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Unitarian Universalist Association

| Profile | History | Beliefs | Links | Bibliography |

I. Group Profile

  1. Name: Unitarian Universalists
  2. Founder: The American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church in America came together to form the Unitarian Universalist Association. The Unitarian faith stemmed from the teachings of Michael Servetus and the Universalists from James Relly in England. Joseph Priestley is credited with founding the first Unitarian Church in America, though many of the beliefs were already integrated into some churches in America. John Murray established the first Universalist Church in America, after bringing the religion from England. 89
  3. Date of Birth: Michael Servetus 1511, John Murray 1741, Joseph Priestly 1733, James Relly, 1722
  4. Birth Place: James Relly - Pembrokeshire, Wales, Michael Servetus - Villanueva or Tudela, Spain, John Murray - Hampshire, England, Joseph Priestley - Yorkshire, England
  5. Year Founded: In America the Unitarians were officially founded in 1825 and the Universalists in 1793. The two religions combined in America in 1961 in Boston, Massachusetts.2
  6. Sacred or Revered Texts: They believe that every Religious Sacred Text is very important and inspired but do not hold one above any other, nor identify with a specific one. 1 They do, however, hold a statement of Purpose and Principles which is in agreement with all the Unitarian Universalist Churches. Each individual is to discover his/her own religion or philosophy so no doctrine is accepted as the ultimate truth. 6
  7. Cult or Sect: Negative sentiments are typically implied when the concepts "cult" and "sect" are employed in popular discourse. Since the Religious Movements Homepage seeks to promote religious tolerance and appreciation of the positive benefits of pluralism and religious diversity in human cultures, we encourage the use of alternative concepts that do not carry implicit negative stereotypes. For a more detailed discussion of both scholarly and popular usage of the concepts "cult" and "sect," please visit our Conceptualizing "Cult" and "Sect" page, where you will find additional links to related issues.
  8. Size of Group: There are over 1000 congregations in the United States.4

II. History of the Group

    Unitarian History

    Michael Servetus, born in 1511 in Spain, became a martyr for his religious beliefs in 1553, at a time when liberal Christianity was considered heresy and punishable by death. He wrote a book on his belief that the Trinity did not exist which eventually spread seeds of religious reform throughout Europe. However, at the time the book was widely rejected and even banned. His aim was to achieve backing from the Protestant Reformers, but they too opposed his book out of fear of the Catholic suppression. He printed his ideas in several different countries but with the controversial theology that called Trinitarians atheists, they were continually banned or burned. His "heresy" sent him to his death at the stake, but also began the formation of the Unitarian religion.8

    After 1550 two organized religious groups sprouted with non-Trinitarian theology: 1) The Unitarian Church in Transylvania; 2) Minor Reform Church in Poland. It was at the Church in Transylvania that the term Unitarian originated from either its non-Trinitarian beliefs or the unity of the four-protestant churches there. By 1556 Transylvania was considered a Protestant country. King John Sigismund, who came to power in 1561, is the only known Unitarian King in history. Because of his faith he allowed freedom and tolerance of religion in the country. The official Decree of Religious Tolerance was passed in 1557. The religion debates that took place as a result were widely popular and the first one truly established the popularity of the Unitarian faith under the leadership of Francis David. By 1571 there were 500 of what we would now label Unitarian congregations. Unfortunately, the death of King John, also in 1571, lead to religious persecution once again and Francis David was imprisoned and died in jail. 8

    Poland's belief in religious tolerance allowed Peter Gonesius in 1556 to preach on the Anti-Trinitarian movement. His teachings led to the establishment of the Minor Reform Church there. In 1579 Faustus Socinus began to lead the Church and his followers became known as Socinians. In 1660, after the death of Socinus, the Minor Reform Church was destroyed and the members forced to escape Poland. Though this was a painful ordeal, it spread the religion further in Europe. 8

    John Biddle (1615-1662) became the first person to successfully teach the Unitarian ideals in England. In 1644 he wrote a statement declaring and defining why he did not believe in the Trinity and aroused many followers. However, Parliament passed a law in 1645 allowing the death penalty for Anti-Trinitarian preaching. As a result, Biddle was imprisoned. He continued to preach his doctrine when he finally got out. His persistence labeled him the "Father of English Unitarianism." 8

    In 1689 England passed a Toleration Act which gave freedom and rights to religions other than the Church of England. However in 1771 when a petition was made to allow other religious beliefs to be represented in the official Church of England, it was denied. A few members withdrew under these circumstances, one of whom was Thephilius Lindsey. He then organized the first Unitarian Congregation in England where Joseph Priestley attended. 8

    Priestley became very involved in the Unitarian religion but in July of 1791, he paid the consequences. A mob affiliated with the Church destroyed his home, lab, and library. All Unitarian chapels in Birmingham were also wiped out. He was able to escape and ran to London. In 1794, he moved on to Northumberland, Pennsylvania where he established the first Church in America labeled Unitarian. The Unitarian ideas were already in America, but he helped to further them, and organize the church there.8

    It was in the 17th Century in New England that controversy would take its roots, although it would not rear its ugly head until centuries later. The first generation of Protestant churches in America agreed on a community with church fellowship as the primary goal. Each church would have its own elected officials in charge and would not succumb to the European tradition of clergy. The churches would help each other out with controversies and send pastors to substitute for neighboring churches. 11

    A major controversy occurred in the First generation called the "Antinomian Controversy" over theological disputes about the state of grace. This was the first cause of limiting church fellowship. The second generation had less membership because they did not agree with the open confessions. To compensate the churches lowered the requirement for membership with the "Half-way Covenant." Unfortunately, this did not solve the budding controversy; it merely postponed it. Shortly after the membership crisis occurred, members became divided on the issue of love and faith. Did one take steps to achieve them or did it occur naturally and individually? 11

    As the church began to lose its influence because of its strict policy on profits and attempts to regulate, the First Great Awakening with emotional revivals occurred in 1734 just in time. This brought many members back to the church because of the emotionally charging experience. It was not praised everywhere, however, due to the rise of reason and science. The emotional experience was counteracted by these two philosophies; thus, further strain was put on the churches.11

    Liberal teaching began to spread through some churches and soon pastors identifying with Unitarian or Arminian theology openly rejected Calvinist doctrine, and began to preach their own. The further division that resulted kept the churches from maintaining their goals of fellowship. No longer could a church ask its neighbor for help because of the contradictions in faith. When the liberal Henry Ware was elected to the Hollins Chair of Divinity, the Calvinists refused any more pulpit exchanges and began the Andover Theological Seminary to educate their pastors. Those educated at Harvard were labeled Unitarian. 11

    By 1815 churches could be distinguished by their pastor and theology. By 1825 the American Unitarian Association was established to uphold and plant more Unitarian churches. The Unitarian Controversy lasted for two decades with many churches splitting after long disputes. 11

    Universalist History

    Based on universal salvation, Universalism began with the teachings of James Relly in England in the 1760's. John Murray, born in 1741 in Hampshire England, was confirmed as an Anglican Communicant. With an Anglican father and Methodist mother, he had a strong religious background, and, unsurprisingly, went into ministry as an adult. He despised the idea of Universal salvation and preached of the salvation of an Elect. 9

    While reviewing papers counteracting the teaching of James Relly, however, Murray became intrigued and began a further study of the matter of universal salvation. Relly was quite a controversial preacher, but had his own congregation, which Murray soon began visiting. In 1960 John Murray converted to Universalism and was thrown out of the Methodist Society. Soon after, his son and wife died and he was put into a debtor's prison. This stint of bad luck sent him into despair and Murray departed for America to escape his pain. The story of his trip to America and landing on Good-Luck Point is known today as the "Great Pilgrimage" because it was this journey that brought Universalism to America.9

    One of the first people Murray met in America was Thomas Potter. He was affiliated with the Quaker Baptists and actually had a meeting house on his property. Potter and his family held universalist views prior to Murray's arrival. Potter's family and church quickly adopted Murray, believing his arrival was "divinely appointed." Murray agreed with them, believing that God had appointed him to preach the Universalist faith in America.9

    He preached for the first time in America on September 30, 1770 at the Potter's meeting house. Word quickly spread about his preaching and soon he had a few more engagements. It was not long before people would travel for miles just to hear what he had to say. Fear of criticism and rejection remained in the back of his mind after every sermon. He was asked to preach in New York and Philidelphia, so he took a trip to New York and spoke there. That is when the criticism began. By the time he got to Philidelphia, they would not let him speak.9

    Murray's faith in his divine purpose outweighed his fear of criticism, so despite the closed doors he continued. As he persevered, he managed to convert many followers. In 1774 after a conversion, Noah Parker became the first Universalist preacher. Six years later on December 25, 1780, the first Universalist meeting house was established in Boston. The Dedication sermon was given by Murray himself. 9

    Unitarian Universalist Association

    The two religions have almost paralleled each other since their foundations in America. They were set apart from their counterparts in Europe almost as soon as they were founded here. The majority of both Churches were concentrated in the New England area, although there was some western expansion by the Unitarians. Founded on Christianity with major differences in the ideas of Calvin's Total Depravity and Predestination, they both moved farther and farther from Christianity into the ideas of individual freedom and discovery. The major differences between these two religions in America soon became mainly social ones rather than theological ones. It became evident in the 50's that they were too similar to be different organizations.

    In 1958 under some resistance and controversy the American Unitarian Association elected a pro-merger president. This lead to a joint meeting by the two groups in 1959 in Syracuse followed by the Boston Joint Assembly in 1961. It was there that legally the Unitarians and the Universalists became one denomination. Today the headquarters are located at 25 Beacon Street in Boston, and there are 23 regional districts. 6, 10, 2, 3, 5

III. Beliefs of the Group

    There are no required beliefs. Some are atheists, some polytheists, and some monotheists. Many do not believe in the ideas of heaven and hell, some not in any afterlife. Each is entitled to his or her own beliefs about any other powers. One believes that every person and religion has value and that each should seek his/her own spirituality that is right for them. Every person has equal status and should be treated as such regardless of physical appearance.1

    Individual beliefs are the most important aspect of the Unitarian Universalist Church. Tolerance of others and their beliefs as well as an acceptance that Truth changes and has to be sought after are two very important principles that guide the church along with life, liberty, and justice. The highest values according to John Sias' booklet are integrity, caring, compassion, social justice, truth, personal peace, and harmony.6

    One of the founding principles was that humans were not born into sin. Thus, salvation is not really an issue in this church. Without original sin, there is no need to be saved. The UU's believe that if one sins there are consequences because of the sin, but that is all. There is no condemnation to hell, in fact most disagree with the idea of hell itself. One should live morally not to save his/herself but to better the world, for his/herself and those after him/her. 6

    They believe the final authority is in the hands of the individual. One can seek guidance from texts such as the Bible and spiritual leaders because they are respected but it is in one's heart and soul that he/she can find the truth. This religion is based on freedom and no one should look down on others. It is based on acceptance and allowance, free from judgment. Thus, many are active in fighting for rights of gays and lesbians as well as general world peace. Women are placed in clergy and minister positions because they are equal. It is an organized group of freely spiritual individuals and is accepted because of its acceptance.1, 4 Every religion is accepted in the community. There are Buddhists, Christians, Jews, non-affiliated members, and more. However that does not mean that they coincide with the doctrine of every religion. Because they do not follow a creed, they are in contradiction with religions that have a specific creed. This does not mean those followers aren't allowed, but they must be open-minded to more than one type of spirituality.1, 5

    Robert B. Tapp surveyed 166,257 Unitarian Universalists for his book, Religion Among the Unitarian Universalists: Converts in the Stepfather's House, asking them about their beliefs in God to better understand what role they thought, if any, God played in their lives. The most prominent belief (44.2%), according to his study is that "'God' may appropriately be used as a name for some natural processes with in the Universe, such as love or creative evolution." At 28% this belief about God was the second most popular, "'God' is an irrelevant concept, and the central focus of religion should be on man's own knowledge and values." Some UU's (1.8%) even believe that "'God' is a concept that is harmful to a worthwhile religion." 7 John Sias discusses the Unitarian Universalist position on any Supernatural being in his booklet stating, "Most of us do not believe in a supernatural, supreme being who can directly intervene in and alter human life or the mechanism of the natural world. Many believe in a spirit of life or a power within themselves, which some choose to call God."6

Links to Universalist Unitarians Web Sites

    Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations
    The official homepage for the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. It contains basic information including a directory, lists of famous UU's, history of the religion and the Flaming Chalice, and a calendar of events. The main menu is especially useful for information on the bookstore, news updates, elections, programs & services, and congregations. There is also a search engine installed to find any information that does not have an obvious link in the The Basics, Main Menu, Shortcuts, or Our site listings at the top of the page.

    Unitarian Universalist Origins Our Historic Faith
    Part of the official homepage for the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, this page is dedicated to the history of the UU's. It is an in depth article on the rise of Universalism and Unitarians and their later combination. The section on how "Universalism developed in America" explains what previously set the two groups apart at their formation in America. There is a list of bibliographies given at the bottom of the page for further research on the history of the UUA as well as a list of links to other important sites.

    We are Unitarian Universalists
    Another part of the official homepage, this page details what it is the UU's actually believe and why. It talks about the religion being in the community and working together. It aims at people looking for spirituality. There are quotes from Unitarian Universalists, a description of beliefs, what they celebrate, and how they unite.

    Unitarian Universalist Historical Society
    The UU Historical Society Homepage containing a plethora of information about the history of the UU's. There is a section for graphic of the month and an explanation of the person or object in the graphic as it pertains to their history. There are links to the UU Women's Heritage Society, information about Dorothy Spoerl, the best sermon of the millennium, history on the Flower Communion, history on Lighting the Chalice, and the famous story of the Christmas tree. A list of On-line Histories, On-Line Bibliographies, and Officers of the Historical Society provide information for historical research. A journal of history and the history chat room are available for those that are interested.

    Unitarian Universalist Service Committee
    This is the official web page for the UUSC. The committee is designed to fight for justice and provide relief for those in need. Their actions are based on the principles of the UUA, but one does not have to be a Unitarian Universalist to contribute or join.

    Unitarian Universalist Association
    A page that discusses the principles behind the UU's as well as contrasts the religion to the stereotype of the beliefs of the conservative Christians. It also provides more web sites of information and defines the different sects of the UU's.

    The International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU)
    This is the official web site of the ICUU. It provides information about the ICCU including what it is, current news in the organization, and lists its members. The information included is world wide and current.

    The Unitarians
    This Unitarian Page explains briefly the Unitarian beliefs and where the Unitarian name came from. It provides links to more pages about liberal religious organizations as well.

    Th Roots of Unitarian Universalism
    It discusses where the UU's came from, talks about the influence of Pluralism, Transcendentalism, and Socinianism. It provides various links to more research, sermons and other opinions.

    Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography
    This site is prepared by the UU historical society to provide biographies on famous Unitarians and Universalists. You can search the database or simply scroll through alphabetic lists to find a particular biography.

    Unitarian Universalist Resources
    A Web Page full of resources about the homepage, groups and organizations, electronic journals/publications, Seminaries/Theological Education, and Historical Information.

    Famous UUs
    This web page provides a list of well-known Unitarian Universalist in different fields such as politics, arts, humanities, education, science, medicine, and more. It also provides links for more information about the people named.

    Some Women with Unitarian and Universalist Connections
    This site lists women that were or are connected to the Unitarian Universalist Church. It also provides links to find out more information about them.

V. Bibliography
Macaulay, John Allen. 2001
Unitarianism in the Antebellum South: The Other Invisible Institution. Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press.
Miller, Russell E. 1979.
The Larger Hope: The First Century of Universalist Church in America. Boston: UUA.
Parke, David B. 1980.
The Epic of Unitarianism. Boston: UUA.
Sias, John. 1994.
100 Questions that Non-members Ask About Unitarian Universalism. Nashua, New Hampshire: Transition Publishing.
Tapp, Robert B. 1973.
Religion Among the Unitarian Universalists: Converts in the Stepfather's House. New York and London: Seminar Press.
Williams, Peter W. 1988.
"Unitarian and Universalism," in Charles H. Lippy and Peter Williams, eds. Encyclopedia of the American Religious Experience. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. pp. 579-593.

  6. Sias, John. 100 Questions that Non-members Ask about Unitarian Universalism pp1-4,9-11,15-17
  7. Tapp, Robert B. Religion Among the Unitarian Universalist: Converts in the Stepfather's House pg.37
  8. Parke, David B. The Epic of Unitariansim2,6,8,12,18,19,20,22-24,29,31,33,44,45,47-48,50
  9. Miller, Russell E. The Larger Hope: The First Century of the Universalist Church in America pp3-17,22
  10. Williams, Peter W. Encyclopedia of the American Religious Experience. pp579-593

    Created by Hilary Underwood
    For Soc 257: New Religious Movements
    Fall Term, 2000
    University of Virginia
    Last modified: 08/21/01