Bible Matters: The Scriptural Origins of American Unitarianism
Willsky, Lydia Eeva Natti
My doctoral dissertation examines the use and interpretation of the Bible as a religious text and source of Unitarian identity, focusing specifically on four leading figures within Unitarianism from the years 1803-1865. William Ellery Channing, Andrews Norton, Frederick Henry Hedge and Theodore Parker each believed that the Bible, as well as a distinctive set of interpretive principles, was the central gathering principle for their liberal movement. This set of principles, gleaned from the eclectic thought world of these Harvard-educated men, was fourfold. First, they held the belief that the immediate impressions of words in the Bible were the basis for reflection and interpretation. Secondly, they maintained a dynamic understanding of language, which allowed for these first impressions of the words to change with each reading. Third, they held the conviction that new revelation was possible when reading the text. Biblical words were not only a source of mutable meaning, but were an entrypoint to the Mind of God. Finally, though the meaning of words might change and revelations might illuminate new truth, all such instances would never contradict Reason. Using the lives and biblical scholarship of Channing, Norton, Hedge and Parker, I counter the existent portrayal of Unitarians as outliers to the overtly biblical culture of the nineteenth century. In doing so, I reintroduce the Unitarians into the narrative of American religious history as contributors to the American tradition of biblical interpretation who were doing precisely what every other nineteenth century religious movement was doing: claiming they had the “right” way of interpreting the Bible and that they, in turn, were the true biblical faith. Furthermore, I contend that Unitarianism existed as a Bible-based movement – as opposed to a formal denomination - for its first sixty years based upon the Unitarian commitment to maintaining a delicate balance between the Bible and free inquiry.