A more thorough trinitarian: Reconsidering Moses Stuart's role in the trinitarian debate in New England, 1819--1850

Jeffrey A Wilcox, Marquette University


Before the first decade of the nineteenth century had come to a close the precarious theological consensus in antebellum New England Congregationalism was beginning to crumble. The inevitable spread of Europe's Enlightenments on to the colonial shores joined with the nascent impulses of a young democracy and an increasing emphasis on experiential religion to subtly undermine the institutions and presuppositions of the "old tyme religion." The mainly Reformed theological identity of New England religion increasing came in for criticism and finally even open skepticism. While the core theological emphases on humanity's original sin and man's total depravity were among the first doctrines to be rationalized into insignificance, traditional notions of the Trinity and the person of Christ were also under severe scrutiny. The tensions ultimately came to a head when William Ellery Channing challenged the hegemony of New England orthodoxy by way of his now famous sermon Unitarian Christianity . The battle was immediately joined by Andover theologian Moses Stuart. His Letters to Channing inaugurated a more than thirty year career attending to an articulation of trinitarianism that would more than meet the challenges of theological friend and foe alike. Subsequent renditions of this period in American religious history have emphasized the significance of the more anthropological and ethical nature of the debates, while suggesting that the controversies over the doctrines of the Trinity and the person of Christ, and in particular Stuart's contributions to the discussion, were less important. It is not clear that this narrative can continue to be sustained. While the popularity of Stuart's response to Channing suggests a real concern for trinitarian orthodoxy among New England's Congregational establishment, Stuart was also concerned to advance a trinitarian theology that was both faithful to scripture and relevant to the church in a new world and a new time. His internecine debates with the advocates for a more confessional trinitarian identity along with his critical engagement with and translation of Friedrich Schleiermacher's essay on the development of the fourth-century trinitarian controversy should establish Stuart as one of more innovative theological minds of antebellum era in New England theology.

Recommended Citation

Wilcox, Jeffrey A, "A more thorough trinitarian: Reconsidering Moses Stuart's role in the trinitarian debate in New England, 1819--1850" (2008). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI3306524.