian Church Is Founded (May, 1819) [kw]Church Is Founded, Unitarian (May, 1819) [kw]Founded, Unitarian Church Is (May, 1819) Unitarian Church Christianity;Unitarian Church Boston;Unitarian Church Channing, William Ellery Massachusetts;churches Congregationalists;and Unitarianism[Unitarianism] [g]United States;May, 1819: Unitarian Church Is Founded[1010] [c]Religion and theology;May, 1819: Unitarian Church Is Founded[1010] [c]Organizations and institutions;May, 1819: Unitarian Church Is Founded[1010] Ballou, Hosea Beecher, Lyman Chauncy, Charles Dix, Dorothea Gay, Ebenezer Mayhew, Jonathan Morse, Jedidiah Priestley, Joseph (cleric) Sparks, Jared Tuckerman, Joseph Ware, Henry

In May, 1819, William Ellery Channing, the pastor of Boston’s Federal Street Church, traveled to Baltimore to preach at the ordination of a Unitarian minister, Jared Sparks. His sermon, “Unitarian Christianity,” was a landmark in the founding of the Unitarian Church of the United States. Channing delivered his sermon in the midst of the Unitarian Controversy, a religious debate between liberal and orthodox Congregationalists, which had begun officially in 1805 when Henry Ware Ware, Henry was appointed Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard College Harvard College;and Unitarianism[Unitarianism] , but which reached back into the early eighteenth century. Religious liberalism, or Arminianism Arminianism as it was called, emerged in the 1730’s as a reaction against the rigorous Calvinism Calvinism;and Unitarianism[Unitarianism] of men such as Jonathan Edwards Edwards, Jonathan and Samuel Hopkins Hopkins, Samuel . In the prerevolutionary period, Charles Chauncy Chauncy, Charles , the pastor of Boston’s First Church, and Jonathan Mayhew Mayhew, Jonathan , the pastor of Boston’s West Church, were the foremost Arminian spokesmen, preaching anti-Trinitarianism, the benevolence of God, and human ability in salvation. Other denominations besides Congregationalists were affected by the liberal impulse.

During the early 1780’s, anti-Trinitarian views were heard in King’s Chapel, which subsequently broke away from the Church of England. This established the first Universalist Church in the United States in 1785. However, other ministers preached anti-Trinitarian views. One of the earliest was Ebenezer Gay Gay, Ebenezer , who passively expressed his views in church by simply omitting fundamental Calvinist beliefs from his sermons. Joseph Priestley Priestley, Joseph (cleric) , an early English Unitarian, began preaching in Philadelphia in 1794 after fleeing persecution in his homeland and established a Unitarian church in that city. Universalists such as Hosea Ballou Ballou, Hosea of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, also embraced the liberal theology.

William Ellery Channing.

(Library of Congress)

Liberalism was particularly strong in Boston and among Congregationalists, and it was within that denomination that the Unitarian Controversy occurred. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, orthodox Congregationalists, led by such men as Jedidiah Morse Morse, Jedidiah , minister at Charlestown, Massachusetts, and Lyman Beecher Beecher, Lyman , the pastor of Park Street Church, Boston, tried to fight the tide of liberalism. Morse founded The Panoplist Panoplist, The to proselytize “the faith once delivered to the saints” and succeeded in uniting Hopkinsians and Old Calvinists in a common front against the liberals. When the Hollis Chair of Divinity at Harvard College Harvard College;and Unitarianism[Unitarianism] became vacant in 1803, orthodox Congregationalists attempted to get a moderate Calvinist appointed. When Ware was appointed, they gave up Harvard as lost to heterodoxy and founded their own seminary at Andover Andover Theological Seminary in 1808. Gaining the chair eventually led the Unitarians to take their first organizational step: the founding of Harvard Divinity School.

The decade following Ware’s Ware, Henry appointment at Harvard saw a hardening of the lines between orthodox and liberal Congregationalists. Liberals—who preferred that title to the “Unitarian” label that their opponents had fastened on them—steadily gained strength, spreading their views by way of pulpit and press. The orthodox intensified their attack. In 1815, Morse distributed a pamphlet entitled American Unitarianism, a chapter from a British work that argued that New England liberals were Unitarians in the English sense, meaning that they avowed merely the humanity of Jesus Christ [p]Jesus Christ;and Unitarianism[Unitarianism] Jesus. Morse Morse, Jedidiah also published a review of the pamphlet in The Panoplist, which denounced liberal Congregationalists as heretics secretly conspiring to overthrow the true faith and called for their expulsion from the Congregational church.

As the leader of the Boston liberals, Channing answered The Panoplist attack by a public letter to Samuel C. Thacher, minister of the New South Church. This letter brought a reply from Samuel Worchester of Salem, who defended the review. A long pamphlet debate between Channing and Worchester followed, with the issue shifting from The Panoplist Panoplist, The review to the more general question of the nature of Unitarianism. As the theological differences became clearer, liberals began to accept the once unpopular term “Unitarian,” although they expanded and elaborated on its meaning.

It was in this context of bitter theological debate that Channing decided in 1819 to deliver the now-famous Baltimore sermon, which laid the foundation for the Unitarian Church in the United States. “Unitarian Christianity” provided a comprehensive statement of the beliefs of U.S. Unitarians, as well as an eloquent defense of their faith. Unitarians, Channing declared, interpreted the Scriptures by “the constant exercise of reason” and rejected any theological doctrines repugnant to reason and moral sense. Thus they believed in the unity of God, rejecting the “irrational and unscriptural doctrine of the Trinity.” They also rejected the Calvinist God, worshiping instead a God who was “infinitely good, kind, and benevolent.” Such a God offered salvation not to a few elect, but to all.

Unitarians also rejected doctrines of natural depravity and predestination, not only because of their “unspeakable cruelty” but also because such doctrines were adverse to God’s “parental character.” Channing concluded his sermon on a conciliatory note, saying,

We have embraced this system not hastily or lightly, but after much deliberation, and we hold it fast, not merely because we believe it to be true, but because we regard it as purifying truth, as a doctrine according to godliness, as able to “work mightily” and to “bring forth fruit” in them that believe. . . . We see nothing in our views to give offence, save their purity, and it is their purity which makes us seek and hope their extension through the world.

Despite its conciliatory tone, Channing’s sermon made reconciliation between liberal and orthodox Congregationalists even less likely than before. Separation of Unitarians from Congregationalists and vice versa became commonplace, as one or the other group (usually the latter) within a church withdrew to form a new society. Unitarian organization was slow and met with resistance from within, but in May, 1825, the American Unitarian Association was founded “to diffuse the knowledge and promote the interests of pure Christianity.” This was the final act of separation that divided Unitarians and Congregationalists into two denominations and ended the long theological conflict that had begun more than a quarter of a century earlier. In 1961, the denomination merged with the Universalist Church to form the Unitarian Universalist Association.


The impact of Unitarianism reaches far beyond the splitting of the Congregationalist church. The Unitarians became leaders in promoting social progress. Dorothea Dix Dix, Dorothea , one of Channing’s own parishioners, spent most of her lifetime seeking to improve living conditions for the mentally ill. Joseph Tuckerman Tuckerman, Joseph , a minister-at-large of Boston, not only brought Unitarian teachings to the city’s poor but also worked hard to bring practical help to them through personal visits and counseling. Tuckerman’s work generated similar endeavors in other cities. The examples of Dix, Tuckerman, and other early Unitarians sparked reforms in education, health, and women’s rights.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Buehrens, John, and F. Forrester Church. Our Chosen Faith: An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism. Boston: Beacon Press, 1989. Describes the philosophies and histories of Unitarians and Universalists. Includes information on famous Unitarians and Universalists and provides a chronology of the faith.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Elgin, Kathleen. The Unitarians: The Unitarian Universalist Association. New York: David McKay, 1971. Some background on Unitarian history in general, but mainly discusses Dorothea Dix and her work with the mentally ill.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harris, Mark W. Historical Dictionary of Unitarian Universalism. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2004. A comprehensive resource that includes an editor’s introduction, a list of acronyms, a chronology, and bibliographical references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mead, Frank S. “Unitarian Universalist Association.” In Handbook of Denominations in the United States, edited by Frank S. Mead, Samuel S. Hill, and Craig D. Atwood. 12th ed. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 2005. Provides a brief history of Unitarian Universalism. Discusses the church in the late twentieth century and its philosophies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robinson, David. The Unitarians and the Universalists. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985. A comprehensive history of Unitarian Universalism in the United States and its impact. Includes a biographical dictionary of Unitarian Universalist leaders.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wright, Conrad. The Beginnings of Unitarianism in America. 1955. Reprint. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1976. Discusses the early roots of Unitarianism in America, from 1735 to 1805, and the events leading to the split in the Congregational churches.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Unitarian Controversy: Essays on American Unitarian History. Boston: Skinner House Books, 1994. Articles on the Unitarian Controversy by a leading Unitarian scholar. One article is entitled “The Channing We Didn’t Know.”

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Categories: History