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A Brief History: Unitarian Universalism and the UUA

With its historical roots in the Jewish and Christian traditions, Unitarian Universalism is a liberal religion -- that is, a religion that keeps an open mind to the religious questions people have struggled with in all times and places. We believe that personal experience, conscience and reason should be the final authorities in religion, and that in the end religious authority lies not in a book or person or institution, but in ourselves. We are a "non-creedal" religion: we do not ask anyone to ascribe to a creed.

Our congregations are self-governing. Authority and responsibility are vested in the membership of the congregation. Each Unitarian Universalist congregation is involved in many kinds of programs. Worship is held regularly, the insights of the past and the present are shared with those who will create the future, service to the community is undertaken, and friendships are made. A visitor to a UU congregation will very likely find events and activities such as church school, day-care centers, lectures and forums, support groups, poetry festivals, family events, adult education classes and study groups.

(Excerpts from "We Are Unitarian Universalists", pamphlet #3047 © 1995 Unitarian Universalist Association)

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Because there have always been men and women who question the religion handed them in childhood, a religion of the free mind, like today's Unitarian Universalism, was inevitable. If the specific events and personalities that shaped this religious movement had never existed other religious liberals would have filled the vacuum. Though it would be known by a different name, this religion of the free mind would exist today.

Nevertheless, there are those illustrious personalities who forged the way during difficult times. Struggling against ostracism, violence, and even murder as they moved through history down the separate paths to Unitarianism and Universalism.

The Unitarian and Universalist movements both germinated in specific religious issues. Both grew to encompass religious doubters of many views, and both eventually welcomed to their ranks all thoughtful men and women who would accept the right of others to have different views.

Though Jesus had been dead several hundred years before the word "Unitarian" came into use, the movement that eventually acquired that label began shortly after his death. Then, many who knew Jesus talked of his humanity and his teachings, while others who had only heard of him touted his divinity and began to construct a religion that was more about him than of him.

Trinity vs. unity

The issue that polarized the inheritors of these philosophical differences was the doctrine of the trinity, adopted in 325 A.D. by means more political than religious. The Trinitarians, who believed in, "God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost" said that those who stressed the unity of God (later known as Unitarians) were heretics. Many of the Unitarians were executed for their beliefs. Best known of these martyrs is Michael Servetus, who was burned at the stake in 1553 for writing "On The Errors of the Trinity."

More than a hundred years before the affirmation of the trinity the seeds of Universalism were being planted by the articulate and prolific intellectual, Origen. Origen, who, like the Unitarians, stressed the humanity of Jesus, produced the issue on which this liberal religious movement would be built. He argued that there was no hell and talked of a benevolent God who would offer salvation to all people.

The same century that saw the Unitarian Servetus murdered, also saw Unitarian beliefs under a variety of names gain a tenuous foothold in Switzerland, Britain, Hungary and Italy. This stubborn movement produced its own dynamic ministers. Literature was distributed. In many cases entire congregations broke away from the orthodox church. In 1638 the first Unitarian church to use that name was established in Transylvania, which had become fertile ground for religious doubt eighty years earlier under its Unitarian king Sigismund.

In 17th and 18th century England, though anti-trinitarians were still outcasts, their numbers grew. Often they were men and women who found their way into the history books for reasons other than their religious activities. John Milton, Isaac Newton, John Locke, and Florence Nightingale were all people who fought for religious tolerance. By the first decade of the 19th century 20 Unitarian churches had been established in England and many others had taken on a Unitarian character.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Universalist view also made great strides. In Germany many Universalist groups expanded and further defined the Universalist doctrine. In 1759 in England James Relly published "Union" which denied the Calvinistic doctrine of salvation for the few and claimed that all would be saved.

John Murray, a follower of Relly, helped deliver the Universalist movement safely to the shores of America. In 1779 Murray occupied the pulpit of the Independent Christian Church of Gloucester, Massachusetts, which was the first organized Universalist church in America. Twenty-six years later the movement's greatest exponent, Hosea Ballou, articulated Universalist doctrine in his book, "A Treatise on Atonement," which sought to prove the doctrine of the trinity was unscriptural, and argued against miracles and the view of men and women as depraved creatures who would burn in hell.

One of those who carried the torch of Unitarianism to America was Joseph Priestley, a Unitarian minister better known as the discoverer of oxygen. After being harassed and nearly killed in England by those of a less liberal bent, Priestley established the first openly Unitarian church in America in Philadelphia in 1796. Soon many well-established American churches acquired Unitarian ministers or Unitarian views. By now the day was long gone when an aversion to Trinitarian doctrine was sufficient to define these religious liberals. In Unitarianism and Universalism virtually every aspect of religion was fair game for doubt and debate. Many smaller liberal movements began, later to be reabsorbed into the Unitarian Universalist movement as it learned greater and greater tolerance.

In the 19th century both Unitarianism and Universalism took on an association with the causes of social justice that has endured to this day. Often led by women, like Julia Ward Howe, Susan B. Anthony and Clara Barton, the liberal religious movement became the champion of the abolition of slavery, women's rights, and penal reform. Though these issues sometimes divided the religious liberals, the gap was often greater between members of the same movement than it was between Unitarians and Universalists. As the two movements grew and acquired greater definition in the sermons of Ballou, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Ellery Channing, Theodore Parker and others, the two paths of religious liberalism grew ever closer.

Both movements became more organized. In 1785 a Universalist convention adopted a Charter of Compact which eventually evolved into the Universalist Church of America. In May of 1825 the American Unitarian Association was formed. In 1842 the first Unitarian church in Canada was founded in Montreal.

The Unitarians and Universalists shared first a philosophy of religious tolerance and religious questioning. Later they shared resources such as religious education materials, a joint hymnal, and finally on May 11, 1961, they combined their organizational strength by becoming the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations in North America. However, nothing stopped on that day. There are still questions to be asked, views to be heard, a journey to be shared. The paths have merged but the road goes on.

(Gary Provost: © 1992 Unitarian Universalist Association: Pamphlet #3005.)

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Links to even more history

The Catholic Encyclopedia on Unitarians and Universalists.

George Edward Ellis, A half century of the Unitarian controversy (1857).

Quick History Tour from The First Unitarian Congregation of Ottawa.

UUA/Mark W. Harris, Unitarian Universalist Origins.

Historia de los Unitarios y los Universalistas.

Canadian Unitarian and Universalist Historical Society.


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