Unitarian Universalist Association

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UNITARIAN UNIVERSALIST ASSOCIATION . The Unitarian Universalist Association is a religious denomination that is the result of the 1961 merger of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America. Those two denominations derived from different backgrounds.


Unitarianism is a religious view that was organized in institutional form in Poland, Transylvania, England, and the United States. Its emergence is primarily the result of indigenous factors in each country. The separate movements had common characteristics: affirmations of the unity of God, the humanity of Jesus, and human religious responsibility, and rejections of the doctrines of the Trinity, the divinity of Jesus, and human corruption or total depravity. Formulations of these views differed in each country.

In Poland, disputes in the Polish Reformed Church in 1555 led to a schism and the formation of the Minor Reformed Church of Poland in 1565. The physician and theologian Giorgio Biandrata (15151588) encouraged Gregory Paul, Martin Czechowic, Georg Schomann, and other leaders of the new movement in their views. A central community was founded at Racow in 1579. Fausto Sozzini (15391604), who came to Poland in that year, became the recognized leader of the Polish Brethren, who adopted his name by calling themselves Socinians. Sozzini's theology emphasized prayer to Christ, as the man whom God resurrected and to whom God gave all power in heaven and earth over the church. The Lithuanian Brethren, a sister group led by Simon Budny, were nonadorantist in theology, which meant they rejected prayer to Christ. The Polish and Lithuanian movements flourished primarily from 1580 to 1620. Roman Catholic opposition resulted in the destruction of the Socinians' famed school and printing press in Racow in 1632 and finally in a legislative decree in 1658 that required the Socinians to become Roman Catholics or go into exile or be executed. A few Socinian exiles found refuge with the Transylvanian Unitarians in Kolozsvár (present-day Cluj-Napoca).

Ferenc Dávid (15101579) was the outstanding leader of Transylvanian Unitarianism. Dávid converted from Roman Catholicism to Lutheranism after studying in Wittenberg and then became a leader, with Biandrata's encouragement, of the Reformed Church in Transylvania after debates with Peter Mélius. Together, Dávid and Biandrata published Two Books on the False and True Knowledge of the One God the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit in 1568, an antitrinitarian book that contained Lelio Sozzini's interpretation of the prologue to John's gospel. Sozzini, an uncle of Fausto Sozzini, denied that Christ's person was that of the cosmological Logos.

In 1568 John Sigismund, the Unitarian king of Transylvania, granted religious freedom to Catholics, Lutherans, members of the Reformed church, and Unitarians. (The name Unitarian gradually came into use after debates at Gyulafehérvár in 1568 and at Nagyvárad in 1569.) The Transylvanian diet (legislature) gave these four Received Religions constitutional recognition in 1571, shortly before Sigismund's death. The next king, Stephen Báthory, forbade innovations, that is, religious beliefs that were different from those that had prevailed under Sigismund. Dávid became increasingly insistent about his nonadorantist Christology, but his view was an innovation, which could endanger legal protection of the Unitarian church. Therefore Biandrata cooperated in the arrest, trial, and imprisonment of Dávid in 1579, and Dávid died that year in prison. His nonadorantist theology eventually prevailed. The Transylvanian Unitarians still survive in Romania and Hungary.

In England, John Biddle (16151662) published Twelve Arguments Drawn Out of the Scripture (1647) and other works that based Unitarian beliefs on New Testament texts. Thomas Firmin and others spread Biddle's views. Unitarians were excluded from the protection of the Act of Toleration (1689), but their views lived on both in the Church of England and among Dissenting churches in the form of an Arian Christology, which was named after the theologian Arius (c. 256336), who maintained the Son was inferior to the Father, placing the Son among created things. When Dissenting ministers met at the Salters' Hall in London in 1719, they split into two groups. One group insisted on agreement with confessional statements, the other group required only the use of biblical terms and conformity with biblical views. Members of the latter group and their congregations gradually moved toward Unitarian views.

Theophilus Lindsey (17231808) opposed the Anglican church's creedal restrictions, left that church's ministry, and founded Essex Street Chapel in London in 1774, the first English Unitarian congregation. Joseph Priestley (17331804) was an outstanding Unitarian leader whose scriptural rationalism, materialist determinism, and humanitarian Christology influenced many Unitarians. Richard Price (17231791) emphasized free will in opposition to Priestley's determinism. Priestley and Thomas Belsham, Lindsey's successor at Essex Street Chapel, made a humanitarian Christology the dominant view, driving out Arian views.

The British and Foreign Unitarian Association, founded in 1825, was aided by the repeal of laws against nonconformity and by parliamentary approval of the Dissenters' Chapels Act (1844), which assured Unitarians of their churches.

James Martineau (18051900), who exercised great influence among English Unitarians, challenged Priestley's theology with his emphases on ethics and intuition. Martineau, who desired comprehension in a national liberal church, preferred the name Free Christian to Unitarian. In 1928, English Unitarian denominationalists and those who were influenced by Martineau's Free Christian views united to form the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches. The Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of Ireland, which derives from the influence of Thomas Emlyn (16331741), and some Welsh and Scottish churches, are different expressions of English Unitarianism.

American Unitarianism gradually emerged during the eighteenth century within Congregationalism, largely because of the influence of Arminian theology, which stressed the human capacity to respond to grace, and Arminian Christology. This gradual development resulted in conflicts that culminated in the appointment of a liberal, Henry Ware, as Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard College in 1805. The liberals were accused of covertly agreeing with Belsham's humanitarian Christology. Boston minister William Ellery Channing (17801842) replied that, instead, most of the liberal ministers were Arians, for they believed that Christ's character included ethical, intellectual, and emotional perfection, and that he was subordinate to God.

Channing's famous Baltimore sermon "Unitarian Christianity" (1819) gave the liberals a coherent theological view that embraced assertions of the unity and moral perfection of God; of the unity of Jesus Christ, his inferiority to God, and his mediatorial mission; and of human moral responsibility. The American Unitarian Association (AUA), an association of individuals, not of churches, was organized in 1825. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his Cambridge Divinity School address (1838), and Theodore Parker in his sermon "The Transient and Permanent in Christianity" (1841), challenged the prevailing Unitarian emphasis on the authority of rationally interpreted scripture. These addresses initiated a controversy over Transcendentalism within Unitarianism. Parker has influenced many Unitarians as an exemplar of public ministry, for he expressed his theology in outspoken sermons on social and economic issues, ceaseless efforts for social reform, and a willingness to disobey the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which he regarded as immoral, in obedience to a higher moral law.

Henry Whitney Bellows led the effort to organize the National Conference of Unitarian Churches (an association of churches) in 1865. The preamble to the constitution was almost a Christian creed, so Francis Ellingwood Abbot and others withdrew in protest and formed the Free Religious Association in 1867. In 1886 in the Western Unitarian Conference, a regional organization founded in 1852, a similar controversy emerged over whether the conference should be limited to those who accepted a Christian, theistic religious belief. William Channing Gannett wrote a nonbinding statement, "Things Commonly Believed among Us," which was adopted in the Western Conference in 1887. In 1894 the National Conference revised its constitution in a manner that enabled many members of the Free Religious Association to rejoin the conference. In 1925 the National Conference, which had been renamed the General Conference, was merged with the AUA.

In the early twentieth century, religious humanism appeared within Unitarianism under the leadership of John Dietrich and Curtis Reese, who were among those who signed the Humanist Manifesto (1933). A serious decline among the Unitarian churches during the depression led to the creation of a denominational Commission on Appraisal (19341936), whose chair, Frederick May Eliot, reluctantly agreed to become president of the AUA. Eliot's leadership revived the movement.


Universalism is a religious view that affirms the ultimate salvation of all humans. In some formulations, that has meant the ultimate reconciliation of all, even Satan, with God. Acts 3:21 is one of the scriptural bases for the belief that some Universalists have in a universal restoration (Gr., apokatastasis ). Modern Universalism derives from radical Pietism and from dissenters from the Baptist and Congregational traditions.

In 1681, Jane Leade (16241704) became the recognized leader of a Philadelphian Society of Pietists in London. The group's name came from the sixth church mentioned in Revelation 3:713. In Germany, Johann Wilhelm Petersen, a follower of the founder of Pietism, Philipp Jakob Spener, became a convinced chiliast, anticipating the reign of Christ after his second coming. Petersen led a group of German Philadelphian pietists. He reinterpreted Leade's views, gave them scriptural foundations, and published his reinterpretation in The Mystery of the Restoration of All Things (2 vols., 17001710). Volume 1 contains a small treatise by one of Petersen's disciples, Georg Klein-Nicolai, under the pseudonym Paul Siegvolck. This effective treatise was reprinted frequently, for both in the original German, Das von Jesu Christo Evangelium , and in English translation, The Everlasting Gospel , it converted many people to Universalism. The title was taken from Revelation 14:6. Groups of German Philadelphian Pietists and people from other groups took copies of the treatise with them when they migrated to Pennsylvania in the eighteenth century. George de Benneville (17031793), who moved to Pennsylvania in 1741, maintained contacts with different groups in colonial Pennsylvania whose members affirmed Universalism and thus prepared the way for Universalism's later growth in America.

James Relly (17201778) left George Whitefield's movement in England in 1750. He wrote Union, or A Treatise of the Consanguinity and Affinity between Christ and His Church (1759), in which he argued that a result of the indissoluble union of Christ with his people is that there is no guilt and punishment for sins because Christ bore both the guilt and the punishment. All humans are among the elect, for whom Christ suffered. John Murray (17411815) brought Relly's universalized variation of Calvinist theology to New England in 1770. He became minister of the first Universalist congregation in America at Gloucester, Massachusetts, in 1780.

Elhanan Winchester (17511797), a Baptist minister, was converted to Universalism by The Everlasting Gospel and by his friend de Benneville. Winchester argued in The Universal Restoration (1794) that future punishment is both finite and remedial in nature, to be followed by the ultimate reconciliation of all, even of the devil and his angels, with God.

Individuals in several European countries affirmed Universalism, but they founded no effective organizations. In England, however, Universalism survived within Unitarianism after Winchester converted William Vidler (17581816), a General Baptist minister, to Universalism. Vidler succeeded Winchester as minister of Parliament Court Chapel, London, and then became, also, a Unitarian, together with some members of his congregation. This congregation and other English Unitarian congregations soon contained as members former General Baptists and other persons who held universalist views.

The institutional growth of Universalism was to be in America, where Hosea Ballou (17711852) wrote A Treatise on Atonement (1805), which made him the movement's preeminent authority in the nineteenth century. Ballou argued that sin is finite in nature, that its effects are completely experienced in this life, and that therefore all will be saved. He rejected the doctrine of the Trinity and affirmed an Arian view of Christ. These views were soon widely accepted by American Universalists.

In 1803 at Winchester, New Hampshire, the General Convention of Universalists in the New England States adopted a statement of agreement that is referred to as the Winchester Profession. The wording of the document embraced the varied Universalist views of the time. Between 1831 and 1841, a temporary schism occurred when believers in finite, future punishment founded the Massachusetts Association of Universal Restorationists in opposition to Ballou's view. By the end of the nineteenth century, restorationism was the predominant view, at the time characterized by movements attempting to transcend the divisions of denominationalism and to restore Christianity. In 1870 the Universalist General Convention approved a resolution that required the Winchester Profession to be interpreted so as to affirm the authority of scripture and the lordship of Jesus Christ. This creedal period ended in 1899, when the restrictions were rescinded and a noncreedal statement was adopted in Boston. A revised noncreedal Bond of Fellowship, known as the Washington Profession, was adopted in 1935 and revised in 1953.

Clarence Skinner (18811949), dean of Crane Theological School, was the leading spokesperson for Universalists in the twentieth century. His influence and that of others led to a reinterpretation of Universalism as focused on the unities and universals of human life rather than on an endless life after death. Thus many Universalists no longer hold a supernatural worldview.

The Unitarian Universalists

Sporadic contacts between the Unitarians and the Universalists in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were followed in 1953 by organization of the Council of Liberal Churches (Universalist-Unitarian). Cooperation in this council's departmental programs prepared the way for the churches' merger in 1961 into the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), of which Dana McLean Greeley became the first president.

The churches and fellowships of the UUA are primarily located in the United States and Canada. (There are a small number of fellowships in other countries in Central and South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia.) Ministers and ministers of religious education who are granted associate or full professional fellowship are required to have completed training at a theological school or through a supervised program of independent study. The UUA follows the practice of congregational ordination.

Unitarian Universalists hold a wide variety of religious views, including liberal Christianity, naturalistic theism, mysticism, religious humanism, scientific theology, and aspirations toward a universal religion. They emphasize such values as human dignity, freedom of religious belief, the use of reason in formulating religious beliefs, and the expression of such beliefs in movements for social reform.

The theological diversity that characterizes Unitarian Universalists is expressed in worship that varies greatly from congregation to congregation, ranging from structured liturgy to thematic or sermon-centered emphases. Von Ogden Vogt (18791964), minister of the First Unitarian Society of Chicago, contributed the view that worship, as the celebration of life, is the central discipline of religion. His books Art and Religion (1921), Modern Worship (1927), and The Primacy of Worship (1958) led many religious liberals to modify thematic or sermon-centered emphases in the direction of patterns of worship that express basic communal religious experiences: attention or vision, humility, exaltation, illumination, and dedication. The hymns and worship materials contained in Hymns of the Spirit (1937), jointly produced by Unitarian and Universalist commissions on hymns and services, were predominantly liberal Christian in character, with some expressions of religious humanism. Hymns for the Celebration of Life (1964), which was prepared by a new commission after the merger of the two denominations, contained an increased proportion of materials expressive of religious humanism, particularly through the hymns and readings of Kenneth L. Patton, who portrayed humanist worship in A Religion for One World: Art and Symbols for a Universal Religion (1964) and Services and Songs for the Celebration of Life (1967). In 1980 the UUA's Commission on Common Worship continued the task of the preceding commissions, that of providing materials that will enable people holding widely differing theological views to worship together.

The UUA is one of forty-nine member groups of the International Association for Religious Freedom. In 2002, adult membership in the UUA, including those in the affiliated Canadian Unitarian Council, totaled about 220,000 in 1,051 churches and fellowships.

See Also

Emerson, Ralph Waldo; Sozzini, Fausto Pavolo.


The basic history of Unitarianism can be found in Earl Morse Wilbur's A History of Unitarianism: Socinianism and Its Antecedents (Cambridge, Mass., 1945) and A History of Unitarianism in Transylvania, England, and America (Boston, 1952). An important companion volume for the seventeenth-century period is The Polish Brethren: Documentation of the History and Thought of Unitarianism in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and in the Diaspora, 16011685, 2 vols., translated and edited by George H. Williams (Missoula, Mont., 1980). The English Presbyterians: From Elizabethan Puritanism to Modern Unitarianism, by C. Gordan Bolam, Jeremy Goring, H. L. Short, and Roger Thomas (London, 1968), is an illuminating description of English Unitarianism. The Beginnings of Unitarianism in America by Conrad Wright (Boston, 1955) gives a precise analysis of theological issues in the eighteenth century. Wilbur's few chapters on American Unitarianism have been supplemented by A Stream of Light: A Sesquicentennial History of American Unitarianism, edited by Conrad Wright (Boston, 1975).

Universalism in America, 2 vols. (Boston, 18841886), by Richard Eddy, had been the basic history for nearly a century, until publication of the two-volume work by Russell E. Miller, The Larger Hope, vol. 1, The First Century of the Universalist Church in America, 17701870 (Boston, 1979) and vol. 2, The Second Century of the Universalist Church in America, 18701970 (Boston, 1986). Ernest Cassara edited a selection of basic source documents, Universalism in America: A Documentary History (Boston, 1971). Charlotte Irwin provided a useful description of the European background of American Universalism in "Pietist Origins of American Universalism" (M.A. thesis, Tufts University, 1966). The original theological interpretation by George H. Williams in American Universalism: A Bicentennial Historical Essay (Boston, 1971) is an important contribution. Another study of the merged denominations is David Robinson's The Unitarians and the Universalists (Westport, Conn., 1985).

New Sources

Ross, Warren. The Premise and the Promise: The Story of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Boston, 2001.

John C. Godbey (1987)

Revised Bibliography