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Rational Religion in America

Reproduced from A History of Christian Theology: An Introduction
by William C. Placher, © 1983 William C. Placher

In intellectual circles on the East Coast, the Great Awakening Proved only a temporary delay in the advancing march of rational religion. By the time of the struggles for independence, many American leaders were more or less Deists.

Asked about the divinity of Christ, Benjamin Franklin admitted, "It is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect so soon [he wrote this as a very old man] an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble."

He would have agreed with Thomas Jefferson that "he who steadily observes those moral precepts in which all religions concur, will never be questioned at the gates of heaven, as to the dogmas in which they all differ." Jefferson even produced a special edition of the New Testament, which included Jesus' teachings but left out all the miracles.

In spite of such attitudes, in 1776 every state except Rhode Island still required some sort of religious affirmation from anyone seeking public office, and Connecticut (until 1818), New Hampshire (until 1819) and Massachusetts (until 1833) still recognized an established church with special privileges and tax support.

People like Jefferson and Franklin naturally sought to limit the churches' influence on the state, but it was principally the sheer fact of religious diversity which ruled out an established church on the national level.

Congregationalists dominated Massachusetts, Anglicans Virginia, and so on, but no denomination had a dominant position in the whole country. As a result, while few Americans moved as far in the direction of Deism as Jefferson or Franklin, a least-common-denominator Christianity rather like Deism came to characterize public occasions in the United States.

To that extent, rationalism in religion made its mark on the whole country, but in the early 1800s it took an institutional form in Unitarianism. Unitarians have remained few in number and have not spread far-giving rise to the gibe that they believe in the Fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the neighborhood of Boston - but their influence on American intellectual life has been out of all proportion to their numbers. They began with an emphasis on reason and divine benevolence.

They rejected the Trinity as irrational. They insisted that a good God would not let everyone fall into sin because of Adam's fault or predestine anyone to damnation.

In the words of William Ellery Channing, minister of the Federal Street Church in Boston for forty years and the most distinguished spokesman of Unitarianism, "A natural constitution of the mind unfailingly disposing it to evil ... would absolve it from guilt ... and argue unspeakable cruelty [on God's part]; and ... to punish the sin of this unhappily constituted child with endless ruin would be a wrong unparalleled by the most merciless despotism."

Unitarians read their Bibles and believed in miracles, but they approached these matters rationally too. Good evidence proved that miracles had occurred, and the miracles in turn established the authority of whoever performed them. "Christianity," Charming wrote, "is not a deduction of philosophy ... intelligible but to a few. It is ... sealed by miracles ... which are equally intelligible, striking, and appealing to all."

The following extracts are presented for educational purposes only. The owner retains all rights. This has been broken into individual sections for easier reading.

Reproduced from A History of Christian Theology: An Introduction
by William C. Placher, © 1983 William C. Placher