Unitarian Universalism emerged from two separate denominations: Unitarianism and Universalism, both with long histories.
Originally, all Unitarians were Christians who believed in the unity, or single aspect, of God rather than the Holy Trinity of God (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost). Unitarianism eventually began to stress the importance of rational thinking, each person's direct relationship with God, and the humanity of Jesus.
Unitarians have been very influential throughout American history, especially in politics and literature. Some famous members of the denomination include Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams, Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Paul Revere, President William Howard Taft, and Frank Lloyd Wright.
While Unitarian beliefs have been around since soon after Jesus died, people didn't form religious groups based on the ideas until the middle of the 1500s in Transylvania and the middle of the 1600s in England. The religious authorities of the times saw these early Unitarians as heretics and often persecuted them. Over the 1500 years after Jesus, it was ironic that the very same Christian faith, which taught that love could reach beyond differences, was the same faith used to create such divisions and even persecution of those with different views. It was the earliest Unitarian communities—and the only Unitarian King (King John Sigismund of Transylvania) who passed the Treatise of Religious Toleration. Another great leader, Francis David once offered the compelling advice that "We need not think alike to love alike.”
Unitarianism flourished in the religious freedom of early America. By 1825 Unitarian ministers had formed a denomination called the American Unitarian Association. Speaking out on issues such as peace, education reform, prison reform, orphanages, capital punishment, temperance, ministry to the poor, and the abolition of slavery, the AUA's liberal voice was soon heard throughout the country. The influential members from this era included William Ellery Channing, Theodore Parker, Joseph Priestly, and Thomas Starr King.
American Unitarianism went through many changes over the next 150 years, from the introduction of Transcendentalist thought in the middle of the 1800s through debates about war and pacifism in the Civil War and the two World Wars to the influx of Humanism in the early 1930s. These changes slowly made the denomination a more broad and flexible faith.
There are many congregations today outside the United States that are part of the Unitarian Universalist community. The largest concentrations of Unitarians outside the United States are in Transylvania (now part of Romania and Hungary) and India.
Universalists are Christians who believe in universal salvation. They don't believe that a loving God could punish anyone to hell for eternity. Instead, they believe that everyone will be reconciled with God eventually.
Universalists have been influential throughout American history. Some famous Universalists include Clara Barton, Olympia Brown, Thomas Starr King, Horace Greeley, George Pullman, Mary Livermore, and Benjamin Rush.
While Universalist beliefs have been proclaimed for thousands of years, starting with Origen in 200 CE and continuing through to James Relly in the 1700s, the faith didn't have the opportunity to form into a widespread religious movement until English Universalists came to America in the late 1700s to escape religious persecution.
Because of its loving and inclusive doctrine, Universalism quickly became popular throughout the United States, especially in rural areas and the expanding western states. The Universalist denomination, called the Universalist Church of America, was formed by 1793. Universalists including Hosea Ballou, John Murray, and Benjamin Rush helped to spread and develop their faith's teachings throughout the denomination's early years.
Universalists were best known for supporting education and non-sectarian schools, but they also worked on social issues including the separation of church and state, prison reform, capital punishment, the abolition of slavery, and women's rights. In 1863 the Universalists became the first group in the United States to ordain a woman with full denominational authority.
The Civil War unfortunately destroyed many Universalist churches and killed many Universalist ministers who had served as chaplains for the armies. A softer approach to the idea of damnation became popular throughout the US in the mid to late 1800s, making the Universalist denomination less unique in its teachings. The denomination struggled for many years as membership waned.
After growing increasingly theologically and ethically close, the Unitarian and Universalist denominations consolidated in 1961 to form the new religion of Unitarian Universalism. The religion no longer solely holds traditional Unitarian or Universalist beliefs, but draws directly on its heritage for much of its inspiration and grounding.
Since 1961, the religion has followed in the footsteps of its heritages to provide a strong voice for social justice and liberal religion. Some Unitarian Universalists of whom you may already have heard include Tim Berners-Lee, Paul Newman, Christopher Reeve, May Sarton, Pete Seeger, and Kurt Vonnegut.
Within a very few years of the new religion's forming, Unitarian Universalists' voices were already 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 participated 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.
Unitarian Universalists deepened our social justice work in the 1970s by actively supporting the rights of gay and lesbian people, publishing the Pentagon Papers, working within our religion to support feminism and to combat racism and oppression. The 1980s began more than a decade of spiritual reflection which resulted in reframing our religious principles and acknowledging the shared sources of our faith. Our congregations spoke out against our country’s aggression when the first Gulf War started in 1991 and again ten years later when the US entered hostilities in Afghanistan and Iraq. Unitarian Universalists continue to protest unjust wars and unnecessary violence today.
2001 marked the point when there were more female Unitarian Universalist ministers than male ministers. The church continues to encourage women’s leadership in our congregations and larger community.
Another issue which remains at the forefront of the Unitarian Universalist community is marriage equality (i.e., same-sex marriage). We fully support the right of all committed couples to marry. Congregations, individuals, and the UUA staff continue to work to have these marriages legally sanctioned in every state.
Currently, we are working to put our faith in action on such issues as environmentalism and climate change, immigration reform, ethical eating, and sustainability.
In addition to working on these and other social justice issues, Unitarian Universalism has grappled with a number of spiritual changes over the years since its founding. Some of the major debates have included reframing our religious principles, understanding the changing role of Christianity in our church today, acknowledging the sources of our faith and making room in those sources for earth-based spirituality, and coming to understand what religious and spiritual language works best in our congregations.
Unitarian Universalists will undoubtedly continue to work to deepen our faith and improve the world.