The upshot showed, however, that controversy was not to be avoided, and during twenty years from 1815 onwards it raged more or less severely. An epoch in this long and regrettable warfare was marked by a sermon preached at Baltimore in 1819. The preacher was one of the most famous men on the Unitarian roll, William Ellery Channing (1780-1842). Already eminent, he continued to hold a position unique in the religious life of New England; his saintly character and his noble if simple eloquence made him a leader in spite of himself. For a long time he had maintained a mediating position—all through his life he resolutely disclaimed sectarianism; but in 1819, after years of discussion, it was obvious that, for good or evil, the old dogma and the new spirit lay far apart. From that date liberals and conservatives in the old Congregational system of New England were divided, and ’Unitarian Christianity,’ which was the subject of Channing’s discourse, was a recognized type in the land. In 1825 the American Unitarian Association was founded. It was but a struggling society at first, not for lack of sympathy with its principle, but because many Unitarians, like Channing, so strongly disliked the notion of forming a new sect that they took little interest in methods of propagandism common to most religious bodies.
By a mere coincidence the British and Foreign Unitarian Association was founded almost on the same day in 1825 as the American Unitarian Association. This step evidently implies a great change in Unitarian affairs since the times of that early Dissent towards which attention has been previously directed. We must now endeavour to trace the change in detail.
It will be remembered that tendencies to Anti-trinitarian thought—using that term to cover all the varieties of heretical opinion on the subject—were manifested both within the established Church and without. As regards the latter phase, the evidence is clear that, whatever the doctrinal ‘subscription’ was worth which Dissenting preachers had to make, there was a decided lapse from the orthodox standard on the part of a considerable number. This lapse, however, was for the most part left obscure while the pulpits resounded with ‘plain, moral discourses.’ Now and again, one bolder than the rest ventured to discuss controverted points of doctrine. Such a man was Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), whose career is interesting as an illustration of the growth of opinion, and especially important in regard to the denominational advance of Unitarianism. He began life as a Calvinistic Independent, and became Arminian, Arian, and Humanitarian in turn. His devotion to science is well known, and he ranks with Lavoisier as an original discoverer of oxygen. He was an indefatigable student, a voluminous writer, a ready controversialist; and though his speaking