Barrett, Samuel

Samuel Barrett (August 16, 1795-June 24, 1866) was an active and much respected Unitarian minister in the early days of the organized American Unitarian movement.

Young Samuel’s family belonged to the Congregational Society in Wilton, New Hampshire. Their minister was the liberal preacher Thomas Beede, who had been a classmate of William Ellery Channing at Harvard. Beede helped Samuel prepare for college, as he had other young men—among them Ephraim Peabody, Joseph Hale Abbot, Warren Burton, and Abiel Abbot Livermore—all of whom, like Barrett, went on to serve as distinguished Unitarian ministers. After graduating from Harvard in 1818, Barrett joined the Wilton church. Because he was allowed to become a member without subscribing to the statement of faith, the orthodox members members departed, leaving the Unitarians in possession of the old parish church.

After teaching for a year, Barrett returned to Harvard to study for the ministry, and was licensed to preach in 1823. He turned down invitations from several churches in order to accept a call in late 1824 from the Twelfth Congregational Society of Boston, a newly organized church in a growing area of the city. As the first church built in Boston after the Unitarian schism, Twelfth Congregational represented the new denomination’s hopes for the future. All the most notable Unitarian worthies had been present for the laying of the cornerstone in May 1824, among them William Ellery Channing, Henry Ware, Jr. and Andrews Norton.

Theologically, Twelfth Congregational was to be a broad church, not based on any narrow interpretation of Christianity. They welcomed to their communion all who would join them “on the broad ground of the sufficiency of the Scripture, the right of private judgment, the divine authority of Christ, and the purpose of a holy life.” Barrett viewed further reform and liberalization of Christianity as good and necessary, a sign of great hope for the future of humanity. After many centuries of superstition and the “corruption” of Jesus’ teaching, he believed, scholarship was beginning to make plain the great and simple truths of the gospel.

Barrett joined enthusiastically in the effort to establish the institutional base of the Unitarian faith. He was among the foremost of the younger ministers urging the organization of the American Unitarian Association. He served on the Executive Committee of the AUA from its founding in 1825 until 1841, and was for a time its secretary. In 1839, during a short leave of absence from his church, he served as a missionary for the AUA in the south and west. He was an associate editor of the Christian Register, a founder of the Unitarian Book and Pamphlet Society, and wrote numerous tracts for AUA distribution.

Barrett was also an organizer and promoter of Unitarian efforts in religious education and social action. In 1825 his congregation pioneered one of the earliest Sunday Schools in the city of Boston. Two years later, in order to foster cooperation among Unitarians in developing Sunday School materials and teaching methods, Barrett led the effort to organize the Boston Sunday School Society, which in a few years had its own staff and an impressive publishing record. Barrett was a founder of the Benevolent Fraternity of Churches, an organization still in existence, devoted to the religious, social and financial needs of Boston’s poor. He served as its president from 1852 to 1858.

Despite his devotion to the Unitarian cause, Barrett saw himself as part of the larger Christian community. He was active in, and often served as an officer of, interdenominational organizations working for religious reform, such as the Massachusetts Evangelical Missionary Society, the Society for Propagating the Gospel, and the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, Piety and Charity. Like many of the Unitarian leaders of his generation, he hoped that other Christians would follow the Unitarians’ lead, turning away from divisive creeds and embracing social reform. Addressing the Ministerial Conference in 1847, he reflected on the Unitarian mission: “Amid the confusion of many conflicting creeds … it is our aim and endeavor to bring back the minds of men to the few great principles which, proceeding from the divine fullness of the Master Jesus, converted the souls of the first disciples… which our own times especially need, to disarm skepticism and to conduct the process of social regeneration.” He continued, “If Christians are ever to be one, as Jesus prayed they might be, they will become so under the banner of love… [T]hey must agree, like us, to lay stress, not on what is outward, but on what is inward … on the unseen, unwritten sentiment of love in the heart.”

Samuel Barrett expressed the profound optimism of the liberals who saw themselves as the party of hope and progress, speaking to his colleagues at Berry Street on “the remarkable hopefulness for the future that distinguishes our time.” The minister of neighboring West Church, Cyrus Bartol, said of Barrett, “In the darkest of time he never despaired. I suppose there never was profounder faith in the future of mankind, and the immortal destiny and bliss of the children of men.”

After twenty-five years at Twelfth Congregational, Barrett expressed himself “happy, possibly too happy” as he looked back at the growth of the church from its small beginnings. Yet demographic forces were already beginning to erode the basis of its success. The founding generation of the church was beginning to pass away, and few of their children had settled in the neighborhood. In twenty-five years, 450 families had left the parish, two thirds of them moving out of Boston. In their place came immigrant families, who brought their own religious traditions and established their own new churches. By 1852 the church had begun to operate at a deficit. An economic depression in 1857 deepened the crisis. In 1858, after serving the parish for thirty-five years, Barrett resigned in the hope that “a younger hand and a fresher spirit than I now possess” would be able to bring new life to “our beloved parish.” But the church, founded with such great hopes, was unable to cope with the rapid economic and demographic change. The society was dissolved in 1863.

In 1832 Barrett was married to Mary Susan Greenwood, the sister of Francis W. P. Greenwood, the Unitarian minister serving at King’s Chapel, Boston. They had four daughters and four sons. Samuel Barrett died in Roxbury, Massachusetts in June, 1866.

Barrett was the author of a number of American Unitarian Association (AUA) tracts including One Hundred Scriptural Arguments for the Unitarian Faith (1825), Apostle Peter a Unitarian (1828), Doctrine of religious experience explained and enforced (1829), Excuses for the neglect of the communion considered (1829), and Apologies for indifference to religion and its institutions examined (1834). Many of his sermons were published. Some of these are available at the Andover-Harvard Theological Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts. A few were included in Lewis G. Pray, Memoir of the Rev. Samuel Barrett, D.D. (1867). Pray also wrote Historical Sketch of the Twelfth Congregational Society in Boston (1863). Information about Barrett’s early life can be found in Abiel Abbot Livermore, History of the Town of Wilton, Hillsborough County, New Hampshire (1888). There is a short biographical article about Barrett in Samuel Atkins Eliot, Heralds of a Liberal Faith, Volume 2 (1910).

Article by Frank Carpenter
Posted July 29, 2000