Dispatches from the Creation Wars

The Universalists On Elihu Palmer

Elihu Palmer was a notable Founding Father who veered more towards the “Deist” side than any of the “key Founders” including Jefferson. The text notes Palmer became head of the “Columbian Illuminati.” Pretty cool. Or perhaps pretty cool name for a band.

A book about Universalism published in 1884 details some of his theological journey from Christianity to Unitarianism to Deism:

The Articles of Faith, although couched in language that may seem to be designedly ambiguous, making allowance for a large diversity of opinion to be entertained by those who should accept them as a common platform, were no doubt intended as a statement of the Trinitarianism of the Convention. This is evident from the subsequent action of the Philadelphia church, organized by the union of the Murrayites and Winchesterians, in July, 1790, which at once accepted the Articles, in ruling out the application of an avowed Unitarian for membership, on the ground that their creed would not allow them to accept him. The Philadelphia church, writing to George Richards, March 14,1792, said: —

“No doubt Brother Gordon mentioned to you a Mr. Palmer who was preaching with us when he left this city for Boston. This young man offered himself to become a member of our church, but before the time for admitting him his sentiments were Buspected of being Socinian, if not Deistical. He was accordingly examined, and confessed that he did believe Jesus to be the natural son of Joseph and Mary, begotten by ordinary generation. This made his membership with us inadmissible at that time. He still continues the same, and hath withdrawn from us, and hath gotten other places to preach in, where he can preach that sentiment freely, and that to crowded audiences.”

The person thus referred to was Elihu Palmer, a native of Canterbury, Conn., born in 1764. He has been called a deist, and probably was so later in life; but in 1792 his disbelief in the doctrine of the Trinity would have been likely to have gained him the reputation of being a deist, even if he had professed unwavering faith in revealed religion. Denied the fellowship of the Universalists, Mr. Palmer, with a few followers, obtained a room in Church Alley, and commenced preaching there in March, 1791. Somewhere in 1788 or 1789, John Fitch, the inventor of the steamboat, and Henry Voight, his associate in that enterprise, who were avowed deists, believing, as they claimed, only in “the God of Nature,” discovered from conversation with others that there were a sufficient number of persons in Philadelphia in sympathy with their views to justify an attempt at an organization. It was not, however, till February, 1790, that they succeeded in perfecting their plans, and organized what they called “The Universal Society.” In order to separate themselves and their society as much as possible from all Christian influences, it was resolved among the members to cease the use of Anno Domini, and to date their era from the establishment of “The Universal Society.”

The announcement that Mr. Palmer was to preach on the date above mentioned, and the circumstances under which his meeting was held, attracted much attention throughout Philadelphia; and “The Universal Society,” which at that time numbered forty members, especially interested themselves to give the persecuted man, as they styled him, all the aid in their power, and, if possible, win him over to themselves. The room where the meeting was held was. therefore crowded, — “The Universal Society,” it may be supposed, being present in full strength. Mr. Palmer preached from Micah vi. 8 : “Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God.” In the sermon he combated the dogma of the deity of Christ; and the success of the effort was such that notice was given that on the succeeding Sunday he would preach again. This announcement, with the attendant circumstances, excited much feeling, remonstrance, and heated opposition on the part of the leading Christian people in the city. Bishop White was prominent in the crusade against the movement; and although the owner of the room in which the meetings were being held was a member of “The Universal Society” he could not resist the pressure brought against him, but closed his doors against the people on the day fixed for the second sermon. ” The Universal Society ” soon ceased to exist.1

Vol. i. — 20

Mr. Palmer then went to New York for a while, and afterwards returning to Philadelphia, Was attacked by the yellow fever in 1793, and became totally blind. He again removed to New York, where he became the head of the “Columbian Illuminati,” established in 1801. He died in Philadelphia in 1806.