James Freeman Clarke's Unitarian church was radically unlike other Unitarian churches in Boston.
Two hundred years after the Rev. James Freeman Clarke’s birth, his vision of congregational life still shapes Unitarian Universalist practice. Though Clarke, a Unitarian minister, was influential in the fields of comparative religion, education reform, women’s suffrage, and antislavery, his greatest legacy was the work he did to reimagine church life, according to the Rev. Dr. Paul S. Johnson, senior minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock in Manhasset, New York, who is presenting this year’s Minns Lecture Series on Clarke’s bicentennial legacy.
Clarke was born on April 4, 1810, in Hanover, New Hampshire, the third of six children. He was named after his paternal grandfather, the Rev. James Freeman, the first Unitarian minister of King’s Chapel in Boston. In 1833, he graduated from Harvard Divinity School and was ordained by the Second Church of Boston.
Clarke first served a church in Louisville, Kentucky, to spread Unitarianism on the frontier. He wrote, “If I could make converts in a community where my belief was unpopular, I should be convinced of its adaptation to human needs.” During this time he helped found and edit The Western Messenger to spread the ideas of Unitarianism and Transcendentalism in the West.
In 1839 he married Anna Huidekoper, the daughter of the founder of Meadville Theological School. The marriage set Clarke up financially to be free to pursue his dream of a new model for congregations. By this time he had come to the conclusion that in order to grow and thrive outside of New England, Unitarian churches needed to reorganize church life, and the best way he could see to achieve this goal was to lead by example.
In 1841 Clarke returned to Boston and founded the Church of the Disciples, based on his vision of the ideal church organization. Right from the start, Johnson said, Clarke’s church would attract as many as 700 people on Sunday mornings. It was radically different from any other Unitarian church in Boston. For one thing, expenses were covered by voluntary subscriptions (like the annual canvass today) rather than by pew rentals, the standard practice at the time, eliminating any class basis for seating. “He wanted everyone to feel welcome and be able to participate regardless of wealth,” said Johnson. “Clarke believed the pew system really discouraged the poor from coming into the community.”
The second of his reforms was the “social principle.” He felt members needed to get to know one another through a variety of activities beyond Sunday worship, including weekly discussion groups, social action, charity work, and other programs.
The final element of Clarke’s church vision was to involve the whole congregation in worship services. He encouraged sermons by laypeople, decision-making by congregational committees, and communion that was open to everyone. (Drawing on their Puritan roots, most Unitarian churches at the time held communion services to which only church members were invited.) Members formed committees to determine church policy, plan charity action, oversee Sunday school, and pick hymns.
Clarke was absent from the congregation from 1850 through 1854 due to sabbatical and illness. In 1859 he was elected secretary of the American Unitarian Association, and in 1865 he helped establish the National Conference of Unitarian Churches. He was also a prolific writer.
In 1885, Clarke outlined his “Five Points of the New Theology,” which summarized commonly held Unitarian beliefs of the late-nineteenth century: “the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, the leadership of Jesus, salvation by character, and the continuity of human development in all worlds, or, the progress of mankind onward and upward forever.”
Clarke continued to serve his beloved church until his death on June 8, 1888.
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Sonja L. Cohen is deputy managing editor of UU World and a lifelong Unitarian Universalist.
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