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Protestantism and Non-Christian Religions

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Unitarian Universalist Association

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.


  • American Origins and History
    • Beginnings
    • American Unitarian Association

  • Doctrine and Liturgy
    • Position on Scripture
    • Immortality and God
    • European and American Forms
    • Liturgy
    • Acts of Worship
      • Communion Service
      • Baptism

  • Organization
    • Conferences
    • Unitarian Universalist Association

The beginnings of the Unitarian movement go back to the early years of Christianity, when the Gnostics, Arians, and Nestorians disagreed with the traditional teaching of the Church regarding the divinity of Christ. However, the name “Unitarian” was not used until the sixteenth century to identify certain Protestant dissenters from the dogma of the Trinity. Laelius Socinus (1525-1562), Faustus Socinus (1539-1604), and Michael Servetus (1511-1553), who was burned at the stake for his denial of the Trinity, may be considered the founders of modern Unitarianism.

The Unitarian King John Sigismund of Transylvania in 1508 issued a celebrated edict for religious freedom in his country. By 1600, there were over 400 Unitarian churches in that country.

American Origins and History

Unitarianism in the United States can be traced to the liberal reaction against Calvinism as it was understood by the Congregational churches in colonial New England.

Beginnings. Under the influence of deistic ideas imported from England, certain Congregational ministers began to teach doctrines that contradicted the Calvinist elements in their church’s confession. The idea that Jesus is God, the doctrine of predestination, belief in the depravity of human nature, the dogma of the atonement, the concept of Deity as a God of wrath, damnation, and hellfire—all these teachings were challenged. See Calvin, John; Predestination.

American Unitarianism was consequently born as a secessionist movement in the Congregational Church. The first church to profess Unitarian teaching, however, was the once-Episcopalian King’s Chapel in Boston. In 1785, this church modified its liturgy by eliminating the Athanasian and Nicene Creeds and all references to the Trinity.

In 1802, the oldest Pilgrim church, founded at Plymouth in 1620, became Unitarian. In a short time, 20 of the 25 original churches in Massachusetts became Unitarian, until approximately 125 churches broke with the conservative Congregational body or were forced to resign. Drawing from the intelligentsia among the liberals amid lacking credal cohesion, it was felt that an official Unitarian publication would help unify the secession. Thus, in 1821, the Christian Register was founded, which is the oldest religious journal to have continuous publication in America.

American Unitarian Association. By 1825, the American Unitarian Association was established as a society of individuals interested in promoting the influence of Unitarianism. It was reorganized 60 years later as an association of churches. The Beacon Press was founded in Boston in 1902 as the official publishing house of the American Unitarian Association. Two years later, the Starr King School for the Unitarian ministry was founded in Berkeley, Calif.

In the early 1930s, the Unitarians recognized that a long period of neglect of organizational matters had brought the denomination to the verge of collapse. The result was a complete overhauling of organizational structure to make separate agencies more cooperative, and a new emphasis was placed on social and youth services. The United Unitarian Appeal was made into a permanent institution, drawing funds from local churches for national and corporate ventures. The Beacon Press pursued a bolder policy in the publication field, so that between 1948 and 1953, some $2,500,000 worth of books was sold by the Press. Among these were Paul Blanshard’s controversial trilogy: American Freedom and Catholic Power (1949), Communism, Democracy and Catholic Power (1951), and the Irish and Catholic Power (1953).

After years of negotiations, the American Unitarian Association agreed to consolidate with the Universalist Church of America, whose philosophy originated with the doctrine of universal salvation. In May, 1961, the two bodies merge to form the Unitarian Universalist Association. Their combined church membership of about 200,000 is only a fraction of those who are known to be sympathetic with the principles of Unitarianism.

Doctrine and Liturgy

The teachings of Unitarianism can be described negatively as an extreme deism. It denies any value to the supernatural, whether as revelation, divine grace, or an order of reality beyond the natural, that is, beyond what is due to man as a human being. Thus, with respect to revelation, the Scriptures are equated with the Moslem Koran and the Hindu Vedas and summarily described as mythical. See Deism.

Position on Scripture. In all cultures, it is said; men’s keenest thoughts and boldest affirmations about life’s meanings have been expressed in legend, folk tale, and myth. The lives of their heroes have been told and retold. Accepted ways of getting along with one another have been preserved in precept and in codes of law. In many instances, this material has been written down, collected, and reedited. These are the sacred literatures or Bibles of the world, often considered by the peoples that have produced them as the very word of God.

The Jewish and Christian Bible is a remarkable collection of this sort. Consequently, the Unitarians reject all the basic dogmas of Christianity. They neither believe in the unique divinity of Jesus as the supernatural son of God nor in what they interpret was the human depravity supposed to make a supernatural savior necessary. They believe that, as Christ was, so are all men the offspring of the Eternal. It is not the details of Jesus’ teaching, nor the doctrines about his birth and death, but the Spirit in which he lived his faith that they claim to find inspiring. It is as an inspiration to living, not as the price paid to free them from sin and mortality that they look to Christ.

Immortality and God. Another quality of Unitarianism is to pit faith against faith, the Unitarian against the Christian, and deny the Christian faith on the score of its being unreasonable. The doctrines of atonement and resurrection, “supposedly divinely revealed in the Christian Scriptures,” have no meaning for them. For they do not believe that any man could by any act take from us the responsibility for our own sins, whether we had inherited them—which they believe to be an obvious absurdity—or committed them ourselves. Nor, in their system, does the resurrection of one man prove or provide for a similar resurrection of others. Immortality could not be a commodity bought by a transaction between God and a supposed devil. If there is a real immortality, according to many Unitarians, it must necessarily be the natural continuation of life as known upon earth.

While Unitarianism, as an institution is identified with a form deism, individual Unitarians, including leaders in the church, go beyond the mere denial of the supernatural. Their concept of God and the real distinction between Creator and creature are often vague. All Unitarians would agree, for instance, that there is something within the range of human experience that properly calls forth the responses of reverence, wonder, appreciation, and humility. Whether it is in the reality of God or in what William Wordsworth called “the still sad music of humanity,” it is known by many names and expressed in many ways.

One of the teachings of Unitarianism is the belief that the Cosmos (Nature or the Universe) is the highest unity that man can know. The things and beings of the world are many and varied; yet all are part of one vast and enduring Whole or Cosmos. The Cosmos is creative. This does not mean making something from nothing, but rather making the new out of the old. Since to them, the Cosmos is the highest known unity and is creative, Unitarians call it God. In their belief, God and the Cosmos are one. See Pantheism.

European and American Forms. The doctrinal posture of Unitarianism differs in different countries. On the continent of Europe, it tends to place a strong emphasis on practical religion, and Unitarians are known for their high standards in ethics and education. English Unitarianism has always been characterized by a certain militancy, and its leaders became famous for their controversial speeches and writings. Their followers have had marked prominence in proportion to their number in liberal politics, social reform, philanthropy, and literature. There are three English theological colleges.

American Unitarianism was quite averse from the beginning to the radical form that was typical of England. Instead of openly opposing the orthodox creeds, it has preferred to ignore them and has consistently aimed to promote “positive Christianity” without revelation or binding confessions of faith.

Consistent with the American emphasis on the practical side of life, Unitarians in the United States pay less attention to doctrinal questions than to the application of the gospel to personal and social life. Unitarians in general have always been liberal in their religious position. But their emphasis in America has so far shifted from a doctrinal center that their system is now recognized not so much by its beliefs as by certain attitudes. Their tendency is to subscribe to the principles of entire freedom in belief, the unique use of reason in religion, and the complete tolerance of differing points of view.

Liturgy. Unitarian churches have an elaborate system of corporate worship, sufficiently uniform to be compiled in an official Services of Religion. Liturgical functions, orders of service, with hundreds of prayers and hymns, have been edited by the Unitarian and Universalist Commission on Hymns and Services, to be used by the member churches as a norm to be followed to advantage.

Sources from which the formularies are drawn are mostly Roman Catholic and Protestant, with additions and alterations from current religious ideals of our own day. The theological content of those traditional forms, according to the Unitarian view, frequently expresses a way of thinking about religion which is far removed from that of the modern man. But the pattern upon which the older services have been built is often beautifully and nobly devised and offers a norm which may well be followed.

Acts of worship. To provide for every taste, 16 orders of services are offered by the Manual, 5 for festive occasions and 11 for the regular Sunday and occasional functions. The First Order of Service, in sequence, covers 20 different acts of worship, including Litanies, the Offertory, and the Benediction.

Communion Service. Two kinds of invitation to the Communion service are provided, one at which the elements are distributed and another in which the bread and wine will not be passed, the Communion being wholly symbolic. Corresponding provision is made in the ritual when the elements are not given to the people.

Baptism. Many Unitarians practice baptism of infants, and some also baptize adults. But they prefer to look upon baptism as an act of dedication which effects no change in the recipient but has only symbolic meaning. Baptism does not remit sin, nor does it infuse any kind of grace. A person can become a Unitarian without being baptized, and he can remain a member in good standing without receiving Holy Communion.


Unitarian churches in the United States are always congregational, which means that the local church is completely independent. Each church has its own set of rules and statement of purpose. It chooses its own minister, who is given a position of leadership. His function, however, is not to instruct the congregation in beliefs and practices, but to stimulate the members in their own free development of religious belief and action. The minister does not hold ecclesiastical authority in Unitarianism.

As Unitarian churches became more numerous, they took on time organizational form of the Congregational Church itself from which they seceded. Thus, at present, the administrative set-up is not unlike that of the parent denomination.

Conferences. Local churches are organized into conferences, which form natural geographical associations and vary in size from 7 or 8 to 20 member churches. The projects initiated by the conferences vary greatly, from the founding of new churches to the establishment of homes for aged people. But the major purpose of the conference usually is to help churches and church members to become acquainted with one another and to promote more effectively the cause of Unitarianism in their area.

As conferences grow, they unite into regional bodies, largely the outgrowth of a study by the Commission on Appraisal (1934-1936), which recommended a decentralization of administrative functions. Eight regional units are now operating in the United States. The Southern Unit is called the “Thomas Jefferson Conference Region” in tribute to that historical figure’s avowed Unitarianism. Leading the regions are elected council boards, charged with policy decisions, with the employment of executive directors, and with the budgeting of funds, which are secured, in the main, from the United Unitarian Appeal.

Unitarian Universalist Association. Founded in 1825 and reorganized in 1844, the American Unitarian Association was designed to undertake functions on behalf of the entire body of associated churches. The association was joined in1961 by the Universalists. The history and character of Universalism is almost identical with Unitarianism. Present-day Universalism favors a liberal interpretation of the Bible, prescribes no set doctrine, and allows each church complete autonomy.

The newly formed Unitarian Universalist Association does not in any way infringe on the autonomy of local churches, but simply carries out functions that individual churches could not perform alone. Such, among other functions, are those consisting of educational, interfaith, and lay-readership work, performed mainly by the General Alliance of Unitarian and Other Liberal Christian Women. The Laymen’s League is charged with recruiting for the ministry.

Other Unitarian Universalist branches are the Liberal Religious Youth and the Service Pension Society. The Unitarian Fellowship for Social Justice was founded in 1908 for the purpose of sustaining its members “in united action against social injustice and in the realization of religious ideals in present day society.”

Although not officially integrated with the American Civil Liberties Union, Unitarians frequently identify their interests with its ideals.

For further information read, Congregationalists; Gnosticism; Liberalism; Trinity.

Catholic Encyclopedia for School and Home
Vol. 11, pp. 118-121

Copyright © 1996 by Inter Mirifica

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