Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: Faith Like a River: A Program on Unitarian Universalist History for Adults

Leader Resource 2: Freedom of Belief

Full religious tolerance requires acceptance of faiths different from yours as well as acceptance of diverse beliefs among people in your own faith community. The mid-19th century was a time when Unitarianism was called to evaluate the strength of its own notion of tolerance, and to question the breadth of the umbrella under which Unitarians were to take shelter.

Across the United States, Unitarians were challenging religious beliefs of all kinds—from the truth of biblical miracles to the divinty of Jesus, to the existence of God. Even the denomination's Christian nature and identity were called into question. In 1865, Henry Whitney Bellows saw the need to unify Unitarians across different theological views. He named four factions within Unitarianism: evangelical Christians who held to the miraculous nature of Jesus' life and works; older rationalists who represented a theologically traditional and institutionally conservative Unitarianism; radicals who were challenged by ecclesiastical structure, were strongly anti-creedal, and who wanted to include world religions other than Christianity in Unitarianism; and, finally, the group to which Bellows himself belonged, the Broad Church Men. The Broad Church Men strove to unite all factions by making Unitarianism as theologically open and broad as possible. To this end, Bellows and others, including James Freeman Clarke, Frederic Henry Hedge and Edward Everett Hale, proposed a national convention of congregations wherein each church would have a vote in the affairs of the denomination. Thus, the National Conference was born—the first representative body of Unitarian churches; the American Unitarian Association was at that time an association of individuals.

In 1866, the National Conference of Unitarian Churches in Syracuse, New York, reaffirmed an allegiance to the religion of Jesus Christ over the dissenting voices of more radical members. As a result, the following year, dissenters created the Free Religious Association (FRA), dedicated to a religion wholly free from creeds and doctrine. Although the FRA group never exceeded 500 members, it had capable leadership in William J. Potter, Francis Ellingwood Abbot, Octavius Brooks Frothingham, and Felix Adler. The FRA was dedicated to forming an absolute, universal, nonsectarian religion that honored the religious impulse of all world religions, yet was constrained by none of their doctrines. It was to be a faith for a rational age, with room for both the spiritual and the scientific.

Although the FRA had a written constitution, its ideas were perhaps most clearly articulated in Fifty Affirmations written by Francis Ellingwood Abbot. Fifty Affirmations averred,

Free Religion is the natural outcome of every historical religion, —the final unity, therefore, towards which all historical religions slowly tend.

Perhaps betraying a quest for ultimate inclusion, the final affirmation declared,

...Christianity is the faith of the soul's childhood; Free Religion is the faith of the soul's manhood.

In The Epic of Unitarianism, David Parke writes of the FRA:

...its adherents were sure of what they did not want in religion, but found it almost impossible to agree on what they did want. The Free Religious Association declined from inaction, and finally disintegrated from the centrifugal forces of radical individualism.

The organization lasted into the 20th century, but its impact was greatly reduced following the 1893 World Parliament of Religions.

During the period that the FRA sought and promoted religious tolerance from its largely Eastern base in New York and Massachusetts, the same issues of theological inclusion were being debated in the Western Unitarian Conference. In 1875 the "Issue in the West" reached a crisis point. Alienated from Boston Unitarianism's more conservative bent, the Western Conference withdrew its support from the American Unitarian Association's (AUA) missionary program, and hired its own Missionary Secretary, Jenkin Lloyd Jones. The liberal-leaning Jones founded new congregations from the Appalachians to the Rockies under the Conference's motto, "Freedom, Fellowship and Character in Religion," which was highly reminiscent of the FRA's own motto, "Freedom and Fellowship."

In response to Jones' activities, the AUA declared,

"(We) would regard it as a subversion of the purpose for which funds had been contributed... to give assistance to any church or organization which does not rest emphatically on the Christian basis.

Led by Jones, the "Unity men" (so called because Jones edited a newsletter with that name) squared off against the conservatives, who were led by Jabez T. Sunderland of Ann Arbor, Michigan and Jasper Douthit of Shelbyville, Illinois. Sunderland and Douthit in turn withdrew, and formed a rival organization, the Western Unitarian Association, for the promulgation of pure Christianity. This organization, too, was refused sanction by the AUA, leaving Western Unitarianism in something of a state of disarray.

At the 1887 meeting of the Western Unitarian Conference, William Channing Gannett presented his slate of "Things Most Commonly Believed Today Among Us" as a first step in reconciliation. It was adopted by the Conference delegates, 59 to 13, but it would be a further seven years before the rift was healed.

The Broad Church movement, the Free Religious Association, and the Issue in the West emerged in a time of tension between free thinking and orthodoxy, a time of growing interest in scientific thought and reason, and an age of idealism and individualism. Though they lasted but a short time, these movements had enormous impact on the inclusive character of Unitarianism as an open and free religion.