To explain the history of Antidisestablishmentarianism in Cambridge I decided not to untangle the interwoven stories of religious pluralism, the Disestablishment movement and the history of Unitarianism in Cambridge. I think it is in the spirit of the lengthy title of this post. If you're just interested in finally learning what the word means, head to the bottom of the full post (appearing on Friday), but the full story is more complex and richer, which is why it's here.
This is by far the longest post you ever will find at Cambridge Considered. Because of this, I am serializing it, so this week, there will be a new piece every day, but after this week, they will appear on the blog as one post.
Church and State Before the Revolution
Longtime readers will already know that it's nearly impossible to look at the early history of Cambridge or anywhere in New England without looking at the role of religion in social and political affairs. (See my posts on the seventeenth century, the eighteenth century, and three posts on Anne Hutchinson). Religion and government were tightly intertwined for the Puritan settlers – they had different leaders, but the church was supported by taxes, and the qualification for voting in the government was being a member in good standing of the church. In 1648, the New England churches broke away from the Christian reform movement the settlers had been a part of in Europe. The New England Puritans created the Cambridge Platform, which outlined the congregational model in which individual congregations are autonomous and have no higher church hierarchy to answer to. The churches following this model were called Congregationalist.
In 1690, the General Court of Massachusetts extended voter eligibility to all adult men who met financial criteria and “possessed good character.” Previously, only men who owned a very large amount of land or who were full church members could vote. This change gave new rights to those were not a part of the established church.1 The religious establishment in New England was taking a different form from that in Europe, but Massachusetts was still incorporated by the English crown. In 1692, a royal charter made Massachusetts into a British colony rather than a corporation, making the residents subject to British rule. One effect of this change was that while the system in which Congregationalist churches were supported by taxes was maintained, the Charter also required a policy of tolerance for minority religions, mostly Baptists, Anglicans, and Catholics.2
The difference between the parish and the church is key to understanding the politics of religion in early New England. The parish consisted of every resident of a specific geographic area. In Cambridge, the distinction between the town government and the parish as an incorporated legal entity in the town was made formal in 1733.3 For legal purposes, it was assumed that you attended your parish's church. There was one church per parish, a Congregational church, that satisfied the legal requirement for towns to support religion. This church was the established church.
Church membership was more complicated, and up to the clergy or governing body of the church itself. The process of achieving membership in full communion, and the implications of church membership, changed over time. What was unchanging was that this was a small, elect group of people who were practicing members of the established faith and who had received confirmation of this by the church itself. If you were a dissenter, a practicer of a different religion, or someone who had not met the requirements your church set, you were a part of the parish but not a member of the church.
The Great Awakening -- and a Great Divide
In the first several decades of the 18th century, public involvement in religion in Massachusetts was waning. A minority of people were full members of their churches. Puritanism's strict codes for a moral life were no longer socially enforced. For example, more than a third of first children in the 1730s were conceived out of wedlock.4
In the 1730s, a movement came along to counteract this waning interest in religion. A few ministers began preaching that having a conversion experience, in which the individual feels powerfully connected to God, was essential for salvation. The idea would have been familiar to their Puritan ancestors. Then, beginning in Northampton in 1734, the idea of conversions suddenly caught on and began spreading like wildfire.5 By 1740, religious revival was all over Massachusetts, and in that decade the movement, called the Great Awakening, spread over the English colonies. The people whose religious views were transformed as part of the revival, sometimes called New Lights, supported an emotional connection with religion. Like in many religious revivals, they advocated worship that was was fervent, passionate, and emphasized emotion over reason.6 This group revitalized belief in Calvinist doctrines.
However, the movement did not spark change everywhere. The Old Lights, those who were more conservative during the Great Awakening, emphasized order and reason. Later on, some of the Congregationalists who emphasized reason became the most radical and liberal in the church.7 In many places in New England, churches began to split along pro-revival and anti-revival lines. It fractured the unity of the church that had once been so closely connected with the state. While the divided churches all called themselves Congregationalists, never again would religion in Massachusetts be as monolithic as it had originally been.8
1Breen, T.H. Puritans and Adventurers: Change and Persistence in Early America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980. Page 95.
2Brown, Richard, and Jack Tager. Massachusetts: A Concise History. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000. Page 49.
7Harris, Mark. Historical Dictionary of Unitarian Universalism. Lanham, Maryland, and Oxford: The Scarecrow Press, 2004. Page 222.