UNITARIANS are not dogmatists ; they are perhaps as a class exceptionally humane and public-spirited, given to good works as freely without as within ecclesiastical lines ; they have little other-worldliness, and religion is perhaps with them nearer to being a sentiment to cover and refine the daily life than with any other body of Christians. Why then do they not satisfy ?
In the first place, they ask too much in the way of speculative beliefs. They have taken a step, indeed, in the right direction. Other churches will not allow the doubt that the Bible is the word of God, or that Jesus is Divine. Unitarianism does not regard these and many other doctrines as essential. It holds only to the simplest postulates of Christian faith; namely, that men have a Father in heaven, that they will live again after they die, and that Jesus meantime is our Guide and Master. But the time has come when even these postulates are under a shadow for some good and earnest men. Not any moral unfaithfulness, not any craving for novelties, but simply reflection, serious reflection, has led not a few to regard a personal Deity and individual immortality as problems rather than matters of faith, and to look on Jesus as too far removed from us, in his thought of the world and his hope for humanity, to be our guide and master. This attitude of mind is growing; and yet before it was distinctly taken, before there was any break with historic Christianity, and while there was only a vague unwillingness to call Jesus by the title " Lord " and " Master," it was frowned upon, if not repudiated, by the Unitarians in their National Conference. The result was that those who manifested this unwillingness felt obliged to leave the Unitarian fellowship. The Free Religious Association which they formed aimed at a fellowship limited by no confession, Christian or other, — a fellowship in the spirit. Since the time of that Conference, the professions which Unitarians sometimes make of allowing complete liberty of thought, and of ranking the deed above the creed, have an air of inconsequence. An individual Unitarian may, of course, speak in this way; but Unitarianism, so far as that word has any propriety, has spoken differently. The Conference I have referred to had the alternative distinctly before it, formally to avow these broader principles or to confess "the Lord Jesus Christ;" and it chose the latter, " voting," as Mr. F. E. Abbot has tersely said, " against freedom in the name of its own Lord." 1 Unitarianism thereby ranged itself among the Christian denominations, — the freest indeed of them all, and allowing many varieties of belief, but all within the fundamental Christian limitations, — and closed the door which was opening out on the religion of the future. For such a forward-looking thought had been the inspiration of many Unitarians. Channing prophesied a new order of things, though he lamented toward the end of his life that what he called a "Unitarian Orthodoxy"1 was taking the place of the old spirit of progress. An Abbot, a Frothingham, a Potter joined in such a high hope when they responded to the call for that Conference of which I have spoken; they did not believe there would be a break, but an alliance with the free spirit of the time, and that the future would be a natural growth from the past. Sad men they were at the result; Mr. Abbot writes that he never went to rest with a sadder heart than after one of those memorable days of fruitless struggle. But in truth we may be sadder for Unitarianism than for him and his companions, since it thereby cut itself off from one of the most magnificent careers that ever opened out to a religious body, while he and those with him have only to wait for the future to do them adequate honor. Unitarianism, as a body, has made no progress worth mentioning since that day.1
1 I beg not to be understood in this lecture as instituting any comparison between Unitarianism and the Ethical Movement. I speak altogether from an ideal standpoint. Whether the Ethical Movement itself shall be true to its ideal inspirations remains to be seen.
1 See a most instructive pamphlet, " The Battle of Syracuse: Two Essays by Rev. J. F. Clarke, D.D., and F. E. Abbot," Boston, 1875.
1 Life (one vol. ed.), p. 435. Recent Unitarian Orthodoxy is perhaps fairly represented in the following from the Unitarian Review (July, 1880, p. 83) : " There are Unitarians who believe in God, and honor Jesus, and hope for the life everlasting, and to whom this faith is the substance of their religious life, its proclamation their main work, its fellowship their main joy. The work they seek to do for humanity finds in this faith its chief sanction and inspiration; and while they rejoice in all work done for righteousness and humanity on whatever basis, and desire not to be found backward in any fellowship of philanthropy, they will not compromise in their religious fellowships the very basis of all religious union, nor invite to the place of instruction in their churches those who contradict and contemn the main agencies of religious culture and the fundamental postulates of Christian truth." (The italics are ours.) The " basis of religious union " is still found in belief in God, Jesus, and immortality. I need not point out how far removed this is from a pure religion of righteousness.
But there is another and deeper reason for dissatisfaction with Unitarianism. Complete freedom for the mind is good, and the modern world will have it; but there is something better, — a complete morality. I have said Unitarianism demands too much of us on the speculative side; I will add, it demands too little on the practical side. Unitarians manifest no great discontent with the world about them ; they inaugurate charities, but they do not go very deep with them, and their thought hardly seems to go beyond charity. Their conception of duty is pure, good as far as it goes, but commonplace ; any great ranges of duty, any mighty responsibility such as would put enthusiasm into the souls of those who assume it, they do not seem to be aware of. They responded but mildly to Dr. Channing's great-hearted plans for the elevation of the poor in Boston,1 giving them but slight support, and manifesting little of his kindling emotion at the thought of great improvements in human society. Too often has their thought been one which, if it ever consoled, now benumbs the world; namely, that the varying lot of men is ordered by Divine Providence, that the social order which exists with its classes and distinctions has a divine sanction. Let me make plain what I mean, by quoting the actual language of one who became a leader, perhaps the leader, of Unitarian opinion in later years : —
1 It should be stated, however, that the Free Religious spirit has infected some of the Unitarian churches in the West, and that under its influence the Western Unitarian Conference has recently taken a remarkable step forward. The last remnant of a theological creed was dropped from its platform in 1886, and it now boldly welcomes to its fellowship all who care for the cause of truth, righteousness, and love in the world. The churches belonging to the Western Conference — for those wishing to continue the historic attitude of Unitarianism have formed a separate association — have thereby placed themselves in the very vanguard of progress. Why, however, one can hardly help asking, if the historical meaning of Unitarianism is abandoned, is the Unitarian name retained? Why is not union sought with those who have been advocating and seeking to maintain an ethical basis of fellowship for some time past? It is surely to be hoped that in the near future all who believe in a religion of goodness, whatever their historical ancestry, may join hands in one fellowship.