The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

XXII. Divines and Moralists, 1783–1860

§ 5. Unitarianism

The term “Unitarian” was accepted by the leaders of the movement only after much reluctance and delay. The doctrine designated by it is not perhaps the characteristic note of the movement at all, for it suggests mere static belief or disbelief in a proposition; whereas Unitarianism was a dynamic tendency, and to be designated rather by some such term as “Liberal Christianity.” Liberty, tolerance, the free play of the intellect, the enfranchisement of the soul from its terrors, faith in the possibilities and the worth of man,—these are more characteristic of it than the denial of the divinity of Jesus, though its high concept of humanity, indeed, renders its humanization of Christ no derogation.

Thus interpreted, Unitarianism has points of contact with whatever is liberal and hopeful in any religion. Its affiliation with Deism, Natural Religion, Benevolism, and other liberal tendencies of eighteenth-century Europe, need not be traced here. It is sufficient to observe that in America the Unitarians drew strength from the liberal wing of any or all of the Protestant churches. The less strict Calvinists, like Ezra Stiles, Jonathan Mayhew, and Charles Chauncy, are thus accounted to have been upon the verge of Unitarianism. Mayhew (died 1766) had been a champion not more of civil than of religious liberty. Stiles exhibited the Unitarian tolerance: he was the friend not only of Hopkins but of the Boston progressives and of the Newport rabbis. His administration at Yale is said to have broadened and secularized the college. In his pursuit of the intellectual life he touched another side of Unitarianism: he and Cotton Mather were the two American scholars whom Timothy Dwight considered able to stand comparison with British scholars. Chauncy had condemned the more violent manifestations of the Great Awakening of 1740. In the pre-Revolutionary controversy concerning the establishment of Episcopacy in America, he had opposed the Anglican views of William White of Philadelphia (afterward the first Bishop of Pennsylvania), asserted that the English Church had best leave the American to develop independently, and contended for the right of the congregation to ordain its own minister. He leaned also toward the Arminian emphasis upon human choice as a genuine factor in salvation, thus falling in with the Unitarian tendency to magnify man. At the same time he is credited with “high” Arianism, and with a touch of Universalism. He had written, too, upon the benevolence of the Deity. He is thus found upon several characteristic Unitarian pathways.

It was the Boston Episcopalians, however, rather than the Congregationalists, who took the first decisive step. In 1785, the congregation of King’s Chapel, having adopted a modification of the Anglican liturgy, from which all Trinitarian doctrine had been omitted, ordained and installed as its rector James Freeman, who, together with William Hazlitt (father of the essayist), had performed the revision. This ordination is usually held to mark the formal beginning of Unitarianism in New England.