To James Freeman

    Philadelphia        14 February 1796

    My dear Sir—

    I have just returned from the Universal meeting house; and I hasten to tell you I had the pleasure of hearing our friend Doctor [Joseph] Priest[l]ey.1 He came to this City on Fryday evening, and tho it was but sparsely know[n], or hinted that it was probable he would preach this morning, the meeting house was very much crouded. And I believe I may safely add—He gave universal satisfaction, for as I returned in the street it seem’d as if every tongue was engaged in speaking his praise, or censuring the Clergy of the City.2 Can you believe it—not one of the regular clergy here had civility enough to invite him to preach, tho he was some time in the City when he first arrived, or even decency to permit him, on request of his friends, to enter their pulpets to deliver a Lecture! I am assured this is a fact! However I shall now consider the partition wall of Bigotry & narrowmindedness, that has hitherto seperated the clergy of this City from true christian candor & that Liberality of sentiment which is almost inseperably associated with science & usefull knowledge, as having met with a fatal breach thro’ which these virtues will enter. We all recollect what an opposition there was, but a few years ago, to the preaching of Universalism in Boston—And to Unitarianism in that & other Towns in Massachusetts—Yet, at this time, these doctrines are rapidly spreading; & by very few esteemed dangerous.

    If reason be a characteristic of Man, ’tis impossible this principle can be improved by study and experience, and the doctrines of eternal punishment & the Calvinistic Divinity of Jesus retain their former possession of the human mind—Reason or these doctrines must be renounced; the time is coming when they cannot exist in the same mind—It is already commenced. And it would be as easy to change the established course of the Solar System as to stop the progression of Reason, & turn it retrograde in favour of these absurd doctrines.

    It is scarce twenty years since Universalism was opposed in Boston by the Logic of stones & brick-bats;3 and little more than half that time period will carry us back to the time when it was uncertain whether Unitarianism would succeed in the conflict it was engaged in with the folly & prejudices of the old Trinitarian System.

    Five years ago a preacher, who called himself a Unitarian, gave out that on a certain day he should deny & publicly disprove the Calvinistic idea of the Divinity of Jesus—in consequence of which declaration the room, which the preacher had engaged by contract for two or three months, was taken from him, and the door nailed up—And he was obliged to flee from the City.4 It appears probable to me, that, at that time, no human character would have been able to oppose itself to the torrent of prejudice which would set in this City against the man who should have made the same attempt. But now such a preacher is listned to with a pleasing attention, & attended by a thronging multitude.

    I predict that ten or a dozen years will extinguish most of this narrowness of mind; and tho some of the Clergy may act like the Scribes & Pharisees, in the time of Jesus, the great body of the people will think for themselves—

    They will see that the object and nature of divine punishment is reformation, and therefore not eternal—And that all the supposed Divinity of Jesus more than his being a man aided by divine power to do what he did, & what mere human power could not effect is equally unsupported by Scripture, & unfounded in Reason.

    Yesterday I called upon the Doctor [Priestley], & had considerable conversation with him—He keeps at Mr. Russells5—I had not seen Mr. Russell before—He pressed me hard to stop & dine in a family way, with him & the Doctor—But it was not in my power—Mr. Russell was extremly civil—He enquired after you, & expressed a wish to settle near Boston—He sais ’tis yet altogether uncertain where he shall make his final abode—He has a great attachment to the Doctor, & wishes to settle as near him as he can—

    I joined him in pressing the Doctor to make a Visit to New-England—& I think we shall prevail—Mr. Russell sais, he really believes the Doctor, having come to a determination not to seperate from his children who are fixed at Northumberland in this State, is afraid to trust himself on a visit to Boston, lest he should not be willing to return—I shall visit him frequently6

    I cant leave the Doctor yet—The Vice President, [Oliver] Elsworth, Cabot,7 [Theodore] Sedgwick, & many others of both houses of Congress attended him.

    Judge Iredle, with whom I spoke after service, expressed himself in raptures8—“Good God, said he, what would I give to hear him as long as I live”—“I never heard such a discourse in my Life[.]” I told him the Doctor will preach every sunday morning for two months—“will he, said he, I will not fail on any account to attend”—

    His sermon was from these words in Proverbs—“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom; but the fool” &c.9—I have already said too much to permit me to say any thing more than to add this Sermon is an introduction to a series of Discourses he means to Deliver on the Evidences of Revelation—

    Mr. Winchester is a Universalist—pretty much upon Docr. [Charles] Chauncys Scheme—I have but just become acquainted with him10—Perhaps, hereafter, you will hear again from,

    Dear Sir, your friend & obedient Servant—

    * * *

    ALS, James Freeman Clarke Additional Correspondence, 1787-1886 (MS Am 1569.7), Houghton Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. Much-abridged versions of this letter, each repeating some of the same transcription errors (such as “Treble” and “Preble” for “Iredle”), were published in two nineteenth century sources. The first was the essay “Encouragement for Preachers,” by the famous Unitarian minister and Transcendentalist reformer James Freeman Clarke, who almost certainly inherited the letter among a small cache of Thatcher’s letters to his step-grandfather Rev. James Freeman ([Louisville, Ky.] Western Messenger, v. 4-5[1838]:323-25). The second was published in “Priestley Letters,” pp. 39-40.