How Did the Puritans Become Unitarians?

One of the strangest religious transitions in American history is that the Puritan congregations in New England became Unitarian Universalists.  It would be hard to find a religious group who cared more about getting doctrine exactly right than the Puritans, yet within the span of only a few generations, they’d devolved into something unrecognizable as either Puritan or even Christian.

As most Americans are at least vaguely aware, the Puritans were devout and even fierce Calvinists, who literally left England because it wasn’t “pure” of Catholicism enough, were devoted to what they viewed as right doctrine. And they were anything but afraid to toss around a little fire and brimstone — as Calvinists, they readily declared most of humanity was made by God just so He could send them to Hell, and it was a son of Puritanism, Jonathan Edwards, who famously preached the “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon, about how God is furious with us.  The Puritan communion was tightly closed, as was their Baptism. It goes almost without saying that they were Trinitarian.

Their direct descendants, the Unitarian Universalists, couldn’t be much different. They deny the Trinity, but nowadays, aren’t even sticklers for that — they have members who are openly atheist.  Their website brags:

Today, a significant proportion of Unitarian Universalists do not believe in any type of god. Our congregations are theologically diverse places where people with many different understandings of the sacred can be in religious community together.

That’s not a parody: they’re actually promoting the idea that there can be a united “religious community” iin which a significant portion of the members deny that religion is true. Of course, as Universalists, they agree that Hell doesn’t exist and everyone goes to Heaven (presuming Heaven exists).  And yet, these Unitarians are the direct descendants of the Puritans.  What gives, and what can we learn from the humiliating fall of Puritanism?

I. The Rise and Fall of New England Puritanism: the Mathers

I don’t want to turn this into a history paper, so I’ll keep it basic.

  • Puritanism was, by definition, anti-Catholic: it sought to remove what it called “Popish superstition” from Anglicanism.  Anything that looked like a Catholic holdover was rejected for that reason alone.  They were even against the wearing of church vestments, since that’s what Catholics do.  
  • Within Puritanism, there were various factions: some said that the Church of England could be reformed, while others became increasingly convinced that what was needed was not internal reform, but schism, in order to create a more perfect Church.  
  • Puritans were united in proclaiming that the Anglican bishops had to go: these were viewed as a vestige of Catholicism. They were divided, though, on what should replace the episcopal model – some favored Presbyterianism (in which local churches are subject to a local “presbytery,” a regional “synod,” and the “general assembly,” which is the highest level of authority within the church), while others favored Congregationalism.(in which the local church is its own highest authority).
  • The Puritans were united in their opposition to the Anglican bishops, and the bishops weren’t having it. Homes were invaded, Puritans were arrested, people were tortured and killed, and so forth.  The ferocity with which the Church of England responded to the Puritan’s challenge lead many Puritans to give up hope on ever reforming the institution. They increasingly flocked to the Separatist camp, and many of them fled England all together, eventually establishing the Plymouth Colony in modern Massachusetts. 
  • Plymouth was founded in 1620, and about 40% of the starting members were Puritan Separatists.  Over the course of the 1630s, some 20,000 Puritans arrived in New England, in what was called the Great Migration.  So by this point, there was a sizable society of Separatist Puritans in New England.

There’s a lot of stuff I’m omitting, like the English Civil War, the Puritan dictator Oliver Cromwell, the killing of the King.of England, Charles I, for being too lax on Catholics (he had a Catholic wife), and so forth.

One of the Puritans to cross over to the New World in the Great Migration was the famous Puritan minister Richard Mather, the father of Increase, grandfather of Cotton (because the Mathers briefly forgot what “names” were once they made it to the New World), and great-grandfather of Samuel.  Increase and Cotton were both famous New England Puritan ministers in their own right, and both they and Samuel served as pastors of Old North Church in Boston.  To see how quickly the Puritan experiment failed, and turned into something far from Christianity, follow the lives of these four generations of Mathers.

When Richard arrived, Puritanism had only recently reached the New World.  By the time his son Increase was an adult, the liberal Congregationalists were already the most powerful religious group in much of the colony. In fact, Increase himself served as president of Harvard until he was forced out – for being too conservative.  Increase had been given an ultimatium: he could be a preacher, or he could be college president, and he was sent packing when he refused to choose.  The Unitarian Universalist Historical Society explains that this was a turning point for them:

By 1699 the balance of power had shifted. In that year, a group of Boston merchants, led by John Leverett and William and Thomas Brattle, issued a manifesto calling for the organization of a new church along “broad and catholick” lines. There was no official suppression. Rather the power of this group was demonstrated when Leverett, a layman, replaced the conservative minister Increase Mather as the President of Harvard College in 1707.

Indeed, Increase Mather has been called “the last American Puritan,” because his death saw the close of a strong Puritan presence in New England. He died in 1723, his son Cotton following a mere five years later.

The life of Cotton’s son, Samuel, is also quite telling.  Samuel gave the funeral sermon for his father in 1728, and was pastor of the family church, Old North.  In 1741, he was dismissed for being too liberal, and formed his own church instead.  That’s significant, because by 1768, the pastor of Old North Church was John Lathrop, who began as a Calvinist, but became a Unitarian. The Church which once found Samuel Mather too liberal now had no problem with a pastor who denied the Trinity, and from 1802 until its closing, Old North became formally Unitarian.

Along with the rise of Unitarianism (the rejection of the Trinity) came the rise of Universalism (the rejection of Hell). We can see this in Samuel Mather’s own writings: in 1782, he wrote, All Men Will Not Be Saved Forever: or An Attempt to Prove That This is Not a Scriptural Doctrine, and to Give a Sufficient Answer to a Pamphlet Entitled, “Salvation of All Men,” to attempt to combat the growing phenomenon. In this, he largely failed.

By the time Samuel died, in 1785, the Universalists and the Unitarians had largely won.  For example:

By the close of the 18th century many of the largest churches, especially but not exclusively in eastern Massachusetts, had become markedly liberal in theology. Their ministers and lay members were openly, though not confrontationally, Arminian and unitarian. To these liberals, freedom of the human will was both a reality of common experience and a necessary corollary to the goodness of God, without which the justice of God would be meaningless. They rejected as unbiblical the traditionally held Calvinist doctrines of original sin, total depravity, predestination and the trinity. They adopted positive doctrines of the nature of humanity and the possibility of continuing moral, spiritual, and intellectual growth. 

Nor was the triumph of Unitarianism over Puritanism restricted to New England.  The “ancient chapel of Toxteth,” in Liverpool, England, where Richard Mather preached his first sermon (at age 15) in 1611, became “Toxteth Unitarian Chapel” in around 1774.  So within a generation of Richard Mather arriving in Puritan New England, the rise of Universalism had begun. By the time his great-grandson died, its coup was nearly accomplished, and the last vestiges of Calvinist Puritanism were virtually extinguished.

II How Did This Happen?

On Tuesday, I was fortunate enough to talk to Cardinal Francis George of Chicago about this.  He had given a talk and done a book-signing on the roof of CIC.  Both in his talk and in the Q and A after it, he spoke about American religious history, and it was clear that he had a much better grasp on what Calvinism is than the average cradle Catholic.  So I posed this question to him.

He was careful to distinguish between how they became Universalists from how they became Unitarians.  His view on how they became Universalists was fascinating: he essentially said that they took the Calvinist notion of God’s sovereignty seriously, and responded to it. I think he’s right. Calvinism teaches that God’s election to salvation is unconditional.  So you don’t need faith to be saved. Instead, traditional Calvinists believe that you have faith, because you’re already saved. It’s an effect of salvation, not a cause.  If that’s true, then there’s not really a coherent reason that God couldn’t simply elect everyone to salvation.

Someone who believes in free will and salvation by faith will object that those who live lives devoted to sin, reject the grace of God, and refuse the gift of faith have both earned Hell, and in a very real sense, chosen it. God permits them to follow their own wills rather than His, but the road of our sinful wills, absent God, always leads to Hell (one need only look at the sex-obsessed and the drug addict to see an earthly manifestation of this truth).  But Calvinism doesn’t believe in those things, so the traditional rationale for Hell melts away. There’s simply not a very compelling reason that Hell is necessary within the Calvinist schema. So, on the question of theodicy, they fall flat.

I think that there are other causes to blame, as well.  Congregationalism played some role.  Since the highest level of authority is the local church, it wasn’t very hard for heretics to take over prominent churches. A few outspoken members of the church, or a popular tract, and before you know it, the majority of the church is persuaded to a new theology.  This became particularly pronounced given New England’s trade economy. With lots of non-Puritan merchants coming in and out, the Puritans were quickly exposed to new ideas which their churches weren’t able to completely suppress.

Another obvious culprit is their view on Scripture alone.  They rejected Tradition and Creeds, because they’re Catholic, seeking to rely upon their own interpretations of Scripture instead.  Left with only Scripture, as the quote above showed, they quickly ran into problems proving things like “original sin, total depravity, predestination and the trinity.”  Indeed, this is a recurring problem within churches without Tradition: look at the rise of Oneness Pentecostals today, who seek to follow the Scriptures, but don’t see how the Bible promotes the Trinity.  Without anything like a creed, the Puritans were left to argue over competing interpretations of the Bible alone. Majority ruled, and the majority was clearly heretical.

So while it’s not really true that sola Scriptura always leads to heresies like Universalism and Unitarianism, it is true that as a system, it pulls out all the guard rails, like Tradition, the Church, Councils and Creeds.  And unwittingly, it seems like Calvinist theology may help push the car a bit nearer that awful cliff.  Certainly, the experience of both New and Old World Puritanism, in which Calvinism was left to run free, suggests just such a conclusion. Now, I’ve certainly gone beyond what Cardinal George said, and his own comments were off-the-cuff, but as a starting point for an examination of how the Puritans fell so hard and so fast, I think it’s worth putting forward.


  1. Absolutely fascinating for people, like me, who’ve been Boston protestants at some point.I used to attend Park Street Church, which was formed in 1808 (or thereabout) as an orthodox Puritan reaction to the U-U’s. When you’re there, the vague understanding of this storyline you get starts pressing on you. This is great in showing that that’s because it’s an indication that something isn’t right about Protestantism.

    And your point about Calvinists not being able to give that theodicy was huge for me. That’s why, I think, CS Lewis is such a bridge to Rome. Protestants read him, take in his theodicy, and then a little while later realize that this doesn’t work under schemes, like Luther and Calvin’s that deny free will. At least, that’s what happened to me. Others seem to not notice. see intelligent, self-professing Calvinists give that exact theodicy apparently not noticing the contradiction (see, Tim Keller’s chapter on hell in his The Reason for God, e.g.).

    Anyway, I got really excited when I saw the title to this post and it definitely delivered.

    1. I am Eastern Orthodox. We reject inherited guilt from Adam, but not inherited mortality, which we see as the root of our passions, and hence, of sin. We see the place of human will, first in Christ, who had both the human and the Divine, but find that human will can respond in a salvific way in the environment of God’s calling, sustaining, and perfecting. We see election according to foreknowledge, after the dictum of St. Peter, ‘elect according to the foreknowledge of God.’
      When we fail to honor our fathers and mothers, as Moses penned, our lives are not long on the the earth; and the rejection of our Catholic mothers and fathers, is a spiritual root of the rapid fall of Puritanism.

  2. Just one correction — the “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” preacher was Jonathan Edwards, not John Edwards, who has never preached a hellfire sermon but does appear to be a sinner in the hands of an angry God.

  3. Your title “How Did Puritans Become Unitarians?” is most misleading. Unitarianism is the logical theological descent of fallen mankind to submit themselves to the Trinity alone as their god. Your brief history of Puritanism is confined to the Mathers but they are only a part of the whole. Edwards is commonly considered the last of the true Puritans and his referenced sermon is in most American anthologies. His Calvinistic beliefs got him fired after the First Great Awakening in America. Why? Oh, the concept of “free will” was somehow not conducive to election (unconditional) as stated in the Scriptures. Men are “free” to do one thing and one thing only — sin against a Holy God. No Calvinist preaches “we 4 and no more” for such is ludicrous. Read Edward’s sermon and see if he leaves any wiggle room for the chosen few. No — Eph 2:1 makes it clear that we are all spiritually DEAD (in relation to God). Only regeneration before faith can awaken each of us to what we deserve — the failure to worship a Holy and Perfect God. When the cross is preached as the only way to satisfy the just wrath, we scream “I will decide.” Well, no we won’t. Yes, in once sense, it appears that we have but spiritual maturity will reveal the mercy God had upon us.

    Now, as to the decline of truth, Arminian theology must have some help, i.e., synergism. So I must possess this faith or works or whatever. But truth cannot be denied unless a clear refusal of Scripture (and creeds) are dismissed or manipulated. The next step is unbelief — or in a more formal sense, Unitarians popped out of the jack-in-the-box. It doesn’t matter what, who, or if you believe but it looks good on the resume.

    Puritans sought FREEDOM of worship in England and Holland but realized that the “city on the hill” was across the ocean.

    And as a last comment, Calvinism is alive today — not as some theological straight jacket but as an honest system of understanding (see Dt 29:29) the Providence and Sovereignty of the triune God. And please do not deceive yourself that Rome today (or even in the middle ages) truly has power and control over the minds of their followers. I once was one in every proper respect. But, everyday Catholics could care less about the elitist and condescending moralistic hodgepodge purported to be a God fearing truth. Again, read Jonathan Edwards, Luther, and Augustine on the “will.” We, as mere mortals are slaves to our nature which directly impacts our so-called “free” will. That, dear Padre, is the crux of Unitarianism — it’s all about “ME” and not God. Peace

    1. Hurray for synergism- it is simply the soteriological extension of the two wills and two Energies in Christ- who was tempted at all points as are we (the human will), but was predestined according to the Divine. Our salvation is a synergism of the human and Divine wills in Christ. It is an asymmetric synergism. “Elect according to the foreknowledge of God”. It is that we retained the Image of God after the fall, while losing the likeness that is the anthropological ground of synergism. We do not inherit Adam’s guilt but his mortality.

  4. So, Lagniappe, you’re saying the Puritans didn’t *become* Unitarians, but rather God chose not to regenerate the later generations of Puritans and thus they inevitably fell into wrong-thinking? I’m having a really hard time understanding you, so it’s likely I misinterpreted you.

    But, if I didn’t, your contention, I suppose, would be the anti-free will interpretation, but can you reasonably expect those who believe in free will to phrase everything as if it didn’t exist?

  5. I am interested in a historical and theological development of “born again”=salvation idea. Were the Puritans responsible for that? Jonathan Edwards?


  6. Brantly and Robert, thanks! I liked the personal anecdote, Robert — it’s helpful to me to know what sort of approaches have been helpful with other people in the past.

    Jordan, Good catch. I was asleep at the wheel on that one. For what it’s worth, I also used to get John Edwards and John Edward confused. Of the three, Jonathon Edwards is the only one I’d leave my wallet out.

    Iwka, born again has always been tied to Baptism, which saves us, so in a sense, being born again is what saves us. It’s just that “being born again” never meant a personal conversion experience of the sort the self-proclaimed “Born Again Christians” imagine. That theological error comes courtesy of the Anabaptists, who were distinct from the Calvinists/Puritans. I can’t say exactly when it came to our shores, though.

    1. Baptism should follow being born again , not vice versa . Though im sure there has been many conversions after baptism .
      Hey Joe it looks like youve been collared by Rome

  7. Good summary of an important aspect of American church history — demonstrating the necessity of tradition, the Church, councils, and creeds. Thanks!

  8. iwka–

    Assuming you mean “personal conversion”=salvation, Called to Communion’s David Anders talks about that starting at 12:35 here:

    He says that this was total new beginning starting with 17th century Puritanism and flowering in the first Great Awakening in the 18th century with Whitfield, Wesley, Jonathon Edwards, etc. driving the idea.

    So yes, it’s a Puritan idea.

  9. Lagniappe,

    I share Robert’s confusion: what, exactly, is your criticism? Or perhaps more precisely, when did I ever make any of the arguments you are responding to?

    You say that as a result of man’s sin, he fell away from the Trinity. Right on, we agree. But it’s not just “man” is some vague sense who became Unitarian. It was a group of Puritans. Those Puritans… became Unitarian. Where’s the disagreement here?

    They had a Puritan church, then the church voted, and it became a Unitarian church. And as I explained in the post, this was preceded by decades of growing heresy.

    You say the Mathers weren’t the only Puritans. I said as much in my post — they were a sort of “case study” showing how quickly Puritanism rose and fell.

    You say there are still Calvinists today. Obviously. But they’re not Puritans, are they? What happened to the Puritans, by the way?

    You point out that Puritans sought religious “freedom” in England and Holland before coming to the US. I noted as much, only it wasn’t actually religious freedom they were after. You’ll recall that they tortured those they considered heretics. They wanted the freedom to practice their own religion, not freedom of religion.

    As for “we 4 and no more” Calvinism, where did I ever claim otherwise? In any case, the Westboro Baptist Church comes quite close to that, although I agree with you that it’s a straw man… just like your straw man of imputing the position to me.

    So all your rage seems to be in vain, because we seem to agree on the areas you’re attacking.

    As for your final paragraph, I take it you think I’m a priest (you call me “Padre”). I’m not. And I have no idea what you mean by the Church’s “power and control over the minds of their followers,” other than you sound like you have no idea what Catholics believe.

    Finally, I’ll go ahead and say it: there’s no way that you once were a Catholic “in every proper respect.”

    I’ll buy that you were once a lax and lazy Catholic, without a strong relationship with Jesus Christ, and that you probably the darkened the doorway of a church from time to time, out of a sense of obligation. That, I’ll believe. I know plenty of folks who are like you were, and they’re thirsty for the Truth.

    But we both know you didn’t know or believe the basics about what Catholicism actually teaches. If you did, you (a) wouldn’t be Calvinist, and (b) wouldn’t be relying on such bad arguments. I say this not to shame you, but to keep you honest: don’t pretend you were some ideal Catholic who saw the light and became Calvinist. You left a religion you never bothered to investigate seriously.

    If you’re interested in doing that investigation now, it’s not too late. But you’ll have to approach the Church with humility, not the certainty that you know what She’s really after (mind control, apparently?) and what She really believes. You don’t know those things, as your comment made clear. And if you’ll approach with an open mind, I’d love to share those truths with you. God bless you.


  10. @ Robert: So, Lagniappe, you’re saying the Puritans didn’t *become* Unitarians, but rather God chose not to regenerate the later generations of Puritans and thus they inevitably fell into wrong-thinking? I’m having a really hard time understanding you, so it’s likely I misinterpreted you.

    The thread presented in the original post was that Puritans are responsible for the Unitarian debacle. Now, how impossible is that!!! Puritans are not the bad guys here. Man in his depravity has/does/will make the gospel to his liking. That is historical. Cain and Abel; Nimrod and his cabal; the defiant Israelites as they disobey the Lord’s directions; Prophets as Jeremiah witnessed first hand the “Peace, Peace” when there was no peace. Who masqueraded as a gospel apostle [Judas]? Why did Paul clearly chastise Peter in Galatians? Why did Paul warn the churches of Galatia that even if one comes as an angel from heaven who preaches ANOTHER gospel; or in Corinth the warning of 2 Cor 11:1-4 [note Greek words for ANOTHER HERE]as well as verse 14 about Satan and his disguises!! Most of the NT epistles have some mentioning of being deceived. Yes, even the very elect. And let us not forget the 7 churches in Revelation — how soon they lost their way.

    Historically, the early councils were to settle errors and to unify the Body of Christ — NOT ROME as we know it today. Reform is a system of theology that has variants but holds together as a Biblical interpretation. So, if someone does not like TULIPs, that’s fine. It does not disqualify him/her from eternal glory. Only unbelief in the finished work of the second person of the Trinity brings the sinner to being “born again.”

    Oh, and “born again” was not an American or even an English novelty, but the very words of the Savior – try reading John 3 [all of it — you’ll love verse 36]. Faith is a gift as is repentance from the Father that brings conviction via the Holy Spirit through the Word of the Cross. Baptism just recognizes your belief and testimony and reflects that you are a NEW CREATION and your life will be on a path of holiness [toward God, not man’s version].

    The Puritans theology may have been perverted through the changes I previously posted but it also started a spiritual firestorm that served our country in a most positive way. The Church of England and Rome both were much more interested in power and control until the likes of Roger Brown established Rhode Island where all were FREE to worship as one pleases. The state of “Mary-land” — now how did it come to get a name like that? Or the University of William and Mary (Anglican I believe).

    Calvinism, properly understood, did not start with John Calvin, but in eternity past even as Peter stated in 1 Peter 1:17-2:12. OUCH!!! Augustine [Rome does not have the copyright on him] spoke of the errors of Pelagius; the will not really being free; and predestination!!

    The New Evangelism of Rome is strikingly aggressive, corporately insensitive to opposition [may be why Rome feels anything “anti-Catholic” is hate speech — always good to be the victim] and the push to be like the phoenix — out of the ashes of Gehenna speak the souls of the deceived. Hide behind Tradition when Scripture gets in the way. Be sure and tell the cradle Catholics who mention you only as an embarrassed answer to the question: “Where do you go to church?” that they need to bow before it’s too late. Who knows — excommunication threat may work. Just say’n.

  11. @ the author: You just verified one of my points in my latest points “aggressiveness.” You also assert that I knew nothing of Catholicism or else I would not be Calvinistic now.

    Let’s be clear: I was baptized a Catholic, had an aunt who was a BVM, went to Catholic schools from K-12, had religion everyday, taught by nuns whom I respected, served as an altar boy (when it was Latin) to godly priests, considered seriously a vocation in the priesthood until 10th grade, went to Mass, confession [admit to it less than required], do you get the point. No one stays under that much religion and does not retain something. I remember Friday being NO MEAT. We couldn’t even have bacon bits in our home. My father died when I was five leaving my mother with 5 children (I was #4). She dressed us properly for Mass, even on holidays.

    Now, I knew more theology than most and Vatican II took place while I was in high school. Oh, I had retreats, wore scapulars, prayed novenas, kissed relics, went around our classroom ON OUR KNEES praying as part of a spring retreat [and, please understand, I took all of this seriously and with humility]. But my senior year, the priest who led our retreat advocating smoking marijuana [oh yes he did]. Get out the guitars, forget the Latin, turn the altar around, and now here’s your own host to hold and some real wine to chasten it with.

    When once the host was the Body of Christ and no one could touch it (that’s why we altar boys held the patten under the chins)for only a priest’s consecrated hands could touch it. And the wine…well, that was a Byzantine Rite. Now, who changed?

    I graduated, went into the Air Force, met with chaplains and Mass at chapel occasionally until I served in Vietnam when it gained much more importance to me.

    I did not chose to leave my roots just to make a statement — when the day I was BORN AGAIN changed me forever. No mystical explosion, etc. The very next Sunday, I went to chapel and Mass and my eyes were opened and I crossed a into the valley of decision — I left. No I was not a Calvinist [never heard of it then] but I did join a Baptist church who re-baptized me. My family was all up in arms [for awhile] but found out that I didn’t eat children and that we still loved each other very much.

    I read many blogs in which the Catholic defenders propagate some very positive and strong positions. I do research. I am not an automaton. I am a Baptist Minister who preachers the cross to whomsoever will. And I do not hold any contempt for my past, in fact, I love Catholic churches, the stained glass, the architecture, the symbolism, the shape of sanctuary, and I have gone to them for a quiet time of reverence.

    So, in the future, when reading a rebuttal or at least an attempt at one, be gentle with the writer for you do not know what he/she has been or experienced. On Aug 4, 1974, my life changed for eternity…and I have never looked back. Peace

  12. Lagniappe,

    I find it odd that on the one hand, you have no problem accusing Catholics of attempted mind control, and the like, and yet are so quickly wounded when I question how serious of a Catholic you really were. Really, go read the last paragraph of your comment to Robert, and tell me if that sounds like “gentleness” or “aggressiveness.” And yet you say that “Rome” is quick to play the victim.

    More to the matter, my argument was that I (a) doubted you had a strong relationship with Jesus Christ during your days as a young Catholic, and (b) doubted you understood what the Catholic Church teaches. I think you’ve confirmed both in your last comment.

    On (a), you pointed out a lot of rules and norms you followed, but still felt it necessary to get re-baptized, and claim that you were “born again” in 1974. Leaving to one side that “born again” never meant this (not in John 3 or anywhere else, until after the Reformation), you’re apparently acknowledging that you weren’t spiritually alive until then, right? Because if so, that was my original point.

    When Protestants become Catholic, they frequently already have a good relationship with Christ — the Church gives them more, to the extent that many of those who make the switch refuse to call it a “conversion,” seeing it as a fulfillment of what they were striving for as Protestants. When Catholics become Protestant, it’s typically because they don’t have a relationship with Christ. As far as spiritual foundations go, they’re often lacking. Those cradle Catholics who are spiritually on fire for Christ rarely leave, and when they do, it’s rarely to Protestantism.

    Your story, sad as it is (I mourn from those Catholics who lived during the immediate post-Vatican II period, I truly do), isn’t uncommon. Frank Beckwith tells a similar story in Return to Rome, his autobiography, about leaving the Church after Vatican II, and becoming Evangelical. In his case, he became head of the Evangelical Theological Society before reverting back to Catholicism — this time, knowing and believing what the Church believed.

    My point being: there’s a world of difference between a Catholic who is on fire for their faith, and a Catholic who goes through the motions because they think they’re supposed to. Which camp do you think you fell in?


    P.S. We’ll get to the theology soon.

  13. Lagniappe,

    (1) On your issue about the Puritans, I’m still not sure I understand your point. You say, “The thread presented in the original post was that Puritans are responsible for the Unitarian debacle. Now, how impossible is that!!! Puritans are not the bad guys here.” But as you noted, even some of the seven churches in Revelation fall back into sin and error, or introduced heresy. If they can do it, why can’t the Puritan churches?

    (2) But besides that, how can you argue with the basic history? I gave the specific examples of Old North Church and Toxteth chapel, both of which went from Puritan to Unitarian. Those were two drops in a bucket: we’re not talking about a handful of Puritans here, but a mass movement towards Unitarianism, and my post was about inquiring why that was. Pretending the Puritans didn’t become Unitarian is just closing our eyes to history.

    (3) Significantly, you say, “Historically, the early councils were to settle errors and to unify the Body of Christ — NOT ROME as we know it today.” The Catholic Church agrees with you that Church Councils are a way to settle errors and unify the Body of Christ, absolutely! So in the name of Christian unity, can you at least agree to the first Seven Ecumenical Councils?

    (4) The papacy is another route in which conflicts have been settled from the beginning. Augustine, who was a Roman Catholic (no copyright needed), condemned Julian the Apostate for refusing to obey Pope Innocent, the bishop of Rome. He described Rome as the city “in which our Lord willed to crown the chief (primus) of His apostles with a glorious martyrdom.” In other words, Innocent is the successor of Peter as head of the Church . Calling the Roman church the Apostolic See, Augustine declares that compared to the other (non-pope) Church Fathers he’s quoted, Innocent is “etsi posterior tempore, prior loco“: after them in time, but superior to them in rank (Augustine, Contra Julian). I’m using Augustine simply because you brought him up — I could show you Fathers much earlier. There’s simply no question that Bishop of Rome was, from the time of Peter, afforded a special primacy, and frequently settled disputes in various parts of Christendom.

    (5) On your re-Baptism, even Calvin denounced those who did such a thing as “poor fantasticals,” in A Short Instruction for to arm all good Christian people against the pestiferous errours of the common sect of Anabaptists. Calvinism and Anabaptism just aren’t compatible. By what authority did you declare your earlier Trinitarian Baptism invalid?

    In Christ,


  14. Joe,

    If you and I [and Robert] were in a room, face-to-face, much of our miscommunications would be alleviated. However, the text method requires a bit more finesse. As you stated, you cannot believe I was no more than a nominal Catholic or one going through the motions. By virtue of that presupposition, you herald forth that one who is Catholic and holds to the desire to follow Christ as the RCC teaches, then all who stay must have that similar result. Ah, the church I was raised in is the 2nd largest in the diocese and today has over 1000+ members but fewer than 400 attend. So where are the 600? This includes the convenience of going to Mass on Saturday instead.

    Also, the earliest churches were not subject to anyone but an Apostle. And even Paul (Acts 19-20) left elders to lead the various churches. Peter called himself an elder (overseer). But Rome was just another of the churches and had little clout until Constantine and his mother saved the empire (for awhile). The councils were absolutely needed to flush out error and to unify the body of divinity and doctrine.

    I firmly believe that the truth is found in the Biblical doctrines as developed within the context of Scripture and the historical meetings that settled many troubling issues. Doctrine such as the Trinity, hypostatic union, and the books considered inspired are the central part to any belief. Once the RCC started adding a Magisterium only interpretation, and allowing mystical writers to prophecy and making some of them Tradition [in direct violation to the Word]or bulls to mandate obedience so the proletariat will get into lock-step, or failing to publicly admit and proclaim without apology the tenets of Trent, then we who have a considerable differing view would properly be pronounce ANATHEMA.

    Now, before you declare me theologically and historically wrong, and before you think that my open words here are to discredit your views, understand that I am replying to your straight forward considerations of what I am or why I was drawn away from such teaching. Apostate is such a harsh word…kind of like Puritan–has such a pejorative connotation.

    I am not an Anabaptist, nor is Calvin my Pope, but I am free in Christ to seek the truth and I am unrelenting (not obnoxious). I am studying Catholicism now and find much I like but there will always be a wall when certain beliefs are promulgated as dogma. That is for another time. Peace {Bishop Sheen was one of the best communicators ever–I love his works}.

  15. For those of us Mayflower Catholics who are descended from Yankee stock, and who still reside in small town central New England where the anti-Catholic bigotry was palpable not even 20 years ago, this is a facinating subject. I have to wonder if the Cardinal is correct though. My gut tells me it had less to do with any time of Theological drift than it did with a reaction to their utter lack of charity.

  16. For those of us Mayflower Catholics who are descended from Yankee stock, and who still reside in small town central New England where the anti-Catholic bigotry was palpable not even 20 years ago, this is a facinating subject. I have to wonder if the Cardinal is correct though. My gut tells me it had less to do with any time of Theological drift than it did with a reaction to their utter lack of charity.

  17. Ah, I agree with you on Bp. Sheen. I used to listen to his homilies while I was laying in bed, just to hear him preach before going to sleep.

    I also agree with you on the perils of written-only communication. I harbor no hostility to you. We’re simply having a blunt, straightforward “here’s why I think your side is wrong” dialogue. That’s good for Christians to have from time to time, and I don’t think either of us thinks the other person is ill-willed or malicious. And for the record, “Julian the Apostate” is what he’s known as — I wasn’t implying anything about you. I was wrong, in any case: it was Julian of Eclanum, apparently, that Augustine’s Contra Julian is directed at.

    I’m still a bit unclear on some of your answers, though (this may just be me being daft):

    (1) Are you saying you actually did hold and believe everything the Church holds and believes, and had a relationship with Christ? Or No?

    (2) Do you accept the authority of the First Seven Ecumenical Councils? [I’m not asking if you accept some super-secret Catholic interpretation of them, but whether you accept the Councils as authoritative, period.]

    (3) What’s your evidence for the claim that the post-Apostolic, pre-Constantine Church had an insignificant papacy? Or put another way, what Pre-Nicene Patristic evidence is there for some other polity?

    In Christ,


  18. Oh right, I forgot to respond to the actual substance — I think it’s both. They accept certain Calvinist beliefs (God’s Sovereignty, unconditional election, sola Scriptura), and then just sought to infuse them with Christian mercy and charity, but instead got a horrible Frankenbeast.

  19. This blog post seems to be driven more by an a priora theology than an a posteriori historical investigation. Puritanism (a very difficult word to define!) didn’t do this at other times and in other places, and so one must dig deeper into the reasons why things happened at this particular time and in this particular place. There were huge idealogical and sociological changes occurring as modernity was being born. Hence all kinds of religious movements morphed and shifted in ways they hadn’t hitherto, yes, including Catholics. The author shows a degree of ignorance about Puritan theology (and it’s uniqueness in North America) as well as sola scriptura (if only Catholics would pay more attention on this particular point and resist simplistic straw men). It’s best to listen to other traditions charitably before passing such strong and general judgements historically. One could look at all kinds of occurences in the Catholic tradition (like the burning of Jan Hus etc.) that could then be construed as showing how Catholic theology produced this. But it is simplistic to do so.

  20. Marty, the same arc happened in at least one other place:

    in 1848 the Free Church of Scotland founded Dunedin, New Zealand. It was then a faithful Presbyterian and Calvinist church. Within a couple of generations the Church in NZ lost many of its distinctives, adopting an aesthetic of worship far from its original practice. Within another generation, it could not find the courage to expel a man (Lloyd Geering) from the ministry whose opinions were clearly heretical. A few years after that, I attended a service where the minister said, “Prayer is talking to yourself”. (A month or two later, he left his marriage, destroying two families.)

    I’ve long pondered this sad decline in the church of my youth, and come to Joe’s conclusion, that “sola scriptura” inevitably leads to subjective interpretation. A church that espouses it cannot bind the conscience of its members. The results are woeful.

    Two swallows don’t make a summer, you might respond, but I’d say, down a coal mine, one dead canary should be enough warning.

    In the peace of Christ,


  21. Marty,

    I mentioned in the post that it occurred in the U.K. as well, so we’re up to three swallows, at least. The sheer number of local churches which went from Puritan to Unitarian over the course of time there was staggering. For what it’s worth, the largest group of non-Unitarian descendants from the Puritans was the Congregational Christian Churches, which is now part of the United Church of Christ, which is pro-choice and pro-gay marriage. So even many of those Puritan churches which didn’t become Unitarian sold out on Christianity nevertheless. Of course, that happened much latter, but to the extent that your argument is that this was some sort of historical anomaly, I’m unconvinced. Certainly, the time period played some role, but I think there’s enough to observe a general trend.

    I think it’s you who’s assuming that all Protestants understand “sola Scriptura” in the same way. I’ve done countless posts comparing and contrasting what Mathison and Obermann call “Tradition 0” with “Tradition 1.” But the fact is, the Congregationalist Puritans took a lower view of Councils and Creeds than their Presbyterian counterparts (which makes sense, given their respective views on polity). Read Chapter One of John Owen’s Greater Catechism, and I think you’ll see what I mean.

    So I don’t think it’s a stretch that a denomination dedicated to removing Catholicism’s influences from Christianity for the sake of a purer, Bible-only religion, is going to see the Trinity as a Popish innovation. That’s what’s happened in a number of modern Oneness churches as well — you’ll note that almost all of the modern “Oneness” churches have the same low view of Councils and Creeds.

    In Christ,


  22. The thread presented in the original post was that Puritans are responsible for the Unitarian debacle. Now, how impossible is that!!! Puritans are not the bad guys here. Man in his depravity has/does/will make the gospel to his liking.

    You mean that the Puritans made the gospel to their liking? Which means they (somehow) not the bad guys?

    At His Assumption, Jesus assured his followers that he would be with them until the end of the world. On Pentecost, Peter assured people that the covenant was for them and for their children.

    Yet here we face a group that sprang up and faded away within a handful of generations. God can preserve His church. God has promised to preserve His church. A transitant church argues not only its own falsity but the falsity of the means used to establish it, because they are clearly not God’s.

  23. @ Marycatelli: You misunderstand my statement. Puritanism developed because of many political and religious issues in England’s Parliament and with the earlier stranglehold of Anglican and Catholic monarchs. “Pure” is the key; not in the sense of perfection, but pure as in as close to Scripture in meaning and practice.

    My last statement in the italics above is a truth that permeates all human beings. The reading of Romans 1:18f clearly asserts that man “suppressed” the truth; that man “changed” the image of God into [read it to see]. The Puritans were not “gospel makers” but were the ones who fearlessly stood their ground against excesses in their generations which still are morphing in modern churches today.

    Today’s “false” issues deal with relativism, culture biases, and the objection to a salvation gospel message that does not mention a church, works, baptism, or any other additions either to somehow be worthy of God’s grace and faith.

    Peter is still a “stone” and Christ is the ROCK. No succession is provable; and allow me to change my wording from an earlier post — “mind control” was not intended to mean Catholics are not thinking on their own, I only insert such a strong phrase to reconcile the canon law, Tradition, Scripture, Saints who help with miracles, the mystical beliefs that some “pure” women and men make and is considered almost prophetic. Now, if the average person is not allowed to make an interpretation — it means that they may not agree and a schism arise — Let’s see, has that ever happened? When Protestants put forth an interpretation, it is most always based on a seriously refined theology (some are looney) not the whim of a few. “Oneness” is purely Pentecostal and is heretical. Please do not bring such nonsense into a dialogue when the Trinity is not a secondary thought to eternal truth. Peter said it best – 1 Perter 1:2. Peace again

    I marvel at the soon forgotten ethical and moral place given to the “Puritan work ethic.” They were people who had quirks just like Rome or LDS, etc. Who does not have an extreme wing within their group? But, by and large, the idea of being subjected to Anglican conformity or Papal dictates only pushed the idea of Scripture as the final arbiter to be the worship solution.

    @ Joe: the recognized last Puritan was Jonathan Edwards. Your quote was from a Wesleyan in 1988. Yale papers substantiate the preacher, beliefs, activities, and thorough theological scholarship Edward’s commanded (first president of Princeton though it had another name then).

    Joe, please look at the language and irresponsible conclusion from this quote: “Oh right, I forgot to respond to the actual substance — I think it’s both. They accept certain Calvinist beliefs (God’s Sovereignty, unconditional election, sola Scriptura), and then just sought to infuse them with Christian mercy and charity, but instead got a horrible Frankenbeast.” Be bigger than such low grade academics. Puritans did not add mercy and love as after thoughts. Thy understood our Lord’s teaching most clearly on love in all of John’s writings. To even describe their theology as “Frankenbeast” is supercilious.

    I thank all of you for giving me a hearing, but I live in the real world, not academics — I meet cradle Catholics, those who lapse, those who define themselves as one on their dog tags, but powerful truths you hold to are lost on Joe the Plumber. Yes, Benedict may be the best thing to happen in decades but he has his pundits as well.

    Oh, and if you really want to stir the pot, research a most interesting article by Mark Shea from March 19th or so on a “delicate subject.” It generated massive responses. What say ye? My nephew who is a Franciscan grade school success, had a major discourse over this. “I don’t want to ‘SPILL” the beans!!!!!!!!

  24. Lagniappe,

    I think you might be misreading what I’m saying, and I don’t mean to cause undue offense, so if I may clarify a few points:

    (1) I wasn’t calling Puritanism a “Frankenbeast.” I was calling the creation of Puritan-Unitarianism a Frankenbeast, since those two parts don’t go together at all. That is, the liberals were well intentioned – trying to make Puritanism seem more charitable – but the end result was a disaster.

    (2) I think both there, and in regards to the Oneness comments, you’re understanding me as saying that Puritanism IS Unitarian, or Oneness, or what have you. I’m not. The first paragraph of the original post even talked about how radically different the two groups are. My point was that “while it’s not really true that sola Scriptura always leads to heresies like Universalism and Unitarianism, it is true that as a system, it pulls out all the guard rails, like Tradition, the Church, Councils and Creeds.” We both agree that things like Unitarianism are heresies. My point is that Puritanism’s system of church government and view of history, Church, Councils, Tradition, etc., made it so that Puritanism itself proved powerless to stop those heresies. So the indictment of Puritanism was on those views, not its views on the Trinity (which were initially orthodox).

    (3) Same thing with Oneness and other non-Trinitarian theologies. Or to take a somewhat different example from within non-charismatic Evangelicalism, look at Open Theism. These are attacks on the basic foundations of Christianity (I think you and I would agree on that). And my point was that a Congregational system which rejects the Church, the authority of Creeds and Councils, and so on, quickly proves incapable of stopping those heresies from devouring the Body.

    BTW, I’m still interested in your view on whether we should accept the authority of the first seven Ecumenical Councils?

    In Christ,


    P.S. I’m looking for that Mark Shea article now…

  25. Lagniappe,

    Yes, I agree with Mark’s two points:
    (1) There are varying degrees of sin, including varying degrees of mortal sin; and
    (2) masturbation is a mortal sin.

    As for which is worse between masturbation and adultery, I generally steer clear of those questions — I generally find this unhelpful. What I did like was his last paragraph:

    “Naturally, the best place to turn with this or any other sin is the confessional: for the grace to change and the mercy one needs to confront the problem in a safe place, coupled with persistent and frequent recourse to the Eucharist and the help, prayers, and support of trusted friends and family. Also, a spiritual director or good Catholic therapist can be invaluable in helping to get to the root of the problem (which will always turn out to be some disordered pursuit of a real Good). Finding the rightly ordered way to pursue that Good is the essence of spiritual healing and will always bring peace.”


    P.S. Also, I know that there’s controversy over whether Edwards should be considered Puritan or not. He was a Calvinist, but he was a revivalist. I shirked that debate by simply referring to him as “a son of Puritanism” in my original post. He definitely grew up in, and was shaped by Puritan culture. I’d be willing to consider him a Puritan, albeit not of the traditional type.

    I know that in the comments I’ve come off as unduly hard on the Puritans, but for all their faults, I have a lot of admiration for them. My major professor in undergraduate is one of only a handful of scholars whose focus is John Owen, and he left with a genuine appreciate for their fervor for the truth. So even though I disagree with them quite bluntly here, both they and you have my respect.

  26. Lagniappe: And what does what you said have to do with my point, namely that the start-and-stop church you are describing is incompatible with the explicit promises of the Bible? A fact which casts grave doubts on your claims that they were “pure as in as close to Scripture in meaning and practice”

    And the distinction you are trying to drive between “rock” and “stone” doesn’t exists in Aramic, the language Jesus spoke. Peter was Kephas — Rock. That they masculinizes the form of rock in Greek rather than call him by a girl’s name doesn’t change the meaning.

  27. Regarding the Mathers, the sad benightedness of the UUs, the commentator’s pot-smoking priest, another commentator’s Dunedin debacle, etc et al:

    “I am the vine, ye the branches; he who is remaining in me, and I in him, this one doth bear much fruit, because apart from me ye are not able to do anything.”

    All these groups and individuals are without the Eucharist (to say nothing of some other Sacraments).

    Without His Body and Blood, communally or personally, the incredulity begins immediately within our fallen natures, followed by heresies, apostasies, schisms. Denial of the Trinity, denial of hell’s existence (a favorite of the demon). How’s it working out for the what, 3k, 10k, protestant splinters? Without Him we can do nothing. We need the Eucharist and His vicar, Peter.

    Otherwise we are sheep without a shepherd — actually, sheep who have foregone their shepherd, but whose shepherd still exists and wants them. Some band together in small groups thinking that will avail them some level of safety without the shepherd or his dog. Some stand alone in a little cleft, or under a bush, thinking their stillness and quietness will avoid the wolf’s senses. All are wrong: “terror on every side!” The demon stalks and is feasting on us fools. Pride keeps us away from the one who saves. YOU HAVE TO CONSUME HIM AS HE INDICATED TO US. MANY WALKED AWAY AND HE DID NOT FORCE THEM TO STAY. We write autobiographical excuses giving dulia and latria to the proud litany of excuses, secret histories, and explanations for the way we will not receive his Body and Blood. Non serviam.

  28. Thanks for the heads’ up, Unknown. A couple of the commenters had good contributions (like caddy). Unfortunately, a lot of it is of the standard Puritan Board caliber, personal attacks and name calling in lieu of coherent reason:

    “What’s ironic about the article is that it is the member of an idolatrous Church speculating how some grandchildren of Puritans became idolatrous.

    Earth to Joe Heschmeyer: Your Church has an unbroken tradition of idolatry from the 16th Century to the present. The fact that your Magisterium has consistently entrenched the Church of Rome in its idolatry is to its judgment and not its credit.”

    So the Puritans didn’t become Unitarians because I’m Catholic?

    That to one side, it does seem like some of the people on there were genuinely interested in the question. The answers so far, from those who have bothered to answer, have mostly been “parents weren’t catechizing their children correctly.”

    Ignoring the implications that sort of answer has for a predestinarian view, it still doesn’t explain why those kids became Universalists specifically. What was it that made this particular theological system so disproportionately attractive?

    My argument, in a nutshell, is that part of Universalism’s appeal is that it’s one logical terminus of monergism. If God’s Sovereignty is such that free will and our faithlessness serve as no obstacle to His ability to save, God could just as easily will to save everyone. If it doesn’t violate God’s Holiness to save one unworthy sinner (without regard to that sinner’s faith, or contrition) by imputing Christ’s “alien righteousness” to him, then it’s hard to understand why it violates His Holiness to do this to all sinners.

    So far, a number of commenters have balked at this argument, declaring it wrong, but none have even attempted to present an argument as to why it’s wrong.



  29. “My argument, in a nutshell, is that part of Universalism’s appeal is that it’s one logical terminus of monergism. If God’s Sovereignty is such that free will and our faithlessness serve as no obstacle to His ability to save, God could just as easily will to save everyone.”

    But what if no one is lost to begin with and therefore there is no need to be saved?

  30. Unitarianism is the foundation of Islam Hanifia or monotheism, Deism. European traditions, i.e. the actual that are evident from primary sources analysis not the forged literary myths, indicate their individual and society bears signs of an Islamic origin. With the passage of time, after the demise of Islamic civilization, that foundation gradually deteriorated with time and we reached at the present state.

  31. Good article.

    Though, I’m not sure if this shows that a strict Calvinism fell and was prone to falling (to atheism/Unitarianism), but instead rather that a Calvinism that drifted toward a theology of common grace was prone to dissolving itself through the logic of its theology.

    If “everyone” is saved through common grace then I can see the slippery slope; but when the doctrine of the elect and particular grace is upheld, then I believe that Calvinism might just persevere.

    Arguably, a Calvinism with and without common grace are different religions.

    Arguably, a Calvinism with common grace is little different at its core from any semi-pelagian theology, and that the difference between it and “hyper-calvinism” is the roughly the same difference, in core theological structure, between hyper-calvinism and Catholicism. Thus, I propose that one could also lay the blame for atheism at almost any religion that incorporates elements of pelagianism (and thus eventually individual subjectivism). I submit that the slippery slope lies with any amount of free will theology.

    If this isn’t true, then I propose that one would have to show that free will theology in its most extreme form leads to perfect Christian conservatism. Though, I admittedly have an inherent mistrust of the ability of any middle to keep its integrity. I believe that all hybrid systems eventually disintegrate toward the poles. Hence, my suggestion of an analysis of the extreme forms of both ends of the free will theological spectrum, a least toward a logical deconstruction of the path toward Unitarianism.

    I don’t put much stake in the vulnerable government view as, outside of the Orthodox, Judaism has somewhat weak local government and, as long as their particularism is upheld, this seems to not pose much of a subversion problem.

    I don’t think that proposed scriptural argument losses have ever drastically changed most religions outside of the influence of charismatic leaders or influential theologians from within their camp. Though, subtle influences on the popular level might be felt from such arguments.

  32. To clear things up a little more:

    1. Faith has to be present to signify salvation. No elected is without faith. Those without faith are not elect and not saved, unless they come to it on their own sometime in their life. Then they are assumed to always have been saved.

    2. Deciding to have faith does not make one elected, and neither does following any type of moral system or law. The grace, or ability to do right or good, comes before the righteous action. If the action came before the grace, then that separates God from “good”. ie: now God is not the archetypal source of good and holiness; instead we can know what that good is without God’s influence.

    This is a confusing concept, and I rarely see its implications explored. Other than what I just explained, this is my take: this theological concept is designed to separate individuals who are inherently unholy or bad (no innate ability to choose good reflexively) but who follow laws and rules well, from individuals who are reflexively good (the elect; full of gods grace that compels them to choose good).

    It’s essentially a means of separating inherently good people from the devious and socially cancerous. Hence, the reluctance to randomly spread the gospel in some more conservative Calvinist circles. Spreading the gospel encourages a calculated choice toward an expression of faith, rather than a choice compelled by the natural (god given) goodness in the person that is a signature of the elect.

  33. It’s really disheartening to see people who see themselves as being God’s servants, and therefore “good people” to basically talk about how uniting people and not squabbling over religious beliefs is somehow a BAD thing. How is it depraved to think God would want us to get along and not fight, and come together and be good to one another? It seems depraved to me that people think they can speak for God- that their own personal religious beliefs are the ones handed down by God. That anyone who believes differently should be shunned and told they’re going to hell.

    I hope one day your hearts are more open, and you’re less concerned with everyone believing what you do, and stop calling people who believe differently “depraved.” Follow Jesus’s example.

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