Those who reject the doctrine of the Trinity and favor the belief that there is no distinction of persons in God. They seek to demonstrate the possibility of creating a genuine and enduring religious community without requiring doctrinal conformity.
General Characteristics. "Deeds not creeds" expresses the Unitarian conviction that when doctrines are used as a test of entrance into the community, they beget hypocrisy; at best, they reduce religious belief to a matter of routine; at worst, they produce bigotry and persecution. Unitarians hold that religious beliefs are too often merely speculative statements about abstract and largely irrelevant questions instead of genuine personal commitments to real issues. Unitarian ministers must be dedicated to the building of the church as a religious community that shall be an indispensable medium for the fulfillment of individual and social life. Unitarian fellowship is one from which no one is excluded, except, as William Ellery channing put it, "by the death of goodness in his own breast." Unitarian churches do not reject all tradition, but they do not regard it as sacred simply because people immersed in that tradition believe it so. Their ideal is an openness that does not exclude anything that may be illuminating—from the Old Testament to today's newspaper. Truth cannot be reduced to a creed; indeed, creedal matters are purposely kept open. Differing opinions are not merely tolerated, but looked upon as the most likely source of new and better understanding.
Another characteristic of the Unitarian fellowship is its democratic form of church government, known in ecclesiastical circles as "congregational polity." This means that a local congregation is a complete church, with all of the powers of a church; that its being and powers rest upon the free, deliberate consent of the individual members; and that all business is conducted within the church in accordance with accepted rules of order. Worship is generally of a nonliturgical character and consists of hymns; readings from Scriptures, both ancient and modern; prayer; a sermon, which is generally the high point of the worship service; and special music such as anthems, chorales, etc. Simplicity is the keynote; appurtenances such as vestments, a cross, religious pictures, surplices, and candles are seldom in evidence.
Origin and Historical Development. Although Unitarianism as now held originated in the period of the Protestant Reformation, there were examples in earlier centuries of those who consciously or unconsciously rejected the orthodox Catholic notions of a Triune God, original sin, predestination, redemption through Jesus Christ, the divine Redeemer, and a judgment of everlasting rewards or punishment. Among these were Michael servetus, who was burned at the stake (1553) in Geneva for his antitrinitarian views. Although far from being a Unitarian by any modern standard of belief, he is rightfully considered one of its pioneers. The same may be said of Faustus Socinus (1539–1604) and his followers in Poland, and those of Franz david (1510–79), who laid the foundation for the Unitarian Church in Transylvania (see socinianism). In England John biddle (1615–62) is credited with being the father of Unitarianism, although no separate Unitarian denomination was formed there until the late 18th century, when T. Lindsey opened Essex Chapel in London (1774).
Origin in the U.S. In 17th-century America, Calvinistic theology and moral standards were planted in New England, and those who would not conform to their pattern
of belief and practice were invited to move elsewhere. In time, however, many refused to accept the stern inheritance of traditional Calvinism, with its doctrines of original sin, total depravity, and double predestination. Moreover, after the Revolutionary War the impact of deism, atheism, and skepticism led many liberal persons to reexamine the whole Puritan heritage. Matters came to a head in the celebrated Dedham Case of 1818, in which the voters of the parish in Dedham, Mass., who were predominantly Unitarian in sentiment, forced the appointment of a minister of Unitarian views, over the protest of the church, which was predominantly evangelical. A majority of the members of the church thereupon withdrew; and, claiming that they, rather than the minority that remained, constituted the First Church of Dedham, demanded the meetinghouse and property. The case, carried to the state supreme court, was decided against them: "When the majority of the members of a Congregational Church separate from the majority of the parish, the members who remain, although a minority, constitute the church in such parish, and retain the rights and property thereto." In 1819 Channing preached his famous sermon on "Unitarian Christianity" at Baltimore, Md., and this, with some subsequent articles, constituted a platform of the Unitarian movement that eventuated (1825) in the organization of the American Unitarian Association. Another landmark statement of Unitarian principles was the Divinity School Address of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1838). This was followed three years later by Theodore Parker's "The Transient and Permanent in Christianity," a sermon in defense of natural religion. Meanwhile, Unitarian activity on the frontier resulted in the Western Unitarian Conference of 1852 in Cincinnati, Ohio. This led to the National Conference of Unitarian Churches in 1865, the same year that a proposed resolution for union with the Universalists was defeated.
Later Modifications. By now the basic presuppositions of Calvinist theology were being severely challenged. Such dogmas as the depravity of man, the Trinity, the Atonement, the verbal inspiration of the Scriptures, and the "sealed nature" of Revelation were being liberally interpreted in the light of new ideas. God, instead of being conceived as a supernaturally all-powerful Being, was conceived as the force for goodness visible in the power and beauty of nature, the moral law, and noble human lives. Jesus was no longer considered the unique Son of God, the Redeemer, but a great spiritual genius in line with the Hebrew prophets. The religion of Jesus must be recaptured and replace the antiquated religion about Jesus. Christianity became just one of many possible roads to the divine, not the only religion of salvation. The Bible must be critically examined in light of modern science, and seen not to be a unique book, but as a work of man witnessing to his continual search for the meaning of life. In religion as in science, the new teaching was based on "first hand experience" and not upon blind acceptance of a supernaturally revealed dogma and moral code. Belief in the dignity of man, in the validity of the democratic processes, and in the oneness of the human family, as well as sensitivity to suffering and beauty, were seen to be a truer witness of religious growth than theological orthodoxy. The Western Unitarian Conference (1885) announced that it "conditions its fellowship on no dogmatic tests, but welcomes all who wish to join it to help establish Truth, Righteousness and Love in the world." Forty-five years later the Tract Commission of the American Unitarian Association declared: "Unitarian churches are dedicated to the progressive transformation and ennoblement of individual and social life through religion, in accordance with the advancing knowledge and growing vision of mankind. Bound by this common purpose, and committed to freedom of belief, Unitarians hold in unity of spirit a diversity of convictions." Similar statements appeared in 1944 and again in 1958.
In 1902 the Beacon Press was established to broaden the book-publishing program, and some years later it began a series of pioneer publications in the field of religious education. By 1940 the number of Unitarians outside New England exceeded the number within New England. The Unitarian Service Committee was organized the same year, and in the following year, the United Unitarian Appeal, which marked the growing national awareness of Unitarianism. Meanwhile a rapprochement was taking place with the universalists, and in 1953 the youth organizations of both denominations merged to form the Liberal Religious Youth. The same year saw an establishment of a joint commission on merger by the votes of the delegates at the joint biennial sessions, and eight years later the proposed merger achieved reality when the unitarian universalist association was given corporate status in May 1961 under special acts of legislature of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the State of New York.
Unitarians have long exerted an influence far greater than their numbers would indicate. Charles Beard, the American historian, noted that "Jefferson, Paine, John Adams, Washington, Franklin, and many lesser lights were to be reckoned either among the Unitarians or the Deists," and such men as Channing, Emerson, and Parker exercised tremendous influence on the New England authors of the 19th century.
Bibliography: h. b. scholefield, "Unitarian History: A Brief," An Information Manual for the Use of Unitarian and Universalist Churches, Societies and Fellowships (Wellesley Hills, Mass. 1958). j. h. allen, Historical Sketch of the Unitarian Movement since the Reformation (New York 1894). c. wright, The Beginnings of Unitarianism in America (Boston 1955). d. b. parke, ed., The Epic of Unitarianism (Boston 1957). h. h. cheetham, Unitarianism and Universalism (Boston 1962). c. wright, The Liberal Christians; Essays on American Unitarian History (Boston 1970). s. e. ahlstrom and j. s. carey, An American Reformation: A Documentary History of Unitarian Christianity (Middletown, Conn.1985). d. robinson, The Unitarians and the Universalists (Westport, Conn. 1985). j. sias, 100 Questions that Non-members Ask about Unitarian Universalism (Nashua, N.H. 1998).
[j. r. willis/eds.]