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ment, &c., are now utterly lost in the more anxious and serious questions of our own day, touching the existence and providence of a personal God; the possibility of a verbal revelation; and the existence of a spiritual and immortal essence in the individual man. These questions, which have left the guardianship of theologians and passed into the hands of educated and thinking people of all nations and classes, have almost wholly superseded our old theological controversies, and made the disputes in which our Unitarian body arose appear trivial and insignificant. Meanwhile, positive and dogmatic faith has become everywhere loose and uncertain. The Christian Church, though flourishing and earnest and active, is working mainly on undogmatic grounds, animated by sentiment, practical usefulness, and the necessity for supplying the people with spiritual ideas and religious forms. Preaching, among educated people of all sects, has become moral and untheological, confining itself to the truths of natural religion, flavored with Christian associations, and supported by the example of Christ. Christianity is as dear as ever to the people, but not for the old reasons, or on the old grounds. A majority of Americans are Christians, and connected with Christian churches, and have a most solid and resolute purpose of bringing up their children in the church, without whose influence, restraints, and illumination, they sincerely believe public virtue and freedom would both die. They are, also, disposed to hold on to the old creeds and the old statements; not from any warm attachment to them, or any considerable positive influence derived from them, but simply because they form a protecting crust about a precious, delicate, and volatile essence, which they dread to lose, if the vessel that has hitherto held it should be broken. This fear, more than any attachment to, or even practical influence from, Orthodox dogmas, sustains the large and powerful churches of Orthodox confessions in this country at this time.
But meanwhile, another, and perhaps the most characteristic portion of the American people, say, a third of our population, — have lost their whole interest in dogmatic Christianity, in religious institutions, in forms of faith, and modes of worship. They are usually not active and open railers at Christian faith and its ministers, but real indifferents, and utter neglecters of all organized religion. Yet it could not be said that they are specially loose in morals, wanting in public spirit, or in any way degraded. On the contrary, they are often the largest readers, the most active philanthropists, the best citizens. And, at the present moment, there is a strife between two
classes of Liberals: first, the class that ignores Christianity as an ecclesiasticism or a dogma, and is really going back to natural religion for its warrant and base of operations; and, second, the Liberal Christians, who maintain the continuity of the Church, under all its reforms and restatements. Which of them shall get possession of this detached and free thinking body of our people, and organize them either into free religious associations, or into Christian churches?
Our Unitarian body has furnished the leaders of both these movements. Theodore Parker, whose disciples have gone much beyond their leader, must be considered as the head of the Free Religious movement; while Dr. Channing is the real founder and inspirer of the Liberal Christian movement. Previous to his day, the type of Liberal Christianity in America was English Unitarianism, with Priestley and Belsham for its expositors. This was just as critical, exegetical, and literal as Orthodoxy itself, and had all its weaknesses and want of adaptation to the new times, without its grim and passionate vigor. It was confined to a select class of scholars and refined people, and had no popular power in it. It survives; but, like an annuity for one life, will die with the generation now going off the stage, or certainly with the next. With Channing, the Unitarian body seemed first to receive "the Holy Spirit"! A living and present God, an immanent Deity, poured his inspiration into our cold and formal system, and lifted us above the dominion of the letter, and the freezing atmosphere of a negative and critical temper. It cannot be denied that Dr. Channing's influence largely contributed to the making of such men as Parker, Emerson, and their successors, and that his own spirit and direction were logically unfavorable to church institutions. He was really a mystic and a solitary soul, appreciating very imperfectly the solidarity of the humanity of whose individual representatives he was such a reverential lover and eulogist. It is only fair to add that the largest part of the aspiring young men of highest ability who have sprung up in our ranks since Parker's day, have been more distinguished for their free-thinking and rationalism, than for their faith in the Liberal Christian Church. They have been markedly disorganizers and disintegrators of all theological systems and institutions, and seem now to be of the opinion that something better than the Christian Church is about to take its place. And yet those of this school who were bred in the ministry have commonly found themselves held in it, by motives of habit and attachment, and by the difficulty of creating any new organizations with which to fur
ther their own earnest opinions. There are, perhaps, few of our ministers whose names are known beyond their parishes, who have not been at one time or another decidedly touched with Rationalism; while hardly any representatives of Liberal Christian ecclesiasticism have understood themselves well enough to take a decided stand in favor of continuing the Unitarian body, as one in which liberty of thought and theological progress were to be united with positive faith not only in Christ, but in the Christian Church.
It is this fact which renders so remarkable the present revival of our denominational life as a Unitarian Christian Church. The Unitarian Church in America, having bequeathed its spirit to the free religionists, or Mr. Parker's school, was pronounced dying, if not dead. Its best and most grateful friends were constantly muttering its requiem and anticipating its funeral service. Ten years ago, its most intelligent disciples were saying, "It may last out our time." Orthodoxy was justified in saying that it was in a state of seeming decay. Our theological students had fallen off, our missionary spirit declined. Episcopacy, Catholicism, and Congregational Orthodoxy were running off with our devouter disciples. We were rapidly losing ground. We no longer dared to call Harvard College a Unitarian college, and at several elections of president the courage of nominating an active Unitarian minister failed. Our men of wealth ceased to leave bequests for denominational purposes. It became the fashion among our rich Unitarians to patronize Orthodox institutions with one hand, if not both, while our own colleges were left to suffer.
Something has brought this retrograde movement not merely to a halt, but has converted it to a "forward march"! Within five years, or more particularly since our late war, Unitarianism in its church form, as a Liberal Christian ecclesiasticism, has taken up a wonderful courage, assumed new vigor, rallied a new set of disciples, emboldened many of its lukewarm friends of days gone by, and begun to found churches in new territories, while putting out vigorous shoots within its old ground.
The reasons for this are not far to seek. The war, with earthquake power, shook the whole basis of popular superstitions, and made a new settlement both necessary and easy. Such a mighty wrench as the tearing of slavery out of our vitals, brought with it many other rooted prejudices. It accustomed the people to new ideas and great changes; set them a thinking; made them very suspicious of mere use and wont; revealed them to themselves; and taught thou
sands, in hospitals and battle-fields, to see the difference between essence and form, spirit and letter, dogmas and faith. The effect on the Orthodox communions was something truly tremendous! It will be impossible for one generation to exercise much clerical guidance or priestly restraint over the American people. They have begun in all denominations to have a strong lay competition for the teaching function. Books attacking the extravagancies of Orthodoxy are immensely popular. Mrs. Stowe's and Miss Beecher's writings, and now Miss Phelps, of Andover (in a little book called "The Gates Ajar," of amazing circulation), are really scattering all the old dogmas, and giving the freest wing to speculation. The whole religious mind of America is therefore in motion, and it is comparatively easy to guide what is moving. Our influence was small, when there was a dead-weight of passive resistance to meet; and we nearly died of the indifference we encountered. But now that the public ear is open, and that Orthodox leaders are free-thinkers and free-talkers, it begins to be seen that, if reason is to be carried into religion, those who carry it there with most vigor and candor and success have the best right to be heard, and that Unitarians are no more to be dreaded than Orthodox Rationalists. Indeed, it may be truly said, that the boldest preachers now before the American people, and the most revolutionary (in fact, though not in principle), are in the Orthodox ranks. There is, so far as they choose to avail themselves of it, about as much freedom of opinion there as among us. And nothing separates a considerable portion of the Orthodox clergy of all denominations from our own, except custom and a prudent regard to appearances. I have heard a leading Orthodox clergyman and professor avow the opinion, that if the early Unitarians in Massachusetts, instead of acknowledging themselves heretics towards the popular creed, had only claimed to be more Orthodox, they would by this time have carried the whole state over to their own way of thinking! In places where Orthodoxy is most liberal and enlightened, avowed and organized Unitarianism finds its own existence hardest to maintain. Dr. Bushnell by his courageous dealing with Orthodox dogmas, and his rational exposition of the Trinitarian creed, has made it impossible hitherto to sustain a successful Unitarian church in Hartford, Conn., where he has lived and reigned for nearly forty years. Mr. Beecher, by his admirable liberalism under the Orthodox banner, has made a mild creed, with all the advantages of the old associations and the prestige of Puritan antecedents, and with most of the rights
and privileges of the Unitarian body, possible to thousands who eagerly read his weekly sermons now regularly published in many thousand copies, and adopt his elastic, indefinite, and mongrel creed. By means of his powerful personality, the Orthodoxy of America is unconsciously passing over, as on a bridge, beneath which runs a river, hidden by night, from the old domain of a restrictive, policeguarded, light-fearing, and submissive dogmatic faith, of which sacramental mysteries and theological contradictions were the characteristic features, to the new territory of practical Christian faith, where thought is free, reason honored, and light welcomed, and where the people are invited to judge for themselves, and from their own immediate experience, and to test, by all known and demonstrated truth in other departments of thought, what is true, credible, essential in theological statements and Christian doctrine. There is, probably, no man living, who from his pulpit exerts as wide and decisive an influence as Mr. Beecher; and it is hard to say, whether he has prolonged or shortened the nominal ascendency of Orthodoxy! By holding on to its catch-words, and being able without insincerity to profess some of its most characteristic dogmas, such as the Deity of Christ and the mysterious efficacy of his death, while rationalizing in the most unqualified way, and avowing the broadest and most liberal ideas, he has reconciled millions to Orthodox organizations and confessions, who might have been repelled, had not such a free interpreter of those creeds occupied in popular eyes the leading place in their church or party. On the other hand, he has undermined Orthodox dogmas and creeds so extensively by his free thinking and bold speech, his irresistible common sense and practical administration of religion, that hardly more than its appearance and shell remains in the minds of his disciples. It does not change the fact that they do not always or commonly know it, or that they might angrily and resolutely deny it.
The influence of Mr. Beecher in secularizing religion and the pulpit has increased the tendency, which the slavery and temperance questions had first provoked, to make political and social reforms legitimate topics of religious and Sunday discussion. The effect has been to mingle theological and practical ideas; to remove the barriers between the laity and the clergy; to create a popular tribunal for faith; to precipitate the ministry into the world, and to draw the people into the church. The most popular and influential ministers in America are as well known on the platform and in the lyceum as