Unitarian Universalism “What is a Unitarian Universalist? ” This is a question that many people have asked and will continue to ask in the future. There are many ways you can choose to answer this question and perhaps none of them will be able to tell the whole story. One way to answer the question is to go back to the start and show the history of the group and how it merged from two similar yet different liberal Christian denominations, into what it is today.
From this we can find that Unitarianism, Universalism, and Unitarian Universalism represent a diverse and distinct liberal eligious background, which can be seen through the group’s history, theology, and the beliefs of individual members of each congregation. Unitarian Christianity began as a countermovement of sorts to the growing influence of Orthodox Christianity during the First Great Awakening in the 1730’s and 1740’s. The first organized members of the group formed from a liberal wing of the Congregational Church in Eastern Massachusetts. In 1784, the first Unitarian Church was formed at the former Episcopal King’s Chapel in Boston.
At its earliest form, Unitarian theology nd practice was very unorganized and its congregants often disagreed about what principles the group should adhere to as a whole. The issue that defined most Unitarian belief was the nature of the Trinity and divinity of Jesus Christ. Most early Unitarians argued that the concept of the Trinity, or the idea that God was three separate entities, had no biblical warrant and was instead Just a manmade metaphysical abstraction. Historically, American Unitarians were not the first Christians to believe in the oneness of God.
Since the death of Jesus, many early Christians held the belief that Jesus was fully himself God. Even after the Nicene Creed officially adopted the idea of the Trinity in Christianity in the year 325 AD, many Christians challenged this idea and offered various other views on God and Jesus. Many of these groups were considered to be a heresy among traditional European Christian groups and were often persecuted for their beliefs. The non- Trinitarian beliefs of the American Unitarians were shown to have little influence by these groups, but in many cases they adhered to similar ideology.
Perhaps the most debated issue among American Unitarians was the idea that if Jesus was not fully God, what did this make him. One argument suggested that while Jesus was not equal to God, he was still divine and perhaps even deserved the label as the Son of God. Using this argument, it is commonly believed that Jesus can be seen from the same standpoint as most Trinitarian thought in the sense that he was born from a virgin birth, could perform miracles, rose from the dead after being crucified, etc.
The biggest issue was more or less simply the label of Jesus as being equal to God. An opposing Unitarian view held that Jesus was not divine in any sense f the word, but rather a moral teacher, who followed the word of God. This view rejected all ideas that Jesus was a supernatural being completely. Instead this idea focused on the teachings of Jesus as a model of purity, sinlessness, and perfect humanity. Many Unitarians who believed this thought the idea of the Trinity denied Jesus his tull stature as a person.
Many other alternative explanations and ideas continued to form as Unitarian theology progressed through the years. Unitarian belief continued in the United States in very unstructured, loosely related congregations until Just before the 1820’s. It was during this time period that William Ellery Channing (1780-1842) became the first major theologian and spokesperson for the American Unitarian movement. Channing was a Harvard graduate and had been pastor at the Federal Street Church in Boston since 1803.
In 1819, Channing delivered “The Baltimore Sermon,” which laid the framework for a central Unitarian theology. Channing stated that the Bible should be interpreted as any other book, believing that the Bible was not written by God, but by people inspired from history and experience, seeking to better understand the meaning of life and death. He believed that God was one, morally perfect being, that existed in no bodily form and was purely a spiritual essence. Channing said the Trinity, “Divided one infinite person into three objects of the mind (Fox, 2004). Channing did believe that Jesus was divine, but not equal to God and that Christianity had diminished devotion to following what most people knew as God the Father. Channing argued that these non-Trinitarian beliefs were actually more in context with the Bible than the ideas other Orthodox Christian denominations believed, believing that these groups had distanced Christianity from its original roots. But for Channing, Christianity wasn’t Just about having correct orthodoxic beliefs, but also realizing that Christianity is the moral perfection of the human soul and the center of virtue in Christian life.
Channing taught that Christians should have a respect for reason using the application of one’s moral insights and aspirations to daily living and social existence. He preached that grace, not fear, should be the main outlook on worshiping God. Because of Channings influence, specifically at turning Unitarian belief into a set of self-ethical standards, the American Unitarian belief was able to take a more rganized structure and the American Unitarian Association was formed in 1825.
The organization outlined its main principles as: Diffuse the knowledge and promote the interests of religion that Jesus taught as love to God and love to man Strengthen the churches and fellowships that unite in the association for more and better work for the kingdom of God Organize new churches and fellowships for the extension of Unitarianism in our own countries and in other lands Encourage sympathy and cooperation among religious liberals home and abroad Even at its peak, the Unitarian movement was not a dominant denomination within American Christianity in terms of its congregants.
But where it lacked in members, it made up in the intellectual influence of its followers. Perhaps the most influential of all these supporters was Founding Father and third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826). Jefferson, even at an early age, had rejected the ideas presented in Orthodox Christianity at the time. He was against blind faith and more in favor of a faith based off of reason. From his studies he believed that Jesus had never made the claim to be God and should instead be seen as a moral teacher. He lso considered most of the New Testament to be false, or filled with inaccuracies.
Because of this belief he created his own version of the Bible by cutting and pasting passages trom the Gospels ot the New Testament into a chronological order ot the life of Jesus. He removed all references to Jesus being a supernatural being and instead focused on the central figure of Jesus, cutting loose from him the main soteriological doctrines of historical Christianity. While Jefferson did express his agreement with Unitarian principles, he never officially Joined a Unitarian church, but commonly attended Unitarian services while iving in Philadelphia.
Some have tried to classify Jefferson as a deist, though Jefferson never identified himself as such. Throughout his life he continued to speak out against Orthodox Christianity, specifically Calvinism, which he intensely opposed. In a letter to John Adams, written three years before he died, he stated, “Calvin was indeed an Atheist, which I can never be, or rather his religion was Demonism. If ever man worshipped a false god, he did (Prothero, 2003). ” In his final days Jefferson believed that he was in a sect by himself, following his own individualized form of
Christianity, but he expressed the overall importance to the Unitarian movement, saying, “l rejoice that in this blessed country of free inquiry and belief, which has surrendered its conscience to neither kings or priests, the genuine doctrine of only one God is reviving and I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian Oefferson, 1822). ” Unitarian Christianity wasn’t the only independent form of Christianity to be formed in the mid-18th century. Another new liberal movement that was starting to spread was the idea of Christian Universalism.
Like Unitarian belief, Universalism evolved as an opposition to Orthodox Christian values, specifically Calvinism. Universalists believed that the biggest issue with Calvinism was the idea of the Unconditional Elect, or that God has already chosen who will go to Heaven and Hell. Universalists believed in “universal salvation”, the idea that everyone will get to go to Heaven for eternal salvation by the grace of God. Universalists argued that Calvinist theology was unbiblical and that God would never predetermine that any person would go to Hell for eternity.
This idea of Universal salvation was not a new concept, as it had roots in pre- Christian and traditional world faiths such as the Gnostics, 17th and 18th century German mystics, and also in early Christian theology. American Christian Universalists simply reintroduced the idea into a more contemporary Christian theology. The exact nature of when the Universalist movement began in America is hard to accurately determine. Among the leaders of the early American Universalist movement was Minister John Murray (1741-1815), who would come to be known as the “Father of American Universalism.
Murray was born in England where both his parents followed strict Calvinism. It was by 1770 that he rejected Calvinist theology completely and was excommunicated from his congregation in England and decided to come to America to teach the ideals ofa universal salvation. Murray established the Independent Christian Church of Gloucester in 1779, making him one of the first people to have an organized Universalist denomination in the United States. In 1793, he was named as the first Minister at the First Universalist Church in Boston, where he served until 1809. Among Murrays teachings was his distinct view of the afterlife.
He believed that non-sinners and believers would pass immediately to glory, known as the “first resurrection. ” Nonbelievers and the sintul remain atter death in an intermediate state, where some would be delivered from the intermediate state, while others would remain until the Day of Judgment, where they would undergo “second resurrection” and see that it was right for them to accept the condemnation of their sinful nature (Holifleld, 2003). He used the Bible in both a literal and a figurative manner, in order to express the idea that sinners would suffer protracted, but not verlasting, punishment for their sins.
While Murray was developing a conservative Universal theology, another developing form of more liberal Universalism called for a different approach. This movement was led by Pastor Hosea Ballou (1771-1852). Like Murray, he was born into a family of Calvinistic belief. Ballou was denied education as a child, but learned of Universalism through reading the Bible and the teachings of other Universalist scholars. This led to him converting to Universalism in 1789. After an early career as a schoolteacher, he switched to being a pastor at various churches in Vermont, New
Hampshire, and Massachusetts, before leading the congregation at the Second Universalist Church in Boston in 1817, until his death 35 years later. Ballou rejected all Calvinistic principles like Total Depravity and the belief in an endless punishment in Hell. But unlike Murray, he was one of the first Universalists to also oppose legalism (following the law of God) and Trinitarian views in Christianity as well. Ballou believed all humans were potentially good and capable of perfectibility and that all sin was finite to this world. Because of this he rejected the idea of Hell altogether.
He also rejected the miracles of Jesus and believed that Jesus was the son ofa universal God, who wanted to reveal God’s love. Ballou’s form of Universalism came to be known as “Ultra Universalism. ” Ballou was very instrumental in 1790, when Universalists of various backgrounds met in Philadelphia to draft their first declaration of faith and plan of government, known as the Articles of Faith. The five points in this document stated: Of the Holy Scriptures – We believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to contain a revelation of the perfections and will of God, and the rule of faith and practice. Of the Supreme Being – We believe in one God, infinite in all his perfections, and that these perfections are all modifications of infinite, adorable, incomprehensible, and unchangeable love. Of the Mediator – We believe that there is one Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, in whom dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily, who by giving himself a ransom for all, hath redeemed them to God by his blood; and who, by the merit of his death, and the efficacy of his spirit, will finally restore the whole human race to happiness. ? Of the Holy Ghost- We believe n the Holy Ghost, whose office is to make known to sinners the truth of this salvation, through the medium of the Holy Scriptures, and to reconcile the hearts of the children of men to God, and thereby to dispose them to genuine holiness. Of Good Works – We believe in the obligation of the moral law as to the rule of life; and we hold, that the love of God manifested to man in a redeemer, is the best means of producing obedience to that law, and promoting a holy, active, and useful life.
When this document was ratified in 1793, it provided the first form of organized structure to the Universalist movement. The last principle, “Of Good Works,” was of particular importance to the Universalist social Justice movement that began in the early 19th century. Universalists strived to abolish slavery and educate black persons, oppose any type of war and physical conflict, and were active in reform movements for prison inmates and working women. Universalists also founded a number of educational institutions promoting these ideals, including Tufts, St.
Lawrence, Goddard, and Akron. Even with these new formed guidelines and social practices; Universalist congregations tended to be more independent in nature. While Unitarian belief appealed to the wealthy and more socially affluent, Universalism appealed to the lower and middle social class. Universalism affirmed the authority of the common people and their ability to read the scriptures of the Bible and make their own theological decisions. In a sense, Universalism represented a movement rather than a singular denomination.
Unitarians in essence believed that humans were too good to be damned, while Universalists believed that God was too good to damn them. Because of these differences, Universalism did not often compete against Unitarian elief during the 19th century, but rather against other Orthodox Christian churches that also tried to gain interest in working class citizens. Methodists in particular argued that Universalism encouraged sin and threatened “to disposes religion of most of its motive influence with which it addresses itself to the better interests of mankind (Holifleld, 2003). Hosea Ballou’s response to this idea can be heard in a story in which he was told by a Baptist minister, “If I were a Universalist and feared not the fires of hell, I could hit you over the head, steal your horse and saddle, and ride away, and I’d still go to heaven. To which Ballou replied, “If you were a Universalist, the idea would never occur to you. ” Universalism continued to grow and by the 1830’s it was arguably the ninth largest denomination in the United States.
Following in the footsteps of the Unitarians, the Universalists formed the Universalist General Convention in 1866 to create a singular governing body for all Universalist congregations. The group was later renamed the Universalist Church of America in 1942. In May of 1961, the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America merged to create the Unitarian Universalist Association, an idea that the two enominations had discussed for over a century.
The groups were bound together by their liberal doctrine, but social, rather than theological, differences had previously caused difficulties communicating with each other. After much deliberation, the first official objective of the group was written as “To cherish and spread the universal truths taught by the great prophets and teachers of humanity in every age and tradition, immemorially summarized in our Judeo-Christian heritage as love to God and love to man. The new congregation established headquarters on historic Beacon Street, in Boston, Massachusetts. From its first days, Unitarian Universalism was a faith of enormous diversity of theological opinion, with a style of pluralistic liberalism with a belief in worldly concerns, strong ethical responsibility, deep commitment to democracy, and the idea that true community is religion based. In a survey taken in 1967 of 12,146 members of the IJUA, only 10. percent of respondents identified themselves as being born as either a Unitarian or a Universalist, with 56. 9 percent claiming to be from a religious background other than Christianity (Robinson, 1 A large reason tor this low umber of Unitarians and Universalists may have been attributed to some original members of both groups rejecting the merger and continuing to worship in independent congregations.
At the 1986 general assembly the I-JUA enacted a revised statement of principles and purposes promoting: 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 congregations A free and responsible search for truth and meaning The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our ongregations and in society at large The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and Justice for all Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part Since its conception, Unitarian Universalism has been a creedless faith, in that it does not adhere to any specific religious text, but finds inspiration from many different historical religious sources, often used in a syncretistic fashion. No members are required to adhere to any specific theological beliefs, but rather Unitarian Universalism promotes the search of an individual’s own theological beliefs through a eligious community. This creates a dual notion that Unitarian Universalism is both a religion of direct experiences and the experiences of others.
Members of Unitarian Universalism may still describe themselves as atheist, agnostic, monotheist, polytheist, or assume no label at all. Based on geographical location, some beliefs will be more prevalent at some congregations than in others. All congregations in the I-JUA are connected in organization and general principle, but there is no hierarchy of overall leadership and all congregations are allowed to make decisions independently on matters of their own affairs. As of 2009, the I-JUA was comprised of 1,041 congregations with 164,656 certified members and 61 ,795 church school enrollees. In a 2001 American Religious Identification Survey, 629,000 adults identified themselves as Unitarian Universalists; this represented about . percent of the United States population. In 1995 the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists was founded as an umbrella organization to represent Unitarian, Universalist, and Unitarian Universalist organizations across the world. This includes congregations in Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, India, South Africa, Brazil, etc. While Unitarian Universalism tries to offer a different type of message than most world religions, they do not try to evangelize or convert people into their congregations, or their way of thinking. Members of Unitarian Universalism are free to come and go as they please as part of their own spiritual Journey.
Unitarian Universalists often promote the idea of interfaith dialogue and learning from people of backgrounds that are different than their own. Unitarian Universalism accepts congregants of all ethnic, social, and sexual orientations and is often very active in romoting the rights of people of different backgrounds to the public. Worship service at a Unitarian Universalist congregation can take on a variety of forms depending on the location and nature of the group. Most congregations are held in traditional style churches, though depending on the size ot the congregation, less formal meeting locations may also be used. Services are usually held on Sunday morning. Often the service will begin with the lighting of a chalice, which is the symbol of the Unitarian Universalist faith.
Music plays an important role in most services and the congregation will often sing together with a choir accompaniment ut of a Unitarian Universalist hymnal, which features songs from many different sources, and may even allow performances of solo based singing or instrumental music. Often there will be a time at the beginning of the service for board and committee members to discuss recent affairs or community involvement. A designated Unitarian Universalist minister will often lead the service, though some congregations are lay-led. A sermon given by a minister, guest speaker, or lay leader is common, with topics ranging from a variety of themes.
Traditional cultural and religious holidays are often celebrated, in addition to some that might be considered nique. Someone who has experience with the Unitarian Universalist worship service and its message is the Lifespan Minister at the Eau Claire Unitarian Universalist congregation, Julianne Lepp. Julianne was raised as an Episcopal Christian. She had her first Unitarian Universalist experience at 13, when her best friend took her to a service. She left the Episcopal Church in her early 20’s when her spiritual questions got bigger than the church could answer for her. She remembered back to her experience as a child and sought out her local Unitarian Universalist congregation in Florida.
Here she was given the opportunity to experience her own spiritual Journey while still being offered a spiritual community and support. She attended this congregation on and off, before finding a new spiritual home in Roswell, GA. While attending service there, she heard of a shortage of interim ministers and knew she had found her calling. She graduated from the Candler School of Theology in 2010 and in 2011 was appointed the full-time Lifespan Minister to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Eau Claire, Wisconsin. At her congregation she says her universal message is, “Love is a spirit that binds us all. Faith without action is meaningless. Interconnectedness, the seventh Unitarian Universalist principle, is a strong theme she says she sees from many of her congregants. She tries to use a “populist” preaching style so that people of every level of religious background and education can find an easy to access message in her sermons. She wants to be less of a lecturer and more focused on finding ways for people to take with them a message from their church experience. Julie does not consider herself to be a theist or a humanist minister, a label that many Unitarian Universalist ministers will either fall to one side or the other. Regardless of belief, she says, “Unitarian Universalism can provide fellowship and community.
You get to be with people of different experiences and different things to offer. ” Julie says that Buddhism has played a large part in her spiritual Journey and the model she uses at the congregation. Zen Buddhism and meditation has helped her deal with spiritual pain in her life. Using other religions to influence her own life has helped her realize that people need different tools to meet their own spiritual needs may that be psalms, meditation, or singing and she strives to offer all of these at her ongregation. She believes that Unitarian Universalism is around to fill the void of people that consider themselves spiritual, but not religious .
She welcomes the idea of lay leadership which was one of the reasons she chose the congregation here at Eau Claire, along with their focus on Justice. She believes it is important to not Just have one voice of spiritual authority. She is proud of the fact that over 60 percent of Unitarian Universalist ministers are currently female, the highest of any major religious denomination, but says there is still disparity in pay between men and women at these positions. She personally believes we can learn more from Jesus by focusing on his moral teachings like the Unitarians and the Universalists. She finds most important the parables of Jesus as a person and how we can emulate him as a moral teacher. But she thinks it’s dangerous to ignore entire passages from the Bible.
Speaking on the role of Jesus in Unitarian Universalism she says, “There are some humanist congregations, but I think the role of Jesus in Unitarian Universalism is changing, people are coming with less baggage from a Christian background and more people are saying Jesus is a cool guy, let’s talk about him. Unitarian Universalism is becoming less about what we’re not and more about what we are. ” Julie acknowledges that because Unitarian Universalism is an open faith, some people may try to degrade it as an “a la carte” religion or that they don’t really fit standard definitions ofa religion. She responds to this by saying, “Just because we don’t have one answer doesn’t mean we aren’t spiritual and religious. We look and smell like a church, but the only difference is our theology is open.
Just like any other minister I sit with the dying and help people with their spiritual crises, I Just don’t tell hem what the specific answer is. ” Because Julie is a Lifespan Minister, she maintains a strong focus that she is ministering to people of all ages, in an attempt to create a more multigenerational ministry. In regards to religious education she says, “In the world that we live in, it is just as important for us to understand that there are different languages and ethnicities, it is important for us to understand that there are different beliefs. Something we’ve moved away from though, is Just throwing a bunch of religious ideas at kids and say pick one. We’ve focused on their faith development much more trongly and what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist. Another person who understands the importance of a diverse religious education is Sarah Ramlow, the Religious Education Coordinator at the Unitarian Universalist congregation in Eau Claire. Sarah was drawn to Unitarian Universalism because it is open and accepting of everybody. She became involved with the religious education program right away when Joining the Eau Claire congregation. Being that she had two young kids it was a great experience her to learn what they learned and about Unitarian Universalism as a whole. As the Religious Education Coordinator, she assists the minister with day to day tasks in keeping a thriving religious education program. Whether that be getting to know the kids or helping the teachers pick their curriculum.
She believes when Unitarian Universalism tries to be more open to other experiences compared to a typical religious education saying, “It’s openness to knowing there isn’t Just one right path, there are many. Children growing up in that learn to be accepting of a whole diverse group of other people and experiences. ” Sarah also believes the learning process is not limited to Just children saying, Learning to be accepting of other people regardless of what their faith or background can be an ongoing process. The main goal is to keep learning and being open to those experiences. ” Sarah articulates that by Just by going to church we can reinforce the idea that we can have different beliefs and still be part ofa larger community, even if there are things we disagree on.
At the present moment, there really isn’t any religious denomination, group, or sect that can really claim to offer everything that Unitarian Universalism does. In fact, there aren’t many teachings that Unitarian Universalism doesn’t try to incorporate rom any other religious group. This makes it difficult to accurately summarize the question, “What is a Unitarian Universalist?