A Brief Overview of Unitarian Universalism
Unitarian Universalism is a liberal religion born of the Jewish and Christian traditions. We keep our minds open to the religious questions people have struggled with in all times and places.
We believe that personal experience, conscience, and reason should be the final authorities in religion. In the end religious authority lies not in a book, person, or institution, but in ourselves. We put religious insights to the test of our hearts and minds.
We uphold the free search for truth. We will not be bound by a statement of belief. We do not ask anyone to subscribe to a creed. We say ours is a noncreedal religion. Ours is a free faith.
We believe that religious wisdom is ever changing. Human understanding of life and death, the world and its mysteries, is never final. Revelation is continuous. We celebrate unfolding truths known to teachers, prophets, and sages throughout the ages.
We affirm the worth of all women and men. We believe people should be encouraged to think for themselves. We know people differ in their opinions and lifestyles, and we believe these differences generally should be honored.
We seek to act as a moral force in the world, believing that ethical living is the supreme witness of religion. The here and now and the effects our actions will have on future generations deeply concern us. We know that our relationships with one another, with diverse peoples, races, and nations, should be governed by justice, equity, and compassion.
Each Unitarian Universalist congregation is involved in many kinds of programs. Worship is held regularly, the insights of the past and present are shared with those who will create the future, service to the community is undertaken, and friendships are made… come, see, think, and explore with us. A warm welcome awaits you.
From “We Are Unitarian Universalists” by Marta Flanagan.
Copyright Unitarian Universalist Association (Publication #3081).
Used with permission.
Unitarian Universalist Principles
We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote:
- The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
- Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
- Acceptance of one another and encouragement of spiritual growth in our congregations;
- A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
- The right of conscience and the use of democratic process within our congregations and 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.
The living tradition we share draws from many sources:
- Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
- Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion and the transforming power of love;
- Wisdom from the world’s religions which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
- Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.
- Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.
- Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision. As free congregations we enter into this covenant, promising to one another our mutual trust and support.
From Unitarian Universalist Association bylaws (Article II, Section C-2.1)
Used with permission.
What Do Unitarian Universalists Believe?
- We believe in the freedom of religious expression. All individuals should be encouraged to develop their own personal theology, and to present openly their religious opinions without fear of censure or reprisal.
- We believe in the toleration of religious ideas. All religions, in every age and culture, possess not only an intrinsic merit, but also a potential value for those who have learned the art of listening.
- We believe in the authority of reason and conscience. The ultimate arbiter in religion is not a church, or a document, or an official, but the personal choice and decision of the individual.
- We believe in the never-ending search for Truth. If the mind and heart are truly free and open, the revelations which appear to the human spirit are infinitely numerous, eternally fruitful, and wondrously exciting.
- We believe in the unity of experience. There is no fundamental conflict between faith and knowledge, religion and the world, the sacred and the secular, since they all have their source in the same reality.
- We believe in the worth and dignity of each human being. All people on earth have an equal claim to life, liberty, and justice — and no idea, ideal, or philosophy is superior to a single human life.
- We believe in the ethical application of religion. Good works are the natural product of a good faith, the evidence of an inner grace that finds completion in social and community involvement.
- We believe in the motive force of love. The governing principle in human relationships is the principle of love, which always seeks the welfare of others and never seeks to hurt or destroy.
- We believe in the necessity of the democratic process. Records are open to scrutiny, elections are open to members, and ideas are open to criticism — so that people might govern themselves.
- We believe in the importance of a religious community. The validation of experience requires the confirmation of peers, who provide a critical platform along with a network of mutual support.
Authored by David O. Rankin.
Copyright Unitarian Universalist Association (Publication #7090).
Used with permission.
Unitarian Universalist History
Though Jesus had been dead several hundred years before the word “Unitarian” came into use, the movement that eventually acquired that label began shortly after his death. Then, many who knew Jesus talked of his humanity and his teachings, while others who had only heard of him touted his divinity and began to construct a religion that was more about him than of him.
The issue that polarized the inheritors of these philosophical differences was the doctrine of the Trinity, adopted in 325 AD by means more political than religious. The Trinitarians, who believed in, “God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost,” said that those who stressed the unity of God (later known as Unitarians) were heretics. Many of the Unitarians were executed for their beliefs. Best known of these martyrs is Michael Servetus, who was burned at the stake in 1553 for writing “On the Errors of the Trinity.”
More than a hundred years before the affirmation of the Trinity the seeds of Universalism were being planted by the articulate and prolific intellectual, Origen. Origen, who, like the Unitarians, stressed the humanity of Jesus, produced the issue on which this liberal religious movement would be built. He argued that there was no hell and talked of a benevolent God who would offer salvation to all people.
The same century that saw the Unitarian Servetus murdered also saw Unitarian beliefs under a variety of names gain a tenuous foothold in Switzerland, Britain, Hungary and Italy. This stubborn movement produced its own dynamic ministers. Literature was distributed. In many cases entire congregations broke away from the Orthodox Church. In 1568 the first Unitarian church to use that name was established in Transylvania, which had become fertile ground for religious doubt eight years earlier under its Unitarian king Sigismund.
In the 17th and 18th century England, though anti-Trinitarians were still outcasts, their numbers grew. Often they were men and women who found their way into the history books for reasons other than their religious activities. John Milton, Isaac Newton, John Locke, and Florence Nightingale were all people who fought for religious tolerance. By the first decade of the 19th century 20 Unitarian churches had been established in England and many others had taken on a Unitarian character.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Universalist view also made great strides. In Germany many Universalist groups expanded and further defined the Universalist doctrine. In 1759 in England James Relly published “Union,” which denied the Calvinistic doctrine of salvation for the few and claimed that all would be saved.
John Murray, a follower of Relly, helped deliver the Universalist movement safely to the shores of America. In 1779 Murray occupied the pulpit of the Independent Christian Church of Gloucester, Massachusetts, which was the first organized Universalist church in America. Twenty-six years later the movement’s greatest exponent, Hosea Ballou, articulated Universalist doctrine in his book, “A Treatise on Atonement,” which sought to prove the doctrine of the trinity was unscriptural, and argued against miracles and the view of men and women as depraved creatures who would burn in hell.
One of those who carried the torch of Unitarianism to America was Joseph Priestley, a Unitarian minister better known as the discoverer of oxygen. After being harassed and nearly killed in England by those of a less liberal bent, Priestley established the first openly Unitarian church in America in Philadelphia in 1796. Soon many well-established American churches acquired Unitarian ministers or Unitarian views. By now the day was long gone when an aversion to Trinitarian doctrine was sufficient to define these religious liberals. In Unitarianism and Universalism virtually every aspect of religion was fair game for doubt and debate. Many smaller liberal movements began, later to be reabsorbed into the Unitarian Universalist movement as it learned greater and greater tolerance.
In the 19th century both Unitarianism and Universalism took on an association with the causes of social justice that has endured to this day. Often led by women, like Julia Ward Howe, Susan B. Anthony and Clara Barton, the liberal religious movement became the champion of the abolition of slavery, women’s rights, and penal reform. Though these issues sometimes divided the religious liberals, the gap was often greater between members of the same movement than it was between Unitarians and Universalists. As the two movements grew and acquired greater definition in the sermons of Ballou, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Ellery Channing, Theodore Parker and others, the two paths of religious liberalism grew ever closer.
Both movements became more organized. In 1785 a Universalist convention adopted a Charter of Compact which eventually evolved into the Universalist Church of America. In May of 1825 the American Unitarian Association was formed. In 1842 the first Unitarian church in Canada was founded in Montreal.
The Unitarians and Universalists shared first a philosophy of religious tolerance and religious questioning. Later they shared resources such as religious education materials, a joint hymnal, and finally on May 11, 1961 they combined their organizational strength by becoming the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations in North America. However, nothing stopped on that day. There are still questions to be asked, views to be heard, a journey to be shared. The paths have merged but the road goes on.
From “We Are Unitarian Universalists” by Gary Provost.
Copyright Unitarian Universalist Association (Out of print).
Used with permission.