- Joseph Priestley and English Unitarianism in America
An old gibe declares that American Unitarians believe in the “fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the neighborhood of Boston.” Accordingly, most historians have emphasized the New England roots of the denomination’s history. Two recent books, however, challenge the Boston-centered account of American Unitarianism. John Allen Macaulay’s Unitarianism in the Antebellum South (Tuscaloosa, AL, 2001) argues that English Unitarianism inspired a number of southern congregations. J. D. Bowers goes further, contending that English Unitarians, led by Joseph Priestley, founded a Unitarian movement in America in the 1790s, well before Unitarianism emerged as a distinct denomination in New England.
Bowers is at his strongest when he is charting the theological conflicts among the English Unitarians and the liberal and orthodox Congregationalists of New England. He best sums up his core analysis as follows: “[English] Socinians were pitted against [New England] Arians in a heavily contested dispute over ownership of the Unitarian name, the parameters of theological liberalism, and the very identity of Unitarianism itself. Congregationalists and other Trinitarians were only too happy to fan the flames and watch the two competing groups rend liberalism asunder” (152). Bowers shows that by the 1820s New England liberals, led by William Ellery Channing, had successfully laid claim to the Unitarian label while denying any affiliation with the English Unitarians, who meanwhile failed to organize a sustainable denominational structure. By the late nineteenth century, Bowers notes, at least some Unitarians recognized Priestley’s influence on their denomination’s increasingly liberal beliefs. But he argues that historians have failed to appreciate Priestley’s significance.
Bowers briefly charts the development of a dissenting Unitarian tradition in late eighteenth-century England under the leadership of Priestley and Theophilus Lindsey. English Unitarians argued for the humanity of Jesus, accepting Socinian views, but they saw themselves as reformers rather than opponents of Christianity. As a small minority in England, Unitarians were often criticized for their beliefs. More dramatically, in [End Page 478] 1791 Priestley fell victim to a riot in Birmingham that destroyed his home, laboratory, and chapel, as well as the property of other dissenters. In 1794, Priestley moved to the fledgling United States to pursue his scientific work and promote Unitarianism. (Bowers might have delved more deeply into the riot and its connection to Priestley’s move.)
As Bowers shows, Priestley was one of several English Unitarian clergymen who immigrated to the United States during the post-Revolutionary period in search of a more congenial atmosphere for promoting their beliefs, only to meet fierce resistance. Priestley himself settled in Northumberland, Pennsylvania, where he founded a long-lived Unitarian church and published a number of Unitarian works. Bowers notes that at least twenty other English Unitarian churches were founded in the United States during this period. He ably shows that orthodox Christian apologists fiercely criticized the English Unitarians for their Socinian denial of Christ’s divinity, unintentionally making Unitarian ideas more widely familiar.
Bowers also explains why the relationship between English Unitarians and the liberal Congregationalists in New England remained chilly, despite their shared rationalist bent. The religious liberals of the Boston area held Arminian views (rejecting orthodox Calvinist doctrine regarding predestination) and tended toward Arianism (seeing Jesus as more than human but subordinate to God). Although they had been quietly shedding orthodox doctrines throughout the eighteenth century, they were not amenable to the more radical Socinian views of the English Unitarians, who saw Jesus as a strictly human prophet.
Bowers shows that after Priestley’s death in 1804, English Unitarians on both sides of the Atlantic strove to consolidate Unitarianism, to some extent wrangling with New England liberals in the process. Writing from England in 1812, for instance, Thomas Belsham tried to goad the New England liberals into separating from orthodox Congregationalists and embracing their English Unitarian brethren. Orthodox Boston clergyman Jedidiah Morse republished excerpts from Belsham’s writings in 1815, hoping to use Belsham’s description of American Unitarians to expose apostates within...