Ever since there have been faith communities, there have also been reform movements, efforts focused on the spiritual renewal of the members of the community, and on the mission of the institutions themselves. In the first century, The Apostle Paul wrote of spiritual renewal and reform in his epistles to members of the early Christian "house churches." When we read these letters, which are now part of the Christian canon, we perceive the constant interplay between two competing impulses- the clarification and renewal of theological ideas competed with the establishment of rules and boundaries to shape and define the faith community. There is much these early documented religious institutions have in common with faith communities throughout history. In order to remain viable and effective, each in their own particular time and circumstances, faith communities must address and resolve ongoing questions of leadership, beliefs, acceptable behavior, who's in and who's not, and how the group will embrace a common vision and mission and move forward into the future.
While the 16th century Reformation is the most significant reform movement in the history of Western religion, there had been precursors to this singular and earth-shaking event. In the 14th century, Englishman John Wyclif had championed the cause of the people against the abuses of the church and was condemned as a heretic, but not before he had produced the first English translation of the Bible. John Huss, or Jan Hus, a Czech who lived near the end of the fourteenth century, had advocated for the authority of scripture over that of the church. He denied the infallibility of the pope, whose behavior he believed to be immoral, and held that communion should be available to the laity. Because of those ideas, he was burned at the stake in 1415. The work of these individuals foreshadowed some of the major themes that would emerge in the Reformation.
Although there were many factors leading to the Protestant Reformation, the movement was, in part, an outgrowth of the Renaissance. During that period, the culture exhibited increased emphasis on the individual, as well as new scholarship and ways of interpreting ancient texts. There were during that time key developments in technology, such as the invention of the printing press, which allowed the widespread distribution of Bibles and other religious texts. The rise of the power of the middle class, and a storm of political conflicts, helped to create an environment conducive to reform.
Though the conditions include a multitude of factors, the single act of a single individual, Martin Luther (1483-1546) is credited with initiating the Reformation. Intending to initiate a reform movement within the Roman Catholic Church, Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany on October 31, 1517. The Theses decried practices of simony (including the buying and selling of indulgences), clerical corruption and spiritual apathy. What happened, however, is that Luther's movement, which began as a reform movement within the Roman Catholic tradition led to a new acceptance of freedom of dissent in religious matters. The Reformation quickly morphed into a multi-faceted movement and counter-movement (i.e. the Catholic Reformation or Counter-Reformation), and embraced a broad range of theological and institutional reforms, including doctrinal disputes over the Lord's Supper, rejection of papal control, the belief in the efficacy of personal communication with God, justification by faith or works, and personal responsibility and freedom. The "fruit" of Luther's actions was the Protestant movement, which spread quickly among those seeking greater religious freedom. Both the Unitarian and Universalist faiths, in their institutional forms, emerged from this "protest" against the Roman Catholic Church.
While most Unitarian Universalists today would not recognize the theology of the Reformation period as their own, some ideas very important to us were developed in these turbulent and heady times. Antitrinitarians, forerunners to Unitarians, grew in strength and numbers as more people began reading the Bible for themselves (and in their own languages) and applied reason to theological arguments. As the Roman Catholic Church lost its singular position as "the Church," the idea of voluntary membership—faith as choice—began to take root. Ultimately, many of the doctrines developed by Protestant theologian John Calvin would provide rich material for Unitarians and Universalists to react against in our own efforts to reform Christianity.
Equal in importance to the actual reforms was the notion, met with varying degrees of acceptance, that ongoing reform is a part of the development of religion. Examination of our own Unitarian, Universalist and Unitarian Universalist history reveals a number of times in when we have been confronted with the same key questions confronting any religious reform movement, whether well in the past or more contemporary. How is a religion "true" to its origins and history? When is reform accomplished with a minor shift in focus and direction, and when does it add a whole new dimension to the faith? What are the similarities and differences between the reformation of a faith, and the renewal of a faith? How much reform can a tradition or institution withstand before a separate or breakaway sect emerges? Learning to engage questions such as these while "walking together" as a covenanted community is a part of our liberal religious history, and part of being a Unitarian Universalist today.
We are the inheritors of a continuous stream of religious reforms. Even so, there have been a few noteworthy times when the "stream" became a wild river, and the waters of reform raged. A particularly turbulent time came during the period between the 1830s and the 1880s, when the Transcendentalists rebelled against liberal Christian Unitarians. The key thinkers and writers of this time, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker, George Ripley and others, agreed in many ways with William Ellery Channing's understanding of Unitarian Christianity. They embraced a progressive self-culture, and held that the idea of God comes from and is present in our own souls. Where they differed was in their understanding of the place of rationalism in religion. While not denying the place of reason in religion, the Transcendentalists longed for and advocated a more spiritual approach to life, an approach that relied on intuition. It was their firm belief that every person could experience the divine, personally and immediately. Transcendentalist thought created waves in the newly organized American Unitarian Association, as the nascent movement sought to balance a unified and reason-based religion with one that allowed for freedom of thought, growth, and movement.
Another tidal wave of controversy was launched by those who, in the early twentieth century, preached and wrote from the emergent perspective of religious humanism. These ministers, including John Dietrich and Curtis Reese, proposed that a supernatural deity was unnecessary to modern religion, and that a life both moral and ethical could be lived without a personal God. In this view, humans were moved to the center of the religious circle, emphasizing human responsibility for actions, without control from, or appeal to, a God.
Mark Harris characterizes the humanist movement as one of reform: "Religious humanism claimed that orthodox religious belief and practice must be reformed in light of modern knowledge." Modern knowledge, to the humanists, included the discoveries of science and the social sciences, including psychology and sociology, as well as the nihilism found in modern philosophy.
The influence of humanism on Unitarianism, and subsequently Unitarian Universalism, has been enormous. It became the dominant theological position in our movement by the mid-20th century; though not without controversy as some Unitarian Universalists sought to maintain an understanding of God as part of their faith. There have been times when theists and humanists have held each other with mutual respect, such as when the two sides worked together to produce the hymnbook Hymns of the Spirit; and other times when adherents to the two positions have been at odds, exhibiting mutual intolerance that seems incongruous with a free faith. What is clear is that the reforming actions of the twentieth-century humanists challenged Unitarian Universalism and made it far more theologically diverse than it had been.
Reform in religion is an ongoing enterprise, though not one without controversy or debate. During his tenure as President of the UUA in the opening years of the 21st century, the Reverend William Sinkford drew both appreciation and fire for these thoughts about the future direction of Unitarian Universalism:
I would like to see us become better acquainted with the depths, both so that we are more grounded in our personal faith, and so that we can effectively communicate that faith—and what we believe it demands of us—to others. For this, I think we need to cultivate what UU minister David Bumbaugh calls a "vocabulary of reverence." ... we need some language that would allow us to capture the possibility of reverence. To name the holy, to talk about human agency in theological terms—the ability of humans to shape and frame our world guided by what we find to be of ultimate importance. — in A Language of Reverence, Dean Grodzins, ed. (Meadville Lombard Press, 2004)
Most recently, the Reverend Peter Morales, elected President of the UUA in 2009, offered his own charge for Unitarian Universalism, which, not surprisingly, involves change:
We can be the religion of our time... We cannot seize the opportunity before us unless we are willing to make significant changes. We are not talking about minor adjustments. We need to change our religious culture. We need to become more welcoming, more relevant in the lives of or people, more involved in the great moral issues of our time.