Our Faith and Beliefs
Unitarian Universalism is a faith without a creed. This means that Unitarian Universalists are encouraged to question and explore their own truths. Unitarian Universalists hold different beliefs about religious subjects such as God, creation, Jesus, the Bible, death, and prayer and are free to do so. However, Unitarian Universalists are united in their beliefs that all people are inherently worthy and should be treated fairly, that we should work for a peaceful and free world, and that we should respect the Earth and all living beings.
We covenant to affirm and promote the Seven Principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations (UUA):
- The inherent worth and dignity of every person.
- Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.
- Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth.
- A free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
- The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process.
- The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.
- Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
On June 5, 2022, the congregation of First Parish of Watertown voted to adopt the proposed 8th Principle:
“We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.”
The living tradition we share draws from many sources:
- Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and openness to the forces which create and uphold life.
- Words and deeds of prophetic women and men that challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love.
- Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life.
- Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves.
- Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.
- Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.
Grateful for the religious pluralism that enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision. As free congregations we enter into this covenant, promising to one another our mutual trust and support.
Every Sunday we light the Flaming Chalice, the symbol of Unitarian Universalism. Long ago, Jan Hus, a Czech priest, was martyred for believing that a communion chalice should be shared with everyone, thus suggesting that salvation was for everyone. During World War II it became an official symbol of the denomination when the Unitarian Service Committee adopted it as a light of truth and hope in its rescue operations for those who were being persecuted by the Nazis.
Read more about the Flaming Chalice from the Unitarian Universalist Association.
"The Flaming Chalice" by Rev. Dan Hotchkiss
At the opening of Unitarian Universalist worship services, many congregations light a flame inside a chalice. This flaming chalice has become a well-known symbol of our denomination. It unites our members in worship and symbolizes the spirit of our work.
The flaming chalice combines two archetypes-a drinking vessel and a flame-and as a religious symbol has different meanings to different beholders. Chalices, cups, and flagons can be found worldwide on ancient manuscripts and altars. The chalice used by Jesus at his last Passover seder became the Holy Grail sought by the knights of Wales and England. Jan Hus, Czech priest and forerunner of the Reformation, was burned at the stake for proposing, among other things, that the communion chalice be shared with the laity. More recently, feminist writer Riane Eisler has used the chalice as a symbol of the “partnership way” of being in community. Sharing, generosity, sustenance, and love are some of the meanings symbolized by a chalice.
As a sacrificial fire, flame has been a central symbol for the world’s oldest scriptures, the Vedic hymns of India. Today, lights shine on Christmas and Hanukkah, eternal flames stand watch at monuments and tombs, and candles flicker in cathedrals, temples, mosques, and meeting houses. A flame can symbolize witness, sacrifice, testing, courage, and illumination.
The chalice and the flame were brought together as a Unitarian symbol by an Austrian artist, Hans Deutsch, in 1941. Living in Paris during the 1930s, Deutsch drew critical cartoons of Adolf Hitler. When the Nazis invaded Paris in 1940, he abandoned all he had and fled to the South of France, then to Spain, and finally, with an altered passport, into Portugal. There, he met the Reverend Charles Joy, executive director of the Unitarian Service Committee (USC). The Service Committee was new, founded in Boston to assist Eastern Europeans, among them Unitarians as well as Jews, who needed to escape Nazi persecution. From his Lisbon headquarters, Joy oversaw a secret network of couriers and agents. Deutsch was most impressed and soon was working for the USC. He later wrote to Joy: There is something that urges me to tell you . . . how much I admire your utter self denial [and] readiness to serve, to sacrifice all, your time, your health, your well being, to help, help, help. I am not what you may actually call a believer. But if your kind of life is the profession of your faith-as it is, I feel sure-then religion, ceasing to be magic and mysticism, becomes confession to practical philosophy and-what is more-to active, really useful social work. And this religion-with or without a heading-is one to which even a ‘godless’ fellow like myself can say wholeheartedly, Yes!
The USC was an unknown organization in 1941. This was a special handicap in the
cloak-and-dagger world, where establishing trust quickly across barriers of language, nationality, and faith could mean life instead of death. Disguises, signs and countersigns, and midnight runs across guarded borders were the means of freedom in those days. Joy asked Deutsch to create a symbol for their papers “to make them look official, to give dignity and importance to them, and at the same time to symbolize the spirit of our work. . . . When a document may keep a man out of jail, give him standing with governments and police, it is important that it look important.”
Thus, Hans Deutsch made his lasting contribution to the USC and, as it turned out, to Unitarian Universalism. With pencil and ink he drew a chalice with a flame. It was, Joy wrote his board in Boston, a chalice with a flame, the kind of chalice which the Greeks and Romans put on their altars. The holy oil burning in it is a symbol of helpfulness and sacrifice. . . . This was in the mind of the artist. The fact, however, that it remotely suggests a cross was not in his mind, but to me this also has its merit. We do not limit our work to Christians. Indeed, at the present moment, our work is nine-tenths for the Jews, yet we do stem from the Christian tradition, and the cross does symbolize Christianity and its central theme of sacrificial love. The flaming chalice design was made into a seal for papers and a badge for agents moving refugees to freedom. In time it became a symbol of Unitarian Universalism all around the world.
The story of Hans Deutsch reminds us that the symbol of a flaming chalice stood in the beginning for a life of service. When Deutsch designed the flaming chalice, he had never seen a Unitarian or Universalist church or heard a sermon. What he had seen was faith in action-people who were willing to risk all for others in a time of urgent need.
Today, the flaming chalice is the official symbol of the UU Service Committee and the Unitarian Universalist Association. Officially or unofficially, it functions as a logo for hundreds of congregations. Perhaps most importantly, it has become a focal point for worship. No one meaning or interpretation is official. The flaming chalice, like our faith, stands open to receive new truths that pass the tests of reason, justice, and compassion.
The Reverend Dan Hotchkiss is a Unitarian Universalist minister
Unitarian Universalist Association
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.