The Issue in the West

From The Epic Of Unitarianism, Compiled by David Parke (125-129)

Free Religion was the come-outism of American Unitarianism. 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. Its work culminated and for all practical purposes ended with the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893.

Perhaps the main sectional stronghold of Free Religion was the Western Unitarian Conference, formed in 1852 to advance the work of Unitarian churches west of New York State. The Western churches were in the same position vis-à-vis New England Unitarianism as were the Episcopal churches of colonial New England vis-à-vis the Church of England-separated by a gulf of distance and ideas which made ecclesiastical control extremely difficult. Differences between the freedom-minded Western churches and the more conservative Eastern leaders of the denomination reached a crisis in 1875. The Western Conference withdrew its support from the American Unitarian Association's missionary program and hired its own Missionary Secretary, the Rev. Jenkin Lloyd Jones. Jones became for a decade the "St. Paul" of Western Unitarianism, organizing churches from the Appalachians to the Rockies, all in the name of "Freedom, Fellowship, and Character in Religion," the Conference's motto. To a substantial group of Westerners, however, Jones' rallying cry sounded suspiciously like that of the Free Religious Association-"Freedom and Fellowship." This group, headed by the Rev. Jabez T. Sunderland of Ann Arbor and the Rev. Jasper Douthit of Shelbyville, Illinois, would have preferred to see Jones organizing new churches in the name of Jesus Christ.

Thus in the 1880'S arose "The Issue in the West," to which Sunderland, now Jones' successor as Missionary Secretary, gave classic expression in a pamphlet written for the Western Conference annual meeting in 1886.42


Is Western Unitarianism Ready to Give Up Its Christian Character?

Is it Ready to Give Up Its Theistic Character?

...Plainly, Western Unitarianism has reached a question which it must face. That question is no other than the one (one question in two forms) which has been placed at the head of this paper. Axe we ready to declare that those great faiths-in God, prayer, immortality and the spiritual leadership of Jesus-which have always in the past been at the very heart of Unitarianism, are no longer essential to our movement?

Unitarianism in the past has always been Christian. Nobody thinks of doubting that. Our great historic leaders, the men who have given luster to the Unitarian name-Channing, the Wares, Parker, [Orville] Dewey, Bellows, to say nothing of those now living-have all stood for Liberal Christianity. Unitarianism in England, Europe, and all foreign lands where it is known does the same today. So does it in New England and the Middle States and the South and on the Pacific Coast. So has it always in the West, without dispute and without a question, until within a very few years. So does it indeed, doubtless, with a great majority of the Unitarians of the West still. But, within a dozen years or so, seemingly as the result of the breaking over the West of the free religious wave of the East, there has been a movement here, at first quite unnoticed, possibly hardly conscious of itself, but becoming more definite in its purpose and more pronounced as it went on, to create a new and different order of Unitarianism in the West. From the begin-fling, this new Unitarianism has shown an especially warm sympathy with the Free Religious movement, and later, with the Ethical movement; has steadily sought to differentiate itself from the Unitarianism of the East as being something "broader" and "more advanced" than that, has long been averse to the use of the Christian name, and for a few years past has been more and more distinctly moving off from even a theistic basis, until now it declares openly and strongly that even belief in God must no longer be declared an essential of Unitarianism.

To avoid misunderstanding, it should be said at the outset, however, that most of the men who are thus endeavoring to remove the Unitarianism of the West onto this new basis, are themselves, personally, believers in God, prayer and immortality,-as they are unquestionably sincere in their expressed wish that all individual Unitarians might be believers in the same. But, they say, all this must be left solely to the individual. Unitarian churches as churches, Unitarian organizations as organizations, the Unitarian denomination as a denomination, must not plant themselves upon these beliefs. Unitarianism must stand for ethical beliefs and beliefs in certain so-called "principles," but not for beliefs in anything that will commit it to theism or Christianity. The particular beliefs which are most often and most strongly insisted upon by this new school are four, viz.: Belief in "freedom," belief in "fellowship," belief in '4character," and, by implication, belief in religion."…

I need hardly say that for a number of years past warning voices have not been few in the West, telling of trouble certainly ahead if the attempt was persisted in of thus revolutionizing Western Unitarianism. Mr. Douthit after several years of protest inside the Western Conference withdrew from that body because of its extreme non-Christian tendencies… The warnings of Dr. [William Greenleaf] Eliot, of St. Louis, have been frequent and very earnest. The Meadville men have been greatly troubled at the tendency of things…

It would seem that all these protests and warnings surely ought to have caused our "freedom, fellowship and character" friends to reflect how revolutionary a thing they were undertaking, and how certainly, if persevered in, it must bring discord and division all over the West, where there used to be, and ought to be still, union, harmony and peace. And if there are any voices of controversy be-ginning to be heard in any quarter among us today, or if anywhere the harmony and unity of spirit among churches and ministers is less than we could desire, can any one mistake as to where the responsibility rests? Surely it can rest only in one place, and that is with the innovators. Surely it can lie at only one door, and that is the door of that party of good and loved but singularly misjudging men who have disturbed the historic order, and undertaken the task of removing the body to a new basis,-a new basis so ultra, so unprecedented in its character, and, at least to many minds, so essentially unreasonable, that a moment's reflection ought to have made it plain that the denomination in the West could never accept it…

The issue before the West is not one of creed or no creed. Nobody wants a creed; nobody, so far as I am aware, would have a creed if he could. . . . But this cannot justly be made to imply that we have not stood or do not stand for any doctrinal belief, as a denomination. It only means that we have not been willing to make formulated and authorized and not-to-be-changed definitions and statements of our belief. We have always stood, and it is a very new and strange condition of things if we do not still stand, in a large way, in a fluent, elastic way, in an undogrnatic and noncredal way, . . . for the great, simple, primal, self evidencing faiths of religion-God, worship, the immortal life, the supremacy of character, the spiritual leadership of Jesus.

…Mr. William Channing Gannett tells us that the denomination first took its stand on "reason and revelation," but it had to move on. Later it took its stand at the supernatural or the miraculous; but it had to move on. Later still it made another stand at the Lordship of Christ, but again it was compelled to move on. Now the stand is made at Christian theism, but once more, he says, we must move on. Move on where?…

The fact seems to be, there is nothing about which there is mote mental confusion than about this whole moving on idea. . . . If I am faced toward the edge of Table rock, Niagara, I can safely move on for a distance-move on until I am within 20 feet of the edge, 15 feet, 10 feet, 5 feet, 2 feet, one foot-but if I move on much beyond that it will be the last moving on I shall be likely to do in this world. So a religious body may move on for a time toward the edge of religion-nearer and nearer to the edge-but what if it moves off? Our Unity friends have got us to the place where they want us as a body to move on and move off historic Unitarianism-move off Christianity, move off theism; they tell us if we will we shall find a religion of ethics which will be better…

…As to the future, the signs of promise that I see on every hand are simply magnificent, if we are firm and clear-visioned, and go forward with bravery and faith, with one hand holding with absolute fidelity to our priceless Christian heritages from the past, and with the other reaching out with absolute confidence to grasp God's not less precious gifts and revelations of the present. But failing of this-turning aside from the great highway so plainly before us, into any such by-path meadow as our loved and honored and certainly well-meaning but as certainly mistaken Unity brethren urge-I can see nothing before us but a future of sad disappointments and regrets. By hauling down and destroying our theistic and Christian flags and running up in their place the ethical only, I am convinced we should seal the fate of Unitarianism as a religious movement in the West…