On David Barton's claim that Unitarians were a "very evangelical Christian denomination"
David Barton told Liberty University students in their September 9 chapel that Unitarians were at one time “a very evangelical Christian denomination.” In his effort to define what he called modernism, he said this about the Unitarians the late 18th and early 19th century (in italics):
And the example of that is what happens when you look at Universalist Unitarians; certainly not a denomination that conforms to biblical truth in any way but as it turns out, we have a number of Founding Fathers who were Unitarians. So we say, oh wait, there’s no way the Founding Fathers could have been Christians; they were Unitarians. Well, unless you know what a Unitarian was in 1784 and what happened to Unitarians in 1819 and 1838 and unless you recognize they used to be a very evangelical Christian denomination, we look at what they are today and say the Founding Fathers were Unitarians, and say, there’s no way they were Christians. That’s modernism; that’s not accurate; that’s not true.
Last week, I briefly examined Barton’s claim that Unitarians were a “very evangelical denomination” with the help of college professor and attorney Jon Rowe. In a 2007 post, Rowe noted that Unitarians during the era of the Founding Fathers denied the Trinity and the deity of Christ. While Unitarians used the Bible to come to their conclusions, one cannot call them evangelical in any meaningful or current sense of the word.
I also asked two Grove City College colleagues with expertise in religious history, Gillis Harp (professor of history) and Paul Kemeny (associate professor of religion and humanities), to react to Barton’s claim about the Unitarians. First, Dr. Kemeny contradicted Barton, saying (in italics):
To call nineteenth-century Unitarians a “every evangelical Christian denomination” is like calling a circle a square. While many were deeply pious, Unitarians rejected the deity of Christ and consequently the Trinity. Since the common sense meaning of “evangelical Christian” usually entails an affirmation of Christ’s deity and by implication the Trinity, it strikes me as a rather oddly creative use of the term to suggest Unitarians were “evangelical Christians.” The Unitarians’ early nineteenth-century critics, such as orthodox Congregationalist theologian Leonard Woods, would likely be surprised to learn the Unitarians were actually “evangelical Christians after all.
As Kemeny notes, the orthodox theologians of the time did not think of Unitarians as orthodox. The Congregationalists of the eighteenth century were in dispute with their fellows who were moving in the Unitarian ways. For instance, President John Adams is often listed as a Congregationalist, but, as I documented previously, his views were decidedly Unitarian.
Dr. Harp also discounted Barton’s theory, saying (in italics)
It is misleading to refer to early 19th century Unitarians as ‘evangelical.’ If Barton means that they were far more orthodox on many basic doctrinal matters than are Unitarians today – then, sure, one can say that. But belief in the incarnation and substitutionary atonement are both essential to evangelicalism and these were both firmly repudiated by all Unitarians in this period. Some Unitarians certainly continued to follow evangelical personal habits (daily prayer, Bible study, promoting evangelism) but that doesn’t make them evangelical doctrinally.
Christian scholars Harp and Kemeny agree that the claim is faulty. What about the original sources? If Unitarians of the era were evangelical in doctrine, perhaps this would show up in their writings. However, even a cursory examination of the leading Unitarian thinkers demonstrates that Barton is incorrect.
Barton cites Jared Sparks as a man who said George Washington was a Christian in the evangelical sense. However, Sparks was a leading Unitarian. Sparks’ ordination to the ministry in 1819 was the occasion for William Ellery Channing to preach a sermon outlining Unitarian beliefs in a break with the more orthodox Congregationalists.
Sparks was also the editor of the Unitarian Miscellany and Christian Monitor. In an 1821 edition, he explained the Unitarian position on Christ. (in italics)
Unitarians believe, that Jesus Christ was a messenger commissioned from heaven to make a revelation, and communicate the will of God to men. They all agree, that he was not God; that he was a distinct being from the Father, and subordinate to him; and that he received from the Father all his power, wisdom, and knowledge. (p. 13)
Although unitarians do not believe Christ to be God, because they think such a doctrine at variance with reason and scripture, yet they believe him to have been authorized and empowered to make a divine revelation to the world. We believe in the divinity of his mission, but not of his person. We consider all he has taught as coming from God; we receive his commands, and rely on his promises, as the commands and promises of God. In his miracles we see the power of God; in his doctrines and precepts we behold the wisdom of God; and in his life and character we see a bright display of every divine virtue. Our hope of salvation rests on the truths lie has disclosed, and the means he has pointed out. We believe him to be entitled to our implicit faith, obedience, and submission, and we feel towards him all the veneration, love, and gratitude, which the dignity of his mission, the sublime purity ot his character, and his sufferings for the salvation of men, justly demand. But we do not pay him religious homage, because we think this would be derogating from the honour and majesty of the Supreme Being, who, our Saviour himself has told us, is the only proper object of our adoration and worship. (p. 15-16)
Regarding sin, Unitarians denied original sin and consequently the need for Christ’s atonement to pay the penalty for sin. Again in 1821, Sparks wrote (in italics):
We have only room to state, that we do not believe “the guilt of Adam’s sin was imputed, and his corrupted nature conveyed to all his posterity;” nor that there is in men any “original corruption, whereby they are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil.” (p. 19)
Disputes between trinitarians and the anti-trinitarians (as unitarians were often called) raged in eighteenth century New England. Historian E. Brooks Holifield wrote in his book Theology in America that the divinity of Christ was in doubt among New England clergy as early as 1735, adding (in italics)
By 1768, Samuel Hopkins could claim that most of the ministers of Boston disbelieved the doctrine of the divinity of Christ. By 1785, James Freeman succeeded in leading the Episcopal congregation at King’s Chapel in Boston to delete Trinitarian views from their liturgy. (p. 199)
In his speech to Liberty University quoted above, Barton refers to 1784 as a point of reference for what Unitarians were. Perhaps he has this transition at King’s Chapel in mind when the church went from Anglican doctrine to Unitarian beliefs. The minister at the time, James Freeman, considered the church Anglican. However, in another sign that orthodox leaders of the day did not consider Unitarian views to be in line with traditional doctrine, the local Bishop refused to ordain Freeman in the Anglican church.
A question for Mr. Barton: Since the Unitarians at the time took pains to distinguish themselves from orthodoxy and the orthodox leaders of the day did not consider unitarian beliefs to be what we would today call evangelical, why would we dispute them now and call them “very evangelical?”