Although many Unitarian Universalists were born in this faith, many more came to it later in life. Some of these seekers left the faith tradition of their childhood, while others came from no religious tradition at all. Interfaith families have frequently found a religious home in a Unitarian Universalist congregation, where each partner’s beliefs and traditions are honored and children can learn about their parents’ faith heritage and eventually seek their own answers to religious questions.
Our Unitarian heritage calls us to recognize the inherent good of all persons, while the Universalist part of our tradition encourages us to extend love and acceptance to all people. You are welcome in a Unitarian Universalist congregation, whatever your gender identity, sexual orientation, racial identity, or class. Our principles call us to affirm the worth and dignity of every individual, to accept one another, and to foster each other’s spiritual growth.1
The history of our faith features generations and generations of people who seem first to lose their religion, and then, by means of private struggle and personal risk, find new ways of being religious. Our founders were doubters, thinkers, people for whom integrity counted for something.2
During the first three centuries of the Christian church, believers could choose from a variety of tenets about Jesus. Among these was a belief that Jesus was an entity sent by God on a divine mission. Thus the word “Unitarian” developed, meaning the oneness of God. Another religious choice in the first three centuries of the Common Era (CE) was universal salvation. This was the belief that no person would be condemned by God to eternal damnation in a fiery pit. Thus a Universalist believed that all people will be saved. Christianity lost its element of choice in 325 CE when the Nicene Creed established the Trinity as dogma. For centuries thereafter, people who professed Unitarian or Universalist beliefs were persecuted.3
One of the historic figures who suffered for his Unitarian and Universalist beliefs was Michael Servetus, a Spanish theologian, physician, cartographer, and humanist. He was the first European to describe the function of pulmonary circulation. His interests included many sciences: mathematics, astronomy and meteorology, geography, human anatomy, medicine and pharmacology, as well as jurisprudence, and the scholarly study of the Bible in its original languages. He is renowned in the history of several of these fields, particularly medicine and theology. He participated in the Protestant Reformation, and later developed a nontrinitarian Christology. Condemned by Catholics and Protestants alike, he was arrested in Geneva and burned at the stake in 1553 as a heretic by order of the Protestant Geneva governing council.4
The Unitarian religion grew up in sixteenth century Poland and Transylvania among theologians devoted to freedom, reason, and tolerance. King John Sigismund of Transylvania issued the first edict of religious tolerance in 1568. The Act of Religious Tolerance and Freedom of Conscience, also known as the Edict of Torda, was the broadest expression of religious freedom in Europe to that point in history. The Act encouraged preachers to preach in the way that their souls compelled them, and said that congregations could keep preachers whose teachings they approved. The Act also proclaimed that “No one shall be reviled for his religion by anyone, according to the previous statutes, and it is not permitted that anyone should threaten anyone else by imprisonment or by removal from his post for his teaching, for faith is the gift of God.”
Joseph Priestley, an English scientist, political theorist, and minister, helped to found Unitarianism in England in the mid-to-late eighteenth century. As a scientist, Priestley worked with Benjamin Franklin and made so many significant scientific discoveries, including the discovery of oxygen, that he is regarded by many as the Father of Chemistry. As a Dissenting minister (one who did not follow the Church of England), Priestley combined Enlightenment rationalism with Christian theism and believed that a proper understanding of the natural world would promote human progress. Priestley, who strongly believed in the free and open exchange of ideas, advocated toleration and equal rights for religious Dissenters. The controversial nature of his publications aroused public and governmental suspicion. He was eventually forced to flee to the United States in 1791 after a mob burned down his home and church. While living near Philadelphia, Priestley helped to found the first and oldest Unitarian church in the Unites States. He died in 1804, just after his friend and kindred-religionist Thomas Jefferson became President of the United States.
At about the same time, in the rural, interior sections of New England, a small number of itinerant preachers began to disbelieve the strict Calvinist doctrines of eternal punishment. They discovered from their biblical studies the new revelation of God’s loving redemption of all. John Murray, an English minister who emigrated to the United States in 1770, helped lead the first Universalist church in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Murray was raised in a Calvinist household but was excommunicated from his church when he started embracing Universalist teachings. Murray brought to the American colonies his Universalist belief that all souls would be saved.
From its beginnings, Universalism challenged its members to reach out and embrace people whom society often marginalized. The Gloucester church included a freed slave among its charter members, and the Universalists became the first denomination to ordain women to the ministry, beginning in 1863 with Olympia Brown. By the late nineteenth century, Universalism came to express an understanding that wisdom was to be found in all of the world’s great religions.
Growing out of an inclusive theology was a lasting impetus in both denominations to create a more just society. Both Unitarians and Universalists became active participants in many social justice movements in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In 1961, Unitarians and Universalists denominations joined to form the Unitarian Universalist Association.
Since that time, Unitarian Universalist churches have continued to work for greater racial and cultural diversity. In 1977, a women and religion resolution was passed by the Association, and since then the denomination has responded to the feminist challenge to change sexist structures and language, especially with the publication of an inclusive hymnal.
The denomination has affirmed the rights of bisexuals, gays, lesbians, and transgender persons, including ordaining and settling gay and lesbian clergy in our congregations, and in 1996, affirmed same-sex marriage.
The rise of religious humanism within Unitarian Universalism stressed an ethical basis for religion, and by the end of the century, earth-based spirituality had also become a source of spiritual practices for many Unitarian Universalists.
All these efforts reflect a modern understanding of universal salvation. Unitarian Universalism welcomes all to an expanding circle of understanding and choice in religious faith.
You can learn more about Unitarian Universalism and the history of our faith on these sites:
1from Welcome: A Unitarian Universalist Primer, edited by Patricia Frevert
2from “All of Unitarian Universalist History in Just Under 2000 Words” by Jane Rzepka, Senior Minister of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, Unitarian Universalism Association
3from Unitarian Universalist Origins: Our Historic Faith
4from Wikipedia: Michael Servetus