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Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism

Three Prophets of Religious Liberalism

Channing, Emerson, Parker

Three landmark addresses in the history of American Unitarianism in one convenient volume

Editor: Conrad Wright

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Three landmark addresses in the history of American Unitarianism in one convenient volume. Edited by one of the leading UU historians. William Ellery Channing's "Unitarian Christianity," Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Divinity School Address" and Theodore Parker's "The Transient and Permanent in Christianity." Second edition.
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Introduction by Conrad Wright

Unitarian Christianity by William Ellery Channing

The Divinity School Address by Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Transient and Permanent in Christianity by Theodore Parker

Channing's Baltimore Sermon, Emerson's Divinity School Address, and Parker's South Boston Sermon have long been accepted as the three great classic utterances of American Unitarianism. Other comparable addresses have sometimes been nominated for inclusion in the canon of Unitarian scripture, but in the sifting and winnowing processes of time the acknowledged position of these three addresses has remained secure.

What do they have in common to account for their recognized standing? In the first place, they all occasioned widespread controversy. Channing's sermon of 1819 provided the liberal Christians of his day with a party platform, thereby sharpening the cleavage between them and their orthodox neighbors both theologically and ecclesiastically. The pamphlet warfare he initiated continued for half a decade, and the effects were lasting on Unitarians and Trinitarians alike. Emerson's address in 1838 similarly spoke for a new generation and stimulated reply and counterthrust by others, which continued long after Emerson himself had withdrawn from the debate. Parker's sermon in 1841 reinforced the reverberations of Emerson's address and was no less bitterly attacked and warmly defended. All three were significant for what they said but no less important for the response they elicited.

In the second place, all three of these addresses represent turning points in the history of American Unitarianism. Channing took the liberal wing of New England Congregationalism, fastened a name to it, and forced it to overcome its reluctance to recognize that it had become, willy-nilly, a separate anddistinct Christian body. Emerson cut deeply at the traditional philosophical presuppositions of the Unitarianism of his day, so that it was never thereafter possible for Unitarians to return to the position that Christianity is based on the authority of Christ as the unique channel of God's revelation to humanity. Emerson and Parker alike insisted that the religious impulse is primary and universal and that Christianity is but one of many expressions of that primary impulse, deriving its authority from its congruity with universal truths. Since that time, there has always been a universalistic as well as a Christian component in American Unitarian thought; and much of the intellectual history of the denomination has involved the interplay between these two strands.

Finally, all three of these addresses were influential far beyond the confines of the religious body which produced them. This was especially true of the Divinity School Address. It is admittedly impossible to measure precisely the effect of this discourse in shaping the religious views of many who never became Unitarians and who may never have realized that Emerson's doctrine was rooted in Unitarianism. But this address is as much a classic of American as of Unitarian literature, and its influence has been correspondingly widespread and continuous. Parker's influence, also, was felt beyond the bounds of Unitarianism, reaching many for whom none of the traditional versions of Christianity, even liberal Christianity, had any attraction.

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