Unitarian Universalism: A Short History
A while ago a woman called to ask me about conducting a wedding
service for her daughter. The bride's family is Roman Catholic;
the groom's family Jewish. The clergy of neither faith would marry
them. Such situations often get referred to a Unitarian Universalist
church — usually by the clergy of the other faiths who are convinced
that Unitarian Universalist ministers are totally undiscriminating. We
talked details for a while, then the woman said, "I have never
heard of Unitarians. You're not some kind of cult are you?" I
felt insulted by that, so I asked her, "Have you ever heard of
Ralph Waldo Emerson?" She said, "Of course I've heard of
Ralph Waldo Emerson!" And I said, "Well, not only was he a
Unitarian Universalist, but he was a Unitarian Universalist
minister." "Really?" she asked, "Why didn't I
know that?" I considered pointing out to her that I had no way of
knowing the cause of her realms of ignorance. But that wouldn't
have been fair. Most of the world never heard of Unitarianism.
Still, I get defensive and offended by the world's ignorance — as
when some delivery person coming to the office asks if this is the
Unity Church or the Unification Church. It has seemed to me that one
shouldn't have to validate one's religion by resting back into
history and pulling out names of famously reasonable people. On the
other hand, history <i>is</i> justifying. Our history is our firm
foundation and we should know it and cherish it — not simply out of
duty, but because living in our history has more religious value than
merely living isolated in one congregation.
As a refresher course for some, then, and perhaps as a surprising
illumination to those newer to our faith, let us take a quick dash
through Unitarian and Universalist history — not as a defense, but as
a reaffirmation of ourselves.
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Unitarianism — as a religious idea — the idea that God is one, not
three-in-one, as in Trinitarians, goes back many centuries. We may
start with the third century theologian, Origen, (sometimes called
"the first Universalist") who defied Christian thought of
his time by proclaiming that God would save <i>everyone</i>, not just
believing Christians. And, in the fourth century, there was Arius, the
heretic who dared to suggest, in a great debate in Nicea in 325, that,
while Jesus was <i>like</i> God, he was <i>not</i> God. Arius lost
that debate and Trinitarianism–the idea of three Gods in One — won
the day and became orthodox doctrine. The Unitarian idea of One God,
In the sixteenth century in Transylvania, a Unitarian preacher,
Francis David (pronounced "Daveed"), debated the
Trinitarian, Melius. Melius said to David, "If I win this debate,
you will be executed (religious dialogue was serious stuff in those
days)." But Daveed said, "And if I win this debate, you and
everyone else in this land will be given complete religious freedom
and the tolerance due to every human being." David prevailed in
the debate, leading the young King Sigisimund, in 1568, to proclaim an
Edict of Toleration, the only such edict of its time. Hungary and
Romania * still have over 500 Unitarian churches.
We rejoice that, given the timely demise of the oppressive regime in
Romania, those churches that were slated to be destroyed (some of them
centuries old) are now being restored and saved. Our ancient history
in Europe lives on.
John Calvin, himself a heretic and Protestant Reformer, was,
nevertheless, a committed Trinitarian. He lured the Unitarian, Michael
Servetus to Geneva, under the pretext of a safe-passage, to engage in
debate. Instead of a debate, Servetus was put under arrest and, under
Calvin's orders, was burned at the stake as a heretic. Calvin was
obviously in favor of religious freedom — for Calvin.
Still, Servetus's martyrdom was not in vain. His death led to a
continuing debate about toleration among the followers of Calvin. On a
monument near where Servetus was burned, are these words:
The respectful and grateful sons of Calvin, our great reformer,
condemning an error which was that of his time and firmly attaching
themselves to liberty of conscience, according to the true
principles of the Reformation and the Gospel, have raised this
* Transylvania, once a separate state, is now a part of Romania.
Residents of Transylvania speak mostly Hungarian.
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The Universalists, like Origen in the third century, believed that God
is simply too good to commit any person to eternal damnation. Again,
"salvation" is not for particular people, as the Calvinists
believe, but is <i>universal</i>, for everyone: hence, the
The Universalist, John Murray, was originally a British Methodist
preacher, who lost his wife by death, and lost his career, suffered
deep depression and sailed to America. He rowed ashore from a
shipwreck off the coast of New Jersey, landing at the spot called,
ironically for Murray, one would think, "Good Luck." There,
at a place now called Murray grove, a Unitarian Universalist
Conference Center, he met an illiterate farmer by the name of Joseph
Potter, who had been praying for someone to come to preach universal
salvation at his family chapel. Murray, though while in the depths of
depression had vowed never to preach again, did preach at Potter's
chapel, got the spirit again, and went on to preach Universalism
throughout the Northeast. The chapel in which he preached is still
there, at Murray Grove. Murray instructed the preachers who went forth
to spread his universal gospel to "Give them not hell, but
Universalism and the doctrine of universal salvation also had its
spokesman in Hosea Ballou, a Vermont schoolteacher. Ballou preached
that the idea that people are born into sin is ridiculous, that God is
love, and that Jesus "saves" by his human <i>example</i>,
not by being divine.
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<b>UNITARIANS AND UNIVERSALISTS TOGETHER<br>
Like the Unitarians, the Universalists had always been at the
forefront of ethical and social reform. They were the first
denomination in America to denounce slavery — in 1790. They were
among the first to advocate birth control as public policy. Among the
Universalists were: one of the founders of the nation, Benjamin Rush;
Clara Barton, the founder of the Red Cross; Adin Ballou, the pacifist
who influenced Leo Tolstoy, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.; Thomas
Starr King, who kept California for the Union; and Olympia Brown, who,
in 1863, was the first woman in America to be ordained as a minister.
Unitarians have their legendary heroes, too. The English Scientist,
Joseph Priestly, the discoverer of oxygen, was also a minister. He ran
afoul of the Britons of his day by siding with the revolutionaries in
America and France. The clergy of his region incited mobs against him,
who burned down his house and laboratory and drove him from the
country. Priestly fled to America where he founded Unitarian churches
in Pennsylvania and preached to John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and
Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was so convinced by Priestly's common
sense in religion that he came out publicly and said that every
thinking person would become a Unitarian in his lifetime!
If you travel throughout New England's hundreds of towns and
villages, you will see white steepled churches with signs on their
lawns reading "First Parish," or "Second Parish,"
even "Third." One is likely to be Unitarian, the other
Congregationalist. And what you are looking at when you see all those
churches crowded into little villages (there were twenty Unitarian
churches within a twelve mile radius of the church I served in
Massachusetts) — what you are seeing is Unitarian history.
In the early nineteenth century, Harvard Divinity School appointed a
Unitarian Professor, which infuriated the Trinitarians. They declared
a theological war that spread through New England. Congregationalist
churches were divided right and left when some of their ministers
began preaching the Unitarian faith of the humanity of Jesus and the
necessity to read the Bible with reason, not credulity.
In 1825, in Dedham Massachusetts, the congregation voted to fire its
minister, who was preaching Unitarianism. The Unitarian faction
supporting the minister went to court. The judge ruled for the
Unitarians, who kept the minister and the church, while the losers
took the silverware and went across town to build "Second
Church." The Superior Court judge in this momentous decision, a
decision that affirmed democracy in church affairs, was a Unitarian!
The mid-nineteenth century was perhaps the most exciting period in our
history. Let's start with William Ellery Channing. Channing was
the giant of American Unitarianism, minister of the prestigious
Federal Street Church in Boston (Boston figures prominently in
Unitarian history in America). He inspired such great reformers as the
educator, Horace Mann, the abolitionist Julia Ward Howe, and the
prison reformer, Dorothea Dix.
Channing however, didn't see himself as a radical or a firebrand
for causes, but when he was converted to the anti-slavery movement, he
was unstoppable. Channing was also a staunch pacifist. He preached his
first anti-war sermon in 1812. It wasn't popular, but it made him
the spirit behind the organization of the first peace society in
Massachusetts. As a champion for universal human dignity, Channing was
deeply moved by the revolutions of his era.
He was once invited to speak at Harvard — his own alma mater. He lit
into the Harvard students for their apathy, saying to them, "I
see the young men of Harvard are quite sedate and unconcerned over the
new revolutions in Europe." He stormed at them, "I was at
Harvard in the days of the first French Revolution, and at every turn
of events we lighted bonfires and marched in torchlight parades at
each new burst of freedom!" The sons of Boston Brahmins said this
was a childish outburst. And Channing replied, "We were always
young for liberty!"
Channing was also a giant in intellect and a religious reformer. In a
two-hour sermon at the ordination of young Jared Sparks in Baltimore,
he gave a point-by-point definition of nineteenth century
Unitarianism. The sermon was called "Unitarian
Christianity," and, published in booklet form, it became the
definitive work to separate the Unitarians from other Protestants in
decades of debate.
In his sermon, Channing developed a view of religion as grounded in
reason, on the use of reason as being sufficient to understand the
bible, on the necessity of reading the bible as one would any other
book, on the divine spark in every human being, and on the humanity of
Jesus, not God, but fully human. Easy stuff for us now, perhaps. But
in the early nineteenth century, it was a religious revolution.
And then there was Theodore Parker. (In Bahston, it's pronounced
"Paa-ka.") He was a firebrand and made no bones about it.
Parker was incensed by the fugitive slave law, which made it a crime
for anyone to harbor runaway slaves. His response to that law was to
keep a pistol in desk to resist anyone who came to retrieve a slave
from his protection.
When he was finally arrested for resisting the law, he made such a
fuss that the judge released him, rather than give him a platform for
his views. Parker was also, like his mentor, William Ellery Channing,
a primary spokesperson for a new religious view, he wrote — and
remember this was over a century ago —
The church that is to lead this century will not be a church
creeping on all fours, mewling and whining, its face turned down,
its eyes turned back. It must be full of the brave spirit of its
day, keeping also the good times of the past…It demands, as never
before, freedom for itself, usefulness in its institutions, truth
in its teachings, and beauty in its deeds. The church which did for
the fifth century, will not do for this. It must have our ideas,
the smell of our ground, and have grown out of the religion in our
Our liberal religious movement went on to struggle through the
divisive debates of the early twentieth century between humanists and
theists. We have suffered through the loss of spiritual passion in our
faith, a time Emerson saw coming when, in his own day, he decried the
over-emphasis on reason and spoke of "a religion of dry
Our churches were torn, painfully divided, through the civil rights
and Viet Nam eras, some never to be fully reunited. One of the most
painful pictures in my memory is that of several hundred Unitarian
Universalists filing out of a General Assembly in Boston, in the 60s,
in protest against the Assembly's refusal to grant all the demands
of a Unitarian Universalist Black Affairs Caucus.
We also continue to grieve the loss of Unitarian Universalist
minister, James Reeb, a graduate of Princeton Theological School, who
died of a beating during the civil rights demonstration in Selma,
Alabama. Ironically, despite having James Reeb as an alumnus, these
days Princeton Theological School does not admit Unitarian
Universalist students because they are not considered
The religious freedom forged in our rich history, sometimes in
martyrdom, maintained often at such great cost, has been our blessing
and, perhaps, a precious curse of sorts. We have been free not to
agree with each other on the great social issues of our day and of the
centuries. And, often, we have not been able to disagree in love.
Hosea Ballou, that great Universalist, once said, "If we agree in
brotherly love, there is no disagreement that can do us injury, but if
we do not, no other agreement can do us any good."
Unitarian Universalists have always been wary of religious symbolism.
While traditional Christians have for centuries had the cross, the
flaming chalice is a relatively new symbol for Unitarian
Universalists. First used by the medieval Unitarian scholar, John
Huss, our movement's first chalice was created by Hans Deutsch, an
Austrian refugee from Nazism. He had been a musician and an artist who
got into trouble with the Nazis by creating some unflattering
caricatures of Hitler. His escape was aided by the Unitarian Service
Committee, which asked him to develop a symbol for its work. The
flaming chalice — symbol of warmth, light, love, truth and justice —
became the symbol of Unitarian Universalism throughout the world, the
symbol of our history — which is our experience.
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As you can see from the preceding, the Unitarians and the Universalist
had much in common from the beginning. The two denominations began to
talk about merger in 1865, but the merger did not take place until
1961. We like to talk things through thoroughly in Unitarian
I have told only a very few of our stories, and I have told them very
briefly. I hope they give you a sense of how deep and lively are our
roots, of how profound our issues have been, and of what a great and
enduring contribution our faith has made to the world.
As Rev. Richard Gilbert writes, "Our history is more than a fad.
Embedded in these stories of flesh and blood people with whom we share
this 'lively experiment,' are the values which sustain
If we are little known, it is because we have been more humble than we
need to be, more shy than our forebears have been, less public than
One of the missions of my ministry is to restore a sense of tradition,
a sense of rich, religious belonging, and an honest sense of the
If the world does not know us, it is critical that we know ourselves.
It is not enough–not enough for us as persons, not enough for us as a
congregation –to be members of <i>this church</i>. We are more fully
nurtured in the spirit when we know and celebrate our nurturing roots
and history, and when we know that we are part of what the eminent
Unitarian Universalist historian, Conrad Wright, has called "The
Stream of Light."