WHAT DO UNITARIANS BELIEVE?
Rev. Samuel J. May
[The following is reprinted, at the request of many of our brethren from a tract which has been much circulated. Of course, it is only an individual statement, and is not intended as a creed.]
BECAUSE we have no formula of faith; no system of doctrines; no list of articles prescribed by pope, bishops, General Assembly, or other human authority, which every one must profess to believe before he can be admitted to membership in our church, -- there are those who allege that we Unitarians have no faith; that we believe nothing, or that each one believes what he pleases.
Other churches, it is urged, deal better by their members, instructing them as to what they must believe, nay, furnishing to all who wish them printed copies of the system of doctrines which those churches severally uphold and contend for as the “faith once delivered to the saints," which every one must accept in order to salvation. Nay, you may go to the bookstores, and buy the volumes in which are printed the creeds of the Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, or Baptist sects, -- creeds devised and written out (some of them centuries ago) by men accounted wise enough to determine what others, as well as themselves, ought to believe, and thereby secure to the churches, for whose edification they were especially concerned, a unity of faith.
But, if anyone supposes that
this end has been attained in either of the above-named churches, he is much
mistaken. Of course, what the creed is, that either church prescribes, may be
found, as I have said, in this or that printed volume. But what Episcopalians
or Presbyterians or Methodists or Baptists individually believe, you can
ascertain only by inquiring of them individually. As you will discover, -- if
you can get the members of either of these churches to define to you their real
beliefs, -- you will discover as many and great discrepancies between them as
between the members of the
I am utterly unable to discover the benefit which ever has been or can be derived from a creed prescribed by human authority; a formula of faith; a system of doctrines devised and concocted by any man or any set of men, to be enforced upon the assent of other men, each of whom has an inalienable right to think for himself. Were there time now, and were this the occasion, I would show that many and very grave evils, gross hypocrisies and atrocious cruelties, have everywhere, and in all ages, been the legitimate offspring of this assumption of authority to dictate to fellow-men what they must believe.
But my purpose, at this time, is to inform those who wish to know, what is the faith of Unitarians. Of course, I may not speak for all who bear this name, but for those only whose opinions and belief I do know; and they are many.
First. We believe and insist, that each and every rational and moral being, male and female, is under the highest obligation to form his or her own opinions about religion. Every one, we hold, is bound and therefore should be left perfectly free to seek after, if haply he may find, the truth of God for himself; form his own creed, his own body of divinity; be fully persuaded in his own mind as to what is true on every question that may arise respecting the character of God, the principles of the divine government, man's accountability, the design of his life in this world, and his destiny in the world to come. There is no other subject of thought comparable to this in importance; therefore everyone should be encouraged and urged to give all the attention to it he may be able to give. By the study of the Bible, and the works and the providence of God, each one should strive to learn all he may of the mind, the purposes, the will of the heavenly Father, that he may become an intelligent and obedient child. He should avail himself of the thoughts, the results, of the inquiries and reasonings of others, so far as he shall find them profitable. But he is under no obligation whatever to accept the conclusions at which the mightiest intellects have arrived, if they do not appear to his own mind and heart accordant with the truth and righteousness of God. He who, in deference to the authority of another, professes to believe what he does not see to be true, has hoodwinked himself; or he has entered a labyrinth in which he will not know whether he is going right or wrong. But he who reverently embraces whatever, in the best use of his understanding, seems to him true and right, shows his allegiance to God; and he will not be left to wander into the path of fatal error.
We Unitarians believe with the Apostle Paul (Rom. viii. 14), that, "as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God." We believe that Jesus of Nazareth was led by the Spirit of God more constantly and entirely than any other son of man; that he is therefore called the dearly beloved Son of God, and is the best teacher of true religion. We believe that the doctrines he preached disclosed more fully than those of any other teacher the character of God and his purposes respecting man and that the moral precepts he gave were more nearly identical with perfect righteousness, “the righteousness of God." Indeed, we believe that they only who hear and obey the commandments of Christ will be redeemed from all iniquity; and that the world will never be filled with righteousness, peace, and joy, until the children of men shall be trained up in the school of Christ, rather than that of Augustine or Calvin, -- be taught to understand, and persuaded to conform to, the principles and spirit of “the dearly beloved Son of God."
All Unitarians believe that Jesus was one with God, -- in a spiritual sense; the sense in which he prayed (John xvii. 21-23) that all who shall be brought to believe on him might become one with him and the Father. We believe he was wholly devoted to God, was led always by his Holy Spirit, and had no desire but to do his will. We all believe that Jesus was not a self-existent, but a created being, dependent upon and accountable to the one Supreme, whom he often addressed as his Father and his God.
Many Unitarians are Arians, that is, they believe that Jesus pre-existed; that he was an archangel, next in dignity to the Most High; that he appeared upon earth in the person of the son of Mary, and led the life and died the death that is narrated in the New Testament. Other Unitarians, probably the larger part of them, believe that he was a man supernaturally born of his mother only, in accordance with the accounts given by Matthew and Luke. But there are many of our denomination who believe, as I do, that Jesus was the son of Joseph and Mary; that the accounts prefixed to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, inconsistent with each other, are not genuine, but were taken from the thousand marvelous stories which were invented in the second and third centuries of the Christian era to magnify, in the eyes of the ignorant and credulous, the founder of the new religion, and do away the reproach of his crucifixion.
But, whatever may be our differences of belief on this point, we Unitarians all agree, that it is not the physical or metaphysical nature of Christ which most concerns us, but his moral and religious character. We believe that he was the most excellent person who has ever lived upon earth; that he was a perfect man, holy, harmless, undefiled. We believe, that, in the highest degree, he was the Son of God, dearly beloved, because he was at all times, in all things, led by the spirit of the heavenly Father. We believe that he was tempted in all points like any other man, but that he never yielded to temptation. He did no sin. He was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief; but he was perfected by his sufferings, and not made by them, as too many are, peevish, discontented, rebellious.
We Unitarians believe that Jesus is our great exemplar, set before us by the heavenly Father to be our pattern in all things; that in him we see "the measure of the stature of the perfect man," “the mark of our high calling;” that, “as he was holy, so are we called to be holy in all manner of conversation." It is therefore a prominent article of the Unitarian faith, that all men ought to act at all times as Jesus would act in the same circumstances. The best test we can apply to our own conduct, words, feelings, and to the conduct, words, feelings of others is this: Would "the perfect man" act, speak, feel thus? And in estimating the character of men, and the regard in which they ought to be held in the Christian Church, we Unitarians believe that we should consider, not the accuracy of their speculative opinions, "the form of sound words" to which they may give their assent, but the degree of goodness which is seen in their daily lives, the principles on which they act, and the feelings which they manifest in their intercourse with their fellow-men; moreover, the spirit which they evince towards God under the various trying circumstances of life, prosperity and adversity, joy and sorrow, health and sickness. In short, we Unitarians believe that "he only who doeth righteousness is righteous;" that he only whose character resembles Christ's is a Christian; that he only loves God who loves his fellow-men, who loves to be and to do good.
Unitarians, most if not all of us, repudiate the Orthodox doctrine of Atonement, as it is explained by many, -- that men are saved by the righteousness of Christ imputed to them, or in some way transferred to their account in the final reckoning with the Judge of all. Much more earnestly and utterly do we reject it as others teach it, -- that God inflicted upon him, and that Jesus endured, the punishment due to all sinners for their native, original depravity, and for their actual transgressions; and that, in consideration of his vicarious punishment, those are saved who believe in and gratefully accept this propitiation. Most Unitarians, if not all, consider this dogma as most odious, an impious stigma upon the character of our heavenly Father. Of course, we most gratefully acknowledge that Christ suffered much for the redemption of sinners; that he gave his life on the ignominious and excruciating cross, that he might fix in the hearts of men those truths, those principles, that faith, that hope, that love, which alone could raise them above the trials and temptations of earth. But we believe that men are saved only so far as they themselves accept the truths and embrace the principles which Jesus so impressively inculcated, and acquire the spirit which the beloved Son of God manifested through life, and especially on the day and in the hour of his death. We believe that men are saved, and can be saved, only so far as they become themselves righteous in the sense and spirit of Christ's righteousness.
We repudiate utterly the Orthodox doctrine, that only a small portion of the human race are elected to be saved; that these favored few were predestinated unto everlasting life before the foundation of the world; and that all the rest of mankind were fore-ordained to everlasting death, which means everlasting life in unalterable and profitless suffering. We turn from such a proposition as from the blasphemy of demoniacs. We believe that the gift of life was intended by the heavenly Father to be a blessing to every one upon whom he has conferred it; that it may be a blessing to every one, in this present state, who chooses so to make it; and that, in the future state, those who have been perverted, misguided, depraved by the evil influences of this world, may be brought to a sense of their folly and wickedness by the retributive consequence -- the shame and suffering they will endure in the future life, -- and there may repent, turn to God, and be accepted by him.
We Unitarians believe that the consequences of transgressions are evil, only evil, and that continually, both in this world and in the world to come. Sin is the poison of life, and it is "the sting of death." Sin is the only thing to be dreaded in time and in eternity. It is the abundant source of all our misery. It obscures the light of the Sun of Righteousness, and covers the benignant face of the heavenly Father with a dense cloud which men call "the wrath of God," although we are assured he is unchangeable, ever the same tender, compassionate parent, “slow to anger," "ready to forgive," but too just, too holy, too pure to overlook any iniquity. Benignant as God is, no sinner can ever stand before him but in shame and confusion of face; and he must cease to be a sinner before he can be happy in his presence, that is, anywhere.
We believe that our all-wise, all-merciful Father in heaven can feel no more displeasure, no more anger at our sins, than the wisest and kindest parent ought to feel. He cannot be stimulated to vengeance, as the Orthodox would have us suppose, by any pride of place, or jealousy of his power. He will inflict no more suffering, no more punishment, upon any, than it is right we should endure, until we repent, and return to him in entire obedience of life and thought. Indeed, many Unitarians hardly dare to pray that any of the consequences of our iniquities may be averted from us, excepting upon our true repentance, because we believe that there is no more wise, no more merciful provision in the Divine Government, than that which has attached shame, suffering, punishment, to iniquity, transgression of any of God's laws, sin of every kind. It is by these consequences, by the bitter experience of some of them in this life, and the fearful looking-for of others in the life to come, that we are taught the essential, the irreconcilable, the eternal difference between right and wrong, good and evil, sin and holiness.
We Unitarians believe that there is nothing in the life or the life to come to hinder the salvation of anyone, nothing in the peculiarities of the Divine Nature or the organization of the Divine Government, nothing to prevent the acceptance of any child of Adam, excepting his own sins; and that, whenever these are repented of and forsaken, no earthly father ever received a returning prodigal more graciously than the heavenly Father will receive and bless the penitent sinner.
Of course, consistently with what I have declared to be our faith, we Unitarians do not believe as do our Orthodox brethren respecting the nature of man; or rather, I should say, we cannot believe what the creeds of the Presbyterian and other Orthodox sects set forth on this subject. We cannot believe, that, in consequence of their transgression, our first parents “became dead in sin," as the Presbyterian Confession of Faith declares, "and wholly defiled in all the faculties and parts of soul and body." Nor do we believe that "the guilt of this sin was imputed, and the same death in sin and corrupted nature was conveyed to all their posterity," whereby “we all are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil." We reject this as a horrible misrepresentation of God, and of the nature and condition of men.
But we do believe that the transgression of Adam and Eve, and the sins of all parents since their day, have transmitted to their offspring germs which, if not repressed, will develop into kindred sins. We believe that all the children of men are born capable of holiness and liable to sin; with senses, appetites, faculties, affections, passions, which adapt them to live in a world like this, to enjoy, innocently if they will, all the good and pleasant things which here abound, and to discharge all the duties and exercise all the virtues that here may be required of them: but, at the present time, these properties of their nature are avenues to temptations, which, if not resisted, will mislead and corrupt their souls.
We do not deny, but sorrowfully own, that a great proportion of the children of men, in all ages, have yielded more or less to their temptations; and, therefore, that sins and their sad consequences ever have and still do abound in the world. The lusts of the flesh, the pride of life, the love of money, the eager desire for power, envy, jealousy, revenge, have overspread the earth with crimes and miseries.
This sad state of things, we believe, is owing, in a great measure, to the incompetency, or the negligence, or the evil examples of parents, or to their mistaken views of human nature and of education. We hold that the highest office which can be conferred upon human beings is the office of parents. Upon the faithful and wise fulfillment of its duties depends the welfare of mankind, more than upon that of governors, presidents, or kings, or upon that of ministers, priests, or bishops. If all fathers and mothers were what fathers and mothers ought to be, the children of men would be also children of God; communities would be like well-ordered, happy families; the only law would be the Golden Rule; and the will of God would be done on earth as it is done in heaven.
We Unitarians believe that the ignorance, sin, and misery which abound in the world are, in another great measure, owing to the influence of false religions. Pure and undefiled religion --doing justly, loving mercy, walking humbly, keeping one's self unspotted from the world -- is so noiseless and unostentatious, as well as difficult, that men have ever been found too ready to believe, and priests and religious visionaries have encouraged them to believe, that something else might be substituted for the daily and hourly practice of all righteousness. Outward observances, imposing rites and ceremonies, costly sacrifices and oblations, the keeping of holy days, paying tithes, performing pilgrimages, building churches, contributing generously to the support of the priesthood or for the maintenance of those who will compass sea and land to make proselytes, -- these things, and such as these, have, in all ages, in every country, and under every religious system, been substituted for personal obedience to the laws of right action, fidelity to God and to man, in all things, at all times.
Notwithstanding the exceedingly plain and emphatic declarations of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Micah, and other Hebrew prophets; not withstanding the explicit, impressive preaching of Jesus Christ, his Sermon on the Mount, his inimitable parables, his prophetic description of the final judgment, and, more than all, his own perfect example, -- the people throughout Christendom have been misled by their priests and theologians into notions respecting the way to avert the displeasure and conciliate the favor of the Most High scarcely less false than those which prevail in the Mahometan and Pagan lands.
The vast majority of the people called Christian have been so perverted from the religion of the gospel, that they suppose their salvation and acceptance with God depends very much more upon their faith in the righteousness of Christ, than upon their own personal righteousness, very much more upon their assent to the creed which some church prescribes to them, than upon their obedience to the commandments which God hath given them; very much more upon their having been the subjects of a revival, and having had a remarkable experience, than upon having always humbly and prayerfully endeavored to know and to do what the Lord require; very much more upon their strict observance of the sabbath, their frequent attendance upon religious meetings, their fervency in prayer, and their zeal in defense of this or that form of sound doctrine, than upon their living truly and beautifully in all the relations of life, “denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, and living soberly, righteously, and godly in the world." [Footnote here in the original publication: The most popular and able Orthodox preacher in our country has just now so declared, in “A Familiar Lecture,” delivered to his large audience, and published in an extensively circulated journal, “The Independent,” Feb. 9, 1860. “This is our danger: not that we shall be sinful, not that we shall be imperfect, not that we shall be vain, not that we shall be foolish, not that we shall be corrupt in our imaginations, but that we shall not believe in Christ. Our salvation is not half so much imperiled by wickedness as by unbelief.]
Now we Unitarians believe that each and all of these substitutes for true religion -- the putting of Roman Catholicism or Calvinism or Episcopalianism or Presbyterianism or Baptism or Methodism in the stead of Christianity -- has been, is, and ever must be, disastrous in its influence upon the characters, the spiritual welfare, and improvement of men.
We believe that only those teachers of religion who insist that personal holiness of life and heart is the one thing needful, --only such are teachers of the school of Christ; and that never, until people generally are brought unfeignedly to believe that this personal obedience to God in all things is indeed the one thing needful, -- never will that obedience be generally sought after, and the education of children be so devised and conducted, from the beginning, as to develop the divine in them, and lead them to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness."
Never, until the health and life of each man's soul is shown and believed to depend upon his conformity of himself to his highest ideas of right, will the thought of right assume and maintain that prominence in his regard which it ought ever to have.
We believe in the cross; upon it we behold the glory of our Lord, his spirit of entire self-sacrifice. Some of us have put up, in and upon our churches, representations of the cross, as the emblem, not of that righteousness which is to be imputed to us, but of that righteousness which each one of us should endeavor to attain to; a righteousness so true, so entire, that it would prompt and strengthen us to cut off a right hand, or pluck out a right eye, -- nay, even to give up life itself, rather than violate a principle of godliness; yes, sacrifice our bodies, and all that we hold dear in life, rather than deny the faith, sully the purity, or darken the hope of our souls.
We Unitarians believe in prayer. True prayer is the breathing of the soul. Without it there is no spiritual life. It is the constant aspiration of the "inner man" to be continually renewed in knowledge and holiness, "after the image of Him that created him." But we reject much that is called prayer. Nothing is prayer but the sincere desire of the heart, “uttered or unexpressed." Exercises of domestic, social, and public prayer are doubtless very useful, when conducted in a right spirit. But the prayer-meeting or the church-assembly is not the place to which we go to satisfy ourselves whether any men are truly religious. The mere decorum of the occasion would keep most persons there "seeming to be religious." We would go rather to the places of men's business and pleasure. We would observe them in their intercourse with their fellow men and women. We would know on what principles they act in trade, in politics, in places of amusement; how they deport themselves toward their superiors and their inferiors, those they are dependent on, and those who are dependent on them. We would see them in their hours of recreation, when unwithheld, and consider how far their love of pleasure carries them. Still more must we be informed of their conduct in their domestic relations, whether they fulfill well the paramount duties there, -- the conjugal, parental, filial and fraternal.
We believe that it is not what a man may profess or pretend to be that should establish his claim to the Christian name, but what he is seen and known to be in all those relations and intercourses which try and prove "what spirit he is of."
These are some of the things that Unitarians believe. We do not, however, set them forth as a creed; we have not arranged them into a system of faith which every one must accept and assent to in order to his salvation. We dare not prescribe any form of words, which our fellow-men must subscribe to, or else be damned. Some dear children of God may believe more, some may believe less, than we do. "Let every one be fully persuaded in his own mind."
Without, therefore, dictating to others precisely any set of articles as essential to be believed, we only insist that they must believe that or those things which shall incite, guide, and strengthen them "to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts, and to live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world; looking for that blessed hope, the glorious appearing of the great God, and of our Saviour Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works."
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