A History of Unitarian Universalism
This sermon, “A History of Unitarian Universalism,” was originally delivered to the congregation of Harmony, a Unitarian Universalist Community, on August 20, 2017. It is published here with permission from the writer, with all rights reserved.
By Rob Rogan
If you ever take the time to browse the podcast library of the sermons given at Harmony over our last few years, you will see a wonderful potpourri of topics. Both secular and spiritual, we have covered issues ranging from Islam, to LGBTQ, to Food, to Empathy, to Buddhism, and on and on. However, one thing was notably absent was any discussion about our own Unitarian history. Now I find this quite ironic, because it feels as though most churches find their own history uniquely fascinating and becomes one of their favorite topics to speak about.
Perhaps we are either too polite to talk about ourselves, or find our own history to boring, or perhaps we think we all already knows our story. However, I really don’t think any of those are true. I think we have a fascinating history that fills me with pride every time I delve into it and I am willing to bet many of us don’t consider ourselves well educated in this topic. I believe as a community it is important to make sure we take the time to understand our history and the roots of our faith. So today I am going to try to paint that picture for you the best I can.
However, before I begin, I do want offer a disclaimer. While I am the Sunday Service director of this community, I am not a minister and I have never been to a seminary school. I will try to cover our history in broad strokes and focus on the parts I find interesting. During the course of this service, there is a chance I will mispronounce a name or event, so I will go ahead and apologize for that in advance. And as I wrap up, if you feel I missed some piece of our history that you find important, please make sure to share in discussion.
I will also try my best to keep this conversational and not a world history 101 lecture, but obviously our past is filled with events and names that are an important part of our legacy. So don’t be overwhelmed in the details, just take in the big picture.
Unitarians and Univers alists have always been heretics. We are heretics because we want to choose our faith, not because we desire to be rebellious. “Heresy” in Greek means “choice.” And if there anything our community wants, its choice. During the first three centuries after the birth of Christ, Christianity was quite divided and Christians could choose from a variety of tenets about Jesus. Different interpretations of the Bible and who Jesus really was, could be found among the various versions of Christianity. One of these sets of beliefs was that Jesus was an entity sent by God on a divine mission. But that there was only one true god to be worshiped, thus the word “Unitarian” developed.
Another religious belief in the first three centuries of the Common Era (CE) was universal salvation. This was the belief that no person would be condemned by God to eternal damnation in a fiery pit. Thus, a Universalist believed that all people will be saved. In these 2 areas we see the very early beginnings of our faith starting to take form.
All this started coming to an end by 325. Roman Emperor Constantine had grown concerned about keeping order in his empire. While he was not a religious man, he knew the power of religion to control his people. So he formed the Nicaea council, whose job was to make the firm doctrine of what Christianity would be. This council would come to find that the only true Christian would be one who believes in the holy Trinity of the Father, Son, and holy spirit. and the powerful Roman Catholic church really got roots.
For centuries thereafter, people who professed Unitarian or Universalist beliefs were persecuted.
Europe plunged into the dark ages in every way, but finally in the 16th century a path for UU started to take shape when the Protestant Reformation came about.
In 1517 John Luther started the Reformation by nailing his theses to the door of the All Saints Church. A religious radical for the time, Luther’s actions began the factioning of Western Christianity beyond the Roman Catholic Church. His work was continued in the middle and back half of that century by John Calvin. Now Luther and Calvin were considered absolute rebels for really saying, “You know we should really read and interpret the Bible ourselves and not just follow what the Pope has to say.” John Calvin who’s background was a humanist lawyer, was really sticking his middle finger up at the Catholic Church and was risking his life.
Now enter Michael Servetus. Michael was one of the most influential early Unitarians and today the Michael Servetus Unitarian Society carries his legacy, despite the fact that he didn’t call himself that at the time. Michael was a brilliant physician, he was the first Westerner to describe our pulmonary circulation system and how our heart and blood works, so smart guy. He writes a book called Errors of the Holy Trinity and which maintained that belief in the Trinity was not based on biblical teachings but rather on what he saw as misinterpretations of Greek philosophers. He hoped the dismissal of the Trinitarian dogma would make Christianity more appealing to Judaism and Islam which had remained as strictly Monotheistic religions.
In 1553, Servetus published yet another religious work entitled Christianizing Restitution, a work that sharply rejected the idea of predestination and the idea that God had condemned souls to Hell regardless of worth or merit. God, insisted Servetus, condemns no one who does not condemn himself through thought, word or deed. (A very Universalist sort of idea.)
Now let’s bring back it to John Calvin and the reformation. Servetus spends years trading letters with John Calvin on his interpretation of the Bible, which happens to differ from Calvin’s. So in 1553 Servetus comes to Geneva where John Calvin is. Now remember John Calvin was revolutionary for telling the catholic church, that we should read and interpret the scripture for ourselves and not just do what the church says.
So what do you think happens when he meets another free thinker who has a different interpretation of the Bible? I would love to say Calvin and Servetus would go on to spend years searching for spiritual truth together, but….instead John Calvin felt threatened by Servetus and had the Swiss government put him on trial and subsequently execute him as a heretic by burning him at the stake. (pause) Servetus is considered to be one of the most infamous Unitarian martyrs to this day.
It was fair to say that religious tolerance was growing, but still showed signs that we weren’t truly ready to accept Unitarians yet.
John Sigismund and Frances David
Now, let’s head over to eastern Europe. Fifteen years after Michael Servetus was burned at the stake, John Sigismund was the ruler of Transylvania. Sigismund’s court preacher, Frances David, had successively converted him from Catholicism to Lutheranism to Calvinism and finally to Unitarianism because he could find no biblical basis for the doctrine of the Trinity. He saw that the battle for religion was a problem for all of Europe. And by 1568 provided a safe space in his country for Unitarians. That they would not be persecuted. He argued that people should be allowed to choose among these faiths, he said, “We need not think alike to love alike.” While that sounds pretty normal by modern standards, in 1568, this was really progressive thinking. This was the first Unitarian king in history.
In 16th-century Transylvania, Unitarian congregations were established for the first time in history. These first churches continue to preach the Unitarian message in present-day Romania. Like their heretic forebears from ancient times. these liberals could not see how the deification of a human being or the simple recitation of creeds could help them to live better lives. They said that we must follow the teachings of Jesus, not worship him.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, Unitarianism appeared briefly in scattered locations throughout Europe, but persecution frequently followed these believers.
Unitarian to America
In 1791, scientist and Unitarian minister Joseph Priestley had his laboratory burned to the ground and was hounded out of England. He fled to America where he established American Unitarian churches in the Philadelphia area. So we have the beginning of the European export of Unitarianism to America.
While Unitarianism was being brought from Europe to America, it was also in parallel arising out of some of the most historic congregations in Puritan New England. This relatively progressive group who came to America for religious freedom was experiencing a backslide. By the mid-1700s, a group of evangelicals were calling for the revival of Puritan orthodoxy. These evangelicals asserted their belief in humanity’s eternal bondage to sin.
The Heretics who opposed this old school orthodoxy, and instead believed in free human will and the loving benevolence of God, split from the Puritan Orthodox and eventually became Unitarian. During the first four decades of the 1800s, hundreds of these original congregational churches fought over ideas about sin and salvation. In 1819, Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing delivered a sermon called “Unitarian Christianity” and helped to give the Unitarians a strong platform. Six years later the American Unitarian Association was organized in Boston, MA.
This Puritan heritage is seen today. If you look through this map showing UU churches by state, you will notice the very high density in New England. Tiny Massachusetts in particular has 139 UU churches, which is more than the entire southeastern United States.
So enough with the Unitarian….what about the other U?
Well, Universalism followed a very similar path through Europe. It had a larger following that Unitarianism in the first few hundred years AD, but fell to the same persecution after Constantine and the Nicea council. Also like Unitarians, the ideas of Universalism started to proliferate throughout Europe during the Reformation, but while Unitarians were gaining in Eastern Europe, Universalist concepts were primarily centered in Western Europe, particularly England, France, and Germany. These western religious leaders were starting to preach ideas consistent with Universalism, but we really have to come to America to find what is considered the real roots and founding fathers of modern Universalism.
Universalism developed independently in America at least three distinct geographical locations. The earliest preachers of the gospel of universal salvation appeared in what were later become the Middle Atlantic and Southern states. These Universalist churches arose mostly as a split from Baptist. Or more specifically, Baptists who believed in Universal Salvation.
At about the same time, in the rural, interior sections of New England, a small number of preachers, began to split from the strict Calvinist doctrines of eternal punishment, and towards a more loving God. It is here where John Murray, an English preacher who immigrated to America in 1770, helped lead the first Universalist church in Gloucester, MA and many people still see John Murray as one of the founding fathers of Universalism.
From its beginnings, Universalism challenged its members to reach out and embrace people whom society often marginalized. The Gloucester church, headed by Murray lead the battle to separate church and state in the Construction of our Government, they also included a freed slave among its charter members, and the Universalists became the first denomination to ordain women to the ministry, beginning in 1863 with Olympia Brown.
Universalism was a more evangelical faith than Unitarianism and spread far faster. After officially organizing in 1793, the Universalists spread their faith across the eastern United States and Canada. Hosea Ballou became the denomination’s greatest leader during the nineteenth century, he led the way in spreading their faith. Ballou is often seen alongside of John Murray as the second father of American Universalism
During this growth time, people were starting to see the relationships between these two faiths. In the early 1800s the difference between Unitarians and Universalists was coined as….“Universalists believe that God is too good to damn people, and the Unitarians believe that people are too good to be damned by God.”
The Universalists believed in a God who embraced everyone, and this eventually became central to their belief that lasting truth is found in all religions, and that dignity and worth are innate to all people regardless of sex, color, race, or class. So by the 19th century we start to see Universalism starting to see the form take shape of what modern UU would become and both Unitarian and Universalism were starting to join similar paths.
Drivers for change
Growing out of this inclusive theology was a lasting impetus in both denominations to create a more just society. Both Unitarians and Universalists became active participants in many social justice movements in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Unitarian preacher Theodore Parker was a prominent abolitionist, defending fugitive slaves and offering support to American abolitionist John Brown.
Other reformers included Universalists such as Charles Spear, who called for prison reform, and Clara Barton, who is infamous not only as the Civil War “angel of the battlefield” but then as the founder of the American Red Cross. Unitarians such as Dorothea Dix fought to “break the chains” of people incarcerated in mental hospitals, and Samuel Gridley Howe started schools for the blind. SO what we see in the 19th and early 20th Century are both Unitarians and Universalists showing up independently at the forefront of movements working to free people from whatever bonds may oppress them.
One of the uniting features of both faiths at this time was the ability to look beyond Christianity. As early as the 1830s, both groups were studying and promulgating texts from world religions around the world. By the beginning of the twentieth century, humanists within both traditions advocated that people could be religious without believing in God. No one person, no one religion, can embrace all religious truths.
By the middle of the twentieth century it became clear that Unitarians and Universalists could have a stronger liberal religious voice if they merged their efforts, and they did so. Fifty-six years ago in 1961, the Unitarian Universalist Association was born. The UUA as we know it today is still the central organization of our religion.
Now this was not a simple process. We often are fond of saying that UUs have a hard time with hymnals because they are always reading forward to make sure they agree with it before they sing it. Well finding the correct binding principals was so difficult that it almost held up the merger from happening.
1961: Unitarian Universalist
Fortunately, they were able to agree on a set of principles. From 1961 to 1984 these were the 6 principles that anchored the UU faith.
The members of the Unitarian Universalist Association, dedicated to the principles of a free faith, unite in seeking:
- To strengthen one another in a free and disciplined search for truth as the foundation of religious fellowship;
- To cherish and spread the universal truths taught by the great prophets and teachers of humanity in every age and tradition, immemorially summarized in their essence as love to God and love to man;
- To affirm, defend, and promote the supreme worth of every human personality, the dignity of man, and the use of the democratic method in human relationships;
- To implement our vision of one world by striving for a world community founded on ideals of brotherhood, justice, and peace;
- To serve the needs of member churches and fellowships, to organize new churches and fellowships, and to extend and strengthen liberal religion;
- To encourage cooperation with men of good will of all faiths in every land
Our newly combined faith maintained active in social justice and was thrown into the turbulent 60s. Many Unitarian Universalists (UUs) became active in the civil rights movement. Oftentimes paying the ultimate price to stand up with their fellow man. James Reeb, a Unitarian Universalist minister, was murdered in Selma, Alabama, after he and many other UU ministers responded to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s call to march for justice.
By the 1970s, UUs were determined to continue to work for greater diversity. In 1977, a women and religion resolution was passed by the Association, to responded to the feminist challenge to change sexist structures in our world. In the 1980s the denomination affirmed the rights of bisexuals, gays, lesbians, and transgender persons, and including ordaining and settling gay and lesbian clergy in our congregations. By 1996, UUA affirmed same-sex marriage. Before you say, “96, that seems late,” please remember the incredible timeline of LGBTQ acceptance in this country over the last 21 years. This is pre-“Will and Grace.” In 1996 4 out of 5 Americans were extremely opposed to same sex marriage.
Today UUs are still at the forefront of human rights, battling for immigration rights, and the renewed battle of rights against people of color and the LGBTQ coming out of Washington.
For a relatively small denomination, UUs have an incredible alumni group outside of those I have mentioned today. Huge A-list people in history are considered Unitarian Universalists like:
- Ben Franklin
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
- Charles Dickens
- Charles Darwin
- Isaac Newton
- Walt Whitman
- Frank Lloyd Wright
- And for our younger audience, Emma Watson
And honestly, so many more incredible people than I even have time to mention. But this is the faith of some of the greatest and most influential people in the history of our civilization. Which brings us to here in this room…
Unitarian Universalists: Who are we?
We are a history of rebels. Rebels who will think deeply and explore all areas of spirituality. Rebels who will stand up for the rights of those who are oppressed and change the world which we live. Rebels who will not always agree with each other, but who know that in disagreement and discussion we find growth.
Our history has carried us from liberal Christian views about Jesus and human nature to a rich religious pluralism that includes theist and atheist, agnostic and humanist, pagan, Christian, Jew, and Buddhist. We are Unitarian Universalists. A history I am proud of and present that I love being a part of.
Rob Rogan is a founding member of Harmony UU.