Were Unitarians Evangelical?

David Barton told Liberty University students in their September 9 chapel that Unitarians were at one time “a very evangelical Christian denomination.” In his effort to define what he called modernism, he said this about the Unitarians the late 18th and early 19th century:

And the example of that is what happens when you look at Universalist Unitarians; certainly not a denomination that conforms to biblical truth in any way but as it turns out, we have a number of Founding Fathers  who were Unitarians. So we say, oh wait, there’s no way the Founding Fathers could have been Christians; they were Unitarians. Well, unless you know what a Unitarian was in 1784 and what happened to Unitarians in 1819 and 1838 and unless you recognize they used to be a very evangelical Christian denomination, we look at what they are today and say the Founding Fathers were Unitarians, and say, there’s no way they were Christians. That’s modernism; that’s not accurate; that’s not true.

Barton is correct that one cannot judge Unitarians then by the beliefs of Unitarian Universalists now. I don’t know if any serious historian does that, but if so, it would be misleading. However, Mr. Barton did not stop with that claim. He added that Unitarianism during the Founding era was a “very evangelical Christian denomination.”
Researching this claim, I came across a well-written post by Jon Rowe. Rowe describes himself as “a libertarian lawyer and college professor” who writes on issues relating politics and religion. In 2007, Rowe provided a nice outline of the unitarian thought among the Founders. Here are some snippets:

The term “unitarian” has to be qualified because it is associated with a particular Church of which only John Adams (and his son) were members. And even with Adams’ Church, though it preached unitarianism as of 1750, it didn’t officially become “Unitarian” until the 19th Century. Jefferson, Madison, and Washington were all theological unitarians who were formally members of the Anglican/Episcopal Church, which held to a Trinitarian creed. Besides theological unitarianism, these Founders also believed in theological universalism, syncretism, rationalism. So if we want a common term to describe the religious beliefs of the 5 key founders — the first four presidents and Ben Franklin — “proto-unitarian” might do, as well as some others, for instance “theistic rationalism.”

I like either of those terms. Either way you cut it, however, the Founders in question were not evangelicals, nor was Unitarianism “a very evangelical Christian denomination.” Speaking about key Founders, Rowe writes:

The most common sense explanation for why Washington didn’t commune was that he disbelieved in what it represented: Christ’s Atonement. And logic also dictates if one doesn’t believe in the Atonement, one also doesn’t believe in the Trinity and Incarnation. And one need not be a “strict Deist” to disbelieve in the Trinity, Incarnation, and Atonement. Indeed, the other key Founders — Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and Madison — following Joseph Priestly believed in this system of “pro-unitarianism” that denied the Trinity, Incarnation, and Atonement, yet still believed in an active personal God, prayer, the legitimacy of some revelation, and often presented itself under the label of “Christianity,” not “Deism.”

Barton, in his speech to the Liberty students identified Jared Sparks as a contemporary who testified to Washington’s Christianity. But guess what? Sparks was a Unitarian. At that time, one could be a Unitarian and considered a Christian, especially by other Unitarians. However, Unitarians were not orthodox and by any definition of evangelicalism, can’t be considered evangelical. Rowe explains further:

So it was not just the “strict Deists” in the Trinitarian Churches who refused to commune, but also the “unitarians” some of who, like Marshall could be quite “biblical,” believing in the “Christian Revelation,” others like Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams, rationalists who elevated reason over revelation. And because this “unitarianism” often presented itself under the auspices of “Christianity,” key contemporaneous testimony that Washington and other Founders were “Christians” is not inconsistent with the notion that they were such “proto-unitarians.” Indeed, John Marshall himself was one such testifier of Washington’s Christianity as was Jared Sparks. And both were “unitarians” who disbelieved in the Trinity, Incarnation, and Atonement, but still understood themselves to be “Christians.” In all likelihood, so was George Washington.

I urge you to read the entire post and check out Rowe’s blog.