“Is Not This a Paradox?” Unitarians and Universalists Confront State-Supported Religion (and Each Other) in Early National Massachusetts

Saturday, January 7, 2012: 11:30 AM
Colorado Room (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Nathan S. Rives, Weber State University
After the fall of state-supported religion elsewhere by 1820, the Standing Order of Massachusetts remained the last American religious establishment.  During the 1810s and ‘20s, theological quarrels drove changes in legal and institutional relationships within the Standing Order that left the liberal-rationalist Unitarians virtually alone in defending state-supported religion, ranged against a spectrum of mainly evangelical groups.  Among those were the Universalists, who, like Unitarians, were denounced as irreligious by orthodox evangelicals.  But these two liberal religious communities, with much in common theologically, found themselves on opposite sides of the disestablishment question – a situation which one Universalist periodical described as a “paradox” of liberal religion.           

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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