THE DEVELOPMENT AND STATUS OF UNITARIANISM AND UNIVERSALISM
Many Unitarians and Universalists are familiar with the respective histories of their denominations, but some probably are not very familiar with the history of the other movement. Both histories are as old as the nation, and their Old World antecedents reach back into the centuries.
The Joint Merger Commission suggested that brief histories of each of the denominations be prepared by two of its members for inclusion in this Manual. Accordingly, the historical sketch of Unitarianism was prepared by the Rev. Harry B. Scholefield of the First Unitarian Society of San Francisco and well known author on Unitarianism. The article on Universalist history was written by Dr. Max A. Kapp, Professor of Homiletics and History of Religion at The Theological School of St. Lawrence University, and widely known in Universalist circles.
The two historical pieces not only trace the development of the two denominations, but also give an idea of present emphases and positions, which in part define status. In addition to these presentations, this part also contains other evidences of status, namely, the number, sizes and locations of churches; and the number, occupation and education of ministers.
This part concludes with a brief presentation of material about two bodies which represent forms of merger: The Council of Liberal Churches as a federal union merger experiment, and, the Liberal Religious Youth as a functional merger.
UNITARIAN HISTORY - A BRIEF STATEMENT
by Harry B. Scholefield
The story of the origins and development of Unitarianism goes back much further into the past than is commonly realized. In ancient Judaism, and much earlier, there evolved out of human experience those emphases in religion which Unitarians consider of primary importance. It was at the time of the Protestant Reformation, however, that the movement took definite form and was institutionalized in specific churches.
A primary characteristic of those churches was their belief in the Oneness of God as contrasted with the Trinitarian teachings of orthodox Christianity, Thus disagreement with orthodoxy was foreshadowed in the vigorous writings and utterances of the celebrated Spanish Anti—Trinitarian, Michael Servetus. He was martyred by the Calvinists in 1553. He was martyred by the Protestants only because they laid hands on him before the Roman Catholics! He was equally critical of Roman Catholic and Reformation—Protestant theology. His heresy was set forth in his blunt, harsh words, “Your Trinity is the product of subtlety and madness. The Gospel knows nothing of it.”
Unitarianism has had a long history in what is now Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Indeed, there are Unitarian Churches in these countries which are mere than four centuries old. Back of them is the bright figure of Francis David who was martyred for his Unitarianism in 1579. His heresy was that he refused to worship Christ as God.
The Unitarian movement which developed in the 16th century in Poland under the leadership of the Italian, Faustus Socinus, embodied what the theologians call “the Socinian heresy.” Socinus arrived in Poland in the year of Francis David’s death. Thought the Socinian movement was crushed by governmental edict in 1658, the followers of Socinus, both before and after their banishment wrote a stirring chapter in the long story of man’s struggle to achieve a religion free of cruelty, intolerance and blind traditionalism.
What was most important about these Reformation - Unitarian churches was not their specific theological points of view, They differed among themselves with regard to theology as Unitarians do today and always will. Their most remarkable accomplishment was the building of religious societies distinguished by an emphasis upon reason, tolerance and individual freedom of belief.
Unitarianism has had a significant history in England. In 1774, under the leadership of Theophilus Lindsey, the Essex Street Chapel was established in London. It was the first place in England openly dedicated to Unitarian worship and principles. It is of incidental interest to us to know that Benjamin Franklin attended the opening services. He attended many services thereafter until he returned to America. Among the noted founders of the English Unitarian movement was the great dissenter, friend of so many of the American Founding Fathers, Joseph Priestley. After Priestly was driven from England, the aided in the establishment of Unitarian societies in Northumberland and in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
The history of American Unitarianism is strikingly different from that of the movement in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland and England. We might begin a summary consideration of it by noting that American Unitarianism has never been stronger than at the present time. It has some 370 churches and over 200 fellowships with a combined membership of over 100,000 persons. It has nearby 50,000 children enrolled in its church schools. Its publishing enterprises, the Beacon Press and the Starr King Press, have in recent years, placed in the hands of hundreds of thousands of readers books of great variety and significance. The work of the Unitarian Service Committee, international in scope, has made the words Unitarianism and humanitarianism synonymous for thousands of people in many lands. Unitarians have pioneered in religious education programs which have revolutionized traditional church school concepts. Since 1953, tinder the aegis of the Council of Liberal Churches (Universalist—Unitarian), these pioneering projects have been carried on jointly by Unitarians and Universalists.
How did this American Unitarian movement begin and what have been its essential values? The currents of liberalism which led to its formation were present on the American scene many years before the American Unitarian Association was organized. The atmosphere was made right for the growth of Unitarianism by the liberalism of such leading Congregationalist Ministers as Charles Chauncey, minister of the First Church in Boston for sixty years, and Jonathan Mayhew, the minister of Boston’s West Church. The first book published in America which openly challenged the dogma of the Trinity was written in 1805 by the Universalist minister, Hosea Ballou. The temper of mind congenial to both Unitarian and Universalist ministers was that which characterized the leaders of the American Revolution. The American historian, Charles Beard, notes that “Jefferson, Paine, John Adams, Washington, Franklin and many lesser lights were to be reckoned either among the Unitarians or the Deists.” He continues, “It was not Cotton Mather’s God to whom they appealed, it was Nature’s God.”
Such Unitarians as William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Parker stood directly in the tradition of the Revolution. They were distinguished by their complete acceptance of the dignity of man and by their devotion to ideals of freedom. Channing in his Baltimore Sermon delivered in 1819, and Emerson in his Divinity School Address delivered in 1838, challenged the basic presuppositions of Calvinist theology. Such dogmas as the Depravity of Man, the Atonement, the Trinity, the Verbal Inspiration of the Scriptures, the “sealed nature” of Revelation, were no more congenial to them than they had been to Jefferson, to Paine or to Franklin. But the challenge was much more than a negation of Calvinist dogmas. They challenged the old faith in order that values more congenial to the temper of a new and revolutionary age might be affirmed and articulated.
What were the beliefs or affirmations at the core of the new faith? God, instead of being conceived as a Supernatural Agent, an All Powerful Being, a kind of Feudal Tyrant, was conceived as the force for goodness visible in the power and beauty of sensitive human lives, and perceivable in the unfolding moral law.
Jesus, instead of being perceived as the one Son of God, the uniquely ordained agent of human salvation, was conceived as one of humanity’s spiritual geniuses, brother to the great prophets of Judaism and to the gigantic founding figures of the other world religions.
Christianity, instead of being the unique channel of Salvation, becomes one among a number of roads by which men have traveled to find the divine in the midst of the human.
The Hebrew Christian Bible, instead of being set apart as the Book, peculiarly holy, becomes subject to the same canons of criticism to which all books are subject. It Is seen not as “the word of God” , but as the work of man, a moving witness to his search for the meaning of life. It takes its place among the similarly moving scriptures of the other religions of the world.
The highest authority in religion ceases to be a book and becomes the experience of living men. In religion as in science, the new teaching is based on “first hand experience” rather than upon the acceptance of supernatural by revealed creeds coming down from the past.
Belief in the dignity of man, in the validity of the democratic processes, in the oneness of the human family; sensitivity to suffering and beauty are seen to be a truer witness of religious growth than “correctness” of theological belief.
Of course, there have been many efforts to describe or define the essence of Unitarianism. These suffer from the inevitable difficulty that in its forms and statements Unitarianism evolves and changes. When it becomes “orthodox” it contradicts its essence. Following, however, are statements which have grown out of the search for clarification.
In 1885 a resolution adopted at the Western Conference sounded an inclusive note of welcome, “The Western Unitarian Conference”, it read, “conditions its fellowship on no dogmatic tests, but welcomes all who wish to join it, to help establish Truth, Righteousness and Love in the world ."
In 1930 the Tract Commission of the American Unitarian Association formulated a statement of purpose, which was unanimously adopted by the Association’s Board of Directors: “Unitarian churches are dedicated to the progressive transformation and ennoblement of individual and social, life through religion , in accordance with the advancing knowledge and growing vision of mankind. Bound by this common purpose, and committed to freedom of belief, Unitarians hold in unity of spirit a diversity of convictions”.
In 1944 Committee “A” formulated a set of “Unitarian Working Principles” which were adopted by the Board of the American Unitarian Association for discussion and consideration by the churches. These were:
1. Individual freedom of belief;
2. Discipleship to advancing truth;
3. The democratic process in human relations;
4. Universal brotherhood, undivided by nation, race or creed;
5. Allegiance to thin cause of a united world community.
In 1958, the delegates to the Annual Meetings of the American Unitarian Association passed a resolution which was entitled “Statement of Further Clarification of The Unitarian position.” “The delegates through this resolution expressed their devotion to the Judeo—Christian heritage of Unitarianism. They affirmed the universal sources and inspiration of modern Unitarian faith. They expressed the hope that all religious truth—seekers may come together in the spirit of freedom, each contributing his highest insights to the common quest for universal truth.”
SOME SIGNIFICANT DATES IN UNITARIAN HISTORY
The Reformation Period
1511 Birth of Michael Servetus (the most famous of the 16th
1531 Michael Servetus publishes On the Errors of the Trinity.
1553 Michael Servetus is burned at the stake in Geneva.
1539 Birth of Faustus Socinus (leader of the Polish Socinian or
1579 Faustus Socinus arrives in Poland.
165th The Polish Diet banishes Socinians.
1510 Birth of Francis David (leader of Transylvanian Unitarians).
1566 Francis David preaches against the doctrine of Trinity.
1568 King John Sigismund, the Unitarian King of Transylvania,
proclaims the earliest edict of complete religious
1579 Francis David, condemned as a heretic, dies in prison.
1550 The Church of the Strangers (Socinian in influence) is
established in London.
1615 Birth of John Biddle (generally considered the Father of
1723 Birth of Theophilus Lindsey (one of the founders of the
English Unitarian movement).
1735 Birth of Joseph Priestley (one of the greatest scientists
of his age and one of the founders of the English
1774 Under the leadership of Lindsey, Essex Hall Chapel is
opened in London (marking the beginning of permanently
organized Unitarianism in England).
1794 Joseph Priestley emigrates to America.
1825 The British and Foreign Unitarian Association founded.
Unitarianism in America
1785 Liturgy of King’s Chapel, Boston, is revised (omitting
references to the Trinity and prayers to Christ).
1796 Founding of the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia
(the first permanently established church to take the
name “Unitarian”), with the encouragement of Priestley.
1819 William Ellery Channing delivers his Baltimore Sermon
(an eloquent defense of Unitarian principles).
1825 The American Unitarian Association is organized.
1838 Ralph Waldo Emerson delivers his Divinity School Address
(another landmark statement of Unitarian principles).
1841 Theodore Parker delivers his South Boston Sermon,
“The Transient and Permanent in Christianity” (a
sermon in defense of natural religion).
1852 The Western Unitarian Conference is organized in Cincinnati.
1865 The National Conference of Unitarian Churches is organized.
1867 The Free Religious Association is organized.
1900 The International Congress of Free Christians and Other
Religious Liberals is formed.
1902 The Beacon Press is launched, broadening the American
Unitarian Association’s book-publishing program. First
title: Some Ethical Phases of the Labor Question by
1908 The Unitarian Fellowship for Social Justice is organized.
1934 Formation of the Commission of Appraisal (whose report,
Unitarians Face a New Age, was submitted to the American Unitarian Association two years later).
1938 The Beacon Press and the Department of Religious Education begin a
series of pioneer publications in the field of religious education.
1940 For the first time, the number of Unitarians outside New England exceeds
the number within New England.
1940 Organization of the Unitarian Service Committee.
1941 Organization of the United Unitarian Appeal (marking an increased
awareness by the local churches of the national significance of Unitarianism)
1944 The Church of the Larger Fellowship is organized to serve Unitarians
living in areas without Unitarian churches.
1948 Beginning of nation-wide program of Unitarian Fellowships.
1953 Organization of the Council of Liberal Churches (Universalist - Unitarian)
for the federation of the departments of publications, education, and public relations.
1955 Merger of Unitarian and Universalist Youth organizations
1954 Establishment of Joint Commission on merger by the votes of the
delegates at the joint biennial sessions (A.U.P. and U.C.A. )