Unitarianism and universalism were two separate denominations until they merged in 1961. The Universalist Church of America, founded in 1793, and the American Unitarian Association, founded in 1825, formed the new Unitarian Universalist Association.
Unitarianism has its roots in Christianity. Up until the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325, early Christians had a choice of what they could believe. Some chose to believe in the oneness of God. They were the Unitarians. After the council established the Trinity as dogma, Unitarians were persecuted as heretics. Ironically, heresy comes from the Greek word meaning “choice.”
In 1568, the first and only Unitarian king, Sigismund of Transylvania, issued an edict proclaiming religious tolerance, the first of its kind. Sigismund’s court preacher, Frances David, had converted from Catholicism to Lutheranism to Calvinism and finally to Unitarianism because he could find no biblical basis for the doctrine of the Trinity. His quote, “We need not think alike to love alike,” is one of my favorites. The Unitarian congregations founded in the 1500s continue to share the Unitarian message in what is today Romania.
The idea of choice in religious matters has not always been held in high regard. Michael Servetus, a Spanish Unitarian who wrote a book called “On the Errors of the Trinity,” was burned at the stake in 1553. In 1569, a Unitarian community was established in Rakow, Poland, but by 1658, the Polish Diet proclaimed: “The toleration granted to dissenters from the church does not legally extend to the Unitarians, this being a new heresy. Therefore all who within such a limited time will not embrace the Roman Catholic religion shall be banished out of Poland.”
Joseph Priestly, an English scientist and Unitarian minister, had his laboratory burned in 1791. He fled England and came to the United States, where he formed several Unitarian congregations in the Philadelphia area.
Unitarianism in America had its beginnings in various religious movements of the time, such as Arminianism and Arianism. The first congregation to officially accept the Unitarian faith was King's Chapel in Boston in 1782, and the prayer book was revised using Unitarian liturgy in 1785. Boston was the home to many Unitarian congregations. By 1800, all but one of the churches there had Unitarian clergy.
Harvard Divinity School, established in 1816, was the first nondenominational divinity school in the United States, and for its first century was unofficially associated with American Unitarianism. William Ellery Channing a Harvard graduate and Unitarian clergyman, had deep influence on the growing Unitarian denomination and was instrumental in the formation of the American Unitarian Association in 1825.
Unitarianism went through a period of controversy in the mid-1800s, with the influence of the transcendental movement creating friction with the more Christian Unitarians. However, this controversy ended in 1894, when a conference in Saratoga gave rise to a nearly unanimous vote to affirm the following:
"These churches accept the religion of Jesus, holding, in accordance with his teaching, that practical religion is summed up in love to God and love to man. The conference recognizes the fact that its constituency is Congregational in tradition and polity. Therefore it declares that nothing in this constitution is to be construed as an authoritative test; and we cordially invite to our working fellowship any who, while differing from us in belief, are in general sympathy with our spirit and our practical aims."
Let me end with the following from the Unitarian Universalist Association website:
“We are people of all ages, people of many backgrounds, and people of many beliefs. We are brave, curious and compassionate thinkers and doers. We create spirituality and community beyond boundaries, working for more justice and more love in our own lives and in the world.”
If any of this sounds of interest to you, I warmly invite you to join us at 10:30 Sunday mornings at 607 N. Seward St., Auburn.