The Unitarian Universalists
Religious Liberals Challenge All Dogmas


from SEPARATED BRETHREN: A Survey of Protestant, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox and Other Denominations in the United States 3rd Revised Edition by William J. Whalen (Our Sunday Visitor, Inc. 1979)


THOMAS JEFFERSON predicted in 1822: "I trust that there is not a young man living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian." Our third President further believed that "the present generation will see Unitarianism become the general religion of the United States."

For all his great qualities Jefferson turned out to be a poor prophet. By 1977 the Unitarians (bolstered by a 1961 merger with the Universalists) claimed only 184,552 adult members in this country.

Yet an impressive case can be made for the proposition that no religious denomination has and does provide a greater number of national figures than the Unitarian Universalists. The last Unitarian who ran for the presidency - Adlai Stevenson - lost the election, but five presidents stand in the Unitarian tradition: John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Jefferson, Millard Fillmore, and William Howard Taft.

With a membership of about one-tenth of 1% of the U.S. population the Unitarian Universalists generally receive the highest proportionate political representation of any denomination. For example, in the 95th Congress three Unitarians sat in the Senate while eight others served in the House. The 24% of the population which is Roman Catholic furnished only 13 senators.

Two Unitarians - Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and Ted Sorenson - held top posts in the Kennedy administration. This tiny denomination has been the spiritual home of such people as novelist J. P. Marquand, architect Frank Lloyd Wright, diplomat Chester Bowles, composer Bela Bartok, historian Henry Steele Commager, social theorist David Riesman.

Unitarian figures in American literature include Oliver Wendell Holmes, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William Cullen Bryant, Edward Everett Hale, Ralph Waldo Emerson, James Russell Lowell, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Bret Harte, and Louisa May Alcott. Suffragette Susan B. Anthony, reformer Dorothea Dix, and Horace Mann are claimed by the Unitarians. Of 77 Olympians in the Hall of Fame, 17 were Unitarians.

Dr. Ellsworth Huntington of Yale studied the listings of people in Who’s Who in America and concluded, "The productivity of the Unitarians in supplying leaders of the first rank has been 150 times as great as that of the remainder of the population."

Despite the small membership of the denomination, the influence of Unitarian Universalists must be reckoned as a major force in contemporary American life. What is more, millions of Americans hold views similar to Unitarianism but do not belong to a Unitarian Universalist church or fellowship. Some remain in mainline Protestant denominations.

All religious bodies evolve over a period of decades or centuries but few have changed as radically as Unitarianism and Universalism. Originally Unitarians affirmed the unity of God in contrast to the orthodox Christian doctrine of the Trinity. They revered Jesus as the unique exemplar of God's revelation, believed in his miracles as well as those of the Old Testament, relied on the Bible as the Word of God. The Unitarians of the 16th century held a heterodox but Christian theological position.

Today the majority of American Unitarians stand in the humanist tradition; almost all Unitarians in the Middle West and West can be classified as agnostics. Long ago they rejected the orthodox attitudes toward the Bible and miracles and few today profess belief in a personal God or in immortality. Jesus is considered one of many religious teachers and the Christian message takes its place alongside the teachings of Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, etc.

The Unitarian scholar and historian Earl Morse Wilbur has written:

"When the Unitarian movement began, the marks of true religion were commonly thought to be belief in the creeds, membership in the church, and participation in its rites and sacraments. To the Unitarian of today the marks of true religion are spiritual freedom, enlightened reason, broad and tolerant sympathy, upright character and unselfish service. These things, which go to the very heart of life, best express the meaning of Unitarian history."

Universalism began with an orthodox position on the Trinity but a belief that all souls will eventually be reconciled with God. The early Universalists simply denied that God would punish any soul for eternity.

A minority of American Unitarians represented by the Unitarian Christian Fellowship seeks to uphold the Christian witness in the denomination but the odds seem to be against this holding action. The growth of the denomination in recent years has been outside of New England which is where the Christian Unitarians preserve some strength.

Unitarians maintain that primitive Christianity was unitarian and only gradually changed to belief in the Trinity. At the Council of Nicea in 325A.D. the Church declared that Jesus was the same essential substance as God the Father; the doctrine of the Trinity was further elaborated at the Council of Constantinople.

Early Unitarians might have been classified as Arians who believed that Jesus was not equal to God but was more than man. Their heroes were Arian, Origen, and Pelagius in early Church history.

With the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity firmly held by the Church little more is heard of Unitarian tendencies until the 16th century. About 14 years after Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door, a Spaniard, Michael Servetus, challenged the doctrine of the Trinity. In a tract entitled "On the Errors of the Trinity" he sought to win the Reformers, especially Luther and Calvin, to his theological view. "Your Trinity is the product of subtlety and madness. The Gospel knows nothing of it," wrote the young Spanish rebel.

Far from accepting the anti-Trinitarianism of Servetus, the Reformers recoiled and condemned him as a blasphemer. He lived under an assumed name in France but reopened his correspondence with Calvin. Servetus was eventually arrested as he passed through Geneva, tried, and burned at the stake. Calvin thought this punishment was more than just.

Servetus attracted no followers and held doctrinal positions far from later Unitarianism. Unitarianism took root in two other areas: Transylvania and Poland. Two brothers, Faustus and Lelius Socinus, led the Unitarian movement in Poland. By 1618 there were 300 congregations of the Minor Reformed Church, the name of the Unitarian church in Poland. During the Counter-Reformation the Jesuits succeeded in eliminating Unitarianism in that country.

The kingdom of Transylvania maintained its independence from 1543 to 1691; it is now a part of Rumania. Here the leader was Francis David who was protected by the only Unitarian king in history, John Sigismund. By 1600 there were 425 Unitarian churches in the kingdom. Sigismund's successors did not share his religious views and persecuted the Unitarians.

In England the first Unitarian service was held in an auction room in London in 1774. A former Anglican clergyman, Theophilus Lindsey, founded English Unitarianism. He was assisted by Joseph Priestley, best known as the scientist who discovered oxygen.

Although Unitarianism in England was not subjected to the severe persecution it endured on the Continent, it did antagonize many orthodox Christians. In 1791 a mob destroyed Priestley's home and laboratory as well as a Unitarian chapel in Birmingham. The scientist fled to London and a few years later to America. He founded the first church in America to bear the Unitarian name in Northumberland, Pa. James Martineau assumed leadership of the English Unitarians in the early 19th century.

In England the denomination suffered a sharp decline after 1900; attendance at Sunday service fell from 42,000 in that year to 13,500 just before World War II. Many Unitarian chapels were destroyed by German bombing during the war.

In America Unitarianism arose as a schism within New England Congregationalism. Unlike Calvinists the Unitarians affirmed that human nature was good, not depraved, that man was free rather than predestined, and that Jesus was a great moral teacher but not God. King's Chapel in Boston, the first Episcopal church in New England, adopted Unitarianism in 1787. All references to the Trinity were expunged from the ritual. The Church of the Pilgrims at Plymouth joined the liberal camp in 1800.

The growing controversy between Calvinists and Unitarians was brought to a head by Jedidiah Morse, an orthodox Congregationalist and the father of the inventor of the telegraph. He launched a crusade to smoke out the heretics and found a perfect issue when Harvard picked Henry Ware, a theologian of Arian views, to fill the chair of divinity in 1805. In protest the orthodox founded Andover Theological Seminary. For 128 years Harvard saw a succession of Unitarian presidents.

The lines were now drawn. Most of the Congregational churches in the Boston area became Unitarian. By 1840, an estimated 135 of 544 Congregational churches had gone over to Unitarianism and many of these were the larger and more affluent parishes.

A group of Boston and New England ministers formed the American Unitarian Association in 1825. (The British association was founded in the same year.) Later the Western Unitarian Conference was organized to extend the free religion movement to the Middle West and West. Its orientation has always been more humanistic than that of the New England Unitarians. Western Unitarians were instrumental in the establishment of Washington University in St. Louis and Antioch College, but neither institution remained under church control.

Meanwhile the other partner in the 1961 merger - Universalism - was establishing roots in America. John Murray, a former Methodist, preached the first Universalist sermon in America in 1770. He taught that ultimately all souls would be reconciled to God. Although Universalism as a religious system predated Unitarianism in this country it did not formally organize until 1866.

Originally Universalism was Trinitarian but one influential preacher Hosea BaIlou, swung the theological direction of the denomination toward Unitarianism. Ballou served a Boston church from 1817 to 1852.

The Universalists went on record in 1790 as opposing human slavery -the first religious body to take this stand. They were also the first denomination to sponsor women for the ministry. Universalists worked for prison reform and the parole system and fought capital punishment.

Universalism always found its greatest strength among rural New Englanders. It has not counted the distinguished roster of communicants which has been found in Unitarianism. Yet Benjamin Rush, a Universalist layman and physician, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, and Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, belonged to the Universalist Church. This church founded Tufts, Akron, and St. Lawrence universities.

Today the theological battle between theists and humanists is almost over and the humanists must be considered the victors. Here and there you will find individual Unitarians or congregations which still favor the Christian or theistic position, but they are dwindling.

The denomination published the results of a comprehensive survey of beliefs of adult Unitarian Universalists in 1967. Only 3 percent think of God as a supernatural being, although four out of ten think of God as love, evolution, or some other natural process. About 90 percent repudiate any belief in personal immortality and 64 percent declared that they seldom or never pray.

Most Unitarian Universalists are converts; 60 percent belonged to some other religion and 28 percent had no previous religious affiliation. Approximately 5 percent came from Jewish backgrounds while 20 percent said their parents were Protestant fundamentalists. Unitarian Universalists are normally wealthier and more active in community affairs than people of other churches; six out of ten are college graduates. Few are black.

Organized Unitarian Universalist groups can be found in more that 1,000 U.S. communities. Most of these are churches with ministers but several hundred are lay-led Fellowships. Every year some Fellowships achieve full church status. Some 5,000 men and women belong to the Church of the Larger Fellowship which offers a correspondence type program for people isolated from a Unitarian congregation.

Ministers usually take training at Meadville affiliated with the University of Chicago, Harvard Divinity School, or Starr King School for the Ministry, near the University of California.

Humanitarian activities are carried on throughout the world by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. This might take the form of civil rights work in Atlanta, social work training in Korea, community centers in Rhodesia, medical programs in Haiti, birth control clinics in Nigeria. The Committee was organized in 1940 to aid refugees from Nazi tyranny. The Committee conducts its projects on a nonsectarian basis.

The Unitarian Universalist Association belongs to the International Association for Liberal Christianity and Religious Freedom which claims to represent some 1,500,000 Europeans. The American denomination also maintains friendly relations with the Universalist Church of the Philippines, the Philippine Unitarian Church, the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland, and Unitarian churches in Hungary and Czechoslovakia.

Freedom is the characteristic theme of contemporary Unitarianism. No one in the Unitarian Universalist church expects any other member to hold any particular belief or subscribe to any creed. A member who believes in the unique mission of Jesus and the inspiration of the Bible may sit beside another Unitarian Universalist who denies the existence of God.

At the same time it is not difficult to predict Unitarian Universalist positions on given issues. A Unitarian Universalist will usually support civil rights, easier divorce laws, abortion, euthanasia, a strict interpretation of separation of church and state, birth control, sex education programs, prison reform, mental health, the United Nations, cremation or simple burials, urban renewal. They will oppose capital punishment, censorship, war, the John Birch society.

Sharing many Unitarian Universalist positions are such other groups as the Ethical Culture Societies, the American Humanist Association, the Hicksite Quakers, and Reform Jews. The New York Ethical Culture Society was founded in 1876 by Dr. Felix Adler. The 21 local branches seek "to assert the supreme importance of the ethical factor in all relations of life -personal, social, national and international - apart from any theological or metaphysical considerations." It has about 5,000 members. The Fellowship of Religious Humanists, founded in 1963 and affiliated with the American Humanist Association, promotes the cause of humanistic religious living and ethical religion.

Unitarian Universalism faces the future with confidence. The 1961 merger and the rapid growth of the Fellowships have given the denomination a much larger base than ever before. It has a well-educated ministry, a distinguished publishing program and an influence out of all proportion to its numbers.

Millions of Americans hold basic Unitarian Universalist positions but do not belong to the denomination. The Unitarian Universalists are making strong efforts to gain converts. It has even launched an advertising campaign to attract inquiries. But, the question is whether liberal religion can appeal to the liberal who works in a factory instead of a university, who reads Time instead of Harper's or The Nation, who holds a high school diploma instead of a college sheepskin or Ph.D.

Standing outside of the Christian family, the Unitarian Universalists do not stand outside of the pale of dialogue with Christians. Cardinal Cushing addressed the UUA's general assembly in 1965 and called for a continuing dialogue between Catholics and Unitarian Universalists as the "link between Christianity and secular humanism." He added that "both secular humanism and Christianity have a thirst for social justice and the discussion of this fact alone brings us closer to the theological postulates by which social justice can be demanded." The Boston cardinal noted that there are Unitarian Universalists "still oriented toward the insights of the Christian message" and others whose faith "is more profoundly based on man."

Unitarian Universalism, freed of all but vestigial Christian traditions, presents itself as a religion which can exert a strong appeal to secular humanists who do not wish to go it alone. These people can find fellowship, spiritual inspiration, counseling, organized outlets for humanitarian work through this denomination. In past years neither the Unitarians nor Universalists excelled at missionary work or organization. Both of these problem areas seem to be getting attention and we may expect to see Unitarian Universalism assume a larger role among American religions. 


Further Reading


Mendolsohn, Jack, Why I am a Unitarian Universalist (Boston, Beacon 1964).

Parke, David B., The Epic of Unitarianism (Boston, Starr King Press, 1967).

Wilbur, Morse, A History of Unitarianism, 2 vols. (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1947).

Wright, Conrad, The Beginning of Unitarianism in America (Boston, Beacon, 1955).