May 5, 2019 is a landmark anniversary for Unitarian Universalists. It will be the 200th anniversary of a seminal sermon given by Rev. William Ellery Channing, minister of Boston’s Federal Street Church. This sermon, entitled “Unitarian Christianity,” acknowledged the liberal split from Congregational churches and set the stage for this liberal wing to eventually form the American Unitarian Association later in 1825. (In 1961, the American Unitarian Association merged with the Universalist Church of America to form the present Unitarian Universalist Association.)
Channing’s “Unitarian Christianity” sermon was delivered at the ordination of Rev. Jared Sparks at the First Independent Church of Baltimore. (The sermon later became known as “The Baltimore Sermon.”)
The first liberal cracks amongst the Congregational churches began as early as 1805 with the appointment of a “liberal” professor Rev. Henry Ware to the Harvard Divinity School faculty. Rev. Ware was criticized by the more conservative Congregational theologians – “[Mr. Ware is] not a Calvinist [regarding] his sentiments on important points, such as the depravity of human nature, the impotency of man… and the future state of the wicked (Jedediah Morse).”
The liberal wing was pejoratively accused of being like the infidel deistic Unitarians of England – “Persons…have heard from [Unitarian] pulpits both sermons and prayers, which neither expressed nor implied anything more than sober Deism, and which were totally at variance with the Gospel….many well-meaning people have been led in the dark (Jeremiah Evarts).”
The liberal Congregationalists denied this accusation for years until Rev. Channing’s Baltimore Sermon of May 5, 1819. In this sermon, he planted a stake in the ground and essentially said, “We are the Unitarians!”
In Baltimore, Channing forcefully and forever parts ways with the conservative Congregationalists who believed in the Calvinist doctrines of “impotency” and “depravity of human nature” – “[God] created us for good and holy purposes; it is not because his will is irresistible, but because his will is the perfection of virtue….(Channing).”
These new Unitarians also sought to bring reason to religion – “With these views of the Bible, we feel it our bounden duty to exercise our reason upon it perpetually; to compare, to infer, to look beyond the letter to the spirit, to seek in the nature of the subject, and the aim of the writer, his true meaning (Channing).”
The “Unitarian Controversy,” as it came to be known officially came to an end in 1825 with the formation of the American Unitarian Association.
William Ellery Channing is the giant of Unitarian Universalism. His writings influenced and shaped the future philosophies and theologies of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker and the movement that came to be know as Transcendentalism.
It will be wonderful to celebrate this 200th anniversary on Sunday, May 5, 2019.