From Revelation to Reason to Intuition: The Development of Unitarianism  in America—A Local Perspective 
by Mark W. Harris

A paper given at the Reasonable World Conference

on September 18, 2011 in San Diego, CA


               A revolution had been simmering in the Standing Order of Congregational Churches of Massachusetts ever since the Great Awakening of the 1740’s stirred the revival spirit in some latter day Puritans. Many congregations that  opposed the revival for its emotional style and anti-establishment fervor were led by Harvard educated clergy who were called Arminians, a label indicating a theology focused on people’s moral choices, as well as God’s grace.  These Arminians believed  that humans had  God given abilities to ensure their personal salvation, rather than be subject to the inscrutable decisions  of an all powerful sovereign. They rejected original sin and predestination, embraced a benevolent God, and many doubted the complete divinity of Jesus.  Yet most of them did not want to upset the establishment applecart,  refusing to publicly avow their burgeoning Unitarianism.  By 1805 some of the Calvinists rejected this mixing of liberals and orthodox within the Congregational Churches, and found an occasion to voice their public displeasure when Harvard College elected Henry Ware as its new professor of divinity. On a local level, the Calvinist Congregationalists’ unwillingness to be grouped with their heretical cousins had already become apparent by the increasingly sectarian nature of participation in church councils, ministerial exchanges,  and church membership practices.

            The liberals found a leader in William Ellery Channing, who preached a denominational manifesto,  Unitarian Christianity in 1819.  That was the same year that Convers Francis was called to be the last town wide, tax supported minister in Watertown, Massachusetts. This paper will examine the transition in Unitarianism from a rational, Bible based Christian faith to a  more universal, intuition based experience as seen through the career of Francis, whose role in the development of the Unitarian movement has not generally been recognized.

            Convers Francis (1795-1863) grew up in Medford, MA, the son of a baker. His early church going years were under the ministrations of David Osgood, who held the fort in Medford’s First Parish for 48 years in a congregation that mirrored the theological mixing of Trinitarians and Unitarians that was so common in many towns.  In his ordination sermon for Francis in June 1819,  Osgood said, “there can be no excusable pretence for either party’s excluding the other from christian or ministerial fellowship. It is certain that the spirit of Christ is not confined to any one sect, party or denomination of his professed followers.”   Osgood promoted a broad spirit, proclaiming that it was wrong to limit “our charity to persons of our own persuasions,” but we should instead  “learn to extend it to all. . . “ 1  Osgood’s theology reflected the ethical, non dogmatic brand of Christianity that characterized Unitarianism in its early days.  He said true faith is demonstrated by its fruits, “not by their doctrines, nor by their professions.”  In addressing the Watertown congregation, he wrote that “in these times of prevailing division, your continued harmony and brotherly affection are worthy of admiration.” 2

            When he was fifteen, Convers Francis’ father asked him if he wanted to learn a trade or go to college.  Preferring a life inspired by books, the young scholar graduated from Harvard in 1815.  He continued there for three more years studying for the ministry, reflecting the then growing  trend toward professionalizing the calling. Ironically, it was the conservatives who began the abandonment of the traditional on-the-job training with a settled minister.  After Andover Seminary was founded in 1807 to train orthodox ministers, the Unitarians knew they needed to respond in kind, and were eager to improve the training of “their” ministers, and did so after 1810 under Harvard’s new president  John T. Kirkland. 3

            Francis was “approbated” to preach in the spring of 1818, when he was twenty-three. The following spring he was recommended for the Watertown pulpit by  church members, and then the town (or parish) concurred on April 12, 1819.  This was the traditional pattern among Standing Order parishes, but it was broken by a split in nearby Dedham that was then in litigation.  A liberal, Alvin Lamson, had been rejected by a majority of church members, only to have a minority of members then sue to prove that they were the rightful representatives of the parish.  Their victory in 1820 precipitated many public divisions between Unitarians and Trinitarians. The ordination council for Francis met in June 1819,  and he reported that “there was no disputing, and everything went on peaceably.” 4  This would remain the pattern in Watertown where the church had undergone a slow drift towards liberalism, but there was never a secession movement of any kind, a true reflection of Convers Francis’ abilities to be diplomatic, the “genial, kindly scholar,” who Henry Steele Commager once said,  “presided so benignly over the Watertown church.” 5  This was true despite Francis’ liberal theology. In November 1819 he preached the same sermon he had given before the Boston Association of Ministers when he was approved to preach.  He noted in his journal that “it contained a view of the scripture doctrine concerning redemption and salvation . . . some would call a very heretical one.”6

            Evidence of the breach in the Standing Order was noticeable among those who participated in councils, ordinations and ultimately in pulpit exchanges.  Exchanges were among the most important kinds of relationships among parishes as they exposed congregations to a variety of viewpoints, and allowed them to keep the peace. Abiel Holmes, the minister in Cambridge regularly exchanged with liberal and orthodox alike for thirty years, but this suddenly changed in 1826 when he adopted an exclusive policy.  This public expression of unwillingness to promote harmony in a broad theological parish excited controversy, and he was dismissed in 1829 taking a majority of the church members with him.  Francis’ “Journal,” which includes frequent notices of pulpit exchanges, mostly with liberal colleagues noted his last exchange with Holmes in 1826: “Dr H. being an orthodox man is just able to settle the affair with his conscience so as to be able to exchange with me, & that is all, – how long even this will continue to be the case is quite uncertain.”  When the orthodox ministers made decisions not to exchange, splits in their churches became inevitable.7

            Francis’ “Journal” entries also reflect a gradual liberalization of the practice of the faith in Watertown. The celebration of the Lord’s Supper had long been one of two Protestant sacraments, but it became more and more common for liberally inclined churches to observe it less frequently.  This was the case in Watertown almost immediately after Francis assumed the ministry.  In July, the congregation voted that communion be celebrated on the first Sunday of every other month (rather than monthly).  Francis wrote that there was “opposition” and some “indication of bad feelings.”   This was the first time he had seen “evidence of that spirit wh loves to oppose for the sake of seeming more wise or pious than others, — & Heaven grant it may be the last.” 8

            The practice of welcoming new members into the church was also liberalized during Francis’ early years in the ministry.  Historically members were examined by the deacons and the minister, and then had to make public confession of their sins and profess their faith before the congregation.  Many church covenants were being rewritten by the  late eighteenth century to make them more acceptable to liberal congregations. In May 1821, Francis describes a Mr. Hall and his wife being received into membership, whereby  “the covenant being read before the church only”, so there was no confession of sin, or profession of faith.  Francis noted that this was “the first time this practice has been introduced here.”9 Broader membership standards were also evident with changes in the sacrament of baptism.   At a church meeting on January 22, 1821  the congregation voted that “the half- way covenant (a rite whereby the unconverted could have their children baptized) should be abolished , and that for the future, the pastor shall be at liberty to baptize the children of any parents, who may request it, without any conditions.  Everyone” they declared, “had a right to the ordinance.” 10

            By the 1830’s an earthquake of discord in Unitarian thinking was brewing, and Francis found himself siding with the Transcendentalist rebellion. He noted this developing split in his journal:  “I have long seen that the Unitarians must break into two schools, – the Old one, or English school, belonging to the sensual and emphiric philosophy, – and the New one, or the German school . . . belong to the spiritual philosophy. The last have the most of truth; but it will take them some time to ripen, and meanwhile they will be laughed at perhaps, for things that will appear visionary and crude.”  Despite his belief that the “New Thought” was superior, Francis  remained firmly grounded in Christian revelation and the idea of  a personal God.   As Octavius Brooks Frothingham said of him, “he gave his full assent to the intuitive philosophy, and used them as the pillars of Christianity. 11

            Like many of his liberal contemporaries Francis eschewed controversy on theological matters, and advocated an ethical faith. He explicitly defined Christianity as an “interior principle of moral life” in a sermon he gave in 1831 at the ordination of Oliver Stearns in Northampton, Massachusetts.  He claimed that at first Christianity was a “living principle of moral and spiritual improvement,” but as it prospered its followers began to build “up outworks around it for ornaments and for resting-places.”  Francis argued that forms of speculative faith such as creeds were not a mark of  real religion.  Those doctrines which are most important are those which influence practice.  The minister, he said, was not a “manager of the ceremonies of sacred things,”  but rather his greatest work is “the production of goodness, of spiritual purity.” Thus, Christianity was “purely an internal religion” that should minimize forms, rites and doctrines, and uphold the development of personal virtue.   The design of Christianity was to cultivate and improve individual character, so that “the path of duty and the path to heaven are always the same.” 12

            As a scholar Francis knew few equals.  He had a large private library, and frequently loaned volumes out, and scholarship was the reason Theodore Parker sought him out as a mentor in 1832, saying  “I long for books, and I long to know how to study.”  Francis was an astute historian, demonstrating his talents in works on the early preacher John Eliot and in a history of Watertown.   In 1832 he reviewed Alexander Crombie’s Natural Theology for the Christian Examiner,  which confirmed his place among the Transcendentalists, as he asserted that the “human soul is a particle of the divine mind.”13  In 1836  he began to attend the meetings of the newly formed Transcendental, or Hedge’s Club.  He was present for half of all the meetings, and combined his skills as a diplomat with the recognized wisdom of being the eldest member, to moderate the discussions.

            In the winter of 1837 Francis began attending lectures by Emerson.  He noted that Emerson was perpetually opening “rich, lofty, far reaching veins of thought,” that left him “breathless.”  These forays to hear Emerson continued the following year ramping up to the July “Divinity School Address,” a watershed event in Unitarian history.  In March Francis heard a talk on “the holy in man,” which alarmed some for its apparent denial of the personality of the Deity.  Francis thought that the only idea impugned was that God occupied space, but that Emerson did affirm the notion of will and consciousness in God.  Francis also thought that Emerson denied the idea of a conscious human existence after death, saying that humans merge into a “Divine Soul.”  Francis would soon sit in Divnity Hall, and hear Emerson say clearly that “the soul knows no persons.”14

            Francis found all of Emerson’s writings and talks examples of “a rich strain of music from the upper air.”   He admired Emerson as a person, and so he could more easily forgive some of their differences. In the wake of the “Divinity School Address,” Francis wrote to Frederic Henry Hedge about the hubbub it caused. Francis reported that Emerson’s principal points were put forth with “great power.”  Disagreeing with some of what Emerson said, Francis thought he could have given more significance to Jesus, but did not because he considered every man a divine being.  He also reported how the Address gave offence to all the rulers in Cambridge, and that “infidel” and “atheist” were the best terms Emerson received.   Francis spent the night at Emerson’s house in September 1838. They talked about the storm the Address had caused, and though Emerson and Francis “could not agree upon some points,”  Francis concluded, “he is a true, godful man, though in his love of the ideal he disregards too much the actual.”15 

            Emerson was undergoing a persistent struggle over the nature of God, which led him to identify God with human character – the individual’s soul “carried out to perfection.”  He moved his search from the outside world to the inner soul, and thus was freed from the idea of  God as an external being. His developing concept of an impersonal God as elucidated in the Address is what provoked Henry Ware, Jr. to preach, “The Personality of the Deity,”  in which he said that if there is “no plan, no purpose, no design; there is nothing but a set of abstract and unconscious principles.”16.  Ware and Francis shared styles of ministry with other moderate Unitarians who were threatened by the idea of removing a fatherlike figure who formed the very basis of religion and morality.  In a letter to Hedge in November, Francis expressed his concern that in Emerson there was the “want of an adequate expression on the Christian element in the world’s culture,” in the Address.17

            Yet Francis and Ware were not willing to call their friend an infidel, as Harvard professor Andrews Norton did, even if they worried about the claims of rejecting the miraculous nature and centrality of Christianity.  They still considered Emerson a Christian, and thought the intolerance of people like Norton destroyed the spirit of free inquiry that was the basis of Unitarianism. This issue of freedom became especially relevant after Theodore Parker preached “The Transient and Permanent in Christianity” in 1841.  Parker argued that the doctrines and forms of the church were transient, while the religion of Jesus, or “Absolute pure morality,” was permanent.  This questioning of the authority of the Bible and Jesus produced a firestorm, and eventually Parker was asked to resign from the Boston Association. Dean Grodzins calls this the only time in Unitarian history a minister was asked to resign from fellowship for reasons of doctrinal nonconformity.  Parker refused, but was effectively ostracized by colleagues who would not exchange pulpits with him.  In his Journal Francis noted that Parker was accused of infidelity, reporting that one writer called for his prosecution for blasphemy.  Francis was appalled at this treatment of a “man of sound Christian piety,”  who was “menaced” because he believed “we may be Christians without believing all that is written in the Old and New Testaments!”  And this from “a community boasting of its entire religious freedom.”18

            Soon thereafter Francis received an invitation to leave his parish in Watertown and accept an appointment as Professor of Pastoral Care and Pulpit Eloquence at the Harvard Divinity School. Francis was hesitant at first.  His Watertown successor John Weiss reported that “his modesty and self-distrust were serious obstacles to accepting it.”   Parker was among those who encouraged him to go, saying “I can’t help thinking that the welfare of the denomination depends upon it,” and then concluded with these words:  “Would to Heaven you had gone to Cambridge before I went to the School!”  He saw even greater implications when he wrote that it was “ as great a gain for the College and for the whole community as the accession of Dr. Ware was in 1805.” 19

             Francis left Watertown in the summer of 1842, shortly after preaching at the rededication of a new meetinghouse to replace one that had been consumed by fire.  In many ways Francis seems to have been the perfect appointment for a denomination split between reason and intuition; between Christian revelation and freedom. His was a tolerant, moderate Transcendentalism, grounded in institutional loyalty which meant that he could be trusted by radicals and conservatives alike. Yet some members of the Boston Association accused him of “the horrible crime of Transcendentalism.”  He tried to appease the conservatives that summer with the Thursday Lecture, but they continued to harass him.  This was noticed by Samuel Johnson, who saw Francis making the school into something “respectable” and “adequate.” “But what can be done with a Unitarian school,” he wrote, “when Unitarianism is kicking at those who are trying to change it into something healthier and purer than any ism. .  . ?”   Francis has sometimes been categorized as someone who was “too all sided” in his understanding of various viewpoints.20 Yet his moderation was an effective tool in giving students the freedom to make their own decisions about intellectual and professional matters and their application to ministry.  John Weiss, his successor in Watertown, said that Francis had a “bias for spiritual views of God and man; yet he seemed almost neutral when it came to the development of doctrines and the history of human opinions.”21

            In a letter to Weiss, after her brother’s death, Lydia Maria (Francis) Child wrote how Convers had inspired the students to become abolitionists.  In his Journal Francis noted that “ I said all I could to encourage them in their resistance to this sin of our land, and told them I hope every member of the School would go forth into the ministry prepared to set his face as a flint against this terrible iniquity.” 22   On his contributions to the divinity school as a whole, Child said  “I think few appreciate duly the liberal influence of my brother in his teachings at the University.  He never sought to impress his own opinions, or the doctrines of any sect, upon the minds of his pupils; but presented questions from various points of view, and left their minds free to decide which aspect was the true one.  Sectarians complained of this, and he had many difficulties to encounter in consequence of their opposition; but he had his reward in the liberalizing effect of his system.”23

             During his professorship Convers Francis transformed the thinking at Harvard.  Even as the newly formed National Conference of Unitarian Churches, kept the denomination a bastion of rational Christianity, the students Francis helped mentor were preparing to lead the Unitarians in new directions.  They soon rebelled against the old theological order and provided  leadership in the movement toward free religion. In 1855 Child published The Progress of Religious Ideas, Through Successive Ages.  This remarkable book covered each of the major world religions “in its own light.”  Using the sacred texts to describe both “the beauties and the blemishes” of each faith Child neither condemns any faith nor elevates Christianity to special status, but she attempts to promote tolerance of all.  In February 1856, Child wrote to Lucy Osgood, an old friend from Medford days, about the book.  She said, “My good brother C. [Convers] is not altogether pleased with what I say about theology . . . asking whether the “science of God” is not the highest and best of all sciences?”  Child said, “Undoubtedly it is, “ but wondered how we could call it a science within our finite human vision.  She believed faith and aspiration were all humans had, and that we could not “teach others concerning God with any certainty of basis that belongs to a science.”  Furthermore, she felt while much “good had been done to the human race by religion” . . . she wondered, “what good has been done by doctrines concerning God  and the soul, I am yet to learn.”  Happily, she went on, “With this exception, he [Convers] seems to rejoice in my book.” 24

            Francis remained at the Divinity School for twenty years, making it the beneficiary,  Sidney Ahlstrom said, of his “fine mind, wide-ranging interests, and profound sense of duty.”    While Hedge felt that Francis became more cautious during his tenure, and blamed the change on a “rigid, cautious, circumspect, conservative tang in the very air of Cambridge which no one . . . can escape,” the results of his teaching were  revolutionary. By bringing Transcendentalism into the curriculum, his twenty year tenure transformed the Divinity School, its students, and the very basis of Unitarian thought in ways which  embraced more  universal religious principles, leading the way to the free religion his sister embraced, and eventually the advent of humanism.25

1  “A Sermon at the Ordination of the Reverend Convers Francis to the Pastoral Charge of the Church and Society in Watertown,” June 23, 1819 by David Osgood, D.D.  (Cambridge, 1819), p. 19

2 Ibid., 20-21.

3 George Huntston Williams, ed. The Harvard Divinity School. (Boston, 1954), p. 21-27.

4 “The Journals of Convers Francis” (Part 1), edited by Guy R. Woodall, Studies in the American Renaissance, edited by Joel Myerson (Boston, 1981), p. 287.  See Mosetta I. Vaughan, Sketch of the Life and Work of Convers Francis, D. D. (Watertown, MA, 1944), pp. 6-7.

5 Henry Steele Commager, Theodore Parker. (Boston, 1947), p. 24.

6 “The Journals of Convers Francis” (Part 2), edited by Guy R. Woodall, Studies in the American Renaissance, edited by Joel Myerson. (Boston, 1982). P. 292.

7 Vaughan, p. 14;, Francis, “Journal, “ p. 234; Conrad Wright, “Institutional Reconstruction in the Unitarian Controversy, in Conrad E. Wright, editor, American Unitarianism, 1805-1865 (Boston, 1989), pp. 14-17.

8 Francis, “Journal,” p. 288.

9 Ibid., p. 303.

10 Watertown (Mass.), First Parish Church Records, Box 9, First Parish Record Book, Bound Volumes, 1819-1907, p. 13, Massachusetts Historical Society.

11 Francis, “Journal,” pp. 246-247; Octavius Brooks Frothingham, Transcendentalism in New England, A History (Philadelphia, 1959), p. 354.  Orig. published, 1876.

12 Convers Francis, A Sermon Preached at the Ordination of the Rev. Oliver Stearns to the Pastoral Care of the Second Congregational Society in Northampton, Nov. 9, 1831 (Northamptn, 1831), pp. 3, 6, 8, 10, 22.

13 John Weiss, Discourse Occasioned by the Death of Convers Francis, D.D. (Cambridge, 1863), p. 67; Convers Francis, “Natural Theology,” in Perry Miller, editor, The Transcendentalists (Cambridge, 1950), p. 64.

14 Francis, “Journal,” pp. 249, 251.

15 Convers Francis to Frederic Henry Hedge, August 10, 1838 in Emerson in His Own Time, ed. By Ronald A. Bosco and Joel Myerson (Iowa City, 2003), pp. 3-4; Francis, “Journal,” p. 251.

16 Henry Ware, Jr., “The Personality of the Deity,” in Sidney E. Ahlstrom and jonathan S. Carey, eds., An American Reformation: A Documentary History of Unitarian Chrsitianity (Middletown, Conn., 1985), p. 434.

17 Convers Francis to Frederic Henry Hedge, November 12, 1838 in Emerson in His Own Time, p. 4; David Robinson, Apostle of Culture, Emerson as Preacher and Lecturer (Philadelphia, 1982), pp. 126-131.

18 Francis, “Journal,” p. 255; Dean Grodzins, American Heretic: Theodore Parker and Transcendentalism (Chapel Hill, 2007), p. 444.

19 Weiss, Discourse, pp. 37-39.

20 Johnson, as quoted in Guy R. Woodall, “Convers Francis, The Transcendentalists, and the Boston Association of Ministers, The Proceedings of the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society Vol. XXI, Part II (1989), p. 46.

21 Weiss, p. 43.

22 Francis, “Journal,” p. 258.

23 Lydia Maria Child to John Weiss, April 15, 1863 in Lydia Maria Child: Selected Letter, 1817-1880, ed. by Milton Meltzer and Patricia G. Holland, Amherst, Mass., 1982), pp. 425-426.

24 Lydia Maria Child to Lucy Osgood, February 11 or 19, 1856 in Selected Letters, p. 278.

25 George H. Williams, ed. The Harvard Divinity School, p. 105; Stow Persons, Free Religion (Boston, 1947), p. 22.