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. See Monday's post here, and Tuesday's here.
A Second Divide: the Unitarian Controversy
In the second half of the 18th century, liberal religious thought was replacing Puritan thought within Massachusetts churches.† Leading minsters were challenging Calvinist doctrines such as original sin. By the American Revolution, many clergymen in Massachusetts had made a quiet transition towards religious views that rejected the doctrine of a trinity with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit being separate, equal parts.1 At the time, this rejection was alternately called Anti-Trinitarianism, Arminianism or Unitarianism. Many in this school of thought were uninterested in getting involved in doctrinal debates, some because they felt it would distract from religious observance, and others because they did not want to be the subject of controversy. The first congregation to call an explicitly Unitarian minister to its pulpit was King's Chapel in downtown Boston, an Episcopal church that hired James Freeman in 1787.2 The decision was controversial both within that church and in the larger community, but in the next few decades, several Congregational churches also called Unitarians to be their ministers.
At the beginning of the 19th century, a change happened in Cambridge that would shape the structure of religions in New England. Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison described it this way: “In the years 1804-1806 occurred a college revolution that has influenced the University to this day: both the senior professorship and the presidency were captured by Unitarians.”3 “Captured” is a good word, because the changes at Harvard were the first major event in what became known as as the “Unitarian Controversy” within the Standing Order of Congregational churches.
In 1804, the Hollis Professorship of Divinity at Harvard College was open to a new professor. Established in 1721 by a Baptist, The Hollis Professorship of Divinity is the oldest endowed chair in America.4 Generally, the school's Board of Overseers laymen were interested in appointing a liberal Congregationalist, like Henry Ware.5 However, the University president, Joseph Willard, swore he “would sooner cut off his hand than lift it up for an Arminian professor.” One of the requirements of the Professorship was that the appointee be “of sound and orthodox principles.” Ware's opponents argued that orthodox meant Calvinist, while his supporters argued that for the professor to be considered orthodox, his views only had to be shared by many of his contemporaries.
Willard died in 1804, and now the college had two very important seats to fill.6 In 1805, Harvard's Board of Overseers confirmed Ware for the Hollis Professorship, causing vocal backlash from the orthodox.7 The same year, an Episcopalian was chosen to be the college President, but he declined, and the second choice was a Unitarian.8
Feeling betrayed, orthodox Calvinists and other orthodox congregationalists split off and founded several new seminaries as alternatives to Harvard, beginning with Andover Seminary‡ in 1807.9 Some historians point to the founding of Andover Seminary as the defining moment in the schism among the churches of the Standing Order.10 Harvard continued on the Unitarian path. In 1810, Reverend John Thorton Kirkland, a professed Unitarian, was elected to without opposition. Kirkland was a beloved, influential president. When Harvard created a Divinity School for graduate studies in religion, Kirkland's fame helped spread the school's reputation for liberalism.11
During the next 15 years, the Unitarian Controversy continued. Congregationalists continued to debate points of theology relating to belief in the trinity, how to interpret scripture, and human nature. In 1821, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decided that the majority of a parish had the right to choose the minister and retain the property, even if the majority of the church members disagreed. As it was spurred by a case in Dedham, Massachusetts, Baker vs. Fales, this became known as the Dedham Decision.12 The case was one of the most important events in the schism between Unitarians and Trinitarians. Additionally, it made it clear that although deacons of a church could hold property for the church's use, a church itself did not have the right to hold property. It was the parish that owned property and existed as a legal entity. The church had no power except over its own organization.13
†The term “liberal” as applied to religion has meant a number of things over the years. In 18th and early 19th century Christianity, it usually referred to an emphasis on the use of reason and evidence in forming a religious understanding. Unitarians sought evidence in the Bible for their beliefs, and argued that the Bible did not provide a basis for the belief in the Holy Trinity.
1Wright, Conrad, ed. A Stream of Light: a short history of American Unitarianism. Boston: Skinner House Books, 1989. Page 3.
3Morison, Samuel Eliot. Three Centuries of Harvard. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1936. Page 187.
‡The school still operates as Andover Newton Theological in Newton, MA, having merged with Newton Theological Institution in 1965.
10For example, Bumbaugh, David. Unitarian Universalism: a narrative history. Chicago: Meadville Lombard Press, 2000. Page 108.
12Harris, Mark. Historical Dictionary of Unitarian Universalism. Lanham, Maryland, and Oxford: The Scarecrow Press, 2004. Page 480.