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 Contents: UU World May/June 2002
Contents: May/June 2002

Samuel Gilman, early champion of Southern Unitarianism

by Christopher L. Walton

When Unitarian Universalists think of ideals like the separation of church and state or the interdependent web of all existence, we imagine principles that enhance the rights of all human beings. It can be something of a rude awakening to see how versions of these very principles, held by devoted religious liberals, have been used to defend something as odious as slavery.

A new book, Unitarianism in the Antebellum South: The Other Invisible Institution by John Allen Macaulay (University of Alabama Press, 2001; $32.95), tells the story of Unitarianism's surprising influence in America's Southern states in the first half of the nineteenth century. One of the central characters in this story, the Rev. Samuel Gilman (1791-1858), served for almost forty years in Charleston, South Carolina, where he walked a fine line between promoting Unitarianism throughout the South and trying to distance Southern Unitarians from the growing wave of abolitionism among Unitarians in the North.

Gilman arrived in Charleston in 1819 with his wife Caroline, who edited one of America's first periodicals for children. Gilman was called to serve the liberal Archdale Street Church, founded in 1817. He launched the Charleston Unitarian Book and Tract Society, "the first organization in the United States for the circulation of Unitarian literature," in 1821, four years before the establishment of the American Unitarian Association. Within ten years, he helped establish Unitarian churches in Augusta and Savannah, Georgia. Unitarian churches emerged in Richmond, Virginia, and Mobile, Alabama, and the "Stranger's Church" in New Orleans evolved into a Unitarian church, too.

The sermon Gilman preached for the dedication of the Augusta church, Unitarian Christianity Free from Objectionable Extremes, became a manifesto for many Southern Unitarians. "Gilman believed that the genteel notions of balance, harmony, and structure in the hierarchical world view of the South were completely congruent with the simplicity, symmetry, and purity of the Unitarian faith," Macaulay writes.

This is where Gilman's theology can make us wince. Like many Unitarians, Gilman rejected doctrines that weren't explicitly stated in the Bible — like the Trinity. But Gilman and most Southern Unitarians also didn't oppose doctrines and practices that were explicitly defended in the Bible — like slavery. In fact, Gilman was a slaveholder. He wrote in 1844 about educating "little James" for "ultimate freedom," but James was still a slave in 1860 — two years after Gilman's death.

Macaulay writes that in Southern cities, slave ownership "served as a symbol of prestige and gentility" for urban professionals. And Southern Unitarians were overwhelmingly drawn from the urban educated professional class. Gilman never defended slavery from the pulpit, although he advocated reforms to the system. His wife and some of his colleagues did publish defenses of slavery — primarily, Macaulay argues, to protect themselves from the growing association of Unitarianism with abolitionism and thus preserve their status. The separation of church and state, Gilman believed, required ministers to avoid politics in the pulpit. Furthermore, servitude was a moral relationship, and religion taught people to observe the proper limits and obligations of their relationships. And, the Southern Unitarians argued, because masters were morally responsible for the conditions of their slaves, slavery was more moral than the industrial capitalism emerging in the North.

Some Northern Unitarians, influenced by Transcendentalism and less afraid of mixing religion and politics, vigorously championed abolition, and the "Unitarian" name quickly lost what status it had in the South. By the time the Southern states seceded, only the Unitarian churches in Charleston and New Orleans survived.

voices from the past

Separate and Misunderstood

Standing . . . as we do, separated from other denominations of Christians, sustained but by our Bibles and consciences, it is incumbent that our light so shine, that all should see, comprehend, and duly appreciate our religious platform. We are misunderstood, doubtless the result of misconceptions rather than intolerance; but not the less is it obligatory that the public mind be disinfected.

Twenty-Eighth Annual Report of the Managers of the Charleston Unitarian Book and Tract Society, Charleston, South Carolina, 1849.

 Contents: UU World May/June 2002
UU World XVI:3 (May/June 2002): 64

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