The Unitarian Conscience: Harvard Moral Philosophy, 1805-1861

The Unitarian Conscience: Harvard Moral Philosophy, 1805-1861

The Unitarian Conscience: Harvard Moral Philosophy, 1805-1861

The Unitarian Conscience: Harvard Moral Philosophy, 1805-1861

Excerpt

Henry Adams looked back with inimitable irony on the New England Unitarianism in which he had been reared. "Viewed from Mount Vernon Street, the problem of life was as simple as it was classic," he reminisced. "Politics offered no difficulties, for there the moral law was a sure guide. Social perfection was also sure, because human nature worked for Good." Reflecting upon the intellectual leaders of antebellum Boston, Adams found their optimism superficial and irritating. Yet, from his vantage point of final disillusionment, he mingled his sarcasm with nostalgia.

Nothing quieted doubt so completely as the mental calm of the Unitarian clergy. In uniform excellence of life and character, moral and intellectual, the score of Unitarian clergymen about Boston, who controlled society and Harvard College, were never excelled. They proclaimed as their merit that they insisted on no doctrine, but taught, or tried to teach, the means of leading a virtuous, useful, unselfish life, which they held to be sufficient for salvation. For them, difficulties might be ignored; doubts were waste of thought; nothing exacted solution. Boston had solved the universe.

Unitarian Boston's answer to the problems of the universe will be the subject of this book.

MORAL PHILOSOPHY

What follows is neither an institutional history of Harvard University nor a denominational history of the Unitarian church. Instead, it represents an attempt to describe a certain frame of mind that prevailed at Harvard, and among many Unitarian clergymen trained there, for the first two thirds of the nineteenth century. For this purpose, "moral philosophy" as then defined provides a logical starting point. Today . . .

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