The Unitarian Universalist Association was formed in 1961 by a merger between the main body of American Unitarians and the Universalist Association of America. The Unitarians emerged from the Congregational denomination about 1800. In recent decades turnover has been very high, as people use it as a vehicle to leave or enter other Christian denominations. In 2002 the denomination reported 1010 churches with 215,000 full members and 1267 pastors.
It is a liberal, nondoctrinal denomination, whose members' beliefs can be summarized as follows:
God--There is a God who created and watches over the universe.
Jesus--There are no incarnations of God, or that all incarnations are the embodiment of God, or Jesus is God's Son, or Jesus is not Son but God's chief prophet.
Creation--Most say the Bible is a holy book of great symbolic value, but not to be taken literally.
Heaven--Heaven and hell are symbolic and are not actual places, or are states of consciousness either in life or continuing after death.
Sin--Most reject original sin. People are inherently good but immoral behavior comes from free will.
Satan is a metaphor and does not actually exist.
The Unitarian Universalism Association takes liberal positions on most issues. For example they hold that women should be free to choose abortion. They argue for equality for homosexuals, gender equality, and work to end poverty, promote peace and nonviolence, and environmental protection.
Unitarian Universalists lack a single creed or dogma, but is organized around the following seven principles:
- The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
- Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
- Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
- A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
- The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
- The goal of world community with peace, liberty and justice for all;
- Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part
In the United States, Unitarianism is also an informal name for the beliefs of a religious denomination, originally the American Unitarian Association, known since its 1961 merger with the Universalists as the Unitarian Universalist Association. Members of the denomination are often called "Unitarians", although members of the organization, not wishing to overlook Universalism, prefer to call themselves "U-Us." The Unitarians appealed to a Harvard-educated Boston elite, while Universalism was common in the hard-scrabble farmers of remote New England villages.
Unitarians emerged primarily within the Congregational churches of New England, in reaction against the excessive emotionalism of the First Great Awakening (from 1734) and subsequent revivals. Unitarians were rationalists who distrusted emotionalism and saw revivals as unholy. A sharp division emerged between the liberals and conservatives within Congregationalism; in 1805 the Hollis Professorship of Divinity at Harvard College was filled by Unitarian Henry Ware. The bitter debate that ensued was responsible for a great number of schisms among the New England churches. The most celebrated leader of the new liberal theology was William Ellery Channing, especially for his sermon "Unitarian Christianity" at Baltimore in 1819. The American Unitarian Association was formed in 1825 as an organization of individuals; not till 1865 was a conference of churches formed. The philosophical movement of Transcendentalism, typified by Ralph Waldo Emerson, further liberalized the Unitarian churches, as a result of the influence of Emerson and Theodore Parker. They vigorously championed the abolition of slavery and many other reforms. Parker brought to the denomination a social consciousness and a political activism that has continued strong through the years.
Unitarians moved throughout the Yankee diaspora, and became leading citizens in the upper Midwest. Many were active against slavery. Many leading literary and scientific figures have been Unitarians, including Emerson's contemporaries Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809–1894), a poet who was the father of the justice; and Henry W. Longfellow (1807-1882), along with many scholars and educators. Unitarians include four presidents : John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Millard Fillmore, and William Howard Taft.
William Ellery Channing reacted against Calvinism, and at first tried to bridge the gulf between Unitarians and Trinitarians. Although he resisted the idea, there was a transcendental element in Channing's religious outlook. It stemmed from the Puritan tradition and 18th-century rationalism, and produced a belief of human perfectibility expressed in rational vocabulary.
Channing, in his 1819 sermon "Unitarian Christianity," did much to define Unitarianism. Channing described Jesus as a man sent by God to inspire moral excellence on earth by his exemplary virtue. Thus the connection between God, Jesus, and human beings was moral, with God's universal love transmitted throughout. Therefore, there was no need for the distinctions of a Trinity. Influences on Channing toward this Christology included the writings of Francis Hutcheson and Joseph Butler.
Unitarian minister Theodore Parker (1810-60) viewed religion as an instinctive expression of human needs. Critics say he was following German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach (1804-72) from Hegelian idealism into speculative atheism. Parker did agree with Feuerbach that religion was a spontaneous affair of the heart, but whereas Feuerbach believed that such concepts as God were an illusion without foundation, Parker consistently affirmed that human religious sentiment actually made the transcendent reality of God accessible to human beings.
A copy of David Friedrich Strauss's Leben Jesu (1835), which argued that Jesus was not the sole prophet but that all human beings are the incarnation of the Word, reached Boston in 1836-37. It disturbed most Unitarians but inspired Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was struggling to see the authority of Christianity in the message and not the messenger, to deliver his 1838 "Divinity School Address," in which he followed Unitarian assumptions in transcending Christianity itself. The controversy that greeted Emerson's "Divinity School Address" was a symptom of the erosion of basic assumptions about religion, truth, and social order. Strauss inspired Emerson, who was struggling to see the authority of Christianity in the message and not the messenger. Emerson's radical assertion of the individual's ability to perceive spiritual truth without the aid of scripture both reflected and contributed to a growing split between liberal and conservative tendencies in Unitarian theology. But the address became a sensation throughout Boston because Emerson's transcendentalist attack on institutional religious authority resonated with two political movements of the 1830s that similarly challenged the political, cultural, and moral authority of Boston elites. Although Unitarianism began as an insurgency against what it considered stale Congregationalist orthodoxy, when Emerson asserted that Transcendentalism implied that Unitarianism should reject the veracity of Christian miracles, moderate Unitarians asserted the existence of a new Unitarian orthodoxy that excluded Emerson's radical ideas.
The "Free Enquirers", led by former Universalist minister Abner Kneeland, an associate of the radical Frances Wright, linked freethinking on social issues with a Tom-Paine-like radicalism akin to the Workingmen's movement. Abolitionists led by Unitarian William Lloyd Garrison made a broad-based assault on legal authority, attacking even the legitimacy of the Constitution. This emergent discursive pluralism reflected the pervasive effects of the transformations wrought by Jacksonian politics.
Unitarians were among the first to accept Darwinian evolution views as applied to religion and "higher criticism" of the Bible and have continued to modify their theology to accord with new fads. Since the 1930s the Unitarians have been influenced greatly by religious humanism--the belief that mankind should set aside unsolvable theological problems and concentrate on the application of the scientific method to the task of creating a better life
The Unitarian-Trinitarian controversy reflected the tensions created by modernization and urbanization in New England. Some Congregationalist ministers rejected the modernity of the Unitarians and fought back in the name of traditional rural values. The Connecticut Congregationalist minister Elizur Wright, Jr. protested against the loss of traditional values and issued a bitter cultural and theological indictment of Unitarianism. Wright castigated Unitarians for their personal corruption, bigotry, fanaticism and alcoholism. Adamant over the bitter verdict rendered in the Dedham pulpit case (1820), which favored the Unitarians, Wright attacked the Unitarians as a wealthy social elite, composed of lawyers and centered in evil Boston, who intended to destroy Christ's true church.
Unitarianism spread rapidly in Boston and other upscale urban areas of eastern Massachusetts during 1803-35, but it did not prosper in rural western Massachusetts, despite the efforts of missionaries funded by the newly formed American Unitarian Association. This occurred in part due to a lack of money, entrenched orthodox theologies in the region, the competition of the Universalists, and a greater ease of communication with ministers from orthodox theological schools.
European positivism had a major impact on Unitarian intellectuals. Positivism in its English and French versions was eagerly received by many, and, for some, it helped undermine the Old Unitarianism and suggested forms for the New. Unitarians never adopted European positivism totally; rather, they selected those segments which fit their needs and often modified their original composition in the process. One from whom they borrowed heavily was French philosopher Auguste Comte, who with F. C. Baur, James Martineau and Charles Darwin were important in the transformation from Old to New Unitarianism.
Harvard Divinity School was the main seminary in the east. The Meadville Theological School was established in Meadville, pennsylvania, 1844 in order to train Unitarian ministers to work in the West. The chief founder was Harm Jan Huidekoper, a local businessman and land agent, who believed that the West was ripe for conversion to religious liberalism. His son Frederic, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School, taught at the new institution during 1844-77. Rufus Phineas Stebbins, president from the school's establishment to 1856, initiated a program of studies modelled on Harvard's. Stebbins devoted much energy to developing ties with the Christian Connection, a nearby church which was a major source of theology students. The entente with the Christian Connection began to deteriorate in 1848, but Stebbins continued to seek an accommodation with that body, and became a member of its Western Reserve Conference. However, the alliance was short-lived, and the Unitarians did not have great success in winning western adherents.
Unitarians were leaders of the abolition movement and always advocated racial equality, but never attracted many black members. One exception was civil rights leader Whitney M. Young, Jr. (1921-71), director of the Urban League during 1961-71. He bemae intellectually attracted to Unitarianism in the 1940s, and was a member of Unitarian churches from the 1950s until his death. While the white Unitarian denomination was proud to claim and honor him, in 1963 Young was bitterly disappointed that the denomination refused to deny privileges to churches maintaining racial segregation. He was also disappointed in the separatism of the Black Power movement in the denomination in 1967-70. Shaken by the discrepancy between the professed values of unity and the reality of division in the denomination, and caught in a religious dilemma between the intellectual Unitarianism that he believed in and the culture of the separate black church that increasingly nourished him, Young died in 1971 with his inner religious tension unresolved.
While the Unitarians of the 19th century were upscale well-educated city people, the Universalists were farmers in the backwoods of New England.
A major controversy set New England Universalist ministers, led by Hosea Ballou, against the and Restorationists, led by Edward Turner, Paul Dean, and Jacob Wood. It began in 1801 and reached crisis proportions during 1817-24. The Universalists believed there was no punishment after death and the Restorationists held as an article of faith that a purifying punishment followed death.
Social status differentials kept the two groups apart until the 1950s, when they formed a Council of Liberal Churches as a preliminary step to merger. They merged in 1961.
Unitarian Universalism is noncreedal. A Unitarian Universalist minister answers the question "Are Unitarian Universalists Christian?" with a forthright "Yes and no." She notes that "At a Unitarian Universalist worship service or meeting, you are likely to find members whose positions on faith may be derived from a variety of religious beliefs: Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, naturist, atheist, or agnostic. Members might tell you that they are religious humanists, liberal Christians, or world religionists."
Many small-town Unitarian church structures are picturesque white-painted frame structures of the sort that are emblematic of New England. They are likely to have a rainbow flag flying in front however, as the denomination is at the forefront in welcoming same-sex couples; one U-U pamphlet is entitled "Unitarian Universalism, A Religious Home for Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender People."
As one sermon put it:
- "Sometimes we act as if we believe we can effect a complete separation of our liberal faith and our politics. Some of us confuse liberal religion with liberal politics and seem to operate under the belief that if we are registered with the Democratic party we have fulfilled our religious obligations in the public sphere. Both these beliefs are actually false. I say this even though I myself have at different times acted as if I believed one of these two things.".
The American Unitarian Conference, founded in 2000, believes the Unitarian Universalists have departed from the "Unitarian Christianity" of Channing. The splinter group regards itself as a "reborn" version of the American Unitarian Association, which it says "disbanded" in 1961 when it merged with the Universalists.
Unitarian Universalists and Christianity
A Unitarian minister has answered the question "Are Unitarian Universalists Christian?" in these words:
- Yes and no.
- Yes, some Unitarian Universalists are Christian. Personal encounter with the spirit of Jesus as the Christ richly informs their religious lives.
- No, Unitarian Universalists are not Christian, if by Christian you mean those who think that acceptance of any creedal belief whatsoever is necessary for salvation. Unitarian Universalist Christians are considered heretics by those orthodox Christians who claim none but Christians are "saved." (Fortunately, not all the orthodox make that claim.)
- Yes, Unitarian Universalists are Christian in the sense that both Unitarian and Universalist history are part of Christian history. Our core principles and practices were first articulated and established by liberal Christians.
- Some Unitarian Universalists are not Christian. For though they may acknowledge the Christian history of our faith, Christian stories and symbols are no longer primary for them. They draw their personal faith from many sources: nature, intuition, other cultures, science, civil liberation movements, and so on.
Video Testimonials by Members
- Why I Am Unitarian Universalist (Part 1)
- Why I Am Unitarian Universalist (Part 2)
- What Unitarian Universalists Believe (Puppet show)
- Voices of a Liberal Faith - Unitarian Universalists (testimonials and clips from actual services)
- Unitarian Universalism: You're a Uni-What? (Apologetic video, defending itself against religious denomination confusion such as "a cat with a hat")
- Albanese, Catherine L. Transcendental Religion and the New America (1977)
- Buehrens, John A.. and Forrest Church. A Chosen Faith: An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism (1998) excerpt and text search
- Bumbaugh, David, Unitarian Universalism: A Narrative History (2001)
- Hewett, Phillip. Unitarians in Canada: How the Unitarians Have Exerted a Powerful Influence on Canadian Life for over 150 Years. (1978). 390 pp.
- Robinson, David. The Unitarians and Universalists. (1985). 368 pp.
- Smith, Leonard. The Unitarians: A Short History (2008)
- Stange, Douglas C. Patterns of Antislavery among American Unitarians, 1831-1860. (1977). 308 pp.
- Williams, George H. "American Universalism, a Bicentennial Historical Essay" Journal of the Universalist Historical Society v.9#1 pp 1-94, the best history
- ↑ Unitarian Christianity, text of Channing's sermon
- ↑ Nian-Sheng Huang, "William Ellery Channing's Christology and Moral Power: Rereading 'Unitarian Christianity.'" Journal of Unitarian Universalist History 1999 26: 1-17.
- ↑ Elisabeth Hurth, "From Idealism To Atheism: Theodore Parker and Ludwig Feuerbach." Journal of Unitarian Universalist History 1999 26: 18-46.
- ↑ Mary Kupiec Cayton, "Toward a Democratic Politics of Meaning-Making: The Transcendentalist Controversy and the Rise of Pluralist Discourse in Jacksonian Boston." Prospects 2000 25: 35-68. 0361-2333
- ↑ Lawrence B. Goodheart and Richard O. Curry, "The Trinitarian Indictment of Unitarianism: The Letters of Elizur Wright, Jr., 1826-1827." Journal of the Early Republic 1983 3(3): 281-296. 0275-1275
- ↑ Conrad Wright, "Unitarian Beginnings in Western Massachusetts." Proceedings Of The Unitarian Universalist Historical Society 1989 21(2): 27-40.
- ↑ Charles D. Cashdollar, "European Positivism and the American Unitarians." Church History 1976 45(4): 490-506. in JSTOR
- ↑ Bruce M. Stephens, "Liberals in the Wilderness: The Meadville Theological School, 1844-1856." Pennsylvania History 1975 42(4): 291-302. 0031-4528
- ↑ Dennis C. Dickerson, "Black Leader in a White Denomination: Whitney M. Young and the Unitarians." Journal of Unitarian Universalist History 1998 25: 26-40.
- ↑ Peter Hughes, "The Restorationist Controversy: Its Origins and First Phase, 1801-1824." Journal of Unitarian Universalist History 2000 27: 1-57.
- ↑ 11.0 11.1 Our Unitarian Universalist Faith: Frequently Asked Questions, Alice Blair Wesley
- ↑ Barbara L. Pescan, "Unitarian Universalism, A Religious Home for Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender People",
- ↑ Dan Harper, "An Election-day Sermon for Religious Liberals"
- ↑ American Unitarian Conference: Promoting the American Unitarian Tradition