Unitarian Universalist History
Our present Unitarian Universalist faith is woven from two historic religious traditions outlined below.
In the first centuries of the Common Era (CE) Christians held a variety of beliefs concerning the nature of Jesus. Was he God, like God, or a divinely inspired human? In 325 CE, the Council of Nicea affirmed the doctrine of the Trinity, that God is both one and three persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and they denounced as heretics all who believed differently.
In the sixteenth century, Christian humanists in Europe studied the Bible closely. They realized the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity could not be found in scripture. Reason led them to believe that God is one, not three, as Jesus’ words affirmed. They were proclaimed heretics for professing the unity of God and were given the name Unitarian.
In 1568 the first Unitarian Church was built in Kolozsvar (now Cluj-Napoca) Transylvania, a region now in Romania. The sixteenth-century Unitarians preached and organized churches in the face of overwhelming orthodox opposition and persecution. They advocated religious freedom for others. In Transylvania, Unitarians persuaded the Diet (legislature) to pass the Edict of Toleration. In 1568 the law declared that, since “faith is the gift of God,” people would not be forced to adhere to a faith they did not choose. But in other parts of Europe suppression continued with some giving their lives for their faith.
(The following is from Unitarian Universalist Origins: Our Historic Faith by Mark W. Harris, posted at the UUA website.)
“Even where the harassment was not so extreme, people still opposed the idea of choice in matters of religious faith. In 1791, scientist and Unitarian minister Joseph Priestley had his laboratory burned and was hounded out of England. He fled to America where he established American Unitarian churches in the Philadelphia area.
Despite these European connections, Unitarianism as we know it in North America is not a foreign import. In fact, the origins of our faith began with some of the most historic congregations in Puritan New England where each town was required to establish a congregationally independent church that followed Calvinist doctrines. Initially these congregational churches offered no religious choice for their parishioners, but over time the strict doctrines of original sin and predestination began to mellow.
By the mid-1700s a group of evangelicals were calling for the revival of Puritan orthodoxy. They asserted their belief in humanity’s eternal bondage to sin. People who opposed the revival, believing in free human will and the loving benevolence of God, eventually became Unitarian. During the first four decades of the nineteenth century, hundreds of these original congregational churches fought over ideas about sin and salvation, and especially over the doctrine of the Trinity. Most of the churches split over these issues. In 1819, Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing delivered a sermon called ‘Unitarian Christianity’ and helped to give the Unitarians a strong platform. Six years later the American Unitarian Association was organized in Boston, MA.”
Universalism developed in America from north to south in the late 1700’s. Among the early thinkers were “a small number of itinerant preachers, among then Caleb Rich, [who] began to disbelieve the strict Calvinist doctrines of eternal punishment. They discovered from their biblical studies the new revelation of God’s loving redemption of all. John Murray, an English preacher who immigrated in 1770, helped lead the first Universalist church in Gloucester, MA, in the battle to separate church and state.
From its beginnings, Universalism challenged its members to reach out and embrace people whom society often marginalized. The Gloucester, MA church included a freed slave among its charter members, and the Universalists became the first denomination to ordain women to the ministry, beginning in 1863 with Olympia Brown.
Universalism was a more evangelical faith than Unitarianism. After officially organizing in 1793, the Universalists spread their faith across the eastern United States and Canada. Hosea Ballou became the denomination’s greatest leader during the nineteenth century….
Other preachers followed the advice of Universalist publisher Horace Greeley and went West. One such person was Thomas Starr King, who is credited with defining the difference between Unitarians and Universalists: ‘Universalists believe that God is too good to damn people, and the Unitarians believe that people are too good to be damned by God.’ The Universalists believed in a God who embraced everyone, and this eventually became central to their belief that lasting truth is found in all religions, and that dignity and worth is innate to all people regardless of sex, color, race, or class.”
“Growing out of this inclusive theology was a lasting impetus in both denominations to create a more just society. Both Unitarians and Universalists became active participants in many social justice movements in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries…” taking action in abolition, civil rights, women’s rights, prison reform, support for people with disabilities, LGBTQ rights, environmental issues, immigration reform, and more.
In 1961 the two faiths joined together to form the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. As part of the discernment undertaken to determine if consolidation was possible, what we held in common was articulated in a set of Seven Principles and a set of Six Sources.