The object of the present brief sketch is to show how these landmarks have come to be where they are, to trace the thoughts and fortunes of Unitarians from their rise in modern times, to indicate their religious temper and practical aims, and to exhibit the connections of the English-speaking Unitarians with some closely approximating groups in Europe and Asia.
Before entering upon a story which is extremely varied and comprehensive, one or two important points must be emphasized. In the first place the reader must bear in mind that the term ‘Unitarianism’ is one of popular application. It has not been chosen and imposed as sect-name by any sect-founder, or by any authoritative assembly. There has never been a leader or a central council whose decisions on these matters have been, accepted by Unitarians as final. Even when most closely organized they have steadily resisted all attempts so to fix the meaning of ‘Unitarianism’ as to exclude further growth of opinion. Consequently there is always room for variety of opinion among them; and every statement of their principles and teachings must be taken as a sort of average estimated from a survey more or less extended.
Thus the significance of Unitarianism as a feature of modern religious development cannot be grasped apart from its history as a movement of thought. Nowhere is it more necessary than here to reflect that to know what a thing is we must know what it has been and consider what its future naturally involves.
Secondly, amid all the varieties of thought referred to, complicated as they are by the eager advance of some and the clinging to survivals by others, there are two notes to be found undeniably, if unequally, characteristic of Unitarianism. It is both rationalist and mystical. If the historian seems more attentive to the former than to the latter, this must not be taken as indicating their relative importance. Obviously, it is easier to record controversies than to unfold the wealth of profound conceptions. Perhaps we may fairly suggest the true state of the case by the mere juxtaposition of such earlier names as Socinus, Bidle, and Locke, with those of Channing, Emerson, and Martineau; or by a reference to the earlier Unitarian hymns in contrast with those of the later stages.
A brief explanation at the outset may help the reader to follow more intelligently the history of Unitarianism. As is well known, the chief issue between Trinitarians and Unitarians arises in connection with the relation of Jesus Christ to God, questions concerning the Holy Spirit being usually less discussed. There are consequential issues also, bearing upon man’s nature, atonement, salvation, and other subjects, but these call for no remark here. In its full statement, as given for instance in the ‘Athanasian Creed,’ the Trinitarian dogma presents the conception of Three