In the West, Unitarianism and Universalism emerged independently and primarily from the Christian religion in its original all-inclusive form. Officially, Christianity was neither Trinitarian nor Unitarian during the first two or three centuries after Jesus lived. Because no specific doctrine had been made orthodox for all churches, believers could choose from a variety of tenets about Jesus. Among these was a belief that Jesus was an entity sent by God on a divine mission. Thus the word Unitarian developed, meaning the oneness of God. Another religious choice in the first three centuries was universal salvation. This was the belief that no person would be condemned by a loving God to eternal damnation. Thus a Universalist believed that all people will be saved.
To remedy the dilemma of religious diversity in the Holy Roman Empire, Emperor Constantine called together at the Council of Nicea more than 300 bishops from all parts of his empire. In 325 A.D. following a stormy controversy, the church fathers drew up the Nicene Creed which declared, in fact, what would become Christian orthodoxy:
that Jesus is of the same essential nature as God Spirit and represents one aspect of a Holy Trinity;
that mankind is born into original sin and must be baptized in order to be “saved”;
that that Jesus died and was resurrected for our sins;
that a life everlasting (heaven) is available to all who believe.
Over the centuries Unitarians and Universalists have always been considered heretics because we believe that individuals should have the right to choose their faith. Heresy in Greek means choice. In that sense, we religious liberals are “heretics” who believe that, in the end, religious authority lies not in a book, person, or institution, but in ourselves.
Since the Council of Nicea when Christian dogma was created, only those who accepted the Trinitarian position were to be admitted into the church. Others were not only excluded, but, from time to time, vilified or tortured as heretics.
In the sixteenth century many scholars began to give expression to their conviction that the Trinity was an unnecessary and insupportable element in religious worship. The crusade gained momentum with the shameful burning of Michael Servetus, at the behest of John Calvin, for writing his book On the Errors of the Trinity.
In 1568, the first edict of religious toleration was declared in Transylvania during the reign of the first and only Unitarian king, John Sigismund. Sigismund’s court preacher, Francis David (pronounced Da-veed’), had successively converted to Unitarianism because he could find no biblical basis for the doctrine of the Trinity. Arguing that people should be allowed to choose among these faiths, he said, “We need not think alike to love alike.”
In sixteenth-century Transylvania, Unitarian congregations were stablished for the first time in history. These churches continue to preach the Unitarian message in present-day Romania. Like their heretic forebears, these liberals recite no creed or statement of doctrine and they reject the notion that Jesus is divine. They say they follow Jesus, they do not worship him.
Early in the nineteenth century, as increasing number of ministers in America began to lead their churches toward the Unitarian theology. The first churches in North America to actually bear the Unitarian name were founded by Dr. Joseph Priestley in Philadelphia and Northumberland, Pennsylvania. A Unitarian clergyman by calling, Dr. Priestly was also one of the world’s most distinguished scientists, his fame having been established in England as the discoverer of oxygen. It was because mobs in England burned his books, destroyed his laboratory, and endangered his life that he emigrated to this country bringing with him a profound commitment to Unitarianism.
Within a few years after Priestley’s arrival in America, long established churches of all denominations began to re-examine their theological beliefs and background. Boston’s historic King’s Chapel, the first Episcopal Church in New England, called a Unitarian minister in 1782 and eliminated all Trinitarian references from its Book of Common Prayer. In 1802, the oldest Pilgrim church in America, that founded in Plymouth in 1620, became Unitarian by a majority vote of the congregation. It was not until the nineteenth century under the leadership of reformer, the eloquent and beloved Boston preacher, Dr. William Ellery Channing, that many of the oldest churches in the East declared themselves Unitarian. To this day they have remained in our tradition.
Universalism began not as a revolt against the Trinity, as did Unitarianism, but in opposition to the harsh doctrine that only certain elect members of society would be saved. Universalism asserted that salvation is universal for all of humankind. The Anabaptists, among others, developed the doctrine further.
Universalism leaped the Atlantic in the mid 1700’s and flourished under two famous preachers, John Murray and Hosia Ballou. John Murray found many Universalist-minded people along the coast, and in 1779, the Independent Christian Church of Gloucester, Massachusetts, became the first organized Universalist Church in the New World.
One of the most famous nineteenth century Unitarian clergymen, Hosea Ballou, gave Universalism its first consistent philosophy when his book, A Treatise on Atonement, was published in 1805. He rejected the theories of total depravity, endless punishment in hell, the Trinity, and the miracles of Jesus. God made humanity potentially good, he said, and affords all persons salvation.
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 Unitarians believe that people are too good to be damned by God.”
The Unitarian Universalist Association grew out of the consolidation, in 1961 of the two religious movements. The UUA is headquartered on Beacon Hill in Boston, Massachusetts, and its many departments are designed to assist individual congregations with development of curricula, minister searches, and public relations.
Our association is composed of over 1,000 independent congregations in the United States all of which are self-governing. Authority and responsibility are vested in the membership of the congregation which means we adopt our own by-laws, elect our own officers, approve our own budget, and call our own ministers.
Excerpts from “We Are Unitarian Universalists”, Introducing Unitarian Universalism, and Unitarian Universalists Origins, © Unitarian Universalist Association.