Who was he: James Freeman was one of the founders of the Massachusetts Historical Society, a member of the American Academy of the Arts and Sciences, the Massachusetts Peace Society and the American Humane Society. Freeman was a board member on the Boston School Committee for many years, and was a delegate at the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention in 1820. James Freeman was also the minister of King's Chapel in Boston for 43 years, the first preacher in America to actually call himself a Unitarian.
Background: James Freeman was born in Charlestown, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston, in 1759. His father was a merchant and sea captain. James attended the Boston Latin Grammar School and attended Harvard College from 1773-77. The Revolutionary War caused some disruptions in learning, but Freeman managed to pursue his theological studies as a graduate resident.
In 1780 Freeman hired a small ship bearing a safe-conduct cartel so he could take his brother and sister to Quebec, where their father was living. The ship was captured by a privateer, and Freeman was confined in a prison ship for several months. After his release, Freeman remained in Quebec as part of his parole until 1782.
In 1782, a group of Episcopalians at King's Chapel Church in Boston, Massachusetts asked James Freeman to officiate as a reader for six months. King's Chapel had been founded in 1686, the first Episcopalian Church in New England. The Rector was a Loyalist and had been forced to leave in 1776 when the British troops evacuated Boston. While the church remained closed for a year afterwards, the Chapel proprietors allowed members of the Old South Church to meet in the Chapel since their own church had been taken over by the British. The anti-British sentiment that permeated the congregation prompted its members to rename the church Stone Chapel. The original congregation returned to the church after a brief absence and the two societies, the Congregational and the Episcopalian, shared the facilities for a year. The Old South Church congregation returned to a renovated building, and Freeman was asked to pastor the church.
Freeman started preaching in 1784 and his sermons were based on the unity of God. He didn't like certain parts of the liturgy and strongly rejected the concept of the Trinity. A bold move, Freeman thought his sermons would not be accepted, but the opposite happened. The congregation listened and took his thoughts to heart. He persuaded the Church to change the liturgy by eliminating all references to the Trinity; the prayers given in the church would only address God the Father. Stone Chapel was the first church in America to make such a monumental liturgy change, and it became the first Unitarian church in the country.
Some members of the Stone Chapel congregation wanted to stay connected with the Episcopal Church, so a request to have Freeman ordained as their rector was sent to Bishop Samuel Seabury in 1786. But the changes in liturgy made Seabury nervous and he wanted the approval of his presbyters. The presbyters interviewed and denied Freeman's application for ordination. Even Samuel Provoost, the bishop-elect of New York, withheld his support. In spite of those rejections, the leaders of the congregation decided to arrange a lay ordination, and in 1787 Freeman was named Priest, Minister, Pastor, Rector and Ruling elder of Stone Chapel. Several Episcopalian clergymen publicly opposed Freeman's ordination, but the Church continued to support him. James Freeman detached himself from the controversy and it eventually subsided.
James Freeman promoted Unitarianism in other cities as well. In 1792 a Unitarian congregation was formed in Portland, Maine by one of Freeman's friends, and when Freeman visited Baltimore in 1816, a Unitarian church was established there. He also met every two weeks with a group of liberals in Boston, and that group became the committee that founded the American Unitarian Association.
Due to his poor health, Freeman was forced to retire in 1826. He spent the rest of his days in Newton, Massachusetts but he was not alone. Friends and members of the church visited on a regular basis, and his wife Martha was always by his side. He died in 1835 at the age of 76, and was buried in Newton Cemetery.