UU History

Q: What is the difference between a Unitarian and a Universalist? A: A Universalist believes that God is too good to condemn anyone to hell, whereas a Unitarian believes that humans are too good for God to condemn anyone to hell.


Both Unitarianism and Universalism trace their roots back to liberal Christianity.

Some UUs like to say that we go all the way back to the Arian controversy in the third century C.E. After all, those Christians who did not believe that Jesus was God were essentially unitarians (anti-trinitarians). Some UUs say that Unitarianism can be traced back to Michael Servetus, who, because of his criticism of the doctrine of the trinity and of original sin, was burned at the stake in Geneva on October 27, 1553.

Servetus was not really a Unitarian, but the example of his views while he was alive and the horror of his death led to a backlash against Calvinism and a movement towards greater religious tolerance. His theology did influence the decidedly unitarian (anti-trinitarian) churches that later developed in Poland and Transylvania. When the first (and only) Unitarian king, John Sigismund of Romania, declared an edict of religious toleration in 1568, it was the first such edict in history.

How old one believes Unitarianism is depends partly on what one believes Unitarianism is, what defines it. If unitarianism is a rejection of the doctrine of the trinity, then one can argue that it's as old as Christianity itself. If unitarianism is a stand in favor of religious toleration, then it dates at least as far back as the 16th century.

Unitarianism within America was not directly imported from Europe, although it was definitely influenced by European thought. American Unitarianism arose out of a theological split within Congregationalism in New England. Congregationalists were traditionally Calvinists, and when the more liberal Congregationalists started to question Calvinist doctrine, they were pejoratively labeled "unitarians." Instead of being insulted, they embraced the label.

In 1819, William Ellery Channing preached a sermon called Unitarian Christianity, which made official the rift between Unitarians and Congregationalists. Six years later (1825) the American Unitarian Association was established in Boston, Massachusetts. American Unitarianism rejected the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity, and declared that humans are inherently good, made in the likeness of God. From this belief in our inherent goodness come ideas of religious toleration and the use of reason.

When Channing rejected the trinity, he focused Unitarian attention on God the Father. Less than one generation later, Ralph Waldo Emerson changed our focus to the Spirit, to the immanent divinity within humanity. It is Emerson's human-centered view of divinity that transformed Unitarianism from a liberal Christianity to a more pluralistic tradition that is open to different spiritual paths, from atheism to paganism, etc.

Like unitarianism, universalism is a doctrine that can be traced back to the early Christian church. Both Origen and St. Gregory of Nyssa espoused universal salvation.

Universalism as a coherent movement started in 18th century England, by a Methodist minister, James Relly, who rejected Calvin's doctrine of limited atonement. Arguing that a God who is all-powerful and all-loving would not have it any other way, Universalism says that salvation is open to all. One of Relly's followers, John Murray, emigrated to America in 1770 and began preaching universal salvation along the eastern seaboard. The first general Universalist Convention was held at Oxford, Massachusetts in 1785. While Murray brought Universalism to America, it was Hosea Ballou that made it what it is today. Ballou ultimately rejected the trinity and lifted up the used of reason in religion.

While American Unitarianism has always been an elite, highly educated, urban movement, American Universalism in contrast was more rural, poorer, and more egalitarian. True to its name, its focus has always been to reach out to and truly embrace those who are marginalized by mainstream society. While both Unitarians and Universalists (and other liberal denominations) fought to abolish slavery and promote women's suffrage, it was a Universalist congregation that included a freed slave among its charter members. The first ordained female minister (1863), Olympia Brown, was a Universalist.

In 1961, the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church in America decided to join forces to create the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.

Some Relevant Links:

UU Origins: Our Historic Faith Dictionary of Unitarian and Universalist Biography Famous UUs Notable American Unitarians

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