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Unitarian Universalism

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

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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 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.
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

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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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The term Unitarian has traditionally had two main religious meanings:

  1. 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

  2. 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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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 there.

It is the second meaning of Universalism that we will use here.

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History of the movement

Unitarian Universalists value the teachings of:

bullet 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.

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

bullet 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 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. 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 (UUA).

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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: You need software to read these files. It can be obtained free from:
  2. "The 1997 Unitarian Universalism Needs and Aspirations Survey," at: 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:
  4. "Notable American Unitarians 1936-1961," at:
  5. Jone Johnson Lewis, "Famous UUs" at:
  6. "Religious Composition of the U.S." Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 2007, at:

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    Copyright © 1996 to 2015 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
    Latest update: 2015-AUG-06
    Author: B.A. Robinson

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