The Road to Unitarianism II
Bill Long 10/14/05
Construing the 1780 MA Constitution
Wouldn't you know it? The first case to construe the first paragraph of Article 3 of the Declaration of Rights was brought not by one of the previously "accepted" denominations, such as the Baptists or Episcopalians, but from the dreaded (and recently-arising) Universalists.*
[*The Universalists had no necessary connection with Unitarianism, even though the denomination today is known as the "UUA"--Unitarian Universalist Association. Actually the original Universalists were a lower class of people, mostly from rural areas, who believed in salvation for all, while the Unitarians were the high-brow Bostonians who were breaking away from Trinintarian Congregationalism.]
The The Universalists were "dreaded" because of their central doctrine--the universal salvation of all people. This was considered not simply a heretical (non-Scriptural) doctrine but a dangerous one, because, as the argument went, if all people were going to be saved, what incentive would people have to act morally? The opponents of the Universalists even tried to advance the argument in one case that such a doctrine directly violated the "piety, religion, and morality" clause of Article 3, quoted in the previous essay, because no teacher of Universalism could, thus, by definition, inculcate virtue through the pernicious doctrine of universal salvation. The court, however, threw out this argument because it was not in a position, it claimed, to evaluate the effect of particular religious beliefs.
In the case at hand a Universalist teacher/minister in Gloucester wanted the proceeds of his parishioners'/hearers' taxes to go into his pocket rather than to the standing order--the Congregational Church. The jury in the lower court held for Murray, the Universalist, but because they didn't deal with the issue of the legitimacy of his ordination, he, the victor, appealed his victory in order to get clarification on the issue. After several rounds of appeals, the Supreme Judicial Court held that his ordination was irregular and not recognized under the Cambridge Platform of 1648. Because Murray had officiated in weddings, he was now considered to be a law breaker (marrying people illegally) and he had to flee to England. Thus, proponents of a "pro-Standing Order" reading of the Constitution of 1780 took heart that maybe the ordinations of sectarian preachers might be defective, thus giving a boost to their ecclesiastical (and economic) fortunes.
The High Tide of The Standing Order
This "pro-standing order" jurisprudence reached it high point in the early 19th century case of Bates v. Falmouth where Justice Parsons, again considering the propriety of tax monies going to support a Universalist teacher/minister, placed almost all his emphasis on the language of the first paragraph of Article 3. The emphasis here, he said, was on what he called the "corporate" body to select "public" religious teachers whom they desired. The "corporate" body was the parish, the established religious society, and they could select one teacher/minister whom they desired. They had no obligation to select more than the one (Congregational) minister. There was no way, then, that unincorporated religious bodies, such as the dissenter congregations would be able to get a "teacher" from the parish.
Parsons also argued that the Universalists were seeming "to mistake a man's money for his conscience." In an argument still beloved of public school advocates, Parsons maintained that the support of the regular (Congregational) churches was a contribution to the general welfare of the state, and a person had no more right to be exempt from supporting a church he could not attend than to be free from school taxes because he had no children.
The Religious Freedoms Act
Outcries from the non-standing order churches were loud and vehement, and they proceeded to try to get a legislative solution to the problem. The legislature sprung into action and passed The Religoius Freedoms Act in 1811, which Cushing calls "the most important single statute regulating ecclesiastical affairs since 1727-28." The act specifically provided that every person (man) could have his ministerial taxes paid to his own religious society whether it was incorporated (as the Congregational Churches) or not (as many of the smaller Protestant chuches). Assessments were to be collected by the towns, but the sole test of a minister's eligibility for compensation was not Art. 9 of the Cambridge Platform but his ordination according to the forms of his own church.
This "liberal" act worked hardship on the established churches because they wouldn't now get the revenues of the smaller Protestant denominations and they still were required to pay for a number of things in town government because they were the "established" church. The MA Supreme Judicial Court upheld the constitutionality of this Act in an 1817 decision on behalf a Baptist individual whose heifer was distrained (seized) and sold to pay off his church taxes to the Standing Order even though he provided a certificate of his membership and good standing in an unincorporated Baptist association. The Congregationalists were now on the run, but their anguish in 1817 was nothing like the pain they would feel as a result of the 1820 "Dedham decision."
Baker v. Fales, the "Dedham Decision"
The Standing Order's fortunes reached their nadir as a result of a very simple fact pattern arising in 1818 in Dedham, a pattern repeated in place after place across the commonwealth in those days. The parish church in Dedham had a pastoral vacancy and the town/church needed to fill it. In most situations in the past, the actual church congregation would choose the pastor and "run it by" the parish authorities (not all of whom were members of the church). Normally there was no disagreement between the two, but there was in this instance.
The reason for disagreement in this case had to do with the gradual permeation of MA by Unitarianism. First, a word about language. The Unitarians really didn't like the name "Unitarian" applied to them. They considered themselves Christians who happened to be Arians (where Christ was not fully divine but was not "lowered" to the status of a human), while the word "Unitarian" connoted to them that they would believe in a Christ who was a fallible human being like any of us.
The next essay describes the rancor which developed between the orthodox and the "Unitarians/Arians" in the decade after 1805, and how it came to a head in the Dedham case.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long