The Free Religious Association


The Free Religious Association was the main focus of Parker Pillsbury’s life as a lecturer and organizer after the Civil War. The final chapter of Pillsbury’s biography, “The Postbellum Quest for the Millennium,” notes that:

In 1870…the American Anti-Slavery Society voted to disband. ..for the next twenty-five years, Pillsbury searched for the movement that would replace Garrisonian abolition. Although he found support and kinship among the old grassroots radical community, especially in the West, only a few of the leading abolitionists joined him in his search…As he lectured in support of a variety of causes, including Free Religion, health reform, women’s rights, and labor issues, he attempted to combine the perfectionism of his antebellum years with the science of the postwar generation… The first reform organization that raised Pillsbury’s hopes after he left the Revolution was the Free Religious Association. This movement, which attracted many religious radicals like Pillsbury, was spearheaded by frustrated Unitarians Francis Abbot and William Potter in the late 1860s….Potter, a former Unitarian minister and founder of the Free Religious Association, referred to the new religious organization as s “spiritual anti-slavery society.” He expressed particular interest in “freeing” people from the “thraldom” of religion imposed by a tyrannous clergy.(pp. 157-159)

The Free Religious Association was eventually reabsorbed into Unitarianism, helping transform it from a liberal Christian denomination to one embracing all religious traditions. This raises the issue of extinct groups in the complicated parentage of the Church of Light. Hermeticism, for starters, is extinct as a religion per se, although its teachings have been revived in various forms around the world. The Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor is extinct as an outer form, yet the gist of its teachings were absorbed into the Brotherhood of Light teachings of Elbert Benjamine. The metaphysical group Light, Love, Truth is extinct, yet its New Thought teachings were incorporated into those of the HBofL through the collaboration of Sarah Stanley Grimke with T.H. Burgoyne. The Christian Scientist Association is extinct, but the Church of Light has been influenced by its teachings via the Light, Love, Truth group. To all intents and purposes, the original New York based Theosophical Society is extinct and has been supplanted by something very different in today’s Adyar, Pasadena, etc. TSes. And arguably, the Church of Light is a more direct expression of the ethos of that original TS than any current Theosophical organization, for example in its teachings on reincarnation. But for every extinct ancestral organization, there are descendants who are therefore “cousin” groups of the CofL– Theosophical, New Thought, Masonic, Rosicrucian, Hermetic, etc. My current line of research is examining the family ties between Unitarianism and Christian Science/New Thought. This blog will be on hiatus through the summer, during which I will be doing research in Boston that connects the heritage of the Church of Light to these movements.

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