Founders of the Massachusetts Bible Society - 1809

The Massachusetts Bible Society began on July 6, 1809 and is an ecumenical, Christian organization dedicated to promoting Biblical literacy, understanding, and dialogue. This blog lists brief biographies of our founders who gathered in the Massachusetts State House Senate Chamber on that historic day to sign the Charter founding MBS. Please visit our website: www.massbible.org.

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Location: Newton Centre, MA, United States

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Rev. James Freeman

James Freeman is noted as being the first avowed Unitarian minister in the United States, making King’s Chapel, the first Episcopal Church in New England, into the first Unitarian Church in the United States.


Rev. Freeman was born in Charlestown on April 22, 1759, graduated from Harvard in 1777 and after several years studying theology, prepared a group of men in Cape Cod for service in the Army. While sailing to Quebec for peaceful purposes in 1780, he was captured by a privateer and held in a Quebec prison ship for several months. Once released from the ship he remained in the city on parole for two more years.


Returning to Boston, Freeman became a Lay Reader at King’s Chapel, popularly known as “Stone Chapel” because of anti-British sentiment. After six weeks as a reader, Rev. Freeman was asked to be the pastor, although before accepting, he made an unusual request. He asked to have the liturgy free of the Athanasian Creed, as he could not in good conscience say it. As it turns out, the congregation wasn’t fond of it anyway, and his wish was granted.


As Rev. Freeman continued his theological reading, he became more and more discontented with the liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer and the doctrine of the Trinity to the point where he suggested that he resign his post. To explain his position, he preached a series of sermons, believing that they would be his last. Again, however, the congregation surprised him, removed Trinitarian language from the liturgy and eliminated references to God the Father, becoming the first church in the United States to do so.


The church did, however, want to remain Episcopalian and petitioned the Bishop to ordain James Freeman as their rector. He would not. The church then arranged for a lay ordination, naming Rev. Freeman “Rector, Minister, Priest, Pastor, and Ruling Elder” of Stone Chapel.


He was later appointed to a committee to consider the creation of a formal body and in 1825 the American Unitarian Association was formed.


Freeman served in many benevolent, literary and historical societies and was a delegate to the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention. Ill health forced his retirement to Newton in 1826 where he died on November 14, 1835.

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