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Unitarian Universalist Association
| Profile | History
| Beliefs | Links
| Bibliography |
I. Group Profile
- Name: Unitarian Universalists
- 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
- Date of Birth: Michael Servetus 1511, John Murray
1741, Joseph Priestly 1733, James Relly, 1722
- Birth Place: James Relly - Pembrokeshire, Wales, Michael
Servetus - Villanueva or Tudela, Spain, John Murray - Hampshire,
England, Joseph Priestley - Yorkshire, England
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- Size of Group: There are over 1000 congregations in
the United States.4
II. History of the
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
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
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
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,
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
A Web Page full of resources about the homepage, groups and organizations,
electronic journals/publications, Seminaries/Theological Education,
and Historical Information.
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.
- Sias, John. 100 Questions that Non-members Ask about Unitarian
- Tapp, Robert B. Religion Among the Unitarian Universalist:
Converts in the Stepfather's House pg.37
- Parke, David B. The Epic of Unitariansim2,6,8,12,18,19,20,22-24,29,31,33,44,45,47-48,50
- Miller, Russell E. The Larger Hope: The First Century
of the Universalist Church in America pp3-17,22
- Williams, Peter W. Encyclopedia of the American Religious
Created by Hilary Underwood
For Soc 257: New Religious Movements
Fall Term, 2000
University of Virginia
Last modified: 08/21/01
- Source: www.religiousmovements.lib.virginia.edu/profiles/listalpha.htm