Christianity: Unitarianism and Universalism

James Casebolt. Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices. Editor: Thomas Riggs. Volume 1: Religions and Denominations. Detroit: Gale, 2006.

Overview

Unitarianism and Universalism began as independent traditions emerging from the liberal Protestant Reformation period of the Christian faith. Unitarianism was founded on the belief that God is one and that Jesus was not of the same substance as God (as opposed to the orthodox Trinitarian view). Universalism’s defining belief was universal salvation: A loving God would not condemn his children to eternal suffering. Distinct Unitarian and Universalist communities around the world share a common commitment to the belief that individuals must find answers to the great questions of human existence for themselves through the use of reason rather than blindly accepting dogma or unexamined tradition. Over time the two traditions became more similar theologically, and in 1961 they merged in North America to form the Unitarian Universalist Association. Outside the United States, older organizations in this tradition are identified as Unitarian, while more recently established ones are typically Unitarian Universalist. As a global organization, the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists connects the various national and regional bodies but has no ecclesiological authority over them.

History

Unitarian and Universalist beliefs existed within the early Christian Church but were declared heretical (often by narrow votes) at church councils in the 300s-500s C.E. Since that time Unitarian and Universalist beliefs have reemerged repeatedly as Christianity has spread throughout the world. For the most part these movements have been independent and indigenous and not the result of missionary activity.

The oldest continuous thread of these traditions emerged early in the Reformation. Spaniard Miguel Servetus published On the Error of the Trinity in 1531, was convicted of heresy by both the Catholic and Reformed churches, and was burned at the stake in Geneva in 1553. The Minor Reformed Church of Poland was the first organized body founded (1565) on Unitarian theology. The first body to use the name Unitarian emerged in Transylvania through the preaching of Ferenc Dávid (1510-79). The Italian Faustus Socinus (1539-1604), from whom the Polish Socinians took their name, had a profound influence on the emerging Unitarianism in both Poland and Transylvania.

Unitarianism in Great Britain began with the writings of John Biddle in the mid-1600s but did not organize until Theophilus Lindsay began the first Unitarian church in England in 1774 (though the Dissenting Presbyterians, who were Unitarian in theology, began in the early 1700s).

The English minister Joseph Priestley influenced the early development of Unitarianism in North America, but it is a primarily indigenous movement. Although some churches calling themselves Unitarian predate it, organized American Unitarianism began as a schism within the New England Congregational tradition. The corporate birth of Unitarianism in the United States occurred in 1819, when minister William Ellery Channing delivered a sermon that changed the label of “Unitarian” from a theological slur to the name of a distinct religious movement. The American Unitarian Association began in 1825.

Unitarianism in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand is primarily the result of immigration. It was introduced to northern Europe by natives who were exposed to it in the United States.

Universalism began in England in the early 1700s but was carried to North America by such ministers as John Murray and George de Benneville. Circuit-riding preachers carried its teachings out of New England and into the Midwest. The forerunner of the American Universalist Church was organized in 1833.

Unitarianism and Universalism in North America had a long history of contact and cooperation and discussed a merger in 1899 and 1931. In 1961 the Unitarian Universalist Association was formed. While UU churches are found in every U.S. state, they are much more prevalent in New England. There are more Unitarian Universalists (160,000) in the United States than in any other country in the world.

The presence of Unitarian Universalism in other parts of the world is small but continuing. Only in Japan is it the result of missionary outreach. The UU communities of South Africa, the Philippines, India, and Pakistan, as well as a few small communities in South America, developed their own indigenous UU theologies and then later discovered and affiliated with the larger UU world. In India, Unitarians are concentrated in two pockets: in the southwest around Madras and in the Khasi Hills area of the northeastern state of Meghalaya. All of the UU churches in the Philippines are located on the island of Negros. The country with the largest percentage of its population belonging to a Unitarian or Universalist church is Romania, at 0.4 percent.

Central Doctrines

It is difficult to generalize the central doctrines of Unitarian Universalists (UUs) worldwide. Some national UU groups have formal creeds and catechisms to which all members must sub-scribe. Others, especially in North America, pride themselves on being a noncreedal church. Historian Earl Morse Wilbur wrote that the three primary principles of Unitarianism are freedom, reason, and tolerance. Other than a common historical root, what UUs primarily share is a commitment to the notion that the individual conscience is the ultimate arbiter of religious truth. Theologian James Luther Adams used the phrase “prophethood of all believers” to describe the notion that revelation is never sealed and that each individual is capable of unique religious insight.

Of the various strands of Unitarianism, that of Transylvania has maintained the strongest connection to its Christian roots. In the theology of this tradition the purpose of religion is this-worldly, to improve humanity’s lot here and now rather than focusing on the afterlife. The Bible is a guidebook for living. Jesus is not God; it is his humanity that is celebrated. Jesus is seen as a leader, an ethical role model, and a teacher rather than as a savior. The Lord’s Supper is not a sacrament but is a symbolic expression of the congregation’s commitment to imitating his life.

Modern Unitarian Universalism in Western countries has been described as post-Christian. A shift toward a more naturalist and humanist theology began with the transcendentalists, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, in the mid-1800s and continued through the rise of religious humanism in the 1920s and 1930s. While in recent years an interest in greater spirituality and a growing identification with neopagan and Buddhist traditions have occurred, surveys have shown that humanism is still a dominant view among U.S. and Canadian UUs.

During its history American UUism has undergone a shifting theological landscape, which has caused it to experience repeated crises of identity. The question of what UUs hold in common that binds them together arises periodically.

Moral Code of Conduct

The application of theological ideals to issues of daily life has always been an important part of the Unitarian and Universalist traditions. The early Unitarians in Eastern Europe stressed that individuals should attempt to live the ethics of Jesus. The English and American Unitarians of the Enlightenment had a similar emphasis.

The so-called Jefferson Bible provides a good example of this emphasis on morality. While Thomas Jefferson was never a Unitarian by affiliation, he referred to himself as Unitarian in his writings several times, and he “took scissors and paste to the Gospels” only because his friend Joseph Priestley (a Unitarian minister) died before producing a revision of the story of Jesus. Jefferson was interested primarily in the morals of Jesus and how they should be put into practice in one’s life. The activism of many UU individuals and communities, as seen in their involvement in issues of social justice and welfare, is an outcome of this view—that religious faith is lived through deeds, not creeds.

Over the centuries Unitarians and Universalists have produced many catechisms, statements of agreement, and other corporate theological documents. The morality of behavior has been a core issue in each of these. The current “Principles and Purposes” of the Unitarian Universalist Association in the United States, for example, includes foundational principles that are relevant to interpersonal relationships; acceptance of and compassion toward others; the primacy of the individual conscience; the value of a democratic society; war, peace, and justice in a global context; and ecological and environmental issues.

The last issue is of particular importance to many UUs around the world: the vision of humanity as only one part of an interdependent web of environmental connections has grown in importance. The burgeoning interest in nature-based, neopagan religious traditions in part reflects this perception of human being’s place in the world.

Sacred Books

Because Unitarian Universalism is a faith with Christian roots, many Unitarian Universalists consider the Bible to be a sacred, albeit not inerrant, text. Reasoned interpretation of the Scriptures was one of the defining characteristics of the early European Unitarians. In many UU congregations the sacred writings of all religions are respected and included in worship services, as are modern prose and poetry.

Sacred Symbols

Unitarian Universalists throughout the world attach varying significance to the Christian cross. A variety of world religious symbols can be found in many UU congregations. The nearest thing to a uniquely, universal UU symbol would be the flaming chalice symbol adopted by the Unitarian Service Committee during its World War II relief efforts in Europe. The use of this symbol has spread informally, and it is now common in several countries.

Early and Modern Leaders

Important international Unitarian figures include Brock Chisholm, first executive secretary of the World Health Organization; Irish poet and nationalist William Drennan; and Canadian inventor Alexander Graham Bell. In the United States important historical Unitarians and Universalists include several Revolutionary War figures (Thomas Paine, Ethan Allen, Paul Revere, and Benjamin Franklin); Presidents John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Millard Fillmore, and William Howard Taft; diplomat Adlai Stevenson; Nobel Peace Prize winners Emily Greene Balch and Linus Pauling; inventor Lewis Lattimer; engineer and architect Buckminster Fuller; Urban League founder Whitney Young; and the Reverend James Reeb, who was killed while participating in Martin Luther King’s march on Selma. Contemporary American UUs include two former secretaries of defense (William Perry and William Cohen), Columbia astronaut Laurel Clark, and actor Christopher Reeve.

Major Theologians and Authors

In addition to the early founders, notably Ferenc Dávid and Faustus Socinus, other early influences on Unitarian theology include William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Theodore Parker. Important Unitarian theologians of the twentieth century include James Luther Adams, Charles Hartshorne, and Henry Nelson Wieman. On the Universalist side Theophilus Lindsay, Hosea Ballou, and Clarence Skinner were influential theologians. Important contemporary theological work is being produced by Thandeka, Forrest Church, Sharon Welch, and Paul Rasor.

Organizational Structure

National and regional Unitarian Universalist bodies vary tremendously in their structure. Eastern European Unitarian groups, such as the Transylvanian church in Romania with its elected bishop, tend toward a more ecclesiastical structure. UUs in the United States, on the other hand, trace their lineage in part to the Pilgrim churches of early New England and so have a strong tradition of congregational polity, rooted in the Cambridge Platform of 1648. In 1994 the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists was formed to help connect the various strands of the faith.

Houses of Worship and Holy Places

Unitarian Universalist houses of worship vary tremendously, from the stark white clapboards of a New England meeting-house, to the churches designed by Unitarian Frank Lloyd Wright, to ultramodern structures of glass and steel. Some smaller groups may meet in a rented space or a private home. While “holy” may not be an appropriate word, important places typically are associated with significant historical events and people, such as the prison in Romania where Ferenc Dávid was held and died.

What is Sacred?

For most Unitarian Universalists all of existence is sacred. The natural world is holy, and the preservation of it is considered by many to be a religious duty. Specific objects are not sacred in the sense that they are especially sanctified or possessing of special or magical qualities. Even the bread and wine of the Communion, where it is still celebrated, are valued for their symbolic nature.

Holidays and Festivals

Most UU congregations, even ones that are humanistic in approach, tend to commemorate the Christian holidays of Christmas and Easter. Some also commemorate holidays and festivals of other religious traditions. There are no universally held, uniquely Unitarian or Universalist holidays. The closest would be the Flower Ceremony, originally created by Czech Unitarian minister Norbert Capek for his Prague congregation during the 1930s. Each attendee is asked to bring a flower to the ceremony, which is usually held in the spring but not on any specific date. These flowers are combined into large bouquets and blessed, after which each individual leaves the ceremony with a different flower than the one he or she contributed. The flowers celebrate the community of the congregation and the contribution made by each person.

Mode of Dress

Unitarian Universalists generally are embedded in their local culture. There are no special modes of dress that set UUs apart. Congregational expectations concerning formality of dress vary greatly. In some churches ministers wear robes, at least on special occasions, and in others they never do.

Dietary Practices

Unitarian Universalists tend to follow the dietary customs of their culture. Among North American and European UUs there is a greater proportion of vegetarians than in the general population, but this is for individual reasons and is not a tenet of the organized faith.

Rituals

Regular worship services are most commonly held on Sunday mornings and typically follow the Protestant format of readings, hymns, and prayers surrounding a sermon. The content of the readings and hymns varies greatly, especially in terms of the degree of Christian content. In some congregations the Bible may be the referent for the entire service. In others biblical references may only be heard around Christian holidays.

In North America and western Europe, where humanism and theological diversity mix, prayer is highly individualistic, depending on personal theology, and congregational prayer typically is couched in sufficiently general terms as to cover a range of forms. Some congregations have more specific prayer practices, but this is not typical. Among eastern European churches, where a liberal Christian theology prevails, prayer is more theistically centered, and the Lord’s Prayer is always part of congregational worship.

Wedding and funeral rituals follow a similar dichotomy: In countries where liberal Christianity has been maintained, the wedding and funeral ceremonies are more traditional, in the Protestant mold. In other regions, such as North America, weddings are highly individualized and based on the wishes and preferences of the couple. Among UUs in Western countries weddings of same-sex couples are common, and in fact UU ministers often are called upon to perform services of union for non-UU same-sex couples. Among American UUs religious rituals immediately following a death are often limited to family and close friends. Cremation is common, and a memorial service for the community is often held at a later time.

Rites of Passage

The rites of passage celebrated by Unitarian Universalists are similar to those of other traditions emerging from Protestantism. Naming ceremonies are held for infants. A confirmation or coming-of-age ceremony is commonly held for young teens. In North America the term “bridging” refers to a ceremony in recognition of the passage from youth to adulthood and is often associated with graduation from high school.

Membership

Unitarian Universalism is generally a faith of converts. In North America several surveys in the 1980s and 1990s found that only about 10 percent of members are raised in the faith. Evangelism and outreach activities are focused on attracting people who already hold UU views as opposed to changing people’s beliefs. Corporate social justice work provides a means by which others can see the faith lived. Media like TV and radio are sometimes used for advertising or local broadcast of services, and North American UUs use the Internet extensively for both outreach and internal communication. In other parts of the world, especially eastern Europe, Unitarianism is more of a cultural church, and conversion is less of a factor in its growth.

Religious Tolerance

The tradition’s support for religious tolerance dates from 1563, when John Sigismund, Unitarian king of Transylvania, signed the Edict of Torda, giving equal religious freedom to the Catholic, Reformed, Lutheran, and Unitarian faiths in his kingdom. Unitarians were among the organizers of the World’s Parliaments of Religions and the International Association for Religious Freedom. In North America, UU congregations and ministers commonly are involved in interfaith efforts and organizations to the extent to which they are welcomed by the dominant Christian faiths. Groups for UUs who identify with Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, humanism, and pagan traditions have been organized and have chapters in many local congregations.

Social Justice

In Great Britain and North America, Unitarian Universalists have been leaders in every major social justice movement. Many vocal and active proponents of the abolition of slavery, mental health and prison reform, poverty relief, child labor reform, and reproductive rights have been UUs. Like other traditions of liberal Christian origin, many UUs have been involved in peace movements and antiwar efforts regarding every modern American armed conflict. On the issue of women’s rights and suffrage, Unitarians were in the forefront in North America, Great Britain, Australia, and the Scandinavian countries. In recent years the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons have been a major focus for North American UUs.

Social Aspects

The social attitudes of Unitarian Universalists depend in part on their cultural context. As a movement, North American UUism has embraced a broad and liberal definition of “family,” and UU congregations generally are welcoming of multicultural, single-parent, and same-sex families. Globally, UUs tend to hold attitudes toward family issues that are progressive relative to the surrounding culture.

Controversial Issues

Religious liberalism is commonly (but not universally) associated with political liberalism. Especially in the United States, Unitarian Universalists are involved in liberal movements, such as support for reproductive rights, drug policy and prison reform, death with dignity, elimination of the death penalty, and civil rights for sexual minorities. Universalist Olympia Brown was the first woman ordained by an American religious organization (1864), and Unitarian Martha Turner was the first woman minister in Australia (1874). Women now outnumber men in the UU ministry in North America.

Cultural Impact

Unitarians and Universalists have had a disproportionate impact on culture and society, especially in the fields of science and literature. In England the scientists Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin and authors Charles Dickens and Mary Shelley, among others, altered humanity’s view of itself and its place in the universe. In the United States the intellectual climate of the 1800s was influenced by Unitarian writers and lecturers, such as Walt Whitman, Louisa May Alcott, and especially the transcendentalists, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller. More recently Unitarian Universalists—for example, cognitive scientist Herbert Simon; Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web; essayist and retired UU minister Robert Fulghum; writers Beatrix Potter, Edwin Markham, James Michener, Ray Bradbury, Carl Sandburg, E.E. Cummings, and Kurt Vonnegut; musicians Pete Seeger and Malvina Reynolds; TV producer Rod Serling; and actor-producer Paul Newman—have continued this tradition. Internationally, culturally influential UUs include Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, and Canadian painter Arthur Lismer.