Have you ever wondered about the story behind the First Religious Society of Newburyport? Recently, the church sponsored an absolutely well-documented history – but it only goes up to the American Revolution and then stops. During that time covered by the book, the members played important roles in our country’s history and especially in its birth. Theophilus Parsons, a member, coined the phrase, “The Bill of Rights”, advocated for it vociferously and pushed hard for “Checks and Balances” in our U.S. Constitution. Other members were outstanding in the cause of liberty. The book is called, Where We Stood: A New England Church and the American Revolution 1764-1783, Historical Committee, Newburyport, MA, 2012.
But, how did they go from being a Christian church to a Unitarian-Universalist religious body?
It all started by that old saying, “Don’t let the fox guard the hen house!”
The Unitarian Movement was started in America as a direct re-action to the Great Awakening. The face behind the Great Awakening was in fact, Rev. George Whitefield. It first started in England as people packed his church to hear him in London. Later, he visited America. But he really began the Movement in 1740 when he arrived in Newburyport which at that time was the fifth most important city in the colonies. He stressed a personal relationship with Jesus Christ as a person’s primary means for salvation and declared the resulting indwelling of the Holy Spirit as the means for learning and empowerment. He was heavily critical of the standard minister’s stressing of ritual and form in worship as a means of attaining “religion”. He also firmly held the literal interpretation of the Bible and believed in its doctrines.
After getting off the ship, the first place he preached was at the First Religious Society of Newburyport. Their building at that time was in Market Square. The Rev. John Lowell was the pastor.
But when Rev. Whitefield returned back that way from travelling across the colonies, the church’s doors were firmly shut and he was informed he was not welcome. Turned out, John Lowell had been insulted, slighted by Whitefield and was deeply offended by the ‘enthusiasm’ exhibited by his preaching and was alarmed at the attitude of the congregation. It didn’t help that the “First Lights” left by the hundreds not just from his church but from the churches in the area to start the Third Society of Newburyport. (Old South today) He was not a Unitarian but did not believe in the strict interpretation of the Bible and a couple of ministers continued with that stance that followed after him. Many were Arminian in belief or stressed Natural Theology which believed that people would automatically do the right thing and naturally believe in a moral God. (Which was easy since the society was highly Judeo-Christian in moral practice and structure.) As well-documented in the Newburyport Library archives, hundreds came to Christ during the Great Awakening right from the pews of the First Religious Society. But they had no Sunday School and there was a heavy reliance on the leadership of the pastor.
Regionally, a shift toward Liberal Theology and Unitarian beliefs were beginning to take hold.
As I indicated earlier, The Unitarian Movement was started in America as a direct re-action to the Great Awakening.
At that time, Harvard University was slowly being taken over by Unitarians who embraced the belief that a person would naturally be drawn to do good works and believe in a higher God. In 1805, under their new President; they officially became Unitarian, and when the Divinity School was established, it was firmly Unitarian in principle and stayed that way until the late 19th Century. President Charles William Eliot took the reigns right after the Civil War and started turning the Harvard Theological Seminary into a purely secular teaching institute based on the concept of comparative religions. And it has stayed that way ever since.
Since graduating from Harvard was a great badge of honor, Unitarianism spread like wildfire as trainees went out to fill churches throughout New England and the country. Writers began to codify the movement such as Jared Sparks and William Ellery Channing. Literarily and philosophically, it was championed by Ralph Waldo Emerson.
The belief by the way started in all places in Transylvania, spread to Poland and then to England where it really took off. A great many of the upper class embraced it and colleges were established to spread its doctrine. Of course, hostility toward such anti-Trinity ideas caused some to flee to America and one of the advocates as the idea spread was Benjamin Franklin but he was just one among many. Not to get side-tracked but one of the most famous Unitarians was Neville Chamberlain. It was probably his firmly held belief in the inherent goodness of Man that made him unable to cope with Adolph Hitler who was trained in a Christian School and well-knew all the doctrines of Christianity.
Meanwhile, the First Religious Society was starting to drift away from the Bible.
A large group of members began to realize what was happening and left the church in the early 1800’s when a Rev. Andrews was there and started the North Congregational Church which for a time being stayed strictly Calvinist. It is now called the Central Congregational Church.
The big tip off that the fate of the First was sealed was when a Harvard Graduate, Thomas B. Fox, an avowed Unitarian, took the reigns in 1831. Most of the other ministers in town flatly refused to attend his official ordination into the First recognizing his anti-Trinitarian belief system.
You would think the church would have been in trouble. But instead, Rev. Fox was a prolific advocate of education, philanthropy, political advocacy and most of all a powerful and effective preacher. He established a Sunday School that was very popular, pushed and achieved the first Women’s High School (first in the nation) on Washington Street. The attendance at the church grew to an astounding 1,800. After he firmly established Unitarianism, he left in 1845 and went on to a successful career in Boston and was very influential on many fronts in the nation.
As a passing note, and based on my personal experience dealing with Unitarians; the doctrine is very popular with highly disciplined, highly moral business people. They consider their highly ethical practices as derived from a natural form of inherent goodness and firmly believe that every person when given the right opportunity would do the same. These high achievers also have a real difficulty with Christian doctrine that pictures them as sinners, and therefore, in need of salvation. As Jesus said in Mark 10:25, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God.”
In 1961, the Universalists merged with the Unitarians and now they believe basically the same as they have always held except now it is not even necessary to believe in God to be a good UU member. According to their belief, there is no such thing as absolute truth and the purpose of man is to revel in the process of seeking truth always remembering that you’ll never actually ever achieve it!
And that background is why the FRN is Universalist-Unitarian today.
Arminianism is a teaching regarding salvation associated with the Dutch theologian Jacob Arminius (1560-1609). The fundamental principle is the rejection of predestination, and a corresponding affirmation of the freedom of the human will.
Calvinism – (also called the Reformed tradition, Reformed Christianity, Reformed Protestantism or the Reformed faith) is a major branch of Protestantism that follows the theological tradition and forms of Christian practice of John Calvin and other Reformation-era theologians.