Newcomers: As you spend more time among us, listening to sermons and getting to know our members, your understanding of Unitarian Universalism will broaden and deepen. This page of historical notes is offered as an introduction to our faith at the beginning of the 21st century.
Friends and Members: If you aren’t familiar with UU history, you, too, might find it fascinating! Take a course in it, offered every so often by the Adult Religious Education Program.
Beliefs in a trinitarian God and and unitarian God competed for supremacy in the earliest days of the Christian church. Arius of Alexandria, was the principal advocate for a unitarian concept, but his views were rejected by the first council of Nicea in 325 CE, and Arianism was later declared a heresy. Fast forward, through the middle ages …
In 1517, the Augustinian monk Martin Luther broke from the Roman Catholic Church and began the ‘Protestant Reformation.’ Luther was ‘protesting’ against the Catholic church’s ‘ill-formed’ version of Christianity, and was ‘re-forming’ what he felt was the true Christian religion of ‘salvation by faith’ rather than salvation through works or through the sacraments of the Catholic Church. John Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli and other ‘Re-formers’ followed quickly.
Within a few decades, more radical reformers appeared, who pushed the envelope farther than Luther, Calvin or Zwingli had. These include the Mennonites and other Anabaptists, and the Unitarians. Unlike all the others, who were ‘Trinitarians,’ the Unitarians taught that while Jesus was a great teacher and prophet, he had been, after all, a human like the rest of us, no matter how great his spiritual gifts were. They observed, correctly, that concepts like the Trinity (Father, Son and Holy Ghost) do not appear in the Bible, so had to be the invention of purely human thinkers writing after Jesus had died. (The Trinity was actually a creation of 2nd and 3rd century theologians.)
Descendants of this early 16th century Unitarianism still gather in Unitarian churches in Romania (formerly Transylvania) today. The religion tends to be more ‘high church,’ quite God-centered, and more supernatural than American Unitarianism, which had a completely different beginning.
American Unitarianism began officially in 1825 as what William Ellery Channing (a Congregationalist minister) called ‘Unitarian Christianity.’ Breaking away from the Congregational church, American Unitarianism became less a ‘theology’ and much more a style of religion. Born of the 18th century Enlightenment and surrounded by the explosive growth of sciences (especially geology and biology) in the 19th century, American Unitarianism taught that religious beliefs must change to remain coherent as our scientific understanding of the world around us changes. Conservative religion taught (as fundamentalists still do today) that the old beliefs must be clung to, even if it means ignoring scientific advances (teaching ‘creationism’ in schools, for example). The Unitarians reversed this priority. They taught, and we still believe, that our world and our consciousness are defined through our sciences and our ‘secular’ knowledge. We understand the world through our sciences (as fundamentalists also do). And our beliefs can make sense of our lives only if what we believe fits with what we know. As the 19th century poet James Russell Lowell put it in an old Unitarian hymn, ‘New occasions teach new duties; time makes ancient good uncouth.’ Time (changes in how we understand ourselves and our world) makes ancient good (traditional religious beliefs) uncouth (irrelevant, misleading, idolatrous). These sentiments are at the very soul of the liberal style of trying to be human religiously.
While the religion of American Universalism is pretty much dead (the last Universalist seminary closed several decades ago), the word has gained a new meaning, so we’ll discuss both meanings. Initially, Universalism was a branch of supernatural Christianity, teaching that after death, everyone eventually gets to go to heaven, that God was too good to punish anyone for eternity. As people began losing interest in ‘hell’ a hundred years ago, Americans also began discovering religions from across the ocean. The more religions we studied, the more we saw that, while they were quite different, they all seemed to be concerned with similar things: meaning and purpose in life, concern with ‘eternal life’ (either in its literal meaning of ‘living forever’ or in its liberal meaning of ‘living in harmony with eternal values’), and so on. While all religious roads didn’t lead to the same place, they seemed to lead to similar places. So the new meaning of ‘universalism’ referred to this idea that a wide variety of religious paths can be acceptable and life-giving. It is this second meaning that nearly all people who identify with universalism have in mind today. This second meaning of ‘universalism’ is widely accepted in our culture today, and so among many current members of this church. Both styles of ‘universalism’ have tended to be paths of ‘heart,’ while the Unitarians were more intellectual and ‘cooler.’ In fact, the 19th century writer Ralph Waldo Emerson (himself a Unitarian), once referred to the Unitarians of his day as ‘corpse-cold.’
Unitarian Universalist Association
While American Unitarianism and Universalism weren’t identical, their members were often found backing the same kind of liberal political ideas and social programs, so were associated since the 19th century. During the early years of the 20th century, the Unitarians first considered merging with the Congregationalists, but the issue of ‘Christ’ and the Trinity kept them apart. Instead, in 1961 the Unitarians and the Universalists blended their resources and formed the Unitarian Universalist Association, with its headquarters in Boston, Massachusetts. The word ‘Association’ is important here. In a denomination, the headquarters controls the belief statements, and dictates outwards to the individual churches and members on matters of correct belief. In an association, the power remains within individual churches and individual believers, and the Boston offices exist to provide such services as the member churches desire. There is far greater freedom of belief within an association than there is within a denomination. And so the Unitarian Universalist Association (at its best, anyway) exists to preserve and safeguard the kind of freedom which has marked Unitarianism from the start, and to keep open the many and growing alternative religious paths which our modern universalists rightly treasure.
The opposite of ‘liberal’ religion is ‘literal’ religion: change one letter, and you change a whole world of religious possibilities. This is a much more accurate distinction than trying to contrast liberal with ‘conservative’ (liberals are also trying to ‘conserve’ what seems worth conserving). And with this definition in mind, it is easy to learn that ‘liberal religion’ has been a part of all the world’s religions since history began being recorded. Liberals understand their religious writings to be symbolic and metaphorical rather than literal. So while for literalists ‘death and resurrection’ means that a corpse miraculously came back to life, for liberals the phrase usually refers to ‘dying’ to an old way of living, and being ‘born again’ into a new and (hopefully) higher and better way of living. Put another way, literal religions are concerned with a supernatural salvation that occurs after we have died. Liberal religions are concerned with living more deeply, lovingly, responsibly and fully here and now. It doesn’t mean that liberals can believe whatever they like. Far from it! It means that our beliefs are judged by the kind of life they lead us toward, and the way we treat others. For literalists, ‘salvation’ involves believing the correct things in the correct way so that after we are dead we get to ‘go’ some place incredible. For liberals, ‘salvation’ involves finding our way toward becoming better people, partners, parents, and citizens, and becoming a kind of blessing to the larger world around us through treating other people in caring and responsible ways. For most liberals (though not all), concern for living again after we have died is distinctly secondary, if it is a concern at all.
An almost limitless amount of historical information on Unitarian Universalism can be obtained by Googling (or Binging) on the terms unitarianism, universalism, unitarian, and universalist church of america.
Some useful historical links at the UUA web site