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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.

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Posted by Philocrites, April 5, 1997, at 05:00 PM

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