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Unitarian History

Unitarian Universalism is the result of the merger of two separate denominations: Unitarianism and Universalism.

Originally, all Unitarians were Christians who did not believe in the Holy Trinity of God (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost). Instead, they believed in the unity, or single aspect, of God. Although people have held Unitarian beliefs since the time of Jesus’s death, religious groups did not form around these ideas until the mid-1500s in Transylvania and the 1600s in England. Religious authorities at this time saw early Unitarians as heretics and often persecuted them. Important figures from this period include John Biddle, Francis David, Michael Servetus, King John Sigismund and Faustus Socinus.

Unitarianism emerged in America in the early 19th century, stressing importance of rational thinking, each person's direct relationship with God, and the humanity of Jesus. By 1825, Unitarian ministers had formed the American Unitarian Association. Members spoke out on issues such as education reform, prison reform, moderation in temperance, ministry to the poor, and the abolition of slavery.

Influential Unitarians from this era include William Ellery Channing, Theodore Parker, Joseph Priestley, and Thomas Starr King, who was also a Universalist.

American Unitarianism went through many changes over the next 150 years, from the introduction of transcendentalist thought in the mid-1800s and humanist thought in the early 1930s. These contributed to the evolution of American Unitarianism into a more broad and flexible faith.

Unitarians have been very influential throughout American history, especially in politics and literature. Some famous Unitarians include John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Paul Revere, William Howard Taft, and Frank Lloyd Wright.

After growing increasingly theologically and ethically close, the Unitarian and Universalist denominations consolidated in 1961 to form the new religion of Unitarian Universalism. Although Unitarian Universalism no longer solely holds traditional Unitarian or Universalist beliefs, it does draw directly on its heritage for much of its inspiration and grounding. To learn more about Unitarian Universalist beliefs today, please see Theological Perspectives.

There are many Unitarian congregations today outside America that are part of the Unitarian Universalist community. The largest concentrations are in Transylvania (now part of Romania and Hungary) and India. To learn more about Unitarians, Universalists, and Unitarian Universalists outside of America, please see the UUA’s Office of International Resources.

There are also Unitarian denominations that are unaffiliated with Unitarian Universalism, most of which are called Biblical or Christian Unitarians.

Please see Universalism for the other root of our faith, and Unitarian Universalism for our history since the consolidation in 1961.

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Last updated on Tuesday, October 29, 2013.

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Unitarian author Louisa May Alcott (1832 – 1888) wrote Little Women and other works.

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An undated picture from Savannah, Georgia highlights James Pierpont, author of 'Jingle-Bells' and the son of AUA co-founder, John Pierpont Sr.

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Learn more about the Beliefs & Principles of Unitarian Universalism, or read our online magazine, UU World, for features on today's Unitarian Universalists. Visit an online UU church, or find a congregation near you.

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