Who Were the Unitarians and the Universalists?
At one time, Unitarians were Christians who didn’t believe in the Holy Trinity of God (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost). Instead, they believed in the unity, or single aspect, of God. In the 19th and 20th century, Unitarianism began to stress the importance of rational thinking, each person’s direct relationship with God, and the humanity of Jesus.
In the 18th century, Universalists were Christians who believed in universal salvation. They didn’t believe that a loving God would punish anyone in hell for eternity. Instead, they believed that everyone is reconciled to God eventually and that this, is indeed, what God seeks. In the 19th and 20th century, Universalism shifted toward a more pluralistic view of God and religion, finding the transcendent in a variety of religions while still believing in universal salvation.
In this context, Unitarians and Universalists began to draw more and more on our Jewish religious practices, as well as to honor Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and those other world religions that call humanity to practice health and healing in human relationships and across the world.
A Short History of Unitarian Universalism
Unitarian Universalism emerged from two different religions: Unitarianism and Universalism. Both Unitarianism and Universalism started in Europe hundreds of years ago. The Universalist Church of America was founded by 1793, and the American Unitarian Association by 1825. In 1961, these denominations consolidated to form the new religion of Unitarian Universalism (UUA). Click here to watch a short video about our UU history
Since 1961, Unitarian Universalism has followed in the footsteps of its Unitarian and Universalist heritages to provide a strong voice for social justice and liberal religion. Within a very few years of the new religion’s forming, Unitarian Universalists’ voices were heard nation-wide advocating for the rights of conscientious objectors to the war in Vietnam as well as for voting and civil rights for people of color in the south. Many members of our faith responded to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call to witness and participate in the voting rights march in Selma, Alabama in 1965. Unitarian Universalists James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo were killed because of their participation in this protest, and ended up becoming martyrs of the movement.
More recently, many Unitarian Universalists have spoken against the first Gulf War (1991) and again ten years later when the US entered Afghanistan and Iraq. Unitarian Universalists continue to protest unjust wars and unnecessary violence today.
The rights of the LGBTQI community have long been supported by many of our Unitarian Universalist congregations, individuals, and the UUA. Ours was the earliest faith to conduct civil unions and was a major contributor to the marriage equality movement with its first, among many, victories in Massachusetts, in 2004. We continue our work with this important movement and with other marginalized communities. Standing on the Side of Love is a visual and outspoken public witness and social media campaign that takes on issues of race, immigration, sexual orientation, gender identity and other groups who need help and assistance. If you are interested in reading further, you may wish to visit the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) website for more information.
Unitarians and Universalists have been very influential throughout American history, especially in politics and literature. Because we are not bound by creeds but by how we are with one another, we measure our lives by our deeds rather than our words. Ours is a living faith where it is understood that revelation is not sealed by one religion at one point in time. We believe that inspiration can come from many of the world’s sacred texts, nature, science, humanity, and elsewhere. We seek to promote faith, reason, compassion and justice.
Some famous Unitarians include Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams, Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Paul Revere, President William Howard Taft, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Some famous Universalists include Clara Barton, Olympia Brown, Thomas Starr King, Horace Greeley, George Pullman, Mary Livermore, and Benjamin Rush. Others include Tim Berners-Lee, Paul Newman, Christopher Reeve, May Sarton, Pete Seeger, and Kurt Vonnegut. You can find additional famous Unitarian Universalists here.