Unitarian Universalist Origins: Our Historic Faith
by Mark W. Harris
Unitarians and Universalists have always been heretics. We are heretics because we want to choose our faith, not because we desire to be rebellious. Heresy in Greek means “choice,” and during the first three centuries of the Christian church, believers could choose among a variety of beliefs about the man Jesus. Among these was a belief that Jesus was less than God, but sent by God on a divine mission. Thus the word Unitarian literally means the oneness of God, rather than the belief in the trinity, God manifested into three persons. Another religious choice in the first three centuries of the Common Era (C.E.) was universal salvation. This was the belief that no person would be condemned by God to eternal damnation in a fiery pit. Thus a Universalist believes that all people will be saved. After the Nicean Creed was established as dogma in 325 C.E. , Christianity lost its element of choice. For centuries those who professed Unitarian or Universalist beliefs were persecuted.
This was true until the Protestant Reformation took hold in the remote mountainous country of Transylvania in eastern Europe. Here the heritage of choice was extended to differing faith groups living in one political realm, when the first edict of religious toleration in history was declared in 1568, during the reign of the first and only Unitarian king, John Sigismund. The court preacher, Francis David, was successively converted from Catholicism to Lutheranism to Calvinism and finally to Unitarianism, because he could find no Biblical basis for the doctrine of the Trinity. Arguing that people should be allowed to choose among these faiths, he said, “We need not think alike to love alike.” Here for the first time in history, congregations of Unitarians were established. These churches continue to preach the Unitarian message in present day Romania. Like their heretic forbears from ancient times, these liberals could not see how the deification of a human being or simply reciting creeds helped them to live better lives, and so they said that we must follow Jesus, not worship him.
During the next two centuries Unitarianism appeared briefly in scattered locations. A Unitarian community in Rakow, Poland flourished for a time, and a book by a Spanish doctor, Michael Servetus, “On the Errors of The Trinity,” was circulated throughout Europe. But persecution frequently followed these believers. The Polish Unitarians were completely suppressed, and Servetus was burned at the stake. Even where the harassment was not so extreme, people still opposed the idea of choice in matters of religious faith. Joseph Priestley, the famed scientist and Unitarian minister had his laboratory burned and he was hounded out of England. He fled to America where he established some of the earliest Unitarian churches in the Philadelphia area.
Despite all these European connections, Unitarianism as we know it in North America is not a foreign import. In fact, the origins of our faith begin with some of the most historic congregations in Puritan New England, where we find churches called the First Parish, as they were the first church for the entire town. Each town was required to establish a congregationally independent church which followed Calvinist doctrines. Initially there was no choice, but over time the strict doctrines of original sin and predestination began to mellow. By the mid-1700’s a group of evangelicals were calling for the revival of Puritan orthodoxy. They asserted a belief in our eternal bondage to sin. Another group said that we have the ability to help save ourselves because we are born as free moral agents. Those who opposed the revival, believing in free human will and the loving benevolence of God, became Unitarian. During the first four decades of the nineteenth century, hundreds of those original congregational churches fought over ideas about sin and salvation, and especially over the doctrine of the Trinity. Most of them split over these issues. A sermon called “Unitarian Christianity” delivered by William Ellery Channing in 1819 in Baltimore, Maryland helped to give the Unitarians a strong platform. Six years later the American Unitarian Association was organized in Boston.
The Universalist half of our heritage developed in America in at least three distinct geographical locations. The earliest preachers of the gospel of universal salvation appeared in what were later the Middle Atlantic and Southern states. By 1781, Elhanan Winchester had organized a Philadelphia congregation of Universal Baptists. Among its members was Benjamin Rush, the famous physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence. At about the same time, a small number of itinerant preachers in the rural, interior sections of New England began to disbelieve in strict Calvinist doctrines of eternal punishment and discovered from their Biblical studies the new revelation of God’s loving redemption of all. Finally, the most well known founder was John Murray, an English preacher who arrived in 1770 and helped lead the first Universalist church in Gloucester, Massachusetts to a leadership position in the battle to separate church and state. From its beginnings Universalism challenged its members to reach out and embrace people whom society often marginalized. The Gloucester church numbered a freed slave among its charter members, and the Universalists became the first denomination to ordain women to the ministry, beginning in 1863 with Olympia Brown.
Universalism was a more evangelical faith than Unitarianism, as seen by the charismatic conversion style of many of its early leaders, including Caleb Rich, the mentor of Hosea Ballou. Ballou became the denomination’s greatest leader during the nineteenth century. After officially organizing in 1793, the Universalists spread their faith across the eastern United States and Canada, with Ballou’s followers, including Nathaniel Stacy, leading the way. Other preachers followed the advice of Universalist publisher Horace Greeley, and went West. One such person was Thomas Starr King, who is credited with defining the difference between Unitarians and Universalists. “Universalists believe that God is too good to damn people, and Unitarians believe that people are too good to be damned by God.” The Universalists believed in a God who embraced everyone, and this became central to their beliefs that lasting truth is found in all religions, and that dignity and worth is innate to all people regardless of sex, color, race, or class.
Growing out of this inclusive theology was a lasting impetus in both denominations to create a more just society. Both Unitarians and Universalists became active participants in many social justice movements in the 19th and 20th centuries. The great Unitarian preacher Theodore Parker was a prominent abolitionist, defending fugitive slaves and offering support to John Brown. Other reformers included Universalists such as Charles Spear who called for prison reform, and Clara Barton who went from Civil War “angel of the battlefield” to the founding of the Red Cross. Unitarians such as Dorothea Dix fought to “break the chains” of those incarcerated in mental hospitals, and Samuel Gridley Howe started schools for the blind. For the last two centuries Unitarian and Universalists have been at the forefront of movements working to free people from whatever bonds may oppress them.
Two thousand years ago liberals were persecuted for seeking freedom to make religious choices, but such freedom has become central to both Unitarianism and Universalism. As early as the 1830’s, both groups were studying and promulgating texts from world religions other than Christianity. By the beginning of the twentieth century, humanists within both traditions advocated that people could be religious without believing in God. We believe that no one person, no one religion can embrace all religious truths. Freedom of choice is central to our faith.
By the middle of the century it became clear that Unitarians and Universalists could have a stronger liberal religious voice if they merged their efforts, and they did so in 1961. Many Unitarian Universalists became active in the civil rights movement, and this era is remembered for its struggles over black power. James Reeb, a Unitarian Universalist minister was murdered in Selma, Alabama after responding to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s call to march for justice. Today we are determined to work for greater racial and cultural diversity. In 1977, a “Women and Religion” resolution was passed by the Unitarian Universalist Association, and since then the denomination has responded to the feminist challenge to change sexist structures and language, especially with the publication of an inclusive hymnal. The denomination has affirmed the rights of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered persons, including ordaining and settling gay and lesbian clergy in our congregations, and most recently affirming same sex marriage. All of these efforts reflect a modern understanding of “universal salvation.” Unitarian Universalism welcomes all to an expanding circle of understanding and choice in religious faith.
Our history has carried us from liberal Christian views about Jesus and human nature to a rich pluralism that includes theist and atheist, agnostic and humanist, pagan, Christian, Jew and Buddhist. As our history continues to evolve and unfold, we invite you to join us by choosing our free faith.