Unitarians and Universalists are heretics
have always been heretics. We are because we want to choose our
faith, not because we desire to be rebellious. “Heresy” in
Greek means “choice.” During the first three centuries of the
Christian church, believers could choose from a variety of
tenets about Jesus. Among these was a
belief that Jesus was an
entity sent by God on a divine mission. Thus the word
“Unitarian” developed, meaning the oneness of God. Another
religious choice in the first three centuries of the Common Era
(CE) was universal salvation. This was the belief that no person
would be condemned by God to eternal damnation in a fiery pit.
Thus a Universalist believed that all people will be saved.
Christianity lost its element of choice in 325 CE when the
Nicene Creed established the Trinity as dogma. For centuries
thereafter, people who professed Unitarian or Universalist
beliefs were persecuted.
This was true until the sixteenth century when the Protestant
Reformation took hold in the remote mountains of Transylvania in
eastern Europe. Here King John Sigismund
the first edict of religious toleration in history was
declared in 1568 during the reign of the first and only
Unitarian king, John Sigismund. Sigismund’ s court preacher,
Frances David, had successively converted from Catholicism to
Lutheranism to Calvinism and finally to Unitarianism because he
could find no biblical basis for the doctrine of the Trinity.
Arguing that people should be allowed to choose among these
faiths, he said, “We need not think alike to love alike.”
In sixteenth-century Transylvania, Unitarian congregations were
established for the first time in history. These churches
continue to preach the Unitarian message in present-day Romania.
Like their heretic forebears from ancient times. these liberals
could not see how the deification of a human being or the simple
recitation of creeds
could help them to live better lives. They said that we must
follow Jesus, not worship him.
During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Unitarianism
appeared briefly in scattered locations. A Unitarian community
in Rakow, Poland, flourished for a time, and a book called On
the Errors of the Trinity by a Spaniard, Michael Servetus, was
circulated throughout Europe. But persecution frequently
followed these believers. The Polish Unitarians were
completely suppressed, and Michael Servetus was burned at the
Even where the harassment was not so extreme, people still
opposed the idea of choice in matters of religious faith. In
1791, scientist and Unitarian minister Joseph Priestley had his
laboratory burned and was hounded out of England. He fled to
America where he established American Unitarian churches in the
At about the same time, in the rural, interior sections of New
England, a small number of itinerant preachers, among then Caleb
Rich, began to disbelieve the strict Calvinist doctrines of
eternal punishment. They discovered from their biblical studies
the new revelation of God’s loving redemption of all. John
Murray, an English preacher who immigrated in
1770, helped lead
the first Universalist church in Gloucester, Massachusetts, in
the battle to separate church and state. From its beginnings,
Universalism challenged its members to reach out and embrace
people whom society often marginalized. The Gloucester church
included a freed slave among its charter members, and the
Universalists became the first denomination to ordain women to
the ministry, beginning in 1863 with Olympia Brown.
Universalism was a more evangelical faith than Unitarianism.
After officially organizing in 1793, the Universalists spread
their faith across the eastern United States and Canada. Hosea
Ballou became the denomination’s greatest leader during the
nineteenth century, and he and his followers, including
Nathaniel Stacy, led the way in spreading their faith.
Other preachers followed the advice of Universalist publisher
Horace Greeley and went West. One such person was Thomas Starr
King, who is credited with defining the difference between
Unitarians and Universalists: “Universalists believe that God is
too good to damn people, and the Unitarians believe that people
are too good to be damned by God.” The Universalists believed in
a God who embraced everyone and this eventually became central
to their belief that lasting truth is found in all religions and
that dignity and worth is innate to all people regardless of
sex, color, race, or class.
Growing out of this inclusive theology was a lasting impetus in
both denominations to create a more just society. Both
Unitarians and Universalists became active participants in many
social justice movements in the nineteenth and twentieth
centuries. Unitarian preacher Theodore Parker was a prominent
abolitionist, defending fugitive slaves and offering support to
American abolitionist John Brown.
Other reformers included Universalists such as Charles Spear who
called for prison reform, and Clara Barton who went from Civil
War “angel of the battlefield” to become the founder of the
American Red Cross. Unitarians such as Dorothea Dix fought to
“break the chains” of people incarcerated in mental hospitals,
and Samuel Gridley
Howe started schools for the blind. For the last two centuries,
Unitarians and Universalists have been at the
forefront of movements working to free people from whatever
bonds may oppress them. Two thousand years ago liberals were
persecuted for seeking the freedom to make religious choices,
but such freedom has become central to both Unitarianism and
Universalism. As early as the 1830s, both groups were studying
and promulgating texts from world religions other than
Christianity. By the beginning of the twentieth century,
humanists within both traditions advocated that people could be
religious without believing in God. No one person, no one
religion can embrace all religious truths.
By the middle of the twentieth century it became clear that
Unitarians and Universalists could have a stronger liberal
religious voice if they merged their efforts, and they did so in
1961, forming the Unitarian Universalist Association.
Many Unitarian Universalists became active in the civil rights
movement. James Reeb, a Unitarian Universalist minister, was
murdered in Selma, Alabama, after he and twenty percent of the
denomination’s ministers responded to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s
call to march for justice.
Today we are determined to continue to work for greater racial
and cultural diversity. In 1977, a women and religion resolution
was passed by the Association, and since then the denomination
has responded to the feminist challenge to change sexist
structures and language, especially with the publication of an
inclusive hymnal. The denomination has affirmed the rights of
bisexuals, gays, lesbians, and transgendered persons, including
ordaining and settling gay and lesbian clergy in our
congregations, and in 1996 affirmed same-sex marriage.All these
efforts reflect a modern understanding of universal salvation.
Unitarian Universalism welcomes all to an expanding circle of
understanding and choice in religious faith.
Our history has carried us from liberal Christian views about
Jesus and human nature to a rich pluralism that includes theist
and atheist, agnostic and humanist, pagan, Christian, Jew,
and Buddhist. As our history continues to evolve and unfold, we
invite you to join us by choosing our free faith.