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Saturday, April 5, 1997

'Words are not the only language': Henry Whitney Bellows's view of scripture.

During the half-century between the eruption of the Unitarian controversy in New England Congregationalism in 1805 and the first meeting of the National Conference of Unitarian Churches in 1865, Unitarianism developed into a small but intellectually and culturally prominent movement in American life. Centered in Boston, the Unitarians dominated Harvard for much of the nineteenth century; they were elites, members of the merchant class, the leading figures in American literature. As key personalities in the intellectual, political, and cultural establishment in the first half of the nineteenth century, the Unitarians helped shape and gave articulate expression to the chief ideas of their age. Daniel Walker Howe has described the Harvard Unitarians during this period as "archetypal modern intellectuals," men whose thought went far beyond the dogmatic interests of their own denomination to express the central concerns of their time. As moderns, the Unitarians identified themselves with the spirit of the times, and celebrated the "characteristic features" of modernism, which Howe identifies as "commitments to capitalism, theism, liberalism, and optimism" (21). But in spite of the general tendency of nineteenth-century Unitarians to align themselves with the spirit of modernism, the expression of that spirit took surprisingly different forms.

Henry Whitney Bellows (1813–1882) served the Church of All Souls in Manhattan for 43 years and was the leading Unitarian churchman of the third quarter of the nineteenth century. A sensitive critic of Theodore Parker's transcendentalism, Bellows presents one approach among several to scriptural interpretation among mid-century Unitarians. Furthermore, Bellows provides one glimpse into the particular religious concerns of the Unitarians at the height of the modern period. By nature an "inveterate middle-of-the-roader," according to Conrad Wright (The Liberal Christians 84), Bellows represents a sincere attempt within Unitarianism to preserve a lively Christian heritage while responding to the new conditions of the modern world. Bellows believed that the Bible requires a community of interpretation with an evolving but fairly stable tradition in order to function as the Word of God. He saw in human history alternating and necessarily related cultural movements away from God and back to God (The Suspense of Faith 18). Bellows believed that Unitarianism had reached the limit of Protestantism's protest on behalf of individual freedom (22), and now required a revitalized doctrine of the Church in order to supply the community of faith and action demanded by the human need for a religion (20-21). Bellows believed that, without such a revitalized doctrine of the Church, Unitarianism was doomed to acknowledge "only one true movement in humanity — the egoistic — the self-asserting and self-justifying movement — which is Protestantism broken loose from general history" (24).

This paper attempts to set Bellows's approach to the Bible in the context of nineteenth-century Unitarianism and American Protestantism generally, showing how he hoped to identify a Unitarian approach to scripture which embraced both the classic humanism of the Protestants and the classic devotionalism of the Catholics.

By the end of the Civil War, Unitarianism was embroiled in its own conflicts about the nature of Christianity and religion, the place of scripture, the role of the church in society, and the nature of religious knowledge. While attempting to bring together the various factions of Unitarianism in the formation of the National Conference of Unitarian Churches, Bellows identified four key groups in mid-century Unitarianism: The "old fashioned Unitarians" dominated Boston, a conservative and parochial faction dedicated to Channing's doctrines of self-culture and personal righteousness. Bellows found this group to be apathetic custodians of a "truncated doctrine of the Church," according to Conrad Wright (The Liberal Christians 86-87). At the other pole were the radical transcendentalists, dominated by new Divinity School graduates and much influenced by Theodore Parker. They considered Christianity "only one among a great many other religions" and chafed at any doctrinal statement by the denomination that might identify Unitarianism as exclusively Christian. Wright observes that Bellows saw this radical group as possessing almost no concept of the church, or of human organizations in any form (87). (The radicals distrusted the National Conference, and created the Free Religious Association, which was essentially a debating society of articulate but organizationally inept intellectuals. It was never a movement of congregations.) The "evangelicals," a small group of theologically conservative Unitarians, hoped to establish a creed and threatened to leave the movement if the radical wing was allowed to remain. They differed from the "old fashioned Unitarians" by their general attraction to theological orthodoxy, from which they varied only by holding a somewhat lower christology. Bellows's own "Broad Church" group, which included Christian transcendentalists like James Freeman Clark and Frederic Henry Hedge, attempted to bring the other factions together and claimed to "recognize the elements of truth in all the other sections" (Kring 309-310).

From the perspective of institutional history, Bellows and the Broad Church group prevailed with the establishment of a broadly-inclusive denominational structure that acknowledged Unitarianism's Christian origin without requiring doctrinal agreement. But their irenic disposition and their tendency to absorb contending intellectual currents has made them unlikely candidates as intellectual heroes for contemporary Unitarian Universalists. After the virtual triumph of Humanism among Unitarians by the mid-twentieth century, the radicalism of the Free Religious Association was seen to be the forerunner of contemporary Unitarian Universalism, eclipsing other intellectual, social, and institutional influences. Although the Broad Church group successfully provided the institutional and intellectual bridge which linked the Unitarianism of Channing to the philosophical and non-institutional Unitarianism of the transcendentalist radicals, most contemporary Unitarian Universalists have heard nothing about Bellows. Samuel A. Eliot said that although Bellows's churchly prescription for the weakness of Unitarianism "made the denominational sensation of his life," he observed that Bellows's "own faith in this remedy did not long survive the turmoil that his sermon made" (Heralds of a Liberal Faith Vol. 3, 26). I find this hard to assess biographically, but Bellows's remedy certainly found few takers in the rest of the Unitarian movement.

Like other American denominations, nineteenth-century Unitarianism was confronted by new developments in biblical criticism, the natural sciences, and philosophy, as well as by changes in America's social structures and political life. The Unitarians had become disciples of the emerging "higher criticism" of the Bible in Germany before other American denominations had begun to pay much attention to the German scholarship. The Unitarians did not immediately recognize the threat this new scholarship would pose to their faith, however. An edition of Griesbach's New Testament had been published in Cambridge in 1809, attracting considerable attention in the nascent Unitarian movement (Chable 91). Joseph Stevens Buckminster, the eloquent and widely-read minister of the Brattle Street Church, was "a pioneer of the higher criticism of the Bible in America" (Robinson 28), and in 1811 Buckminster was appointed Dexter Lecturer at Harvard (Chable 93). Although Buckminster died a year later, interest in German scholarship continued at Harvard and among the Unitarians. Buckminster's successor (after William Ellery Channing briefly held the lectureship) was Andrews Norton, a man who "saw clearly what Buckminster apparently did not, that although historical and critical analysis of scripture could be a liberal tool, it could also strip even liberal Christianity of its scriptural support" (Robinson 40-41). Norton took up a rear-guard posture, attempting to defend "historical Christianity" from the onslaught of "modern skepticism." Norton emphasized the empirical evidence of the miracles for the truth of the Gospels, drawing on Lockean empiricism as filtered through Scottish Common Sense philosophy. But younger Unitarians continued to travel to Germany, bringing back books and reports of the new scholarship.

Bellows graduated from Harvard in 1837, the same year that Andrews Norton published the first volume of his life's work, The Evidences of the Genuineness of the Gospels. The next year, Ralph Waldo Emerson attacked the fundamental assumptions of Norton's work in his controversial Address to the graduating class at the Divinity School. Emerson admonished the graduates "to go alone; to refuse the good models, even those which are sacred in the imagination of men" (in Wright, Three Prophets 108) and declared that "the word Miracle, as pronounced by Christian churches, gives a false impression; it is Monster" (97). When Norton denounced Emerson for this "latest form of infidelity," Theodore Parker, who had graduated the year before Bellows, jumped to Emerson's defense. Parker proved an able controversialist, for he had been "a very distinguished scholar, the brains of his class" at Harvard (Kring 8). Unlike Emerson, who had left the Unitarian ministry, Parker remained and quickly became identifiable with the radical wing of the denomination. Bellows was installed as the minister of the First Congregational Society in Manhattan just three months after Emerson's address, and was apparently deeply moved by printed versions of Emerson's speech, but he did not take sides in the ensuing controversy (24-25). Perhaps because Emerson had left the church, Emerson's radicalism does not seem to have disturbed Bellows quite as much as Parker's radicalism. Bellows ate dinner at the Emersons' home in 1852, and commented afterward that he "never saw so fine an intellect in so small a shell" as Emerson (116-117). But although Bellows also respected Parker, the two men were never friends and Bellows disapproved of Parker's ministry and ideas (8; 218).

Parker's controversial status among Unitarian ministers probably exceeded Emerson's, for the controversy about Emerson's Address was still alive when Parker outraged an ordination assembly with his "Discourse on the Transient and Permanent in Christianity." Parker's 1841 sermon followed Emerson's suggestion that historical Christianity "has dwelt with noxious exaggeration about the person of Jesus" (in Wright, Three Prophets 98). Parker argued that "almost every sect that has ever been makes Christianity rest on the personal authority of Jesus, and not [on] the immutable truth of the doctrines themselves, or the authority of God, who sent him into the world" (in Wright, Three Prophets 129). Parker drew heavily from the scholarship of David Friedrich Strauss's Das Leben Jesu (1835). William Adler notes that Parker even "borrowed" the title of his sermon from Strauss (27). Unlike Emerson, who absorbed German romanticism as filtered through the British writers Carlyle and Coleridge, Parker took his German straight and read extensively in the latest scholarship. Eugene Robert Chable writes that Parker "was particularly impressed with the Biblical criticism of such eminent German critics as Johann Gottfried Eichhorn and Wilhelm Martin Leberecht de Wette" (222).

One example reveals the extent of the early Unitarian interest in German scholarship. William Adler observes that between 1838 and 1847 only one British article reviewed Das Leben Jesu — by comparing Strauss to Parker! In the U.S., meanwhile, Parker and other Unitarians "devoted a full 123 pages for commentary [on Strauss]" in denominational journals between 1838 and 1842, in contrast to "scarcely a word in the conservative counterparts" (Adler 19). Parker introduced Strauss to an American readership. Although Parker disagreed with Strauss's Hegelianism and did not accept other of Strauss's conclusions, Parker believed that Strauss had destroyed the foundations of the older biblical criticism of Andrews Norton and his contemporaries. Adler identifies the key crisis in liberal theology, as Parker saw it:

Parker had already come to doubt the liberal monolith — that the center of religious authority rested on the Gospel stories, that Jesus' supernatural revelation could supplement and perfect truths of natural religion and that Jesus' authority was proved by his miraculous acts. Once infallibility and Jesus' divine stature had been called into question, Parker could justifiably insist that some other evaluative criterion be brought to bear, other than miracle. (27-28)

The solution, for Parker and the transcendentalists, was to promote the "permanent truths" of Christianity rather than the "transient forms" and doctrines of Christianity. The criterion for distinguishing the permanent from the transient was "to subject the Bible to the oracle God places in the breast" — a statement requiring considerable confidence in the interpretive gifts of one's bosom. The transcendentalists felt this confidence, or tried to, but Bellows grew suspicious of the adequacy of a purely personal oracle.

It is precisely at this point that Henry Whitney Bellows believed that Parker and the transcendentalists had taken a wrong turn. Although Bellows was more gifted as an organizer and leader than as a scholar, he too was widely-read and aware of trends in contemporary theology and biblical criticism. Bellows was infamous for changing his mind: Samuel A. Eliot writes that Bellows had "a too lively sensibility to the impression of the book which for the time being had its way with him. Conservative in his sentiments, he was often radical in his ideas" (31). But this "tacking on and off" from one position to another represents a fundamental feature of Bellows's view of religious history and intellectual biography. He said that "the mind, in regard to most important subjects and inward states, is forever swinging between opposite points, and it seems sometimes almost indifferent to us whether we affirm or deny a given proposition; there is so much truth in the denial, and so much truth in the affirmation" (Restatements 40).

The error of the transcendentalists was their willingness to affirm the intuitive always over the historical. Bellows understood the rhythms of human history in much the same way that he understood the rhythms of the individual mind: each era has its own "affirmations," usually accompanied by the refutation of an earlier era's affirmations — and Bellows felt that the truth must be appreciated in preceding eras as well as in the assumptions of the present era. Bellows believed that it was impossible to divorce truth from history. The transcendentalists, he felt, were neglecting the social and historical dimensions of knowledge in their enthusiasm for the individual and intuitive dimensions of knowledge.

Bellows believed in the determinative character of history. "I know and confess myself to be a child of the age," he told his congregation in his first sermon after delivering his controversial Harvard address in 1859. "Its peculiar ideas and characteristic emotions throb in my brain and tingle in my blood" (A Sequel 42). Bellows identified fully with the Nineteenth Century, with America, with Protestantism, and with Unitarianism. But he criticized each of the traditions in which he stood: "I have criticized the age, but it has been as a son, within the house, criticizes the traits of the family he loves most and himself belongs to" (43). Bellows identified the chief defect of nineteenth-century American thought, and of Protestantism, and of Unitarianism, as "a disrespect and forgetfulness of the past, a contempt for the institutions that transmit its life, an isolation in self-complacency" (44). For religion, the danger of this isolation was that

the sufficiency of the Scriptures turns out to be the self-sufficiency of man, and the right of judgment an absolute independence of Bible or Church — and the logical end is the abandonment of the Church as an independent institution, the denial of Christianity as a supernatural revelation, and the extinction of worship as a separate interest. (Suspense 10)

In part because Bellows saw that the ideas of the Nineteenth Century had evolved historically and could not be construed as permanent, he could ask, "Who can believe, or who, intimately acquainted with the inner life of this age, desires to believe, that the nineteenth century, however important in its place, is to be indefinitely continued?" (Suspense 26).

In spite of the determinative character of history, Bellows also believed that "the tendencies of an epoch do not decide its whole character. There are forces in humanity stronger than any epochal powers — the permanent wants, the indestructible instincts of our nature" (10). Bellows argued that two tendencies in human nature alternately dominate historical epochs: "the motion that sends man away from God, to learn his freedom; and the motion that draws him back to God, to receive the inspiration, nurture, and endowment, which he has become strong enough to hold" (18). Bellows typologically identified the movement away from God with Protestantism and the movement back to God with Catholicism. Furthermore, "the World represents the centrifugal, the Church, the centripetal force" (21). Bellows argued that "every radically important relationship of humanity is, and must be, embodied in an external institution; the relation of the exclusive affections in the family, the social relations in society, the political in the state, the religious in the Church" (35). The Church, in other words, is the natural and necessary form for the religious relationships of humankind. Although the forms of the Church change over time, its function and need do not. The religious impulse is one of the "indestructible instincts of our nature," and both the impulse and its satisfaction in the Church persist across the particular emphases of individual historical epochs.

This central concern with history and with the institutional requirements of all human relationships gives Bellows's view of scripture its unusual cast. "I believe that the Holy Spirit communicates with Humanity, and not with private persons," he told the Divinity School in flat contradiction of Emerson (Suspense 39). While Bellows agreed with Channing that God speaks to individuals through the conscience, "the Holy Spirit is God coming into the world through his Word, a living word, but still a word, a spoken, taught, published word, which is neither communicated to individuals, nor from individuals, but from the Church to Humanity" (39). In a sermon on "Paradox," Bellows argued against literalism in scriptural interpretation, for "words are not the only language. Actions, tones, circumstances, speak equally loud" (Restatements 37). Interpreting scripture therefore requires sensitivity not only to the literal sense of the words, but especially to the context that — like history itself — determines the import of the actions and words. "No text of the New Testament, by itself alone, can, in its literal meaning, claim to be authoritative. It is authoritative only when and because it emphatically, compactly, or luminously conveys the general and recognized spirit of our Lord's whole character and instructions" (39). By attending carefully not only to the "circumstances" of New Testament texts but also to the "generous, spiritual, and sympathetic interpretation of [Jesus'] language," Bellows stressed the vital relationship between the Bible and the lives of the people who read it (38-39). In The Suspense of Faith, Bellows made explicit the inherently historical context for scriptural interpretation:

But God's Word is God's power, God's wisdom, God's love made known in the great language of natural and supernatural events. God talks in creation, in history, in revelation. Nations are his alphabets, epochs his syllables, humanity his discourse. The Bible is God's Word, because it is the record of his dealings with nations and ages. More especially, and in the most pregnant and peculiar sense, Christ is the Word of God; not what he said, but what he was and did and suffered, and thus showed and taught; and his words and promises and precepts are only part and parcel of his life and death, his resurrection, and perpetual epiphany in the Church. (44)

History is the context in which God speaks, and the Church holds the obligation to interpret to the religious concerns of humankind the languages of scripture and history.

Bellows was certainly not alone in recognizing the importance of a historical community of interpretation. Nor were the Unitarians alone in seeking ways to accommodate modernity and Christianity. Two of Bellows's contemporaries in the Congregational denomination, Horace Bushnell (1802–1876) and Henry Ward Beecher (1813–1887), were making similar efforts. William R. Hutchison has called Bushnell "very much the evangelical counterpart of Emerson" for his immanentalist and intuitive claims about God (44). Bushnell's book Christian Nurture expressed ideas about moral development which closely matched Unitarian thinking at mid-century; his views of scripture were also keenly influenced by romantic theories of language. Henry Ward Beecher was not only the same age as Bellows; he served a prominent church in Brooklyn throughout much of Bellows's tenure at All Souls in Manhattan. Beecher provides a good example, if examples are needed, of the fact that the Unitarians were not alone in overzealously embracing their own times: Beecher's enthusiastic embrace of the nineteenth century's optimism "considerably outran [Herbert] Spencer's" when Beecher greeted the evolutionary spokesman on his American tour, according to Hutchison (99).

Bushnell, Beecher, and Bellows predated the arrival of a full modernist movement in mainstream American Protestantism, although they lived to see its beginning. But these somewhat earlier liberals were responding to a common situation in American Protestantism which others would later develop more completely into Protestant modernism. Bellows told his Unitarian audience at Harvard in 1859 that

the principles and sentiments, the rights of conscience, the rationality of method, the freedom of inquiry, the practical views of religion, which we have been contending for under the name and colors of our Unitarian theology, are under other names and colors so rapidly conquering the mind of our American Christendom, that the original and animating spirit of the denomination is taken away, by the success of the principles for which it stood. (Suspense 6-7)

He could easily have pointed to figures like Henry Ward Beecher and Horace Bushnell for examples. As Hutchison explains, the Unitarians were "pioneers of a modernist synthesis, true precursors of the liberal movement that was to broaden out through much of American Protestantism" (40).

But while Bellows recognized the value of the Unitarian identification with modern ideas, he also recognized that the Unitarians were in danger of over-identifying with the novel opinions of their own time. Unitarians needed a more sophisticated understanding of history than that offered by the transcendentalists in order to avoid the temptation of recognizing "only one true movement in humanity — the egoistic — the self-asserting and self-justifying movement — which is Protestantism broken loose from general history" (Suspense 24). But the success of American anti-historicism — our culture's deep desire to break loose from general history — illustrates something else Bellows recognized: that "it is only ideas from which men cannot get away, sentiments that are spontaneous, natural, and constant, that exert any shaping and decisive influence over them" (13). Unfortunately, one of the sentiments that continues to exert decisive influence over Americans is precisely this reaction against history. Although this tendency appears in sophisticated form in transcendentalism, the Unitarians are certainly not the only Americans who prefer their religion individualized, intuitive, and broken loose from history.

For all the controversy stirred up by Bellows's 1859 address to Harvard Divinity School, The Suspense of Faith started no movement in American Unitarianism. A churchly tradition has yet to emerge within Unitarian Universalism with any particular force. Bellows's chief legacy is as a denominational organizer and as the leader of the United States Sanitary Commission during the Civil War, not as an intellectual or theologian. But as an "inveterate middle-of-the-roader" — this temperamental conservative with radical sympathies — Henry Whitney Bellows represents a particularly vivid example of a thoughtful nineteenth-century liberal Christian's attempt to take his religion and his time seriously. His understanding of scripture, while not scholarly, was subtle, nuanced, and faithful. Due to the peculiarities of Unitarian intellectual history, however, scriptural scholarship and criticism were already disappearing during Bellows's time, and scholars never did appear in Unitarianism to give intellectual cogency to Bellows's "Broad Church" view of scripture. As Eugene Robert Chable observes, "If there is one prominent characteristic of Unitarianism after Theodore Parker and continuing on into the twentieth century, it is practically a progressive manifestation of increasing disinterest in the criticism and interpretation of the New Testament" (293). Bellows would have been disturbed to see that Protestantism could continue its swing toward "egoism," but he would also have recognized how widespread this movement in our culture has turned out to be.


Written for The Christian Bible and Its Interpretation, the Rev. Professor Peter J. Gomes, Harvard Divinity School, May 4, 1997. This essay is the intellectual property of Christopher L. Walton and must be fully and properly cited when used as a source in your own writing or you are committing plagiarism. The proper citation is:

Walton, Christopher L. "'Words Are Not the Only Language': Henry Whitney Bellows's View of Scripture." Philocrites. 4 May 1997. <>.

Works cited

Henry Whitney Bellows. "Break Between Modern Thought and Ancient Faith and Worship." Christianity and Modern Thought. Boston: American Unitarian Association, 1872.

———. Re-Statements of Christian Doctrine, in Twenty-five Sermons. New York: D. Appleton, 1860.

———. A Sequel to "The Suspense of Faith." Sermon. New York: D. Appleton, 1859.

———. The Suspense of Faith: An Address to the Alumni of the Divinity School of Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., Given July 19, 1859. New York: C. S. Francis, 1859.

Eugene Robert Chable. A Study of the Interpretation of the New Testament in New England Unitarianism. Ph.D. Dissertation. Columbia University, 1955.

James Duban. "From Emerson to Edwards: Henry Whitney Bellows and an Ideal' Metaphysics of Sovereignty." Harvard Theological Review 81: 4 (1988): 389-411.

Samuel A. Eliot. Heralds of a Liberal Faith. Vol. 3: "The Preachers." Boston: American Unitarian Association, 1910.

Daniel Walker Howe. The Unitarian Conscience: Harvard Moral Philosophy, 1805-1861. Rev. ed. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1988.

William R. Hutchison. The Modernist Impulse in American Protestantism. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976.

Walter Donald Kring. Henry Whitney Bellows. A History of the Unitarian Church of All Souls, Vol. 2. Boston: Skinner House, 1979.

Mason Olds. "Varieties of Nineteenth-Century Unitarianism." Religious Humanism 16: 4 (1982: Autumn): 150-160.

David Robinson. The Unitarians and the Universalists. Denominations in America, Vol. 1. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985.

Thomas L. Robinson. "Henry Whitney Bellows 1814 -1822 [sic]." Unitarian Christian 24: 3 (1968: Fall): 6-13.

H. Shelton Smith, Robert T. Handy and Lefferts A. Loetscher. American Christianity: An Historical Interpretation with Representative Documents. Vol. 2: 1820-1960. New York: Charles Scribner's, 1963.

Prescott Browning Wintersteen. Christology in American Unitarianism: An Anthology of Outstanding Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Unitarian Theologians, with Commentary and Historical Backgrounds. Boston: Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship, 1977.

Conrad Wright. "Henry W. Bellows and the Organization of the National Conference." The Liberal Christians: Essays on American Unitarian History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1970: 81-109.

———, ed. Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism: Channing, Emerson, Parker. Second ed. Boston: Skinner House, Unitarian Universalist Association, 1986.

Copyright © 1997 by Philocrites | Posted 5 April 1997 at 5:00 PM

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