WHAT’S IN A NAME FOR UNITARIANISM?
The word Unitarian came into existence as
early as 1568 in Transylvania (that region in Europe
called today central Romania). The Protestant Reformation was
about 50 years old when the word Unitarian came into being.
However, the idea behind Unitarianism is much older.
When first used, U. meant belief in one God
rather than belief in the 3 headed God of Christianity. Because
most Roman Catholics and Protestants at the time accepted the
doctrine of the Trinity, Unitarians were persecuted for several
centuries by both groups.
Today the word Unitarian has lost its
literal meaning for most of us. As historian Earl Morse
Wilber explains: “The word Unitarian means freedom in
religious belief and a trust that reason must guide our
religious thought and action, and a conviction that tolerance,
the cherishing of difference of opinion, is a good thing.” In a
sense we raised up our own trinity -- freedom reason and
Where does our history begin?
Unitarian thought is as old as the Bible which stretches back to
1100 BC The U. idea of God is closer to the Jewish idea of one
God than the traditional Christian idea of God. Jesus, you might
say, was a Unitarian in the sense he didn’t think of himself as
a God or as a part of the triune Godhead.
A pivotal point in our history was the
Council of Nicea in 325 AD. Convened by Constantine, Roman
Emperor at the time. The council was trying to decide between
the Christian Arius who held a Unitarian point of view
and Athanasius, who was a Trinitarian. Constantine
decided the matter by ruling in favor of Trinitarians, and we
have been stuck with it ever since.
Another pivotal point in our history took
place in 416 AD when St. Augustine had a controversy with
a British monk by the name of Pelagius. St. Augustine
believed that human nature was incorrigibly corrupt. Pelagius
believed in freedom of human will, and denied original sin.
Augustine won, we lost, and ever since Christianity has the
doctrine that human nature is corrupt and dependent on God (and
the Church) for salvation.
A pivotal character in our Unitarian history
is Michael Servetus, (1511-1553) Servetus, who published
the secret of how blood circulates in the body, was our first
Unitarian martyr. The Trinitarian John Calvin saw to it that
Servetus was entrapped and burned at the stake for his Unitarian
Another pivotal character in our history was
Faustus Socinus, who came to Poland, wrote a book on
Jesus saying Jesus saved men not by dying for them but by
setting an example for them to follow.
Still another pivotal person in our history,
who was also in Poland, was a court preacher by the name of
Francis David At the Diet of Torda in 1568 he spoke in favor
of religious toleration for all religious groups. King John
Sigimund of Transylvania became a Unitarian, the first Unitarian
King in all history; unfortunately he died an early death.
In England the first Unitarian
church was opened in London in 1774 (Essex Chapel).
Attending that first service: Dr. Joseph Priestly, discoverer of
oxygen and founder of the first U. church in Am. (in Phil. Pa.)
Another person attending was Ben Franklin.
In America in the early 1800’s we have
Puritan and Pilgrim churches. In 1805 a controversy at Harvard
College (who was to correctly train ministers?). A split, with
the orthodox withdrawing, leaving the liberals in control. And
Congregational Churches began leaving lock, stock and barrel,
endowments and learned clergy in favor of Unitarianism. By
1825, 125 of the oldest Congregational churches in New
England thought of themselves as Unitarian, and in the same year
the American Unitarian Assoc was organized (and on the same year
and day )the British Unitarian Assoc. was also organized. The
oldest Unitarian Church in America is in Philadelphia, PA.
established in 1796. Joseph Priestly was its first minister.
Attendees included Ben Franklin, Ben Rush and Thomas Jefferson.
Key names in American Unitarianism: Wm Ellery
Channing, (Unitarian Christianity) Ralph Waldo
Emerson (Transcendentalism), Thoreau, Tom
Jefferson, John Adams, Longfellow, Lowell, O.W.
Holmes. The same forces that brought Unitarianism into being
,also brought the United States and its democracy into
WHAT’S IN A NAME FOR UNIVERSALISM?
Universalism as a philosophy goes back to the
Ionians of the 5th century, who had the notion
there must be a common denominator, a red thread, in all natural
phenomena. In early Christianity, Paul and Jesus held the idea
of Universal Salvation for all people.
But Universalism really took on
distinctiveness as a church in 1770 when John Murray
came from England and landed at a place called Good Luck NJ.
He left the old world grieving the death of his wife, disturbed
by the harsh Calvinism which asserted only the elect would be
saved in the heavenly hereafter. When his ship stuck on a sand
bar, he went ashore for food, met Thomas Potter who
providentially had built a church near his home hoping someone
would preach there a Universalist message of salvation for all.
This was Murray Grove.
By 1779 Murray became the pastor of the
Independent. Church of Christ of Gloucester MA, the first
organized Univ. Church in the New World. Universalists were
persecuted in the New World. The U. meeting place was seized for
nonpayment of taxes; it took 3 years to recover it. The verdict
freed Universalism from obligatory financial support to the
state Calvinistic church.
Hosea Ballou came after Murray to give us
a statement of classic Universalism; his Treatise on
Atonement, rejected Calvinistic theories of depravity, the
Trinity, endless punishment in hell, asserting a God who created
all persons worthy of love, and potentially good. This was a
frame for our faith.
Universalism started out in this country
persecuted and poor, eventually becoming patron of such schools
as Tufts, Lombard, St. Lawrence, Akron U. Goddard, Clinton. Home
Some Universalist names: Ben Rush,
forming first non sectarian Sun. School in Am, signed
Declaration of Independence. Rev. Charles Leonard,
founded Children’s Day. Olympia Brown, first woman
minister in Am. Clara Barton, founder Am Red Cross. Starr
King who kept state of CA in Union during Civil War. In
our time: Ken Patton, Clint Scott.
Unitarians and Universalists found they had
enough in common that they merged together in 1961 to
become the Unitarian Universalist Church of America. Both
had been denied membership in the National Council of Churhces
for Christ. Both believed the personal quest after truth should
not require subscribing to certain creedal tests.
Bishop Sheen once said: “It’s easy to be
What is easy about developing and trusting
one’s own mind and conscience as final authority? What is easy
about accepting the responsibilities of freedom in a world that
is so full of benevolent tyrants and powerful institution ready
to do our thinking for us. It takes a kind of tenacity, a kind
of courage, as well as effort, to keep independent and alive. It
isn’t easy! It costs -- and sometimes it’s a risk and sometimes
it’s a hardship to be identified with something regarded as
different. It would be easier to stay in the great comfortable
middle. Many of us prefer to be the leavening in the loaf, not
the whole loaf. And we know that in freedom our struggles
stretch us as kites rise against, not with the wind.
(The Web site user is referred to the history
of the UU Church of Tarpon Springs. The oldest Universalist
Church in the state of Florida.)