A Brief History of Unitarian Universalism
by Dr. John W. Baros-Johnson, April, 2003
While there were previous anti-trinitarian movements in the early Christian church, modern Unitarianism originated in the period of the Protestant Reformation. In Geneva, Michael Servetus debated John Calvin on the issue of the Trinity and was burned at the stake for his "anti-trinitarian" heresy. Under the leadership of Faustus Socinus, a strong center of Unitarian belief developed in Poland. In Transylvania, Francis David laid the foundation for the Unitarian Church there which survives to this day. This early form of Unitarianism was noted for its belief in one God (instead of three), for the toleration of other religions, and for the distribution of decision-making. Following David's teaching, King John Sigismund of Transylvania allowed each village in his realm to decide whether the village church was to be Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, or Unitarian, instead of demanding that everyone worship the religion of the King’s choice.
In the 1660s Socinian ideas took hold in England under the influence of John Biddle, known as the Father of English Unitarianism. Unitarianism in England later became organized by Thomas Belsham and popularized by orators like Theophilus Lindsay and scientists such as Joseph Priestly.
The pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620 were inclined toward a form of religious organization that came to be known as congregationalism. In this form of church polity, each congregation is its own independent authority.
Shortly after the Salem witch trials of the 1690s, congregations in New England began to differentiate themselves informally as "trinitarian" or "unitarian" depending on the lesser or greater acknowledgement of the role of Reason in the spiritual life. This division was further exacerbated by the Great Awakening, the revivalist movement of the 1740s. Charles Chauncey, minister of First Parish in Boston, was aghast at the excesses of emotionalism during the meetings of this revivalist movement and published many tracts arguing for the reasonableness of religion. A generation after his death, his congregation would vote to affiliate with the newly-formed American Unitarian Association. During his lifetime, however, Chauncey's efforts were successfully countered by the first great North American philosopher, Jonathan Edwards, who argued that while there were indeed emotional excesses during the various revivals, the intellectualism of Chauncey's approach was elitist and not sufficient for an individual's full salvation.
After the American Revolution, Joseph Priestly moved to America, and in 1794 helped found the first officially Unitarian congregation in Philadelphia. In 1805 Harvard, an officially unaffiliated seminary and university, elected a professed Unitarian, Henry Ware, Sr., as chair of its Biblical Studies department. This caused the resignation of several prominent conservative faculty who then formed what would later become Andover Newton Seminary nearby. Harvard's Religion department would remain de facto Unitarian until the late 1940s.
William Ellery Channing, in an 1819 speech delivered on the occasion of the ordination of the first minister of a new church in Baltimore, Maryland, identified his branch of congregationalism as "Unitarian Christianity". This speech was an important media event in its day, a rallying cry, and led to many like-minded congregations officially changing their names to include the designation "Unitarian". In 1825, the American Unitarian Association was formed. When asked to be the Association's first president, Channing declined, claiming that he had little sympathy for organized religion. Jonathan Edwards' efforts notwithstanding, Unitarianism would be the dominant voice of culture in the States from 1770-1870, from the Revolution until after the Civil War.
Before the inauguration of Lincoln, four U.S. Presidents identified themselves as Unitarians (there would later be a fifth, W. H. Taft), and in the arenas of literature and philosophy, Unitarians would remain prominent until WWII: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Theodore Parker and Ralph Waldo Emerson before the Civil War; Mark Twain, John Dewey and e.e. cummings afterwards---to name just a few in each era.
Universalism arose during the 1750s from the teachings of an eccentric English preacher named James Relly. Relly believed that if God was all-loving and all-powerful, then God would want to save everyone and would be able to save everyone; therefore there could be no Hell because God's salvation was "universal". This was a significant challenge to the predestinarian views of the Calvinist Presbyterians who believed that each individual was predestined by God for election to Heaven or damnation to Hell.
John Murray, a man moved by Relly's preaching, helped to start Universalist congregations when he moved to America in the 1770s. The first convention of Universalist congregations convened in Philadelphia in 1790. In 1805, Hosea Ballou wrote "A Treatise on Atonement", a book questioning the notion that Jesus had to die for our sins. Ballou's book gave renewed focus to the Universalist movement and his organizing efforts helped to spread Universalism westward from the Atlantic seaboard.
Both Unitarians and Universalists were instrumental in the Abolitionist movement to free the slaves before the Civil War and both had pioneered the "scandalous" practice of ordaining women to the ministry. After the Civil War, both groups provided leading figures in the Women's Rights movement and the Temperance movement. In 1942 various Christian denominations in the States gathered to form the National Federation of Churches (later known as the National Council of Churches), a "united front" in support of the war effort (WWII). The Universalists applied to participate but were turned down because, as an organization, the Universalist Church of America did not affirm Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
Both the Unitarians and the Universalists had abolished official creeds in the 1890s, preferring instead to leave matters of belief up to each individual member. At a joint convention held in Syracuse, NY, in 1961, the two organizations merged to form the Unitarian Universalist Association. While some participants in the Syracuse convention saw the merger as necessary to keep alive the Liberal or Reason-oriented branch of Protestant Christianity, others saw the merger as the first step in the development of a new, not-necessarily-Christian religion.
The philosopher, John Dewey, and others had already permeated both groups with the teachings of secular humanism. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, the Women's movement and the Gay Rights movement of the 1970s, and the Ecology movement were enthusiastically embraced by most Unitarian Universalist congregations. Influenced by feminism and ecologism, many Unitarian Universalists came to understand themselves as Pagans in the sense of having a deep respect for the spirituality implied by humanity's interdependence with Mother Earth.
Canadian Unitarian Council
The Canadian Unitarian Council was formed by the Canadian delegates who were present at the Universalist and Unitarian merger negotiations in Syracuse in 1961. The first Unitarian congregation in Canada began in Montreal in the early 1840s and the first Universalist congregation started in Halifax at about the same time. While these congregations may have been "outposts" of their counterparts in the USA when they started, congregational polity guaranteed that they would soon develop concerns and approaches of their own.
Canadian Unitarianism in particular was much more deeply influenced by the Humanist movement of the early 20th century than most congregations in the USA. More recently, Canadian UUs have been influenced as well by the spiritual teachings and environmental concerns of the First Nations peoples, and by a greater appreciation for the historical and environmental "context" of faith.
Rev. Mark Mosher DeWolfe, one of the first ordained gay ministers in Canada, was one of the pioneers of a uniquely Canadian "Contextual" theology. Unitarian and Universalist congregations which are members of the Canadian Unitarian Council have more recently directed their attention to matters of Canadian UU identity.
Yes, we too have Humanists and Pagans and Christians within each of our congregations, but what unique flavor of Unitarian Universalism do we see arising here in Canada, here in the context of an environment and a nation which will be dominated by the colossal cultural power of the United States into the foreseeable future?
Although it began as part of the Reformation, Unitarianism (and Universalism to a lesser extent), were greatly shaped by the Modern Era, the Age of Reason. In a sense these two groups comprised, in their heyday, THE Modern religion. Because of their congregational polity, Unitarianism and Universalism evolved significantly over a relatively short span of history. Since WWII, the world is becoming increasingly post-Modern, i.e., many of the foundational assumptions of the Modern Era have come into question.
Our commitment to congregational faith, to thoughtfulness in matters of faith, to individual liberty and the freedom of religious expression, and our celebration of the diversity of the human spiritual experience, will enable us, I believe, to take a leading role in the new horizon of "post-modern" religion.