The Unitarians and the Universalistsby David Robinson

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  • The Unitarians and the Universalists by David RobinsonReview by: J. Wade CaruthersThe American Historical Review, Vol. 91, No. 1 (Feb., 1986), pp. 171-172Published by: Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Historical AssociationStable URL: .Accessed: 28/06/2014 09:27

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  • United States 171

    only as a minority within the ranks of advanced thinkers who inclined toward "atheistical specula- tion." Most notable American intellectuals clung to a "legitimate if thinblooded form of theism" (p. 46). The existence of a God was necessary to the Enlight- enment belief in the order of a universe whose human inhabitants derived their moral laws from the laws of nature. Nonetheless, numerous Chris- tian apologists decried the growth of "atheism." In this clash church leaders were forced to "rethink the nature of God and the justifications for belief in Him," a process "more far-reaching than, though continuous with, that begun between the Reforma- tion and about 1690" (p. 49).

    In casting about for a formulation that would be intellectually respectable as well as persuasive to the popular mind, churchmen fastened onto science as the explanatory model by which belief in the exist- ence and attributes of a benevolent God could be made rationally demonstrable. Tfheir idea of what science was and what it could fully explain would seem cheerfully naive (or tragically clouded) to a generation of intellectuals who view the workings of science in Thomas Kuhn's terms. To eighteenth- century churchmen and their successors, science was an all-sufficient and glamorous heuristic device. Any idea that could be made plausible through analogy to science would command, they trusted, both the intellectual assent and emotional trust of intelligent believers. Tfhis is the central irony of Tfurner's book: by pursuing the goal of rational belief to the almost total exclusion of other modes of religious thought, the rationalizers of Christianity paved the way for full-blown unbelief.

    As Tfurner ably demonstrates, every aspect of Christian doctrine came to be tried by the touch- stone of science. The "divided God of the Enlight- enment," a conception that set belief in a personal deity against G(d the designer, became the reigning divinity in America. In Turner's intricate analysis the aggressive exponents of "heart religion" were also the arch-rationalizers. Against this phalanx of rational defenders of God's existence and purposes were ranged such intuitionist luminaries as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Horace Bushnell, who rightly grasped that scientific method as applied to religion limited one's knowledge of God. Their voices, how- ever, could hardly compete with those who claimed that certain knowledge could be gained by emulat- ing science.

    Public fascination with the triumphs of technol- ogy (easily confused with science) and the attractions of Darwinian evolution guaranteed that the lan- guage of science would dominate the language of religion in the 1 860s. Opponents of this trend were handicapped, T' urner argues, by the paucity of competing ideas. Meanwhile, prophets of the cult of the heart (like Henry Ward Beecher) embraced

    evolutionary science as their own. The foundations of American intuitionism were in any case too slen- der to prop up a viable alternative to scientistic religion.

    In this atmosphere many intellectuals came to believe that what could not be known via scientific method was surely not worth knowing. Thinking in this fashion corroded religion to the point where intellectuals could dispense with God altogether. The number of avowed nonbelievers was small, but it was not only possible but also intellectually re- spectable to be agnostic. Unbelief, once "a rare eccentricity," could now "stake out a sizable perma- nent niche in American culture" from about 1880 onward (p. 171).

    Turner's sympathetic and sensitive handling of these themes gives us further insight into the struc- tures of belief of a society that, as he says, wanted to be comfortable in a universe tailored to human measurements.


    Eaton, New Hampshire

    DAVID ROBINSON. The Unitarian-s and the Universalists. (Denominations in America, number 1.) Westport, Conn.: Greenwood. Pp. xiii, 368. $35.00.

    David Robinson has written the first book in the Greenwood Press series on denominations in Amer- ica. Henry Warner Bowden, author of The 1977 Dictionary of Amenrcan Religious Biography, states in his foreword that "[this] series follows a distinguished precedent..., the prototype [of which] appeared almost a century ago" (p. ix). He refers to the American Church History series (1893-97), the re- sult of collaboration between twenty-four scholars. But improvements in historical method and a better understanding of the place of religious develop- ment in the broad context of American studies have enabled David Robinson to produce a major contri- bution to the intellectual history of the United States.

    Following in part the guidelines of Vernon Louis Parrington and Perry Miller, Robinson traces the origins of both Unitarianism and Universalism from late colonial times through nineteenth-century sec- ularism, the trauma of the Civil War, and the Free Religious movement of the postbelluni period to twentieth-century humanism. Robinson clearly ana- lyzes parallels and differences in the developments of the two denominations. The reader gets the impression the differences were more important than the similarities: Unitarians were upper-class, enlightened, New England rationalists, whereas Universalists were less well educated, following the heart over the head in matters of religion. Why did the two groups merge to form a single denomina-

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  • 172 Reviews of Books

    tion in 1961? Robinison's historical presentation makes clear that both groups had one essential attitude in common: their dedication to a creedless, nonauthoritarian religion. They also had, and still have, one problem in common: how to reconcile a free church with the practical matter of necessary organization-a tension that has troubled liberal churches throughout our history. Robinson also brings out another conflict within the Unitarian- Universalist tradition: the conflict between intellec- tual and rational approaches to religion. This led to different attitudes toward social issues and social action, for Unitarians lean less toward social action than Universalists (although this might be debated when individuals are studied).

    Part 1 of Robinson's study is analytical history. Chapter 1 is a well-written survey of the roots, similarities, and contrasts found in Unitarianism and Universalism. Succeeding chapters deal sepa- rately with the rise and growth of each denomina- tion. Those familiar with the sources and biblio- graphical studies relating to both denominations will find nothing new in any particular chapter. Robin- son presents his book, however, not as a piece of original research but rather as a synthesis of well- known primary sources and secondary works. This is no adverse criticism since Robinson's well- researched and lucidly written book accomplishes what the series intends-denominational history. He deserves to be commended highly for his schol- arly efforts. One minor gap might be pointed out by this reviewer. If the author had studied the annual Proceedings of the Free Religions Association, he would have established a stronger and earlier case for the growing affinity between Unitarians and Universal- ists. After all, most of the people associated with that organization were Unitarians, and many major speakers at annual meetings were Universalists.

    Part 2 of the book is a 32-page biographical dictionary of leading figures in Unitarian-Universa- list history. All scholars in American studies and intellectual history will find this an invaluable refer- ence work.

    J. WADE CARUTHERS Annapolis, Maryland

    MARY CHARLES BRYCE. Pride of Place: The Role of the Bishops in the Development of Catechesis in the United States. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press. 1984. Pp. xii, 227.

    This book's subtitle, which might be amended to read "of the Roman Catholic Bishops," is otherwise precise. This is neither a history of religious educa- tion in the Roman Catholic Church in the United States nor a history of catechetical manuals used for that religious education. The focus is on the bishops,

    first individually and then collectively. The title is taken from the Second Vatican Council's decree on the pastoral office of bishops in the church (October 28, 1965), which notes that, among various methods available for proclaiming Christian doctrine, preaching and catechetical instruction hold "pride of place."

    The first third of the book describes in episodic fashion a dozen or more efforts to introduce various catechisms of European provenance into the United States. The discussion begins with the 1785 manual that was erroneously named, as the author notes, for John Carroll, the recently appointed ecclesiastical superior of the Catholic church in the new republic; it was actually a rendition by Philadelphia pastor Robert Molyneux of older English manuals. Cate- chisms that failed to gain episcopal approval are also mentioned, including the one written by Caesarius Reuter in the late 1790s for Pennsylvania German congregations. But Mary Charles Bryce makes no reference to the controversy in 1791 between Car- roll and Francis Rogatus Fromm, who attempted to replace the German version of the Counter Refor- mation catechism of Robert Bellarmine with one of his own making.

    For the general historical background, Bryce re- lies heavily on the ultramontane historiography of Peter Guilday, who wrote in the 1920s, with some additional material from authors of the 1950s. The result is a somewhat dated reading that neglects, for example, the more benign view of controversies over the role of lay parish trustees that can be found in recent studies by Patrick Carey. Bryce's approach also makes it difficult for her to integrate the em- phasis common in the Anglo-American Catholic community of the early nineteenth century on the notion of national churches that insisted on their national character while proclaiming themselves "in communion with the see of Rome." Surprising is the omission of any reference to the widely used "Keenan's Catechism," which before the First Vatican Council taught Catholics to rieject as "a Protestant invention" the charge that they accepted a doctrine of papal infallibility.

    At the first national meeting in 1829 at Baltimore, the bishops in formal council began the quest for a common catechism, which resulted in the first "Bal- timore Catechism" in 1885. Bryce chronicles well the intermittent discussions and aborted projects that led to the graded set of question-and-answer manuals that served American Catholics until the post-Vatican II period, when emphasis shifted from mandated, specific textbooks to biblical study and general directories. Catechetical renewal be- came international, inspired by the General Catechetical Directory produced in Rome in 1971. Bryce, active in the field during this last phase, is at her best in describing this development, and her

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    Article Contentsp. 171p. 172

    Issue Table of ContentsThe American Historical Review, Vol. 91, No. 1 (Feb., 1986), pp. i-x+1-243+1(a)-34(a)Volume Information [pp. ]Front Matter [pp. ]Mythistory, or Truth, Myth, History, and Historians [pp. 1-10]The Soslovie (Estate) Paradigm and Russian Social History [pp. 11-36]Modern Education in South India, 1784-1854: Its Roots and Its Role as a Vehicle of Integration under Company Raj [pp. 37-65]Turner, the Boltonians, and the Borderlands [pp. 66-81]Reviews of BooksGeneralReview: untitled [pp. 82]Review: untitled [pp. 82-83]Review: untitled [pp. 83-84]Review: untitled [pp. 84-85]Review: untitled [pp. 85]Review: untitled [pp. 85-86]Review: untitled [pp. 86-87]Review: untitled [pp. 87]

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