UNITARIANS AND UNIVERSALISTS
"WE NEED NOT THINK ALIKE TO LOVE ALIKE."
BISHOP FRANCIS DAVID OF TRANSYLVANIA
by Stan Griffin
The year was 1961. Leaders of two separate religious movements decided they would have a stronger liberal voice if they joined forces. So, on May 11 the "American Unitarian Association of the U. S. and Canada" merged with the "Universalist Church of America" to form the "Unitarian Universalist Association."
Both emerged during the first three centuries of the Christian Church’s existence. Two articles of faith introduced during that time were: (1) the idea that Jesus was sent by God on a divine mission. The word "unitarian" came about to describe the "oneness of God"; (2) Another choice was the belief no one would be condemned by God to reside in a fiery Hell forever. So "universalists" took the position of "universal salvation": everyone would be saved.
The element of choice disappeared in 325 A.D. with the Nicene Creed. It summarized the chief details of Christian faith of that period. Among other things it established the Trinity (God in Three Persons) as "dogma" (officially accepted church principles) For centuries, "Unitarians" and "Universalists" were persecuted if they continued to profess dissenting ideas.
Even before the meeting at Nicene, in 185 A.D., Origen (called by some the "greatest theologian and biblical scholar of the early Eastern church") stressed Jesus’ humanity. He believed God would receive all people (even demons) into Heaven. This became a major Universalist principle.
An evangelical rationalist, Michael Servetus, wrote "On the Errors of the Trinity." He influenced those who later formed Unitarian churches in Poland and Transylvania. He was burned at the stake in 1553.
King John Sigismund of Transylvania (the first and only Unitarian king) issued the first edict of religious toleration (1568), allowing people to hold diverse religious beliefs and still be loyal to the state. His court minister, Bishop Francis David, began as a Catholic and then converted to the Lutheran Church as he searched for biblical bases to explain the doctrine of the Trinity. He argued people should be allowed to choose among faiths, saying: "We need not think alike to love alike." David called his reformed church Unitarian, the first to be so named.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, Universalist groups were formed in England.
It was 1779 when the first U. S. Universalist church was formed in Gloucester, Massachusetts. John Murray was minister. By 1793, the "First Universalist Society" was born and spread rapidly across the U. S. and Canada.
In 1796 Joseph Priestly, minister as well as chemist, established the first U. S. Unitarian Church in Pennsylvania.
Hosea Ballou, the "Father of American Universalism," in 1805 wrote "A Treatiste On Atonement" in which he argued against the existence of miracles, the Trinity, and Hell.
By 1810 there were 20 Unitarian Churches in England.
Churches in the U. S. calling themselves Unitarians (or at least professing Unitarian beliefs) were established, largely in response to the inflexibility of Calvinist beliefs in New England. They formed the American Unitarian Association in 1825.
The first Unitarian Church in Canada was established in Montreal in 1842.
Both Universalists and Unitarians were perceived as Christian denominations holding "heretical" beliefs (those that depart from established standards and disagree with officially accepted mainstream church ideas) about the nature of God and the afterlife.
During the 19th Century a gradual change took place, instigated by men like Ralph Waldo Emerson who wrote and spoke on behalf of intellectual freedom and reason. At the beginning of the 20th Century, humanists in both groups endorsed the idea that people could be religious without believing in God. (A humanist is one concerned with the study and the welfare of human beings, their achievements and interests, instead of their theology.) Additionally, they set forth the premise that no one person or no one religion can embrace all religious truths.
Total membership of the U. U. A. is just over a half-million and has been growing over the past 10 years, unlike other religiously liberal faith sects. Members do little evangelizing, spending little time trying to convert non-believers. They have a larger percentage of women clergy than any other religion. Some congregations are formed for those who share a common belief.
Each Unitarian and Universalist: (1) has dignity and worth; (2) seeks their spiritual path based on personal life experience, reason and meditation, scientific principles, and personal beliefs about deity, humanity, and the rest of the universe; (3) gets help from clergy and fellow members of the congregation in a "quest for spiritual knowledge" (this is the major function of their clergy); (4) can join the church without being required to obey and swear to a creed (certain articles of faith considered a requirement for members); (5) has a life governed by prime concepts of democracy, religious freedom, and religious tolerance; (6) believes all great religions of the world–and their texts–have value; they cherish religious diversity and freedom; (7) directs effort toward the goal of equal treatment for all, regardless of religion, race, gender, age, nationality, or sexual orientation (the U. U. A. was the first large denomination to have an office to protect the equal rights of gays and lesbians–that includes the right to marry); many clergy members have celebrated unions in their churches.
In November, 2003 the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court announced a long-anticipated decision in the case of Goodridge et al vs. the Department of Public Health. By a 4-3 vote, the Court found the Commonwealth’s law opposing same-sex marriage unconstitutional. Soon afterwards, U. U. A. President William Sinkford issued a statement praising the Court’s ruling. He said, "We trust that the Massachusetts Legislature will act promptly and fairly to support same-sex couples and their families."
Members have some flexibility in specific areas. Only one in four considers themselves to be Christians. They are allowed to hold varying views about a deity: some believe in God, some are just not sure about it (they’re called "agnostics"), others are certain there is no God ("atheists"), and some even follow a number of gods. There are varying theories about the concept of the Trinity; members are free to make their own choice.
The idea of "afterlife" has different views: one states it is non-existent, unknown, or unimportant. Part of the membership think a removal from earth is involved, and still others are confident "reincarnation" occurs (the soul is born into another body).
On the subject of "suffering," there is also variation: most don’t believe Satan causes it, others think it’s a part of God’s plan even if we don’t understand it immediately, while some members don’t see any spiritual reason for it.
U. U. A. members don’t believe Jesus Christ was born of a virgin, performed miracles, or was resurrected from death. They do admire and respect the way he lived, the power of his love, the force of his example, and his values.
The Bible is considered one of many important religious texts, but they don’t consider it unique or exclusive. Congregations don’t interpret it literally.
A segment of the membership think of themselves as "humanists" or "free-thinkers" (those who reject authority and dogma in favor of rational inquiry and speculation).
U. U. A.’s views on some other contemporary issues: (1) protect the personal right to choose abortion; (2) take a secular (worldly) approach to divorce and remarriage; (3) work to end poverty; (4) promote peace and nonviolence; (5) protect the environment.
One UU pastor sums up this way: "We are proud of our past but focused on the future."
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