Unitarian History

A Brief History of Unitarian Universalism

The history of our faith features generations and generations of people who seem first to lose their religion, and then, by means of private struggle and personal risk, find new ways of being religious. Our founders were doubters, thinkers, people for whom integrity counted for something. Through theological reinterpretation and revolution, they found ways to continue their religious lives.

During the early Third Century, when Christians were being persecuted, an Alexandrian named Origen, devoted himself single-mindedly to the pursuit of Christian truth through the use of reason. The more he studied the Bible, the more he began to doubt the notion of the existence of heaven and hell. Origen believed that everyone, not just Christians, not just “good” people, would find redemption. It was the “ultimate reconciliation of all souls with God,” or “universal salvation.” Universalism lived on as a thread in our liberal history.

Arius, another Alexandrian living a century later, was the first to champion the simplicity of God and the humanity of Jesus. The creed recited in many Christian churches today affirming Trinitarian doctrine and Christology was created to counteract the teachings of Arius! 

During the Protestant  Reformation, a Spaniard named Michael Servetus took on both the Catholic and Protestant authorities. Servetus said to them, “Your Trinity is a product of subtlety and madness. The Gospel knows nothing of it.” He was brilliant and intemperate. He infuriated the Inquisitors as well as John Calvin, who eventually had Servetus burned at the stake. He did clearly prove there is no Trinity taught in the Bible, and that was important for a new theology.

Poland and Transylvania are the cradle of European Unitarianism. In the Sixteenth Century, Faustus Socinus was the trusted theologian in a group of non-Trinitarian liberal congregations in Poland devoted to religious liberty, reason, and tolerance. The movement spread rapidly, attracting many of the most enlightened and gifted minds of that age. But they were persecuted. In Transylvania, having adopted the Unitarian views of his court preacher Ferenc Dávid (Francis David), the Unitarian king John Sigismund declared the first edict of religious toleration in 1568. Francis David said, “We need not think alike to love alike.” Liberal Christian congregations survived and continue to survive in that region over 400 years later as Unitarian churches.

In Eighteenth Century England, Joseph Priestley, discoverer of oxygen, Unitarian minister, and espouser of a number of liberal and unpopular causes, gave intellectual brilliance to the development of Unitarian religion and stimulated a mushrooming of Unitarian institutions. But established church leaders became exasperated. Priestley’s home, laboratory, library, and Unitarian chapel were attacked by mobs and burned. He escaped to America in 1794, encouraged by an invitation from his friend Thomas Jefferson, and brought Unitarianism with him.

Another Englishman and a Universalist, John Murray, lost his job and landed in debtor’s prison in the late 1700s. When finally released, he resolved to go to America to begin a new life. He sailed on a ship that became grounded on a sandbar off the coast of New Jersey. Murray went ashore, where he met a farmer—Thomas Potter. Ironically, Potter had built a chapel nearby, and was waiting for a preacher who believed in universal salvation to appear. Potter became convinced that God had sent John Murray to preach in his chapel. And so, Murray began his preaching career, bringing Universalism to the colonies.

Universalism was a religion that praised God and preached a loving theology of inclusivity in heaven and also here on earth. Universalists devoted themselves to prison reform, building schools, temperance, pacifism, and women’s rights, ordaining Olympia Brown to the Universalist ministry in 1863.

By the early Nineteenth Century, Unitarianism and Universalism had taken root on the American continent. Universalists, with their universal salvation, offered relief from the Calvinist notion of damnation. Hosea Ballou became the Universalist’s greatest leader through his public speaking and publications, spreading the seeds that Murray had sown. Unitarian-oriented clergy began to take notice of Calvinistic pessimism about human nature. The prevailing theology in the American culture forced religious liberals to come to grips with their own theologies of human free will, dignity, and rationality. William Ellery Channing confirmed the presence of the new theological movement, and rallied the liberals together as a theological group. By the third decade of the Nineteenth Century, many of the Puritan Congregational churches began to call themselves Unitarian.

Every generation of American Unitarians has questioned the religion they inherited. Almost as soon as American Unitarianism was established, a young generation of Transcendentalists—Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Parker among them—changed the liberal religious orientation from one of empiricism and historicism to a religion of direct intuition. Unitarianism drifted away from belief in Biblical revelation and the sole inspiration of Jesus.

The Universalists did retain the Christian basis of their faith more completely. But they, too, changed over the years, and by the early decades of the Twentieth Century, Universalism emphasized the notion that evil is the result of “unjust social and economic conditions.”

The rise of the Humanist movement among the Unitarians was an attempt to reformulate liberal theology on non-theistic grounds. Universalists moved from their longstanding emphasis on universal salvation to an understanding of Universalism as universal religion: “boundless in scope, as broad as humanity, as infinite as the universe.

By mid-20th century, the leadership of both Unitarianism and Universalism recognized the advantages of consolidation. In 1961, the plan was overwhelmingly ratified by the individual congregations and then by the American Unitarian Association Annual Meeting and the Universalist General Assembly.

Frederick May Eliot, president of the American Unitarian Association from 1937–1958, said, “one of the most interesting aspects of our history is the process by which the radicals of one generation have come to be regarded as ‘100% Unitarians’ by succeeding generations. The truth of the matter is that we are a church in which growth is not only permitted but encouraged—growth in thought, growth in sensitiveness to moral values, growth in courage to put religion to work in the world.”

Excerpted from “All of Unitarian Universalist History in Just Under 2000 Words” by Rev. Jane Rzepka