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, Wednesday's here, and Thursday's here.
The End of the Establishment
Those who split off from their Congregational churches and those who were a part of other religions altogether continued to grow in number and in influence. By the 1830's, those in favor of disestablishment were working together to argue that any state establishment of religion inhibited freedom of religion. While many of these groups had once accepted the establishment as long as there was no hierarchy, as stipulated in the state constitution, and as long as their taxes could go to their own church, three decades later they felt the only way to be treated as equals is to end the Standing Order. In time, their view came to dominate public opinion, and antidisestablishmentarianism faded into being the opinion of a minority.1
In 1833, the General Court of Massachusetts proposed an amendment to the state constitution ending the practice of state-established churches. The people ratified it on November 11th, and it became the eleventh amendment to the state constitution. The amendment replaced the original Article III of the state constitution, which was the article concerning public support of religion, with a statement that every religious society had the right to contract with its members to raise money for support of the minister and the building.2 Two hundred years after several dissenting English religious groups came to the are to live under their own religious laws, churches would no longer be established or maintained by the state of Massachusetts.
Disestablishment created a greater wedge between the Unitarians and Trinitarians in the remaining Congregational churches. Since their parishes were no longer defined geographically, many of them found that their theological differences were a reason to divide into separate congregations.3 Some of the churches that had once been state-supported suffered a real financial blow, and had to adjust to being supported by their congregation alone. For the recently-created churches, for Quakers, Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, and others, disestablishment was the beginning of full religious freedom.
Epilogue: The Churches Continue to Evolve
In the mid-nineteenth century, most of the Congregational churches that had stayed on the Trinitarian side of the split underwent a serious of theological changes. By the turn of the century, they had rejected the harshest doctrines on sin and damnation, and embraced positive outlook on human nature. In 1957, the Congregational Christian Churches merged with the Evangelical and Reformed Church to form the United Church of Christ, a mainline Protestant denomination. Today, the UCC is known for being socially progressive; for example, most UCC churches have been supportive of, and active in, civil rights, women's rights, and gay rights movements.4
The Shepard Congregational Society, the one that broke off from Cambridge's first church during the Unitarian Controversy, has continued to change over the years. They met in the Old Court House building, which where the Harvard Coop is today, until establishing a more permanent space. Since 1957 they have been known as First Church in Cambridge, Congregational, United Church of Christ, and their current building is just behind the Cambridge Common.5
The Unitarian church continued to change over time as well. In the 19th century, Transcendentalist thought had a profound effect on Unitarian beliefs, although many people originally treated Transcendentalism as radical or heretical. By the turn of the 20th century, some Unitarian churches were moving away from being explicitly Christian, preferring to value Christ's teachings without the rest of the trappings of the tradition. In 1961, the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America, another liberal group of Protestant origin, merged to form the Unitarian Universalist Association, a humanist religious group whose churches tend to be very liberal – in the modern, political sense of the word. The UCC and the Unitarian Universalist Association, the descendants of the two sides of the Unitarian Controversy, have much in common, and the two organizations even share many parts of their religious education curriculum.
The majority of Unitarians today would be surprised that their religious ancestors supported antidisestablishmentarianism. Like their early American ancestors, many Unitarians use their churches as a unit for organizing for social and political causes, but the great majority (perhaps all?) firmly believe in the separation of church and state in this country. The First Parish in Cambridge had been one of the first members of the Standing Order, and once wanted to keep the religious establishment that privileged their church over others. Today, First Parish Cambridge Unitarian Universalist is the home of a Jewish Culture group, a Women's Sacred Circle / Goddess spirituality group, and a Buddhist practice group, to name a few.6
Antidisestablishmentarianism – the word
It's considered by many to be the longest non-scientific word in the English language. According to Etymology Online, the word was coined in 1838 to describe the movement in England.7 Now, the term can be applied to a similar movement in any country, and even though it post-dates the controversy in Massachusetts by a few years, historians still use the word to describe what happened here. While Anglicans were on the disestablishment side in America, where they were part of the minority, in England, of course, the Anglican church remains the established church to this day.
For those of you who love words, here's a breakdown to help you remember the word's definition:
Establishment (in this context): The practice of a select set of churches being officially sanctioned by the state, and often supported by taxes.
In Massachusetts, these churches were known as the churches of the Standing Order, and they were the Congregationalist descendants of Puritan churches.
Disestablishment: Ending the practice of a select set of churches being officially sanctioned by the state, and often supported by taxes.
In Massachusetts, this officially took place in 1833, but churches outside of the Standing Order had been campaigning for it for decades.
Disestablishmentarianism: The movement for ending the practice of a select set of churches being officially sanctioned by the state, and often supported by taxes.
In Massachusetts, the participants in this movement included members of religious groups that had arrived through immigration, such as Anglicans and Baptists, and members of religious groups that had split off from establishment churches, such as conservative Congregationalists.
Antidisestablishmentarianism: The belief opposing the movement for ending the practice of a select set of churches being officially sanctioned by the state, and often supported by taxes.
In Massachusetts, supporters of antidisestablishmentarianism mostly came from the established churches, which were the original Congregationalist churches that had maintained their status in the Standing Order during the Unitarian Controversy.
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 .
3Harris, Mark. Historical Dictionary of Unitarian Universalism. Lanham, Maryland, and Oxford: The Scarecrow Press, 2004. Page 480.