Whitman, Bernard

Bernard Whitman
Bernard Whitman

Bernard Whitman (June 8, 1796-November 5, 1834), Unitarian minister, educator, apologist, and missionary, worked to spread Unitarianism beyond New England and the educated class. He brought Restorationists and other informally trained ministers into Unitarian fellowship.

Born in East Bridgewater, Massachusetts, Bernard was the thirteenth child of Deacon John Whitman. Deacon Whitman, a liberal trinitarian throughout his long life, was tolerant of other points of view than his own. It did not distress him that three of his sons, Nathaniel, Bernard and Jason, were Unitarian ministers. As deacon, he boarded candidates for ministry at the parish church. Acquaintance with these candidates, as well as the deacon’s lay leadership, influenced his sons’ career choice.

Bernard worked on his father’s farm and studied in the local school until he was 16. He then worked two years in cotton factories in Mansfield and Hanson, Massachusetts, saving money for his higher education. He attended a school in Bridgewater for a short period and then spent two years, 1815-17, at an academy in Exeter, Massachusetts. At Exeter he became a Calvinist. He wrote to a sister that he was embarrassed by the Unitarian preaching of his older brother Nathaniel. In 1817 he entered Harvard University. Having resolved not to listen to Unitarian heresy, he often slept during chapel sermons.

Early in Whitman’s second year at Harvard, a mock battle between the sophomore and the freshmen students in Commons Hall got out of hand. Two students were suspended, one of them, Whitman’s best friend and roommate. The student body, regarding the punishment as unjust, went on strike. Whitman made a passionate speech under an elm known as the “rebellion tree.” Because he had been awarded a scholarship (excused from paying fees) and had acted as a leader of the protest, Whitman was among the few students suspended for the remainder of the school year. During his period of “rustication” he kept pace, on his own, with the University curriculum. At the period’s end, however, Harvard declined to restore his class standing and would only readmit him to the class below. Unhappy with these terms, he reentered Harvard briefly so that he could leave voluntarily in a more honorable manner.

During his year of private study Whitman was attracted to the spirituality and altruism in the religious teaching of Emmanuel Swedenborg, though he at length decided the truth of Swedenborgianism was no more than that held in common with other religions. But having developed a critical eye, he questioned the validity of particular doctrines of other sects as well, including the divinity of Christ for which he could find no convincing evidence in scripture.

In 1819 Whitman moved to Billerica, Massachusetts where his brother Nathaniel was minister. Bernard now accepted his Unitarian brother’s offer of books to read as he studied for the ministry. In Billerica he taught school and, in 1820, was chosen to be the first head of Billerica Academy. He also founded a “social circle” for young women seeking to advance their intellectual and religious development. He later organized a similar circle in Beverly, Massachusetts.

From 1821-22 Whitman studied under a Calvinist preacher, Timothy Davis, at Wellfleet, Massachusetts. Dissatisfied, he moved to Beverly to work with Rev. Abiel Abbot, a liberal minister whose congregation included both Unitarians and Trinitarians. Abbot taught him to simplify and organize his writing. In 1824 Whitman was given license to preach, and afterward stayed in several towns in Massachusetts and New Hampshire for short periods during which he learned to preach without notes. During his stay in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, he edited a newspaper.

In late 1825 Whitman was called by the Second Religious Society in Waltham, Massachusetts, a church gathered a few years earlier for the workers and managers of the recently founded textile mills. Among his parishioners were young women recruited from all over New England to work in the “Lowell system” mills. This new system, which added mechanized weaving to spinning, also replaced the family and child labor that was an essential feature of the older “Slater-style” mills. The care and education of unmarried young women, newly separated from their families, became the responsibility of the manufacturers, the community, and the churches.

Whitman, with his experience in education and young ladies’ social circles, was well equipped to help meet the needs of Waltham’s new residents. Around 1826 Whitman helped to found a lyceum in Waltham, the Rumford Institute. He taught the mill girls courses in grammar, geography and religion. In 1828 in a Thanksgiving Discourse, On the Means of Increasing Public Happiness, he offered a plan for improving public education. To forward one of his proposals, free access to books, he opened his personal library to the public.

Shortly after his settlement at Waltham, Whitman married Elizabeth Hartwell Crosby, a member of his “social circle” in Billerica. They had two children, one of whom survived to adulthood. Elizabeth died of tuberculosis in 1831. The following year he married one of Elizabeth’s close friends, Sarah Bowers.

Before Whitman’s arrival the Unitarian Controversy had already affected the Waltham’s Second Religious Society. In 1825 the parish had dismissed the first minister, Sewall Harding, for his refusal to exchange pulpits with Unitarians. Harding and his supporters had gathered yet another new Waltham congregation, and from its orthodox pulpit Harding campaigned against the Second Society and its minister, calling them anti-Christian. In 1827 Whitman, though reluctant to widen the growing schism and wishing it were possible to avoid the Unitarian label, responded with a published sermon, Denying the Lord Jesus. He contended that those who called Jesus “God,” and worshipped him, actually denied Jesus, and that Unitarians, in general, did not.

Denying the Lord Jesus was widely circulated and made Whitman’s reputation as a Unitarian defender. The American Unitarian Association (AUA) published his sermon on Christian salvation as a tract. In 1830 Whitman defended William Ellery Channing—accused of intolerance by Moses Stuart, a professor at Andover Seminary—in Two Letters to Reverend Moses Stuart; on the Subject of Religious Liberty. Whitman wrote, “The measures, attempted and adopted by the leaders of the orthodox denomination in our country for the preservation and propagation of their peculiar views of religion are subversive of free inquiry, religious liberty, and the principles of congregationalism.”

Whitman was not pleased to be identified as Unitarian. He opposed both sectarian names and any statement of belief beyond adherence to the Bible. He insisted that everyone should be allowed “perfect religious liberty” to use their own judgment and should, in turn, grant the same privilege to others. Doctrinal preaching, he held, should only a matter of personal witness to what makes sense to the preacher. Otherwise, ministers should teach “Practical Christianity,” such as how to live by the Golden Rule. In 1832 he preached the sermon Christian Union at the installation of Adin Ballou. Addressing Ballou he said, “I have not presumed to catechise you respecting your peculiar opinions, neither have you shown a disposition to ascertain if my distinguishing views are orthodox. I make no concessions. I ask no concessions. It is enough for me to know that you have searched the scriptures faithfully, that you have formed a christian character, and that your whole energies are devoted to the promotion of practical religion.”

Whitman’s chief mission as a minister was to extend the range and appeal of Unitarianism, that it might be less a specialized sect and more clearly part of the Church Universal. Most of the earliest American Unitarian churches were in eastern Massachusetts. Whitman traveled to Maine, Connecticut, Virginia, Kentucky and Ohio to preach his liberal faith. He urged other New England Unitarian ministers, largely in vain, to make such trips. His missionary work brought him a call in 1831 to the new church in Cincinnati and appointment in 1833 as General Secretary of the AUA, both of which he declined.

In Whitman’s understanding Unitarianism was not only for the wealthy and learned classes, but was truth for all. His preaching appealed to laborers in the mills who wished to hear his plain and practical sermons. He encouraged young men who had could not afford a university education to enter Unitarian ministry. He also extended fellowship to Restorationist ministers, Universalists who, because of their insistence on the doctrine of punishment in the afterlife, had broken with the New England Universalist General Convention. Some Restorationist ministers served Unitarian congregations. Whitman took no position on universal salvation, but found Restorationist belief in a limited punishment sufficiently consistent with Unitarianism.

Some Unitarian colleagues took issue with Whitman’s association with Universalists and criticized him for bringing unlearned ministers into fellowship. He wrote, “I admit that the more learning the better.” But he argued that Unitarian extension depended upon variety in the ministry. Less learned ministers were often the “best men for many places, because plain in their manner of preaching, ardent, [they] have entered upon the work from their interest in the success of religion and not because they have got through college and must have a profession.”

His engagement with Restorationists brought Whitman into controversy with some Universalists. In 1832 Lucius Paige attacked his Village Sermons in the Trumpet and Universalist Magazine. In 1833 Whitman responded with Friendly Letters to a Universalist, to which Universalist theologian Walter Balfour replied in 1834 with A Letter to the Rev. Bernard Whitman, on the Term Gehenna. The Trumpet‘s editor, Thomas Whittemore, closely monitored and critiqued Whitman’s activity. Whitman’s Restorationist friend Adin Ballou vigorously defended him in the Independent Messenger.

The friendship and countenance of Whitman and other sympathetic Unitarians, such as Samuel J. May, helped to sustain the Restorationists in the early 1830s and even gave rise to hopes for some form of Unitarian and Universalist union. Whitman’s call for Practical Christianity found a kindred spirit in Ballou. The inhabitants of Hopedale, the religious community Ballou later founded, were called simply “Practical Christians.”

In 1834, his last year of life, Whitman became convinced that he should take a stand against slavery. Also in that year he edited a new monthly magazine, The Unitarian, which he envisioned as an instrument for spreading liberal religion throughout the country. Among its contributors, besides himself, were Frederic Henry Hedge, Orestes Brownson, Noah Worcester and Cyrus Bartol. Whitman wrote, “We selected this title not indeed, we trust, in a sectarian spirit, that is, with a view of exciting divisions and fostering animosities, nor yet to help a party-object, but simply to show our colours.”

In the spring of 1834, while giving a series of Temperance addresses Whitman became ill and was soon bedridden with tuberculosis, infected probably by exposure to his first wife and her family. His illness progressed rapidly. He died late in the year. A Waltham colleague, Samuel Ripley, said in his funeral address, Whitman “filled and nobly sustained a wider sphere of action than most men.”


Among Whitman’s writings not mentioned above are articles in the Unitarian Advocate, the Christian Register, and the Independent Messenger; National Defence (1829), an address to the militia; A Reply to the Review of Whitman’s Letters to Professor Stuart, in the “Spirit of the Pilgrims” (1831); and An Address Delivered at the Dedication of the Masonic Temple in Boston (1832). The most detailed biographical information about Whitman is in Jason Whitman, Memoir of the Rev. Bernard Whitman (1837). His relationship with the Restorationists is outlined in Adin Ballou, Autobiography (1896). Samuel A. Eliot‘s Heralds of a Liberal Faith, vol. 2 (1910) has a biographical chapter. Obituaries include G. R., “Memoir of Rev. Bernard Whitman,” Independent Messenger (January 3, 1835, reprinted from the Boston Observer); Samuel Ripley, “Address Delivered at the Funeral of Rev. Bernard Whitman,” Independent Messenger (November 29, 1834, reprinted from Christian Register); and “Obituary,” The Unitarian (December 1834).

Article by Peter Hughes
Posted June 24, 2003