Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Day an Anglican Parish Became the First Unitarian Congregation

King's Chapel, Boston shortly before the turn of the 20th Century.

In most of the brand spanking new United States, the stone church in Boston would be the most respectable place of worship in town.  In fact, in most of the Middle and Southern states, Pennsylvania excepted, it would have been the officially established church.  But in Boston, hot bed of Puritanism and cradle of the Revolution, King’s Chapel was seen by many as an alien force.  It was the lone outpost of Anglicanism in the city, a member of the recently formed Episcopal Church, now officially free of its connections to the British Crown.

Boston was a well-churched town, dominated by independent Congregational parishes and their increasingly theologically liberal ministers.  Most of those ministers had rejected the hell-fire-and-damnation rigid Calvinism their ancestors and had embraced a theology based on rationality and influenced by the Enlightenment.  Theologically, they embraced elements of Arminism which rejected Pre-destination, salvation by faith alone, and unimpaired freedom of the will.  They were also influenced by Arianism, an even older theological position declared heretical by early Church Councils, which asserted that Jesus, the Son of God, was not eternal and coequal to God—a denial of the Trinity as taught by most Christian churches since the 4th Century.  Within the next forty years these churches and ministers would break from orthodox Congregationalism to become openly Unitarian.

So it comes as a surprise to many that it was the Anglican congregation that by a vote of the Proprietors of the church revised the Book of Common Prayer to omit all references to the Trinity.  They thus beat the liberal ministers by adopting the first avowedly unitarian theology and liturgy on June 19, 1785.

This is how it came to be.

The Anglican congregation was organized at a meeting held in Boston’s Town Hall on June 15, 1686, 56 years after the city had been founded by the Puritans.  The founders were mostly recent immigrants from England—traders, master craftsmen, government officials, and those who wished to rise in the Empire.  The Boston clergy, still at that point piously Puritan, were mightily upset and did everything in their power to prevent the establishment of the church.  It was a sign of the waning authority of their once near absolute dominance of local government that they failed to do so.

The congregation built a small wooden church at the corner of Tremont and School Streets.  It worshiped there for 60 years as the building fell into disrepair.  Meanwhile the Congregational churches were building magnificent brick churches with soaring spires.  When the Anglicans attempted to purchase more land adjacent to their tiny lot to build a new Church, once again the majority clergy fought them.  After difficult negotiations, the land was purchased and a corner stone for the new building was laid in 1749.

Heavy blocks of gray granite from quarries in Quincy, encased the original wooden chapel.  When the new walls were completed, the old church was taken apart board by board and disposed of through the windows of the new building.  The wooden church’s beams and rafters were shipped to Lunenburg, Nova Scotia to build a new Anglican church there which stood until burning down in 2001.

The new church building with a squat tower over the main entrance, intended as the base of a steeple that was never built, was completed in 1754.  It became one of the first churches in New England with an organ—the Puritanical Congregationalists rejected most liturgical music except for Psalms.  In 1772 a large bell, cast in England was hung in the squat tower.  That bell cracked in 1814 and was personally re-cast by Paul Revere.  It still calls worshipers to Sunday services today.

As tensions between the Crown and it restive colonists worsened, King’s Chapel became more and more identified with loyalists.  When troops were quartered on the city, many officers attended services at the church.  With the outbreak of hostilities in 1775, the church was identified with the occupying authoritiesWhen the British evacuated the city many of the Loyalist parishioners and the Rector, the Rev. Henry Caner set sail for exile in Nova Scotia. 

The church was closed.  In May of 1776 the church was re-opened for the funeral of Patriot hero Dr. Joseph Warren, who had been killed in the attack on Breeds Hill the previous June—the battle we know as Bunker Hill.  Warren’s body had been stripped, mutilated, and dumped in a shallow grave with another soldier by the British.  His brother’s found him and Paul Revere identified the corpse by an artificial tooth he had implanted in the Doctor.  

After the elaborate funeral and internment in the adjacent Burial Grounds, the church building was opened sporadically for worship by Patriot members of the congregation and Congregationalists from Old South Meeting House.

Without a Priest, it was difficult to sustain an Anglican congregation.  Even after the war remaining tensions made it difficult for British priests to be assigned or American ones trained and ordained.  In 1782 remaining members re-organized and hired Harvard educated James Freeman to lead the church as a Lay reader and teacher.  Freeman was, unlike the Arian ministers of the Standing Order (Congregationalists) influenced by the Socinian theology of James Priestly and English Unitarianism.  He requested that the congregation not require him to read the Athanasian Creed which affirmed the traditional Trinity.  

Despite this un-orthodoxy, Freeman was popular with the congregation and was asked to become its minister after only 6 months.  Meanwhile he continued to study Priestly and another prominent English Unitarian, Thesophilus Lindsey and became more firmly Unitarian in his theology.  He began preaching a series of sermons on the subject in 1784.  To his own surprise, the congregation was largely amenable to his emerging thought.  The following year he submitted his own revision of the Book of Common Prayer eliminating all references to the Trinity.  That book, revised and updated, remain in use at worship in King’s Chapel to this day, making it unique among all member congregations of what is now the Unitarian Universalist Association.

But I am getting ahead of myself.  Back then, despite the break with orthodoxy, the congregation hoped to remain Anglican and to obtain ordination for Freeman.  Bishop Samuel Seabury, and even the much more liberal Dr. Samuel Provoost, bishop-elect of New York rejected the application.

The congregation decided in 1787 to go ahead on its own with a lay ordination of Freeman as the “Rector, Minister, Priest, Pastor, and Ruling Elder” of Stone Chapel, as the church was known in those post-Revolutionary days.  Freeman was effectively excommunicated from the Episcopal Church and the congregation expelled from the Communion.

Freeman continued to serve the church nearly until his death in 1826.  

By that time the local Congregational ministers, led by William Ellery Channing had openly embraced Unitarianism, albeit a version different in details than the Socinism espoused by Freeman, and a de-facto new denominations was being born.   King’s Chapel became part of that and future ministers would be trained and ordained under Unitarian authority. 

But the Church as always remained unique, cleaving to that revised Book of Common Prayer.  It has been an outpost of Christianity in denomination eventually dominated by Humanism and now embracing’s multiple Sources and theological diversity.  It resisted for a long time such Unitarian Universalist innovations as chalice lighting and Flower Communion.  

Ministers today still preside from the high pulpit stand overlooking the rows of high-backed pew boxes.  Light filters through beautiful Louis Comfort Tiffany stained glass windows installed in the early 20th Century.  It is a vital and thriving congregation with an active social justice agenda, a renowned music program and large ministerial staff.  That recently included a Rabbi.

But if you go to worship on Sunday morning and open those Prayer Books in the pews, you will be transported to the days when Episcopalians became Unitarian.


  1. Patrick- Wonderful site you have here! If would like to ask your permission for a one time use of the photo of King's Chapel above for a project. Please email me for more info.

    1. Jim--I don't have your E-mail address. But you don't need my permission to use this photo. It is from an old post card long out of copyright that I found on Google images.