Unitarian Universalist History
Unitarian Universalism began as the melding of two separate religious movements, Unitarianism and Universalism, perhaps two of the most radical and liberal movements within Protestant Christianity.
Unitarianism started in Transylvania by those who admired Michael Servetus, who in 1553 was burned at the stake for questioning the belief that the one God is comprised of a Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The name “Unitarian” referred to affirming God’s Unity rather than the doctrine of the Trinity. These early Eastern European Unitarians believed Jesus was not divine, but an ethical teacher, and human just like us. They were also pioneers in cooperating with Jews and Muslims at a time of rampant anti-Semitism and Islamaphobia. Their example would later inspire a Unitarian movement in England as well as in America.
American Unitarians broke away from the Puritan Congregationalists in 1825 to protest such doctrines as original sin. They held that we are each born with the potential for both good and evil, and that our inner goodness is stronger. They rejected creeds, rather believing in freedom of conscience and belief. Unitarians embraced science and modern philosophy and were among the first denominations to fully accept theories of evolution. These ideals would inspire many Unitarians to be radical activists for social reform, so that all people could be free and grow to their fullest potential. Unitarians were prominent in the abolitionist movement to overthrow slavery, and in the earliest movement for women’s rights.
Some prominent Unitarians were: Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Charles Dickens, and more.
We honor our Unitarian heritage by continuing to champion freedom of belief and the use of reason in our spiritual lives, and by affirming the glorious diversity of humanity.
The Universalists’ core doctrine of “universal salvation” is the idea that God’s unconditional love saves every human soul and no one is damned forever. Some early followers of Christianity also held this belief. Universalism arose in early America from at least 3 distinct geographical areas and from varied Protestant roots. Universalism became a formal denomination in 1791 and Universalists were evangelical in spreading this message of unconditional love across the country. In time, many Universalists would conclude that if all are equal in heaven, then all should be equal on earth, so many became active in fighting for social justice. Universalists were the first denomination in America to formally condemn slavery and to ordain women!
We honor our Universalist heritage by working to harness the power of unconditional love to transform and heal hearts, restore and deepen relationships, and re-configure society into the Beloved Community.
This heritage of both Unitarian and Universalist radicals and reformers continues to inspire us as we have expanded our horizons to include seekers of all kinds.
For more about the history of Unitarian Universalism visit Unitarian Universalist Origins, Our Historic Faith.