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

Leader Resource 2: Unitarian Universalism around the World


In 2000, there were only a handful of Unitarian Universalist congregations in Africa. Now there are dozens. The first Unitarian Universalist churches were founded in South Africa, where four congregations were organized between 1867 and 1986, and in Nigeria. In Lagos, Nigeria, the First Unitarian Church of Nigeria was founded in 1994, joining the Unitarian Brotherhood Church (Ijo Isokan Gbogbo Eda), which was founded in 1917 when Bishop Adeniran Adedeji Isola's liberal theology led to a break with the Anglican Church of Nigeria. More recently congregations have been founded in Uganda, Burundi, Republic of the Congo, and Kenya, the country which has experienced the most remarkable growth in Unitarian Universalism.


Brahmo Samaj (BRAH-moe sah-MAZH)

In India, in 1821, Rammohun Roy, a Hindu of Brahmin caste, convinced William Adam, a Scottish Baptist missionary, of the truth of Unitarianism. Together they founded the Unitarian Committee and the Calcutta Unitarian Society. However, Roy struggled with being identified as Christian and hoped to create a progressive religious organization that could more fully integrate his native Hinduism. He founded the Brahmo Samaj (Society of God) in 1828 to accomplish this aim. Roy maintained ties to Unitarianism throughout his life, and following his death the Brahmo Samaj continued to interact with Unitarian groups in India, England and the United States.



Both Universalism and Unitarianism in Canada were, by and large, imports from the United States and Great Britain. The first Universalist preacher in Canada was Christopher Huntingdon who moved to Compton (in what is now Quebec) in 1804. The first congregation was organized in Stanstead, Quebec, in 1830. On the Unitarian side, the first preacher was David Hughes of England, and the first church was organized in Montreal in 1842. While the Universalists experienced little growth in Canada, Unitarianism spread westward in the late 19th century thanks to a large Icelandic immigrant population. (Although Unitarianism was never an established faith in Iceland, many Icelandic Unitarian congregations were started in Canada and the United States.) The Canadian Unitarian Council, created in 1961, was part of the Unitarian Universalist Association until 2001, when it became an autonomous organization, independent from the UUA.


The Czech Republic

In 1910, Norbert Capek, a Baptist minister, was introduced to leaders of the American Unitarian Association by Tomas Masaryk, future president of Czechoslovakia, who was himself married to an American Unitarian. Threatened for his outspoken liberal views, Capek moved to New York to serve a Baptist church in 1914, but by 1919 he had become a Unitarian. Returning to Czechoslovakia in 1921, Capek founded the Liberal Religious Fellowship (later the Religious Society of Czechoslovakian Unitarians) in Prague. The Prague congregation grew to 3,500 with outreach to eight other cities. In 1941 Capek was arrested for his opposition to the Nazi regime and put to death in Dachau. Although the churches faced oppression under Nazi and Communist regimes as well as internal discord, Unitarian congregations continue to thrive in the Czech Republic today.



Elements of universal salvation and antitrinitarian had appeared in the British Isles from the earliest days of the Radical Protestant Reformation. In the 18th century, Universalism was carried from England to America by George de Benneville (1741) and John Murray (1770).

In 1774 Unitarianism began its institutional life in England with the opening of Theophilus Lindsey's Essex Street Chapel in London. In 1806 the Unitarian Fund for Promoting Unitarianism by Means of Popular Preaching was organized, and by 1810 more than 20 Unitarian congregations were holding services in England. Ten times that number of congregations existed in 1825 when the British and Foreign Unitarian Association was organized (by coincidence on the same day, May 25, the American Unitarian Association was founded). John Biddle, Joseph Priestley, Thomas Belsham, and James Martineau are just a few of the names associated with the growth of British Unitarianism.



Although the tradition of Unitarianism among Hungarian-speaking people stretches back to the 16th century, it occurred primarily in parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that are not part of Hungary today. The first Unitarian church in Budapest was organized in 1873. In 1920, when the portions of Transylvania that gave rise to Unitarianism were ceded to Romania, the several churches in Hungary organized as a separate group, but remained subordinate to the Romanian bishop until 1971 when Jozcef Ferencz became the first bishop of Hungary. Today there are about 2,000 Unitarians in ten or more congregations in Hungary.



In addition to the Brahmo Samaj and Khasi Hills movements, Unitarian congregations were started in Madras and Calcutta. The Madras (Chennai) Unitarian Church was founded in 1795 by William Roberts (born Thiruvenkatam Vellala). Roberts came to know the work of Joseph Priestley, Theophilus Lindsey, and Thomas Belsham after he was brought to England as a servant by the East India Company. Returning to Madras, Roberts brought his Unitarian beliefs and founded a congregation which continues to this day. William Adam, converted to Unitarianism by Brahmo Samaj founder Rammohun Roy, served as a Unitarian missionary in Calcutta from 1821 until 1838 and was followed by Americans Charles Brooks in 1854 and Charles Dall in 1855. Dall's mission of 31 years was the longest continuous Unitarian mission in India.



Amidst controversy, Egbert Ethelred Brown founded the Unitarian Lay Center in Montego Bay, Jamaica, in the early part of the 20th century. After he was ordained in 1912 at Meadville Theological School with backing from the Montego Bay community, Brown served as a missionary of both the American and British Unitarian Associations. Within a few years, funding for his work was discontinued and the AUA transferred Brown to Kingston, where he had to start over. Support for the mission was always tenuous, and in 1917 funding for the Kingston mission was withdrawn. Despite unimaginable hardship and denominational resistance, Brown moved to the United States where he founded and led the Harlem Unitarian Church.



Both the American Unitarian Association and Universalist Church of America had missions in Japan by the end of the 19th century. Arthur Max Knapp represented the Unitarians beginning in 1888, and George Perin began the Universalist mission in 1890. Both operations published religious literature, founded churches, and began schools for the ministry. The Universalist mission also included kindergartens and schools. Although the Unitarian mission was effectively ended by financial troubles in 1920, the American Universalist mission continued until Americans were forced to leave at the beginning of the Second World War. During the war, native-born ministers continued the work. John Shidara founded Kamagame Universalist in Nagano after the Tokyo church was destroyed. After the war, Shinchiro Imaoka founded the Tokyo Unitarian Church. Both churches, as well as Tokyo's Koishikawa Universalist Center, remain in operation today.


Khasi Hills

The largest Unitarian group in India is the nearly 10,000 Unitarians of the Khasi and Jaintia Hills congregations founded by Hajom Kissor Singh. In 1887, dismayed by the strict Calvinist Christianity of British missionaries, Singh founded his own church that welcomed the teachings of Jesus, but held them alongside the native religion of the area, as well as the teachings of Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism. By the time of his death in 1923, there were 10 Unitarian congregations in North East India. Today there are more than three times that number.



Although the turn of the 20th century saw a strong unitarian influence in the Philippine Independent Church (including then Civil Governor of the Philippines and Unitarian William Howard Taft), the influence was never converted into a formal movement, and the church eventually became affiliated with the Episcopal Church. Rev. Toribio Quimada brought a more lasting Universalism to the Philippines in the 1950s. Excommunicated from his former church for using materials from the Universalist Service Committee, Quimada founded the Universalist Church of the Philippines in 1954. The name was changed to Unitarian Universalist Church of the Philippines when the church formally joined the UUA in 1988. Tragically, Quimada was murdered that same year for his social activism among poor farmers. The Unitarian Universalist Church of the Philippines continues today with approximately 2,000 members.



Antitrinitarian thought had been espoused in Poland for nearly a decade before the Minor Reformed Church (often called the Polish Brethren) was formally constituted in 1565. Beginning with the arrival of Faustus Socinus in 1579, the town of Rakow became a major center for publishing and teaching Unitarianism. Socinus wrote widely, but his revision of a catechism, originally written in 1574 and published after his death as the Rakovian Catechism, was perhaps his most enduring legacy. Unitarians were forced from Poland by the turn of the 17th century and it was not until the early 20th century that Unitarian congregations began to reappear. The Second World War again interrupted the rise of Unitarianism in Poland, but the Unitarian Church in Poland was organized in the 1980s.



Unitarian and Universalist thought dates back to at least the 17th century in Scotland. In 1755, a small group of congregations in the Scottish Borders region declared themselves Universalist, and St. Mark's Unitarian Church in Edinburgh traces its history back to 1776 (it avowed belief in universal salvation in 1792 and adopted the name Unitarian in 1813). Beginning in the mid-19th century, ties were forged between Scottish and American Universalists, giving rise to a 20-year joint venture mission between the Women's Centenary Association (WCA) and the General Convention late in the same century. The Rev. Caroline Soule, first president of the WCA and the first American missionary for Universalism, served as minister of St. Paul's Universalist Church in Glasgow from 1879 until her retirement in 1892.


South Africa

The Free Protestant Church in Cape Town, South Africa was founded by Dawid Faure in 1867. After studying for ministry in the Dutch Reformed Church, Faure found that he needed a church unbound by traditional dogma and open to new insights. The church he organized became part of the Unitarian movement in 1921. The church was served by ministers from the United States or Great Britain until native South African Robert Steyn was called in 1979. The Unitarian Church of Cape Town was joined by congregations in Johannesburg (founded in 1956), Somerset West (1984), and Durban (1986).



In Transylvania, official recognition of the Unitarian faith dates back to 1571, with close to 500 congregations gathered by 1579. But official recognition was short lived, and, in the face of political and religious oppression, the number of Transylvanian churches had shrunk to 125 by 1800. In the mid-19th century, there was a resurgence in Unitarianism and the churches grew stronger, partly due to the fact that they were no longer illegal and partly due to increased contact with Unitarian congregations abroad. After World War I, the American Unitarian Association increased its support of churches in Transylvania and Hungary and introduced a sister church program. Contact between American Unitarians and those in Transylvania continued, at a reduced level, throughout Nazi occupation and Communist rule. Since 1992, the Unitarian Universalist Partner Church Council (UUPCC) has strengthened ties between congregations in North America and those in Eastern Europe, the Philippines, and India.