Thursday, May 24, 2012

Antidisestablishmentarianism in Cambridge -- Thursday

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, Tuesday's here, and Wednesday's here

Trouble for the Standing Order

In 1785, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court saw the first test of the religious establishment in the state constitution, in the case John Murray v. Inhabitants of the First Parish in Gloucester. Murray was a Universalist, meaning a Protestant who believed in universal salvation, in which no one is damned. He was the minister of the Independent Church of Christ in Gloucester, a religious association which did not have a traditional church covenant and which did not ordain its ministers in the method laid out by the Cambridge Platform. In 1783, a church committee applied for a tax abatement so that members of the Independent Church could support their own church instead of the established one, but the assessors did not recognize them as a church.1

Seizing the moment, the local sheriff declared that because Murray had not been ordained in the prescribed manner, he was not a real minister and he was liable for paying a fine on every marriage ceremony he had performed. Murray appealed and also sued for the right to be supported by the taxes of his congregation. He argued that since the Independent Church was not the same sect as the town-supported church, they should have the same rights as any other minority religious institution.2 The court ruled in Murray's favor; a decision which affirmed the establishment of churches but also affirmed the right of minority religious groups to support their own church instead – provided they lived in the same parish as their church.3

By 1800, there were 344 Congregational churches in Massachusetts, 150 other protestant churches, and one Roman Catholic church.4 In the 19th century, new waves of European immigration and new schools of thought within established churches brought considerably more diversity to the religious landscape. Additionally, in the post-Revolution economy, the ideas of competition in the marketplace and individualism had overtaken the Puritan ideal of common good coming before individual liberty, and this allowed dissenting voices to grow louder.5 Baptists, Universalists, and Episcopalians were among the minority groups that began to demand support for their own churches. These groups protested against paying taxes that would support a church that was not their own.6

Twenty-five years after Murray v. Gloucester, another Universalist minister, Thomas Barnes, filed a tax suit against the Parish of Falmouth. Barnes lost in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, because the court felt the constitution's requirement to support “public teachers” of religion did not apply to the leaders of private religious societies.7 Historian John Cushing has called the 1810 Barnes v. Falmouth case “the last significant victory for the old order.”8

Afterwards, many people began pushing for legislation rather than interpretations of the state constitution in their favor. In 1811, the Religious Freedoms Act declared that every person's taxes would go to their own religious society, regardless of whether that society was incorporated, regardless of how many parishes the society served, and with only the requirement that the minister be ordained in accordance with that church's practices. Previously, members of religious groups outside of the establishment had to file certificates of membership in a dissenting church, stating that their church met eligibility for the tax abatement. Certificates were still used to prove eligibility, but now they were available to anyone who was a member of any religious society.9

By 1820, the debate over the establishment of religion had grown so politically important that it was one of the main reasons that the state had a second constitutional convention that year. In the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention of 1820, delegates debated proposed amendments to the state constitution. One of these amendments was essentially a version of the Religious Freedoms Act, but it failed by a large margin.10

A Schism Intensified

Most churches that were a part of the Standing Order supported continuing the establishment. They were the antidisestablishmentarians, because they did not want to disestablish their churches. From 1800 to 1830, an increasing proportion of those with political power in Massachusetts were Unitarian, and belonged to churches that stood to lose tax support with every new measure towards disestablishment. However, those who supported keeping the establishment did not feel this way solely for financial reasons; many of them strongly believed that supporting public religious institutions was a part of the government's responsibility to support institutions for the common good.

Massachusetts court Chief Justice Theophilus Parsons explained in Barnes v. Falmouth, “The object of a free civil government is the promotion and security of the happiness of the citizens. These effects cannot be produced, but by the knowledge and practice of our moral duties, which comprehend all the social and civil obligations of man to man, and of the citizen to the state.” Parsons argued that the people established religion “as a fundamental and essential part of their constitution,” because religion made each of its followers a better “parent, child, neighbor, citizen, and magistrate .”11 Antidisestablishmentarians believed they were protecting an essential piece of what made society work.

One of the most prominent struggles over state-established churches was between the divided Congregationalists. Many churches experienced the schism of the Unitarian Controversy when a number of the church leaders went in the Unitarian direction. Largely because of the 1821 Dedham Decision, it was the newer liberal or Unitarian faction that stayed in the original church building, kept the original name of the church, and had the rights to claim membership in the Standing Order. The Calvinists and trinitarians who split off and founded new churches were frequently deeply insulted by losing their status, feeling that they had left in order to preserve what they considered to be the true faith. Some of these churches became among the most vocal and vehement in the struggle for disestablishment – the struggle to end the practice of tax-supported churches and the Standing Order altogether.12

In 1829, the Congregational church in Cambridge, which had been founded by the town's first settlers, was divided in two by the controversy. The Parish voted to dismiss the Reverend Abiel Holmes because of his orthodox views and his attempts to prevent the church from heading in a liberal direction. The church that remained in the Standing Order officially became Unitarian. Dr. Holmes and his followers split off and formed the trinitarian Shepard Congregational Society, named after one of the first church's earliest ministers.

1Cushing, John. “Notes on Disestablishment in Massachusetts, 1780-1833 ” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 26, No. 2 (Apr., 1969), pp. 169-190 .
2Cushing 175.
3Cushing 176.
4Wright, Conrad, ed. A Stream of Light: a short history of American Unitarianism. Boston: Skinner House Books, 1989. Page 7.
5Brown, Richard, and Jack Tager. Massachusetts: A Concise History. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000. Page 113.
6Harris, Mark. Historical Dictionary of Unitarian Universalism. Lanham, Maryland, and Oxford: The Scarecrow Press, 2004. Page 444.
This was Falmouth, Maine, but Maine did not separate from Massachusetts and become its own state until 1820.
7Cushing 184.
8Cushing 185.
9Cushing 186.
10Cushing 189.
11 Barnes v. First Parish of Falmouth, 6 Mass. 400 (1810).
12Harris 480.


  1. Interesting... I knew that the term had some connection with Unitarians, but I never knew exactly how. I never would have guessed!

  2. I felt the same way -- I knew there was a connection, but I didn't know what. In fact, I was reading a history of Unitarianism in America (I think it was Conrad Wright's A Stream of Light) when I came across the word, and that's what inspired this series.