Unitarian Universalist Churches

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Unitarian Universalist Churches

In 1961 the Universalist Church of America (UCA) and the American Unitarian Association (AUA) merged into the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). Many church members wanted to include "free" and "liberal" in the name of their new denomination, since both traditions had long cherished those adjectives. Neither group had required assent to any creeds, and both had a long tradition of liberalism in intellectual, social, and political matters. In the nineteenth century, both had strongly opposed slavery and had ordained women. Both denominations had welcomed the influence of sciences and encouraged toleration, not only among Christians but among the world's religions.

Each had emerged from opposition to New England Calvinism—Universalists rejecting the idea that God could predestine most humans to an eternal hell (i.e., salvation was instead held to be universal) and Unitarians rejecting the idea that human will was not free to practice virtue and thereby to deserve eternal reward (i.e., salvation by character). Unitarians were more elite and dominated Harvard for most of the nineteenth century. Universalists were more populist, and built Tufts, Allegheny, Lombard, and St. Lawrence for the less radical education of their youth.

The founding of the UCA was in 1790 and that of the AUA in 1825. Both were associations of local congregations with quite limited powers. These individual congregations could call, even ordain, their own ministers. Because they stressed freedom of religious conscience, democratic discussion and change became the order of the day, and tradition became a palette rather than a carved stone. Only a few years after the UUA was founded, Ralph Waldo Emerson left to preach a Transcendentalism that moved well beyond even the relatively liberal Unitarian Christianity. Theodore Parker became Boston's most popular preacher and was shunned by his Unitarian colleagues for his religious and social radicalism. Hosea Ballou insisted that universal salvation took place here, not in some future place, thus radicalizing the earlier universalism of the UCA's founder, John Murray. A Free Religious Association was formed in 1867, bringing together dissidents within the two denominations as well as liberal Quakers, Ethical Culturists, and Reform Jews.

By that time, major seminaries were teaching a social gospel and considering the impact of evolution on the history of religions. The search was on for a historical Jesus who would be more of a model for living in this world while transforming it. Philosophies of idealism, which regarded mind as different from and superior to matter, were losing their appeal and were being replaced by naturalism, which regarded life and thinking as natural parts of this world. John Dewey illustrates this well.

World War I (1914–1918) shattered many dreams of a reasonable international order, and the world depression that shortly followed deepened the despair. In 1933 Dewey and a number of Unitarian and Universalist leaders signed a Humanist Manifesto that called for a "religious humanism" to replace outdated supernaturalism, relying on reasonable humans alone to create a better world. Such ideas were widely debated in American seminaries, colleges, and religious journals.

The Unitarian and Universalist movements had already experienced a general movement from a heretical Christianity to a liberal Protestantism to a more universal theism. Individual religious freedom meant that such adherents could still be found. The humanist stance, however, now seemed particularly appealing. A 1966 study through the National Opinion Research Center (Tapp, 1973) showed that humanism and naturalistic theism had become dominant. Smaller studies since then show that humanism in some form remains the stance of the vast majority of Unitarian Universalists (UUs).

American life has changed rapidly since the 1960s, and so has the UUA. During the civil rights struggle, half of the UU clergy went to Selma to march with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Annual General Assemblies committed major shares of endowment to black empowerment, but subsequent boards of trustees were unable to continue the commitment. The United States' involvement in Vietnam was opposed, early and strenuously. Gay rights took center stage early, with the UUA supporting gay and lesbian ministers. Same-sex unions were given approval. A sophisticated sexuality unit for religious education was created (and widely exported). An active feminist movement succeeded in reducing sexism. Gender-freeing of hymns and liturgies occurred with minimal ruffle. The UU Service Committee was a leader in opposing U.S. support for right-wing terror in El Salvador and Nicaragua. Such changes reflected the makeup of the UU laity—more members with advanced degrees and higher family-income levels and more urban residents than any other denomination. Despite (or perhaps because of) the absence of creed, every study has shown striking consensus on political and religious values among members.

More recently, broad American religious tendencies have affected the UUA. Pluralism, inclusiveness, and diversity have become slogans, not only in regard to race and ethnicity but to theology as well. Thus, such subgroups as pagans, Buddhists, and the Earth-centered are now being welcomed in this new version of spirituality. In past times, a kind of self-selection has preserved the high consensus, but the future is always open.

See alsoEthical Culture; Free Will; Humanism; King, Martin Luther, Jr.; Lesbianand Gay Rights Movement; New Age Spirituality; Ordinationof Women; Religious Experience.


Bartlett, Laile. Bright Galaxy: Ten Years of Unitarian Fellowships. 1960.

Cassara, Ernest. Universalism in America: A DocumentaryHistory. 1971.

Olds, Mason. American Religious Humanism. Rev. ed. 1996.

Parke, David B. The Epic of Unitarianism. 1957.

Persons, Stow. Free Religion: An American Faith. 1947.

Robinson, David. The Unitarians and the Universalists. 1985.

Tapp, Robert. Religion Among the Unitarian Universalists: Converts in the Stepfathers' House. 1973.

Unitarian-Universalist Association. The Free Church ina Changing World. 1963.

Wilbur, Earl Morse. History of Unitarianism. 1945, 1952.

Wright, Conrad. A Stream of Light: A SesquicentennialHistory of American Unitarianism. 1973.

Robert B. Tapp