This paper explores the contrasting arguments Unitarians and Universalists made for and against state-supported religion, respectively. Debating in the expanding print networks of the early national period, they confronted each other with competing visions of liberal religious community and social order. Unitarians asserted that such an order depended on the presence of a stable, well-funded ministry, and maintained that evangelicals’ episodic “enthusiasm” would undermine the morality fostered by true religion unless the latter had state support. Universalists, who embraced the evangelical insistence on individual religious experience, put less emphasis on education. Convinced that the spread of their theology of universal salvation would naturally shape a more enlightened, reasonable social order, they saw state-supported religion as an obstacle. Unitarians, who depicted the afterlife as a state of ordered moral progress, disagreed.
Unitarians and Universalists differed over religious establishments because they understood their arguments in terms of the putative social effects of their disparate theological priorities. Shared liberalism did not imply any agreement that all religious beliefs were equally correct or conducive to a moral polity. Right religion mattered; theological controversy structured religious communities and framed political questions in the early national public sphere.
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