The Unitarian Connection


(In Harriet Martineau: Theoretical and Methodological Perspectives, Eds. Michael R. Hill and Susan Hoecker-Drysdale (New York/London: Routledge, 2001) pp. 23-40. The latter was named by the American Sociological Association as the best textbook on sociological theory published during 2001.

Key concepts:

Arianism Anti-Trinitarianism Anabaptism Michael Servetus Sebastian Castellio Arminianism Socinianism Unitarianism necessarianism transcendentalism Congregationalism Romanticism Margaret Fuller Theodore Parker William Ellery Channing Ethical Culture Movement Humanism John Dewey

Thorough knowledge of a subject's subcultural milieu is a crucial launching pad for the sociologist—no less than for the biographer—in any attempt to understand what made that person what she was and enabled her to do what she did. More than most, we are aware of the impact of socialization. It would therefore seem that one of the most important things sociologists need to know about Harriet Martineau is the fact that her family were leading lights in a community of Unitarians in one of the manufacturing centres in northern England. Both the location and the religious affiliation have a significance that may not be immediately apparent to the majority of today's Martineau admirers. It is a significance worth exploring in some detail.

A Dissenting Tradition

Unitarians were the most notorious of the Dissenters—as the non-Anglican Protestants had come to be known in eighteenth-century England. In spite of its relatively small size, this particular Dissenting denomination had a unique history and was to play a similarly unique role in both England and America throughout the entire nineteenth century. Although the original philosophical or theological roots of Unitarianism can be traced to the fourth-century heretic, Arius (the founder of Arianism), the movement was revitalized in the fifteenth century by Lorenzo Valla, an Italian Renaissance man who was the secretary to Pope Nicholas V. Valla's famous Annotations on the New Testament employed historical criticism to challenge the authenticity of both the "Donation of Constantine" (a document justifying papal supremacy in Western Europe) and the Nicene Trinitarian creed which had been issued by the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD in order to demolish the claims of Arianism. Somewhat later, Erasmus—influenced by Valla—further nourished the roots of the new anti-Trinitarian perspective with his discovery that the verse in the Vulgate version of the New Testament justifying the Trinity was nowhere to be found in the original Greek.

This was revolutionary in the extreme, and few there were in the Europe of that day who dared consider it. Christianity, by its very nature, was an intolerant world view, based on the belief in only one revelation, one Saviour, and a single path to salvation. In fact, Luther launched the Reformation in 1517 with the publication of his 95 Theses which did little more than criticise the reigning priestly orthodoxy, particularly their selling of indulgences. Heavily influenced by the German mystics and fundamentally opposed to the humanism of the times, Luther soon proceeded to move much further, however. He insisted on the arbitrariness of God's Will in the bestowal of the grace of salvation upon impotent, sinful humankind; and on the ineffectiveness of good works and sacraments. By 1537, when Calvin assumed leadership of the new Protestantism, Luther's reforms had become an established Christian orthodoxy, and its doctrines were being imposed with a passion and intolerance surpassing even that of the priests of Rome.

The Wellsprings of Unitarianism

In the interim, Lutheranism had remained more or less confined to Germany and the Scandinavian countries—except for the Anabaptists, (a term employed to lump together the more extreme currents within of the new movement). These dissenting groups were soon drifting far afield to escape persecution by Luther for their insistence on equality for the downtrodden within the new religion, and on that freedom of individual choice in forms of worship which they thought had been promised by the reforms. From such radical roots there eventually sprang a host of independent Christian movements such as the Mennonites, Baptists—and Unitarians. During this same period, Calvinism was evolving into the Huguenots of France, the Puritans of England, the Presbyterians of Scotland, and the Reformed Church of Holland.

Although Erasmus had died in 1536, his ideas lived on to inspire Sebastian Castellio of Basel (1516-1563), to write Concerning Heretics. Published in 1554, the book was a defence of skeptics such as Michael Servetus (1511-1553). Servetus, the author of On the Errors of the Trinity, had escaped the terrors of the Spanish Inquisition only to be captured and burned at the stake by Calvin. Castellio's courageous book on this and similar events stands almost alone as a call for tolerance during the latter part of the sixteenth century. No doubt this publication was at least partly responsible for the fact that the fire which reduced the body of Servetus to ashes failed to destroy the spirit of skeptical inquiry in that dangerous era. It may well have helped to spread throughout Europe the sparks igniting a radically new movement for religious reform: one far removed from both Luther's original mystical Protestantism and the subsequent, more rigid dogmas of John Calvin.

One of Castellio's disciples was a scholar at the University of Leyden in Holland called Jacobus Arminius. He attempted to forge a less "hard-line" form of non-Catholic Christianity than that of either Luther or Calvin. His was a version which left room for some degree of human free will and the possibility that salvation was open to everyone, not only to those whose souls had undergone a sudden and tumultuous union with the Holy Spirit. Each man participates in Divinity, Arminius said, and does not require immutable doctrines and creeds interpreted by previously designated authorities. In the early seventeenth century his teachings— known as Arminianism—came to influence the more reform-minded among those Puritans who escaped the tyranny of Charles 1 by emigrating. Many had spent time in Holland before setting sail for the Colonies where they established settlements in Salem, Massachusetts and on Old Providence island. There, on the shores of what came to be known as New England, we will leave that particular thread of our story for the moment.


According to Martineau, Comte once claimed that "the eventual demise of Christianity was decided by three reformers of the Reformation era—Luther overthrew the discipline, Calvin the hierarchy, and Socinus the dogma" (Martineau, 1877, 1983b:356). To learn about the latter, we return momentarily to the mid-sixteenth century and the height of the Reformation to join, in our imagination, yet another group of reformers. These were Italian Humanists who, in seeking freedom from the excesses of the new Protestants as well as the persecution of the Catholics, carried the anti- Trinitarian ideas of Servetus to Switzerland and finally to Poland. Here, in an intellectual soil made fertile some five decades earlier by Copernicus' deathbed publication of On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, this scientifically oriented religious reform movement evolved further. Eventually, under the leadership of Faustus Socinus (1539-1604), it became known as Socinianism.

The new religion, based on reason and respect for evidence, spread rapidly into bordering countries as well. By 1618, in Poland alone, more than 300 Socinian congregations are thought to have existed (Mendelsohn:1985). However, a fierce Jesuit-led struggle was mounted against them early in the century, with orders to root out the Socinian "heresy" once and for all. A vigorous policy of persecution and systematic extermination was pursued, with Socinus himself falling victim to brutal attacks. He was killed on the streets of Krakow in 1604, and in the space of a few ensuing decades, virtually all the Socinian church records in Poland were destroyed.

A small contingent of members managed to escape into Transylvania where they joined the fragments of a declining denomination there who shared many aspects of the liberal approach of Socinianism. These people, known as Unitarians, possessed a remarkable recent history. Their religious reform movement was one of the surviving remnants of those radical and spiritualistic sects grouped under the general label of Anabaptism. Their forebears had made their way into the Transylvanian mountain area of what is now Romania in the years of persecution by Luther following the Peasants' Revolt of 1525 in Germany. A man named Francis David (1510-1579), the most outstanding religious leader of the country, had been the chief inspiration of the Transylvanian Unitarians. At the height of his influence in 1568 he had persuaded the only Unitarian king in history, John Sigismund of Transylvania, to issue the Western world's first edict of religious freedom and toleration. Unfortunately, this example of pre- Enlightenment tolerance lasted only until the death of King John three years later. In 1579 John's successor ordered David thrown into prison, where he died of exposure, hunger and disease. His followers were tortured, imprisoned and executed. Nonetheless, a few scattered congregations had managed to survive to welcome the Socinians from Poland when they fled to Transylvania some four decades later; and eventually, with the newcomers' help, to carry the flickering candle of Unitarianism into the future.

Unitarianism in England

Unitarianism, as a belief system, was subsequently pioneered in England in the early eighteenth century by leading deists such as Isaac Newton and John Locke. However, the form in which it eventually developed there owed more to the Socinianism of Poland than to the Transylvanian version whose name it adopted. Whereas the Transylvanian Unitarianism reflected many of the more spiritualistic and mystical aspects of Anabaptism, that which evolved in England out of the Socinian experience was, from the beginning, marked by a focus on reason and empiricism.

It was not until 1774, however, that the first Unitarian church in the country was founded by Theophilus Lindsey, a former minister of the Church of England. Among the large congregation in attendance at the first meeting in a London auction room were Benjamin Franklin and Joseph Priestley. Fortunately for the new movement, Priestley (1733-1804) almost immediately joined Lindsey as the co-founder of English Unitarianism. An innovative minister, scientist and philosopher, he had long been influenced by the ideas of the Scottish Moral philosophers, Thomas Reid and David Hartley. Priestley accommodated their theory of common-sense reasoning to the earlier Enlightenment concepts of necessary cause and argument from design.1 The result of all this was a philosophical perspective, known as "necessarianism", which placed great value on the search for cause and effect in organic as well as inorganic nature, while holding to a belief in individual agency, a commonly experienced external world and an ultimately designing God. Although the latter belief may strike the modern observer as being in conflict with the findings of science, in the era preceding Darwin's breakthrough it accorded quite satisfactorily with available knowledge. Within this framework, inductive reason or empiricism was thought to be a necessary tool not only in the natural sciences but for the testing of religious beliefs as well (Hutcheon 1998: 24) .

Because of the influence of Joseph Priestley, "necessarianism" became one of the defining currents within the world view of early nineteenth-century Unitarianism. This was especially the case in Birmingham where, in 1780, Priestley succeeded in establishing a close-knit, politically and theologically radical, and financially and politically powerful, congregation. Birmingham was an obvious choice for there was a ready nucleus of rationalists in that city who happened to be well-known industrialists and scientists. Although some of these remained with those other radical Dissenters, the Quakers, many became supporters of the new Unitarian chapel.

The Birmingham Lunar Society—of which Erasmus Darwin (the grandfather of Charles) was a prominent member—had already been playing a leading role in the intellectual community of the area (Davidoff and Hall:235). For well over a decade they had been attempting to insert an emphasis on science into the school curriculum, and had even been encouraging fathers to educate their daughters—albeit only in their homes. It may well be that the Unitarian influence played a role in the decision made subsequently by Erasmus Darwin to publish his 1797 treatise, A Plan for the Conduct of Female Education in Boarding Schools. This, in its turn, no doubt helped to create a milieu within the Unitarian community which made it possible for the parents of Harriet Martineau to consider the education of girls in a more favourable light than was then the norm in England.

Unitarianism in North America

We cannot leave Priestley's story, however, without tracing the course of his influence, and that of Unitarianism, into North America. His Birmingham ministry had ended precipitously on Bastille Day in 1791 when he and his family, all set to celebrate the revolution, were attacked by a mob and their home destroyed by fire. It was not only Priestley's political allegiances that had infuriated the populace; his scientific approach to religion was inflammatory as well.2 This is how it happened that a leading British scientist—the discoverer of oxygen and a prestigious member of the Royal Society—was virtually run out of his country. He fled with his family first to London where he found himself an outcast, shunned even by fellow members of the Royal Society. His sons, forced to emigrate to the United States to find work, settled in Northumberland, Pennsylvania. Priestley's friend, Thomas Jefferson, invited him to Philadelphia, then the intellectual centre of the country and the capital of the nation. Soon after Priestley arrived in 1794, Jefferson introduced him to President George Washington as well as to John Adams and Benjamin Rush.3 By 1796, Priestley had succeeded in establishing the First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia and in gaining a number of the leaders of the community as supporters.

This event did not mark the actual beginning of Priestley's influence in America, however, for his radical religious perspective had previously been popularized in New England by an itinerant preacher called William Hazlett (Wright 1972:213). As a result of Hazlett's activities, a congregation based on Priestley's ideas was established in Maine in 1792. This, in turn, had been followed in 1794 by the first church in North America actually called Unitarian—in Northumberland, Pennsylvania (Scott:40). In fact, the Priestleys soon moved from Philadelphia to join their sons in Northumberland, where Joseph almost immediately became minister of the Unitarian church now called The Priestley Memorial. It was here that Harriet Martineau was to visit during her trip to America some four decades later.4

Subcultural Sources of Socialization

This historical background is required to understand that the middle-class Unitarian subculture into which Harriet Martineau was born in 1802 was a particularly defining and determining one. Like most of the Unitarians of the time, Harriet's father had become attracted to the denomination because of his family history. He was of Huguenot descent, his ancestors having emigrated to England from France following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1686.5 Harriet's mother was descended from a Dissenting vicar who had been ejected from his living after the passing of the second Act of Uniformity in England in 1662, which excluded all non-Anglican Protestants or "Nonconformers" from public office. This situation held until the passage of the Toleration Act of 1689 giving the right to vote and freedom of worship to all but Roman Catholics and Unitarians (Burns: 547). From 1695 on, however, there was no serious attempt to silence the Unitarians although, even in Harriet Martineau's time, the denomination had to depend on Anglican theological schools to train their ministers. The Catholics, on the other hand, were still being considered "seditious" by the British government until after 1829.

It is not surprising that the Martineau parents came together as members of these most heretical of all the Protestant Dissenters: the Unitarians. And there is little doubt that the experience of being raised within the Unitarian community founded by a scientific rationalist and radical political thinker contributed in large measure to the fact that Harriet grew up to "... rattle the bars of her gender-defined cage and rage against its strictures" (Hutcheon 1996:72).

There were, of course, other sources of socialization in the Martineau family setting. Harriet's birth order as the sixth of eight children was important, as well as the fact that the failure of her father's manufacturing business in the depression of the 1820s was followed by his death—leaving the widow and her three youngest offspring in straitened circumstances. (A number of years later this led to the perception, shared by the entire family, that Harriet would assume responsibility for the mother and dependent siblings.) Other early socializing influences were the obstacles to normal childhood social interaction caused by Harriet's developing deafness from the age of eleven and her congenital lack of the senses of taste and smell. Ironically, however, it was those very handicaps, plus two major decisive factors in her immediate sub-cultural environment, that ultimately provided her with an advantage not generally available to females. These were (1) a childhood home where the entrepreneurial spirit was a fact of life, along with an early experience of suddenly straitened circumstances, if not real poverty; and (2) the Unitarian connection.

It has been said that the Unitarians (along with other Dissenting factions of the time) made the best capitalists in these early stages of Britain's industrial revolution (Stromberg: 464). The fact that entrepreneurial capitalism, in its beginnings, was a radical response to economic challenges—and that it was looked down upon by the aristocratic establishment—is seldom appreciated today. In later life Harriet recognized that the intimate knowledge about manufacturing and commerce provided by her family environment, along with the early propulsion into a situation of severe financial hardship, had given her an experience of "the real world" rare in the life of an intellectual, most of whom were of the established gentry. She was grateful, she once said, for this "loss of gentility" which, in fact, allowed for some loosening of the bars of the gender-cage.

It is possible, however, that she was not as aware of the advantages of the Unitarian connection which, for many years, opened intellectual windows and political and social doors. How could it have been otherwise? No more than a fish is aware of the distinctive features of the water in which it swims could Harriet have fully appreciated the advantages of the rich sub-cultural milieu that had been hers from birth. Indeed, the unique intellectual culture resulting from the theological "openness" of Unitarianism was to provide a fruitful seedbed for radical thought during the entire century, and Harriet (knowingly or otherwise) benefited greatly from this. The fact that the denomination could claim a preponderance of members who belonged to the intellectual elite both in England and the United States was in itself remarkable and was to have significant consequences for Harriet's career.

Another defining feature of membership in a Dissenting denomination was the experience of being an outsider. In the popular culture and the general society of the time, the religion of Harriet's family was viewed at best with considerable suspicion and puzzlement, and at worst with loathing and resentment because of its denial of the divinity of Jesus and many other central doctrines of Christianity. All this was bound to have had far-reaching consequences for a young person maturing within sight and sound of the challenging teachings and the many admirable role models of Unitarianism.

What this particular girl-child gained from the physical and cultural contingencies of her growing-up was a marginality that provided her with an abiding curiosity about how people operate, along with the observer status and detached, objective stance that were to serve her all her life.6 She was necessarily different, both physically and culturally, so she felt less fettered by the cage of sex-and work-role expectations than did her fellow females. The marginal attitude of the social critic is often furthered, as well, by the experience of unjust treatment. In spite of the liberalism of her parents, as a child Martineau had been the recipient of injustice and occasional harsh treatment from her family. She had been cut off from much of the normal family interaction by her advancing deafness, and sometimes been made to feel unwanted and very much alone. As a female, she was expected to fill her days with needlework and other housekeeping pursuits and to accept without question her exclusion from formal schooling until the age of eleven. However, she did receive tutoring at home some in the form of instruction from her older siblings.

In fact, precisely because of the family's Unitarian connections, Harriet was presented with an opportunity that few girls of her generation were to experience. By a fortuitous combination of circumstances she was, for a couple of periods, provided with formal schooling. In 1813 she and her sister attended a school run by a minister, Isaac Perry, who had converted to Unitarianism and thereby lost most of his male pupils. Then, at the age of sixteen, she spent fifteen months at the Bristol School for Girls, operated by her aunt and uncle. Of her Aunt Kentish, she later wrote, "I was to find, for the first time, a human being of whom I was not afraid" (Martineau, 1877,1983: 90).

Nonetheless, even for a female in a Unitarian family, and for one as motivated as Harriet, obtaining an advanced education had its difficulties in those days. "When I was young", she once wrote, "it was not thought proper for young ladies to study very conspicuously ... thus my first studies in philosophy were carried on with care and reserve" (Ibid.:100-101). An important focus of these studies was the life and work of Joseph Priestley, which led to her discovery of his "doctrine of necessity". This, in turn, brought the prescient sociological insight that "All human action proceeds on the supposition that the workings of the universe are governed by laws that cannot be broken by human will... the constitution and action of the human faculty of will are determined by influences beyond the control of the possessor of that faculty" (Ibid.: 110). "How awful and how irremediable," she concluded much later, "are the evils which arise from that monstrous old superstition – the supposition of a self-determining power, independent of laws, in the human will... "(Ibid.: 111).

With such a background it is no wonder that, throughout her life, Harriet Martineau fought for equality of opportunity for women. That the struggle began early is evidenced by her first two publications which, like so much in her early life, resulted from her religious connection. The first ("Female Writers of Practical Divinity") appeared in 1822 in the Unitarian Monthly Repository (Ibid.:117-18). The second, published the following year in the same journal, was titled "Female Education". It was on the subject of lack of educational opportunity for females. In it she noted that

"The boy goes on to continuously increase his stock of information ... while the girl is probably confined to low pursuits ... and thus before she is sensible of her powers, they are checked in their growth, chained down to mean objects, to rise no more; and when the natural consequences of this mode of treatment arise, all mankind agrees that the abilities of women are far inferior to those of men" (Martineau 1839,1983:ix).

Career Advantages of the Unitarian Subculture

However, gender bias was clearly not an issue for the Unitarian periodical which continued to accept Martineau's contributions on a regular basis, providing her with the writing practice and self-confidence that every would-be writer will recognize as invaluable. For this was no ordinary denominational newsletter. A number of its editors and contributors went on to join the nation's literary elite. Their standards were high, and Harriet was quick to benefit from suggestions and advice regarding her frequent submissions of poems, stories and essays. This supportive "leg up" into journalism no doubt had much to do with the subsequent clarity of style and keen ability to organize and integrate ideas that marked Martineau's professional writing for the rest of her life.

Almost as important as the early start in writing for publication was the network of powerful intellectual contemporaries provided by the Unitarian connection. Although Charles Darwin was seven years her junior, she came to know him well through her close friendship with his older brother Erasmus. She mentioned her respect for Charles' "...simple, childlike, painstaking... qualities as a scientist and human being" (ibid:355); and he is said to have admired her mental capacities (Webb, 1960:175). Through the Darwins, Martineau met another Unitarian, Charles Lyell, the famous geographer. It is likely that the exposure to these powerful scientific minds had a great deal to do with her own evolutionary and naturalistic approach to social theory. She also became familiar with a conflicting philosophical perspective when Ralph Waldo Emerson (the young transcendentalist Unitarian minister) travelled to Britain in 1832. She was able to meet him and to spend time with him and with Thomas Carlyle, and to sharpen her own views against theirs. When she left soon after this for her two-year trip to the United States, Martineau was able to rely on a host of Unitarians, in and around Boston and elsewhere, to help arrange the travel plans and speaking engagements that made it possible for her to study firsthand the problems then facing the young country.

The Arminian Current in American Unitarianism

A second version of Unitarianism was now emerging in New England—this time from within the Congregationalists, as the Puritans had come to call themselves in a symbolic statement of their decentralized organization and locally based authority. Their more liberal "Arminian" wing was threatening to split from the original Puritan main body in order to join the Unitarian movement that had been flourishing since its initial establishment in Maine. Here we encounter once more the Arminianism referred to earlier. By this time it already had a lengthy history in the American colonies, but always as a minor, liberal current within Congregationalism.

Continuing in the tradition of its Dutch founder, American Arminianism, like Socinianism, was strongly anti-Trinitarian. The chief difference between the two streams of thought was that the former tended to emphasize scientific empiricism as the major source of knowledge while the latter relied on a supernaturally based rationalism. Arminianism was based on the argument from design which, unlike that of an interfering God, could be accommodated to the discoveries of Isaac Newton in physics and to the work of John Locke in psychology. The nineteenth century Arminians appreciated Locke, as well, for having been the first to make the critical distinction between the Gospels and the Epistles in the New Testament which, they felt, reinforced their ant- Trinitarian position. In the previous century their movement had also found support in the biblical criticism of German theologians such as J. G. von Herder. Its American proponents also welcomed Gotthold Lessing's concept of ongoing revelation and made it a central feature of their theology.

The Unitarian Controversy

By 1805 the new philosophy had become so popular within the American intellectual elite that the Harvard School of Divinity elected an Arminian president, in the person of Reverend Henry Ware. The times were ripe for an open joining of forces between these liberal Congregationalists and the Unitarians with whom they seemed to have so much in common. In 1812 the process was set in motion when the New England Unitarians gained their most influential leader in the person of William Ellery Channing (1780-1842). Channing, an Arminian in philosophy and Congregationalist minister of the Federal Street Church in Boston since 1803, had become aware of a growing controversy within his denomination regarding the preaching of Unitarian ideas in their pulpits. Channing happened to agree with these ideas himself. He criticized Congregationalism for its lack of openness to what he viewed as the "intrinsic moral sense" in human nature (Mendelsohn, 1885: 61). His famous Baltimore Sermon of 1819 drew a clear line between Unitarianism and Calvinism and opened the way for a vote within every congregation on whether or not they would join the Unitarians. One hundred and twenty-five crossed over—including all but one of the churches in Boston (Scott, 1964:111). In May, 1825, the American Unitarian Association was formed with the mandate to promote Unitarianism and provide fellowship for the local churches throughout America. An immediate result was the recognition of Harvard as a Unitarian institution (Wright 1972:280). Indeed, according to Harriet Beecher Stowe, by that time,

"All the literary men of Massachusetts were Unitarian. All the trustees and professors of Harvard College were Unitarian. All the elite of wealth and fashion crowded Unitarian churches. The judges on the bench were Unitarian, giving decisions by which the peculiar features of church organization, so carefully ordained by the Pilgrim fathers, had been nullified" (Wright, 1975: 29).

Given such origins, it is not surprising that the Boston-dominated wing of the denomination encountered by Martineau on her visit had tended, from the start, to be somewhat more spiritualistic and conservative—where theology was concerned—than was the earlier, more naturalistically oriented branch of Unitarianism pioneered by Priestley and his followers. The latter was the version that spread to the American Midwest and the Western United States and to Western Canada: the version out of which humanist Unitarianism was to develop from the mid-1880s on. The churches and fellowships in Eastern Canada, on the other hand, having originated in a direct connection with the Unitarians of Ireland, tended to remain within a somewhat liberal- Christian tradition (Hewett, 1978: 34).

The Tide of Transcendentalism

The New England Unitarians, with their Arminian origins, proved to be more in tune with yet a third current of thought: the transcendentalism that was surging to popularity in Martineau's time. This was somewhat surprising, given that the rationalist arm of Arminianism had accepted, at least in part, the empiricism of John Locke. By the time Martineau arrived among the Unitarians of Boston, she discovered that transcendentalism—with its belief in the primacy of a private and unknowable intuition—was rapidly displacing New England's former Arminian tradition of rationalism coupled with faith in continuing revelation. She was probably not surprised, however, having previously met and conversed with Ralph Waldo Emerson, a former leading Unitarian minister and the major proponent of that view in the United States. The new philosophy had been introduced to the denomination by Emerson, who had studied Kant and the European Romantic Idealists and taken from them a mystical perspective on religion. He maintained that all the greatest truths are given as facts of consciousness, and are not to be derived from evidence or reason.

One of the Unitarians introduced to Martineau during her visit was the well-known transcendentalist, Margaret Fuller. The two women had little in common. Martineau, with her philosophy of scientific naturalism, abhorred Romanticism in all its poses, and was particularly distrustful of the Germanic influence in philosophy that seemed to have captured the American psyche. Her attitude toward Romanticism is demonstrated by the following story. An American Unitarian woman (no doubt of transcendentalist persuasion) probed Martineau's feelings at viewing Niagara Falls for the first time. "Did you not long to throw your self down and mingle with Mother earth?" she rhapsodized. "No" was the terse response (Sanders, 1986:133).

At about this time Harriet was writing of those Unitarians fascinated with transcendentalism and various forms of pantheism, "All these claim to be philosophers, and scientific ... while .. wandering wide of the central point of knowledge ... each in his own balloon, wafting in complacency by whatever current he may be caught by, and all crossing each other ... hopeless of finding a common centre" (Martineau 1877,1983b: 331). In her Society in America, she accused such people of weaving a rainbow arch of transcendentalism which, although intended as a means of comprehending the "whole", was all too "sadly liable to be puffed away in dark vapour with the first breeze of reality; scholars are thus labouring at a system of mental philosophy on any but the experimental method" (Martineau, 1962: 319). Concerning Margaret Fuller specifically, she commented, "While she was living and moving in an ideal world ... discoursing in public about the most fanciful and shallow conceits which the transcendentalists of Boston took for philosophy, she looked down on persons who acted" (Martineau, 1877,1983b:71). Martineau was more tolerant concerning the foibles of Emerson himself—possibly because the two had, from the start, developed a strong personal liking for each other. He was later to write to her, "Joy that you exist. Honour to your spirit, which is so true and brave" (Wheatley, 1957:157).

Martineau's Influence

We should not forget that the religious connection worked both ways. Martineau had a lasting impact on American Unitarianism through her published articles and books (especially Demarara, which dealt with slavery). Also significant was the opportunity for her ideas to be disseminated among the young student ministers studying at Harvard at the time of her American visit: one of whom was the subsequently influential social activist, Theodore Parker (1810-60). Although Parker's world view was shaped largely by the influence of Emerson, we can never know how much he was also affected by Martineau's ideas. He was later to claim that "... what was associated with Christianity was merely transient;...what was eternal was the moral element in religion" (Commager, 1947: 75). And as for miracles, "...Parker had only pity for those who sought in the aberration of nature some divine revelation; nature itself was the supreme miracle" (Ibid: 83).

Probably equally important for the history of American Unitarianism was the fact that Martineau chose to take a courageous stand with those who were trying to put forward the Abolitionist cause against slavery. Here she was forced to depart from many of her hosts. William Ellery Channing, with whom she was staying in Boston, was one of only six Unitarian ministers in the entire country who had spoken out against slavery. At the time of her visit, most concerned American Unitarians were still committed to the Liberian colonization scheme; and the issue of slavery had never once been raised in Congress.

Martineau expressed her disappointment with the lack of liberal religious thought in America. She had expected to find, in a society formally devoted to freedom of belief, much speculation about the possibility of a religion founded on nature's laws—at least within the Unitarian fold. Instead, she had found "laws framed against speculative atheists, and general approbation directed against those who would embrace natural religion" (Martineau, 1962: 333).

In later years, Martineau decided that her scientific world view of evolutionary naturalism had moved her far beyond the toleration limits of her former denomination. Clearly she was defining that religion in terms of the perspective of her younger brother James, by then a prestigious Unitarian minister. In 1851 he had published a hurtful review of a book written by Harriet in collaboration with Henry Atkinson, in which he blamed Atkinson's influence for her loss of faith. This must have been a crushing indication to her of how far apart they had drifted philosophically (Wheatley, 1957: 310). It is one of those ironic contingencies of life that the Reverend James Martineau happened to represent the extreme opposite perspective to the scientific one introduced by Priestley in the continuum of views within Unitarianism at the time. James held to a vaguely Christian theistic position with strongly mystical leanings. He thought no particular doctrine such as that of the trinity (or, conversely, of the unity of God) should be required of the church's followers (Wilbur, 1953: 383-4). He even objected to the name of Unitarianism, because of its implication of specificity in belief. James taught that God was "... not One Person, he is not One at all..." (Parke, 1957: 73), but is, rather, Infinite Mind. Of Priestley's ideas he said,

"However fascinating the precision and simplicity of the Necessarian theory in its advance through the fields of physics and biological law, it meets with vehement resistance when it attempts to annex human nature and to put it under the same code with the tide and trees and reptiles" (Ibid: 74).

One can readily understand how Martineau would have concluded that a religious movement whose British wing was moving rapidly back into a liberal Christianity with mystical anti-science stance, and whose American wing was dominated by a mystical transcendentalism, was no longer a congenial spiritual home for her.

One of Martineau's expressed objectives in writing her autobiography was to explain her "progression from Unitarianism to secular enlightenment" ((Martineau, 1877,1983: x). On looking back at her years as a Unitarian she wrote, "The marvel remains how they now, and I then, could possibly wonder at the stationary or declining fortunes of the sect—so evidently as Unitarianism is a mere clinging, from association and habit, to the old privilege of faith in a divine revelation, under an actual forfeiture of its essential conditions" (Ibid.: 40). Near the end of her autobiography she disclaimed her earlier Unitarianism in toto. "By no twisting or darkening of language, " she declared, "can I be made out to have anything whatever in common with them in religious matters" (Ibid.: 458).

Humanist Unitarianism

It is doubly ironic that, at this very time (although probably unknown to Martineau), a vastly different current of thought was arising within the Unitarian movement in the Midwest and Western regions of North America. Transcendentalism had begun to face a new challenge from within the denomination. By 1866, when Emerson became the first president of the Free Religious Association (which, in many ways, represented the leading edge of Unitarian thought) the movement already had a solid core of ministers who were as scientific and naturalistic in philosophy as was Martineau—and as concerned as she had been about the anti-empiricism inherent in transcendentalism. These Unitarian humanists, along with Felix Adler (the founder of the American Ethical Culture Societies), disagreed not only with Emerson's ideas but with the still-prevailing liberal Christian viewpoint as well.

Martineau did not live to witness it, but this group eventually grew in size and came to wield considerable weight within the Association and the denomination at large. Humanist Unitarianism expanded rapidly just before the turn of the century—mainly in the West (Wright, 1975: 110-14). By then ministers with that perspective were turning for support to the nearest American Ethical Culture Society (a religious movement based similarly on reason and science) as well as to the Western Conference of the American Unitarian Association, which they had come to dominate. Another source of humanism came from within the Icelandic immigrant communities in the Mid-western states and Canadian provinces. These people had been accustomed to a far more liberal form of Lutheranism than they encountered on arriving in North America, and many became attracted to Unitarianism as a result. In 1891 the humanistically oriented First Icelandic Unitarian Church was established in Winnipeg. In 1902 the Western Icelandic Unitarian Association was formed, uniting congregations throughout North Dakota, Minnesota and Manitoba (Hewett, 1978: 130-3). The liberalizing trend that had been initiated by the Priestley empirical tradition, influenced in the direction of humanism by interaction with the Ethical Culture Societies and furthered by the Icelanders, continued into the middle decades of the twentieth century. At that time fully one-fifth of all American congregations, and practically all Western Canadian ones, were acknowledged as humanist. By then, however, Harriet Martineau had been long forgotten, and an updated philosophical basis for humanism had emerged in America.

During the early decades of the twentieth century, it was the ideas of that great American philosopher of naturalism, John Dewey (1859-1953), that lived in the religious programs of Unitarian church schools. Dewey's Pragmatism was, in large part, an extension of Martineau's (and Comte's) pioneering work in the philosophy of social science. In fact, it could be argued that Pragmatism merely clarifies the way in which the older Positivism can be applied to the social realm in a non-reductionist fashion. Dewey explained that all the materials and events capable of being experienced by the senses are equally real or "existential"; but that "each is entitled to its own characteristic categories, according to the questions it raises and the operations necessary to answer them" (Dewey, 1929: 216). The distinction between the physical and social sciences , he said, "is one of methods of operation, not kinds of reality" (Ibid., 217).

Dewey's comments on religion echo Martineau as well. His book, A Common Faith, stresses the difference between those experiences most people throughout history have called religious and those cultural institutions known as religions. A religious experience, he said, implies an attitude which can be applied to all facets of living. Religions, on the other hand, are specific, organized responses to life which are grounded in world views focusing on spirits, dogma and ritual. Dewey argued for faith in ideals built by humans and tested by the consequences of living by them throughout our history—and for recognizing them as such. He hoped that this would eventually replace traditional faiths in humanly created supernatural explanations and justifications of ideals. He considered ideals to be real aspects of the culture, both because they exert powerful influences upon us, and because they have their roots in the entire historical experience of humankind (Dewey, 1934: 85-7).

In describing what was happening within American Unitarianism at the time, a historian later told how "...humanism swept through the denomination, becoming the most vital theological movement since Transcendentalism. Advocating science against supernaturalism, democracy against tyranny, reason against superstition, experience against revelation, humanists plowed new ground among Unitarians, eventually achieving parity with the liberal Christian position" (Wright 1982: 11-12). In fact, the Humanist Manifesto of 1933 was prepared and signed chiefly by Unitarian ministers. Its concluding comment sounded a theme so congenial to the spirit of Harriet Martineau that one can almost hear her saying the words. "Man," it began "is at last becoming aware that he alone is responsible for the realization of the world of his dreams, that he has within himself the power for its achievement" (Kurtz: 10). This is the credo (although expressed in more inclusive language) that had guided her life. She would have been pleased to know that it had also shaped the Unitarianism of Western North America throughout the entire first half of the twentieth century.

Nonetheless, the longer tide of history may yet support the wisdom of Martineau's judgment that she had outgrown the Unitarian church. In 1960 another current joined the movement in the United States. The new current was Universalism, a similarly liberal stream of religious thought, but one emphasizing universal salvation and the essential goodness and autonomy of the individual rather than reason and empiricism. This may have contributed to the fact that, during the later decades of the twentieth century, transcendentalism and its various mystical postmodernist offshoots all but overwhelmed the denomination—at least in North America. Naturalistic humanism has been relegated to a minor and rapidly fading theme in the Unitarian chorus of today, as their theological schools turn out ministers who have never heard the name of Harriet Martineau. Sadly, where her influence is concerned, the Unitarian connection is indeed a disintegrating thread.

Near the end of her life Martineau referred approvingly to "Comte's doctrine that theology can be extinguished only by a true science of Human Nature, and that this science is barely initiated" (Martineau, 1877,1983b: 393). She died over a hundred and twenty-five years ago with the expectation that "the last of the mythologies ... [would] vanish before the flood of a brighter light" (Ibid., 461). Recently, Edward O. Wilson has argued that, as we face a new millennium, the decisive battle of ideas will be between transcendentalism and empiricism (Wilson, 1998: 238-51). If this is indeed the case, one can only marvel at the prescience of Harriet Martineau, in recognizing, so long ago, the fundamental nature of this issue. A Unitarian might even note that, for an atheist, she had a remarkable "gift of prophecy"!


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1 This was a version of the Deism that seemed to be compatible with the science of the time. It involved the concept of a First Cause along with the premise of immutable natural law as the source of the spontaneous movements of society.

2 In his sermons Priestley often attacked the notions of Father, Son and Holy Ghost as superstitions, and expressed sympathy for the political revolutionaries of the time. He also worked actively for the separation of church and state. All this made him a ready victim for established interests within both groups, who encouraged the populace to consider him a traitor.

3 John Adams was the second president of the United States and Benjamin Rush was a fellow member of the Constitutional Committee which had met in Philadelphia to draft and sign the new American Constitution.

4 This visit is referred to in the Autobiography, Vol. II, p. 43.

5 This was issued by Henry IV to guarantee freedom of conscience to Protestants.

6 See "The Stranger" in The Sociology of Georg Simmel, edited and introduced by Kurt H. Wolff (Toronto, ON: Collier-MacMillan Canada, Ltd., 1950), pp. 402-8. Simmel describes the special vantage point of the stranger, as an outsider. This concept is also commonly referred to in sociology as "the marginal man".