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Unitarian Universalism

Introduction: Overview, definitions,
history, some UUs in modern times

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An explanation of the unusual name of the faith group:

The names of most religious denominations include a reference to their beliefs and/or location. For example, within Christianity, the names of Anglican denominations often reflect their origin in England. The names of Baptist, Adventist, Lutheran denominations often reflect their theological beliefs.

But the Unitarian Universalists are a major exception. Their name in the U.S. is composed of references to two ancient Christian heresies. In other countries, they are commonly referred to simply as Unitarian, a term that refers to a single ancient heresy.

The very early Christian church was an outgrowth of Judaism, which taught that of the many Gods that humans believed in, only Yahweh actually existed. The early Christian Church developed the concept of the Trinity in the early 3rd century CE. This belief conceives of a single God who is composed of a Trinity of three persons: God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Trinity became the established Christian belief, making Unitarian belief a heresy.

Also there were major controversies in the early Christian church about life after death. Many very early believers adopted the Jewish belief in Sheol -- a place under the surface of the Earth where everyone went after death -- those who exhibited all different beliefs and behaviors while alive on Earth. They lived there in a dim environment, exhibiting an energyless life. Later, belief in Heaven and Hell developed. Christians believed that everyone was judged after death according to their behavior while on Earth, and/or their beliefs about Jesus. (Bible passages differ in the criterion used to judge individuals). Universalism referred to heretics who believe that everyone attains heaven, either immediately after death, or eventually.

Two main features of Unitarian Universalism:

  • From a sign at the UU church in Las Vegas, NV: "Different Beliefs, One Congregation" This reflects the policy of the UU faith: that there is no formal creed to which members must accept. Also, the minister does not teach the congregation what to believe. She or he helps them develop their own beliefs concerning deity, humanity, and the rest of the universe.

  • The first of seven principles of Unitarian Universalism is: "We affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”

Overview:

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 (i.e. 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 perspective as:

bullet 46.1% Humanist. This is the most common belief system.
bullet 19% identify themselves as Nature or Earth-centered religion (e.g. Wiccan, Druid or other Neopagan tradition.
bullet 13% describe themselves simply as Theist -- a believer in one or more deities.
bullet 9.3% self-identify as Christian.
bullet 6.2% are mystic.
bullet 3.6% are Buddhist.
bullet Other perspectives listed are Jewish at 1.3%, Hindu at 0.4%, Muslim at 0.1% and other at 13.3% 2

Membership numbers:

During the 21st century, they reported:

  • 2000-01: 1,051 churches and 155,449 members
  • 2005: 1,042 churches, 157,299 members
  • 2010: 1,048 churches, 164,196 members
  • 2015: 1,043 churches, 156,620 members
  • 2019: 1,029 churches, 154,704 members in the U.S.

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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:

bullet Shared values and principles: 52.1%
bullet Acceptance, respect and support for each other as individuals: 42.5%
bullet A desire to take religious questions seriously: 14.6%
bullet Commitment to social justice and public witness: 11.5% 2
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History of the movement

Many Unitarian Universalists value the teachings of:

bullet Origen (circa 185 to 253 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 a reformed Satan and his demons) into Heaven.

bullet Jan Huss, a Bohemian church reformer and martyr, was burned at the stake because of his beliefs in 1415 CE.

bullet Michael Servetus (1511-1553) who wrote "On The Errors of the Trinity." 7 This led to his execution at the stake in 1553 in John Calvin's Geneva for his heresy.

bullet 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.

bullet Writers, scientists, and others who promoted religious tolerance, including Alcott, Bryant, Holmes, Locke, Milton, Newton, Florence Nightingale, and Thoreau.

bullet American politicians such as John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Adlai Stevenson and William Howard Taft.

bullet John Murray, who in 1779 became the minister of the first Universalist church in the U.S. at Gloucester, MA.

bullet Joseph Priestly, chemist and Unitarian Minister who established the first Unitarian Church in the U.S. in 1796.

bullet 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".

bullet Preachers and theologians Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Ellery Channing and Theodore Parker.

bullet Julia Ward Howe, a fighter in the abolition of slavery.

bullet Clara Barton, who worked for penal reform.

bullet 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.

bullet 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. Later, 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 in the U.S. merged to become the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA).

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Typical U-U Affirmations:

The First Unitarian Congregation in Toronto Canada lists the following affirmations in their Order of Service:

"AS UNITARIAN UNIVERSALISTS WE COVENANT TO AFFIRM AND PROMOTE:

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;

  • Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations;

  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregation;

  • A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;

  • The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregation and in society at large;

  • The goal of world community; and

  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part." 8

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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). Some were/are:

bullet Emily Greene Balch: Nobel Peace Laureate
bullet Roger Baldwin: Founder, American Civil Liberties Union
bullet Béla Bartók: Classical composer
bullet Ray Bradbury: Science fiction writer
bullet Harold Hitz Burton: Justice of the US Supreme Court
bullet Brock Chisholm: Director, World Health Organization
bullet Joseph S. Clark: US Senator and Mayor of Philadelphia
bullet e. e. cummings: Poet and Painter
bullet Emily Taft Douglas: US Representative, Illinois
bullet Paul H. Douglas: US Senator
bullet Buckminster Fuller: Designer of a New World
bullet Lotta Hitschmanova: Founder, Unitarian Service Committee of Canada
bullet George Elbert Kimball: Operations Research Innovator
bullet Margaret Laurence: The First Lady of Canadian Literature
bullet Maurine Neuberger: US Senator from Oregon
bullet Mary White Ovington: Founder of the NAACP
bullet Linus Pauling: Nobel Laureate for Peace and for Chemistry
bullet Leverett Saltonstall: US Senator, Massachusetts
bullet Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.: Historian
bullet Pete Seeger: Folk Singer & Song Writer
bullet Rodman Edward Serling: writer, producer, teacher, and host of The Twilight Zone
bullet Adlai E. Stevenson: Governor of Illinois, Democratic candidate for President, and United States Ambassador to the United Nations.
bullet Edwin Wilson, primary author of A Humanist Manifesto and Humanist Manifesto II; editor of The Humanist and co-founder of the American Humanist Association.
bullet Frank Lloyd Wright: Architect

A few other UUs of whom we are aware are:

bullet David Bumbaugh: Environmentalist and author
bullet The late Lauren Clark: astronaut on Space Shuttle Columbia
bullet Ron Engel: Nature author
bullet 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

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References used:

  1. "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:
  2. "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 the survey.
  3. "Biblical Unitarians," at: http://www.biblicalunitarian.com/
  4. "Notable American Unitarians 1936-1961," at: http://www.harvardsquarelibrary.org/
  5. Jone Johnson Lewis, "Famous UUs" at: http://www.famousuus.com/
  6. "Religious Composition of the U.S." Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 2007, at: http://religions.pewforum.org/
  7. Michael Serveto, "The Two Treatises of Servetus on the Trinity," Harvarn University Press, 1932, at: https://www.amazon.com/
  8. Order of Service, First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto, 2020-JAN-19, at: https://www.firstunitariantoronto.org/

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    Copyright © 1996 to 2020 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
    Latest update: 2020-JAN-07
    Author: B.A. Robinson

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