We have referred in advance to this compendious view in order to show whither the sequel is to lead us, but before this all-important development can be traced there remains one more piece of external history to be supplied. Happily it may be dealt with summarily.
The bitterness of theological discussion which troubled the earlier decades of the nineteenth century received new provocation in the shape of litigation about property. Both in England and America the right of Unitarianism was challenged to hold those Meeting Houses and Parish Churches respectively, to which allusion was made in our opening pages. In New England the chief matter of contention was settled as early as 1818. In the Old Country the struggle was much more protracted, and was only brought to an end by special legislation in 1844.
The American dispute may be briefly stated. In consequence of the growing and unconcealed departure of the liberal Congregationalists from the doctrinal standards of the past there arose a feeling among the conservatives that the former group should go out of fellowship, but the communal conditions of the parish made this out of the question. All the citizens had a right to share in the provision for religion which was made at the general cost. An acute difficulty, however, presented itself in regard to the choice of minister. Should he be of the orthodox or the heterodox type? The appointment being for life made an election most critical. An incident of this kind occurred at Dedham, Mass., and coming into the courts led to a decision in favour of the liberals, i.e. of the ‘Unitarianizers.’ The case was argued in this way: A majority of members on the register being in favour of one type, are they at liberty to choose as they will? Or have the citizens at large, being contributories to the maintenance funds, a right to vote? It was decided by the courts that the popular right was valid as against the wishes of any inner and covenanted group of worshippers. This meant, in substance, that orthodox voters were outvoted by heterodox voters who had not enrolled themselves by a religious pledge. The chagrin of the defeated conservatives was naturally great, and harsh language ensued. The upshot was unaffected, of course, and time alone has had to soften the angry feelings which for a long time kept the two wings of New England Congregationalism hostile, to the regret of good men on each side. In recent years very friendly relationships have been happily set up, while the Unitarians remain undisputed heirs of the old Parish Churches. It should be carefully noted, however, that in 1833 the communal support of religion was abolished, and all religious bodies in the United States have been dependent since then upon private resources.