The founders of our nation were men and women of the Enlightenment who presided over a secular revolution, but at the end of the war, some of our newly-independent states began to establish state-supported religion, abolishing some churches and publicly financing others. It wasn’t until the ratification of the First Amendment to the Constitution in 1790 which forbade the establishment of religion that the United States legally embraced the secularism of the revolution.
The year 1790 is also significant among historians as the beginning of the Second Great Awakening. a religious revival that in part grew out of the First Amendment’s separation of church and state and opposition to the atheism of the French Revolution. Up to that time, most Americans were members of Congregationalist (from our New England Puritan heritage), Episcopalian (from our Church of England heritage) or Quaker churches. But beginning in 1790 and lasting until the 1830’s, the country saw a rapid growth in populist, evangelical Methodist and Baptist churches fueled by community-wide mass meetings.
In a letter of November 2, 1822 to Dr. Thomas Cooper (a friend and neighbor of Joseph Priestley), Thomas Jefferson addressed the “threatening cloud of fanaticism” fueled by the growth of evangelical and populist religious movements of the Second Great Awakening. He wrote:
…The diffusion of instruction, to which there is now so growing an attention, will be the remote remedy to this fever of fanaticism; while the more proximate one will be the progress of Unitarianism. That this will, ere long, be the religion of the majority from north to south, I have no doubt….
Jefferson was prescient. During the nineteenth century, Unitarian and Universalist churches proliferated with each religion growing to over one million adherents. This growth is less likely attributed to Jefferson’s “threatening cloud of fanaticism” than it is to William Ellery Channing.
Historian Daniel Walker Howe writes that “a sermon could make big news in the young republic” as Channing did on May 5, 1819 in Baltimore. Channing, a Boston minister, came to Baltimore to celebrate the ordination of his friend Rev. Jared Sparks, biographer of George Washington, at the newly-built and still standing Unitarian church. Channing’s sermon defined Unitarianism, a religion, he said, that combined Christianity and the Enlightenment, the Bible, science, humanism and reason. Rejecting the Trinity, preaching “Unitarian Christianity” instead, tossing aside the Calvinist doctrines of his Puritan ancestors, Channing’s sermon was the most widely printed pamphlet since Thomas Paine’s Common Sense (1776). It ignited what has been called the “Unitarian Controversy,” a debate between traditional Calvinists and “liberal” Unitarians, aroused great public interest and resulted in many Congregationalist churches (now United Church of Christ) becoming Unitarian churches. (While Channing embraced divinity in our power to reason, Universalist founder Hosea Ballou who also stripped Calvinism from his denomination, contrarily expressed faith in God’s goodness. Our denominations merged in 1961.)
Every year in May, UU’s in the Baltimore area celebrate Channing’s sermon on Union Sunday. Usually held in the same First Church Unitarian in Baltimore where Channing preached in 1819, this year, for the first time, Union Sunday will be held at the UU Congregation of Columbia. Join us May 6.