Introduction: Overview, definitions,
history, some UUs in modern times
The Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations (commonly
called the Unitarian Universalist Association or UUA) is a liberal religious organization,
serving the Unitarian Universalist (UU) churches of North America. The Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches estimated a total membership
of 502,000 in 1990. 1 Membership fell during the 1970's. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life reported in 2007 that UUs constitute about 0.3% of the American Population.
The UUA was formed on 1961-MAY-11 from the merger of the American Unitarian Association (established 1825) and
the Universalist Church of America (established 1866).
Before about 1960, UUs were largely considered the most liberal of Christian
denominations. Since then, the beliefs of Unitarian Universalists have become quite diverse.
Many people now considered a separate religion and no longer part of Christianity. In 1995-JUN, the UUA
acknowledged that its main sources of spirituality are: Christianity, Earth Centered
Religions (African-American religions, Native American spirituality, Wicca, other Neopagan religions, etc.), Humanism, Judaism, other world religions, prophets,
and the direct experience of mystery. Fewer than 10% of Unitarian Universalists identify themselves as
Christians. The organization exists as a very liberal, multi-faith group.
According to a 1997 survey of almost 10,000 UUs gave their theological
46.1% Humanist. This is the most common
19% identify themselves as Nature or Earth centered religion (e.g. Wiccan, Druid or
other Neopagan tradition.
Other perspectives listed are Jewish at 1.3%, Hindu at 0.4%, Muslim
at 0.1% and other at 13.3% 2
They are certainly a diverse lot!
It is obvious that the "glue" that holds congregations together is not a
shared theological belief system, as it is in almost all other religious
groups. The 1997 survey found that the four most
important factors are:
Shared values and principles: 52.1%
Acceptance, respect and support for each other as individuals: 42.5%
A desire to take religious questions seriously: 14.6%
Commitment to social justice and public witness: 11.5% 2
The term Unitarian has traditionally had two main religious meanings:
A monotheistic belief that God is a unity, not a trinity. This was
widespread in the early Christian movement, The exact nature and makeup of deity occupied the
thoughts of many Christians during the first few centuries CE. There were many
anti-trinitarian movements at the time. Three were monarchianism, sabellianism and
patripassianism. A series of church councils decided that God is a Trinity, composed of the
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Unitarianism then became a heresy and was suppressed.
This belief system still exists in the form of Biblical Unitarianism:
Christians who believe "in one God, the Father, and
one Lord, Jesus Christ...The "Holy Spirit" is another name for God..." 3
A contemporary religious movement which features a lack of dogma, a belief in the
inherent goodness of people, and the obligation for each member to seek out and develop
his or her own system of beliefs and ethics.
It is this second meaning of Unitarian that we will use here.
The term Universalism has also had two religious meanings:
The belief that Jehovah as described in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) is the
deity for all humanity, rather than just for the Jewish people.
A religious movement which historically promoted the belief that every person will go to heaven after death. This is in contrast with the traditional Christian belief
that one's natural destination is eternal torment in Hell. Only those who
are saved will attain heaven. Today,
the latter beliefs are still held by most conservative Christians. Other
mainline and conservative Christians are
gradually drifting toward the Universalist belief. Liberal and most mainline Christians are already
It is the second meaning of Universalism that we will use here.
History of the movement
Unitarian Universalists value the teachings of:
Origen (circa 185 to 354 CE) Origen is
generally considered to be one of the greatest theologians in early
Christian movement. He stressed Jesus' humanity, and believed that God
might eventually receive
all people (even Satan and his demons) into heaven.
Jan Huss, a Bohemian church reformer and martyr, was burned at the stake
because of his beliefs in 1415 CE.
Michael Servetus who wrote "On The Errors of the Trinity" which led to
his execution at the stake in 1553 in John Calvin's Geneva for his Unitarian
King John Sigismund of Transylvania (now a part of Romania
and Hungary) in 1568 issued the first edict of religious freedom. This
allowed citizens to hold diverse religious beliefs and still be loyal
to the state.
Writers, scientists, and others who promoted religious tolerance, including
Alcott, Bryant, Holmes, Locke,
Milton, Newton, Florence Nightingale, and Thoreau.
American politicians such as John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson,
Thomas Paine, Adlai Stevenson
and William Howard Taft.
John Murray, who in 1779 became the minister of the first Universalist church in the
U.S. at Gloucester, MA.
Joseph Priestly, chemist and Unitarian Minister who established the first Unitarian
Church in the U.S. in 1796.
Hosea Ballou, author (in 1805) of "A Treatise on Atonement" which
argued against the Trinity, Hell, and the existence of miracles. He is sometimes
referred to as "The Father of American Universalism".
Preachers and theologians Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Ellery Channing and Theodore
Julia Ward Howe, a fighter in the abolition of slavery.
Clara Barton, who worked for penal reform.
Olympia Brown was ordained by the Universalist denomination
in 1863, thus becoming one of the first female
ministers in the U.S. She promoted women's rights (particularly
suffrage) and pacifism.
Susan B. Anthony, who advocated women's rights.
The first church to call itself Unitarian was established in Transylvania, in 1638.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, Universalist groups were formed in England. An
organization which was to become the Universalist Church of America was formed in 1785. By
1810, there were 20 Unitarian churches in England. In the U.S., many churches
were founded which were Unitarian or professed Unitarian beliefs. Theirs was largely a reaction to the
rigidity of Calvinist belief in New England. These churches formed the American Unitarian
Association in 1825. The first Unitarian church in Canada was established in Montreal in
1842. In 1961, the Unitarian and Universalist churches merged to become the Unitarian Universalist Association
Some modern-day Unitarian Universalists:
There are many well-known North Americans who are members of UUA
congregations, who have joined the Church of the Larger Fellowship,
or have identified themselves with the UUA.
The First Parish and the First Church in Cambridge (Unitarian
Universalist) has prepared biographies of UUs who made major
contributions to North American science, theology and culture during the
period 1936 (when a report Unitarians Face a New Age was published) to 1961 (when the Unitarian Universalist Association was founded).
Emily Greene Balch: Nobel Peace Laureate
Roger Baldwin: Founder, American Civil Liberties Union
Béla Bartók: Classical composer
Ray Bradbury: Science fiction writer
Harold Hitz Burton: Justice of the US Supreme Court
Brock Chisholm: Director, World Health Organization
Joseph S. Clark: US Senator and Mayor of Philadelphia
e. e. cummings: Poet and Painter
Emily Taft Douglas: US Representative, Illinois
Paul H. Douglas: US Senator
Buckminster Fuller: Designer of a New World
Lotta Hitschmanova: Founder, Unitarian Service Committee of Canada
George Elbert Kimball: Operations Research Innovator
Margaret Laurence: The First Lady of Canadian Literature
Maurine Neuberger: US Senator from Oregon
Mary White Ovington: Founder of the NAACP
Linus Pauling: Nobel Laureate for Peace and for Chemistry
Leverett Saltonstall: US Senator, Massachusetts
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.: Historian
Pete Seeger: Folk Singer & Song Writer
Rodman Edward Serling: writer, producer, teacher, and host of The Twilight
Adlai E. Stevenson: Governor of Illinois, Democratic candidate for President, and United
States Ambassador to the United Nations.
Edwin Wilson, primary
author of A Humanist Manifesto and Humanist Manifesto II;
editor of The Humanist and co-founder of the American Humanist
Christopher Reeve: an actor and promoter of stem cell research.
There are many more individuals who have contributed greatly to society
and were affiliated in some way with the UUA or its predecessor organizations. 5
"Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches," Selected
data on religious bodies can be downloaded from: http://www.census.gov/ You need software to read these files. It can be obtained free from:
"The 1997 Unitarian Universalism Needs and Aspirations Survey," at: http://www.uua.org/ The respondents were self-selected
from among the recipients of the WORLD periodical. There may be some bias in