Leader Resource 1: Unitarian Universalism Background
In the three hundred or so years after Jesus lived and died, Christianity changed from a form of Judaism into a separate faith. During this time, people who lived in the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea held many different ideas about the nature of Jesus, God, and humanity. We now recognize some of those ideas as early versions of Unitarianism and Universalism. Origen of Alexandria in Egypt, who is responsible for much of the Christian scripture, wrote in the third century that God loves everyone and all return to God after death, an early universalist position. In the fourth century, Arius, also of Alexandria, preached that God is one and Jesus was a holy man, an early Unitarian position.
Debates among Christians were fierce, and sometimes violent. In 325 CE, the Roman Emperor Constantine brought church leaders together at Nicea, in Turkey, where they agreed on a single creed, or set of beliefs, to unify the empire. The Nicene Creed held that God was a trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Both unitarianism and universalism were declared heresies, punishable by excommunication and even death.
The heresies that are at the root of our contemporary Unitarian Universalism did not go away, but they did go underground for many centuries. In 1568, King John Sigismund of Transylvania became a Unitarian and made religious tolerance the law in his land. Unitarianism continues to thrive in this region to day. Unitarian ideas cropped up in a number of places in Europe after the Protestant Reformation.
In the British colonies in America (later the United States) unitarian and universalist ideas about God and humanity developed and spread during the eighteenth century. Unitarian ideas developed within other Protestant congregations, as ministers and lay people turned away from the Calvinist notion that humans are depraved and dependent upon God for salvation to embrace the idea that the way we behave on earth determines whether we go to heaven or hell. These liberal thinkers were called "Unitarian," which was intended to be insulting.
In 1819, William Ellery Channing embraced the label "Unitarian" in a famous sermon. Between 1825 and 1835, many New England congregations split, often with the Trinitarians withdrawing to start new congregations and leaving the buildings to the Unitarians. Within a decade, the Transcendentalists, a new group that included Ralph Waldo Emerson, criticized the Unitarian churches for being too "cold" and too orthodox. The Transcendentalists preferred a spirituality that nurtured a connection with the natural world.
Universalist ideas were also a rejection of Calvinism, but universalism developed outside of established congregations. Missionaries spread the universalist message. Christian churches sprang up with the message that God's love is for everyone, no exceptions. Universalists rejected the idea that God would condemn some people to hell.
George de Benneville and John Murray were early Universalists, both coming to America from Europe in the 1700s. De Benneville spread the Universalist faith in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, while Murray preached primarily in New England. In 1805, itinerant preacher Hosea Ballou published A Treatise on Atonement, which explained Universalist ideas. The faith grew rapidly, especially where people's lives were difficult. Its news was joyful and hopeful, offering God's unconditional love to everyone.
In the 19th century, Unitarians and Universalists created structures to organize their respective denominations. Their statements of faith or belief emphasized different purposes and beliefs, and the two groups saw themselves as quite different from one another. But they shared important values, which made it possible for them to merge several generations later. Both Unitarians and Universalists believed in the freedom to think for oneself and valued individual conscience over a shared creed. Many ministers from both groups embraced Darwin's theory of evolution after it was published in 1860 and moved away from believing the Bible to be literally true in every word. Many Unitarians and Universalists believed in creating the Kingdom of God on earth, working to provide help for poor people, immigrants, mentally ill people, and others on the margins, as well as working tirelessly for the abolition of slavery, and then for women's suffrage. In both religions, women were especially active in providing help and working for a better society; Universalism was the first Christian faith in the U.S. to ordain women as ministers. By 1933, many Unitarians and Universalists had embraced the idea of humanism. They signed the Humanist Manifesto, which said that human beings, and not God, have the responsibility and the challenge to make the world a better place. Unitarian congregations in particular became home to both liberal Christians and those who called themselves religious humanists. Universalism remained largely a liberal Christian movement in the first half of the 20th century.
But something was stirring in the children's programs in both denominations. New discoveries in progressive education and an embrace of the teachings of science and reason alongside traditional Christian teachings led to a new way of teaching children. Angus MacLean, a Universalist, advocated for active, hands-on learning about the world in religious education classes. Sophia Lyon Fahs, a Unitarian, oversaw the development of new Sunday school materials that embraced stories from all over the world as well as understandings from science. Universalists began using the Unitarian materials in their religious education classrooms, and a generation of Unitarians and Universalists grew up learning about their faith the same way and hearing the same stories. By the late 1950s, the two denominations began to talk about merger. In 1961, the Unitarian Universalist Association was born from a consolidation of the two. Over the next few years, the Principles and Sources were adopted. By the late 1980s, the flaming chalice, originally the symbol of the Unitarian Service Committee, came into wide use in our congregations as a symbol of our faith. In 2011, the Unitarian Universalist Association celebrated the 50th anniversary of consolidation by remembering the deep and long heritage from both of its parent traditions and by reflecting on the shared journey of its first fifty years.
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