Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: Faith Like a River: A Program on Unitarian Universalist History for Adults

Leader Resource 1: Unitarian Universalist Idealism

Unitarian Universalism has historically embraced both an exalted view of human nature and a confidence in the grace of God. Our Universalist forebears embraced the doctrine that all are saved. Our Unitarian forebears came to believe that humans, created in the image of God, could draw closer to God by perfecting themselves. Thomas Starr King (1824-1864), who served churches in both movements, when asked the difference between the two reportedly quipped, "The Universalists think God is too good to damn them forever; the Unitarians think they are too good to be damned forever."

John Murray (1741-1815), the 18th-century preacher who brought the doctrine of universal salvation from England to the United States, is said to have written:

Go out into the highway and by-ways. Give the people something of your new vision. You possess a small light, but uncover it, let it shine, use it in order to bring more light and understanding to the hearts and minds of men and women. Give them not hell, but hope and courage; preach the kindness and everlasting love of God.

Murray's call was taken up not only by Universalist but also by Unitarian preachers. William Ellery Channing (1780-1842), the great Unitarian minister of the 19th century, was known for preaching the love and grace of God rather than any punitive or frightening aspects of divinity. He painted a lofty picture of humanity with a moral nature and sense of reason made in the very image of God. In 1828 he wrote, "the soul, by its sense of right, or its perception of moral distinctions, is clothed with sovereignty over itself, and through this alone, it understands and recognizes the Sovereign of the Universe."

Transcendentalist James Freeman Clarke (1810-1888) summarized unitarian optimism when he revised the five points of Calvinism in an 1886 book of essays, Vexed Questions in Theology. Clarke's "Five Points of the New Theology" became belief in:

  • the fatherhood of God
  • the brotherhood of man
  • the leadership of Jesus
  • salvation by character
  • the progress of mankind onward and upward forever.

The religious idealism of our forebears was consonant with the philosophical and political optimism represented in ideals of the United States. Even before the nation's founding, European settlers gathered in communities—usually religiously based—to pursue a new and better life. The vision of this "new and glorious nation" was fed by an unbridled spirit of lofty aspiration, optimism, and possibility. It would only be late in the next century when common understanding opened these vast possibilities to Americans who were not males of European origin.

With the founding of the United States an idealist view of human nature was embodied even in the documents of government. The Preamble to the Constitution reads:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Surely, if ever there was a nation founded on high ideals, this was it.

The idealism and aspiration of the American experiment was not new to the world or sprung full grown on American soil. Such philosophies and ideals had been seen before in other societies, and would be seen again in the founding of other nations, but in the intersection of the United States, Unitarianism, and Universalism they took on new energy. In the 19th century, a time of great expansion for Unitarianism and Universalism, they flowered.

As the century unfolded, a sense of optimism and idealism that permeated the arts, culture, and thought of the century were expressed also in the spiritualist and Transcendental movements and in the founding of Utopian communities. During the 19th century more than 130 Utopian communities—housing more than 100,000 people—existed at least long enough to be recorded by history. In the year 1840 alone, more than 40 communities were founded in the United States. Three from our own history are Brook Farm, founded by Transcendentalist and Unitarian minister George Ripley; the Hopedale Community, founded by Universalist and Unitarian minister Adin Ballou; and Fruitlands, founded by Transcendentalist leader Amos Bronson Alcott and Charles Lane.