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Universalist History

Unitarian Universalism emerged from two separate denominations: Unitarianism and Universalism.

Universalists are Christians who believe in universal salvation, meaning that all people will eventually be reconciled with God. While people have held Universalist beliefs for thousands of years, the faith did not become a widespread religious movement until English Universalists came to America in the late 1700s to escape religious persecution.

Because of its loving and inclusive doctrine, Universalism quickly became popular in America and the Universalist Church of America was formed in 1793.

Important Universalist figures of this period include Hosea Ballou, John Murray, and Benjamin Rush.

Universalists were best known for supporting education and non-sectarian schools, but they also worked on social issues including the separation of church and state, prison reform, capital punishment, the abolition of slavery, and women's rights. In 1863, the Universalists became the first group in the United States to ordain a woman, Olympia Brown, with full denominational authority.

Important Universalists of this period include Clara Barton, Thomas Starr King (also a Unitarian), Horace Greeley, George Pullman, and Mary Livermore.

The Universalist faith declined after the Civil War, as many Universalist churches were destroyed and many Universalist ministers who had served as army chaplains were killed. As the concept of damnation became less central to many American religious groups, the Universalist faith seemed less unique in its teachings and its membership waned.

In 1961, the Universalist and Unitarian denominations merged to form a new religion, Unitarian Universalism. Although Unitarian Universalism is now a non-creedal faith, Unitarian Universalists continue to draw on Unitarianism and Universalism for grounding and inspiration. To learn more about Unitarian Universalist beliefs today, please see Theological Perspectives.

There are some Universalist congregations today outside America that are part of the Unitarian Universalist community. The largest concentration of Universalists abroad is in the Philippines. To learn more about Unitarians, Universalists, and Unitarian Universalists outside of America, please see the Unitarian Universalist Association’s (UUA’s) Office of International Resources.

There are also Universalists that are unaffiliated with Unitarian Universalism, most of whom are called Christian Universalists.

Please see Unitarianism 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 Monday, January 13, 2014.

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Joseph Fletcher Jordan (1863-1929) was the third African American to be ordained by the Universalist Church of America. Jordan ministered to a congregation in Suffolk, VA, and ran a school for African American children.

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Universalist Olympia Brown (1835 – 1926) was the first woman ordained in the United States with full denominational authority.

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Minister and writer Hosea Ballou (1771 – 1852) was instrumental in the development of Universalist theology in America.

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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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