A Brief History of how Universalism and Unitarianism came together.
Compiled, edited, and written by Wells E. Behee, retired minister of the New Madison Universalist Church
In the comparisons below--Universalism is in underlined pink and Unitarianism is in reddish brown. Other colors are for emphasis.
To find the roots of our religion we must go back, at least, to the prophets of ancient Israel. The point of the book of Jonah was that God was a universal God for all people, not just the Israelites. Then later, our Christian origins are anchored in the moral teachings of Jesus, as exemplified in the beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount. Early Christianity was neither Trinitarian nor Unitarian. Early in the 2nd century, Origen, one of the most distinguished of the earliest Church Fathers, taught that Jesus, the Son of God, is subordinate to the Father in power and dignity. He taught a universalism by denying a hell, preaching instead a progressive purification of all souls who will be freed of all sin, evil, and ignorance. At the final end, all souls shall return to a knowledge and presence with God.
Though the majority of the Christian orthodoxy denied Origen, his followers continued through the centuries and their beliefs surfaced again in Universalism.
Later, early in the 4th century A.D., Arius, a Christian presbyter, initiated the famous Arian controversy which like Origen stressed that the Christ was subordinate to God. This doctrine never died out in Christian circles and for centuries had its secret adherents. During the Protestant Reformation, Michael Servetus took up the battle and declared: "Your Trinity is a product of subtlety and madness. The Gospel knows nothing of it. ... God is one and indivisible." For these statements, he was burned at the stake by order of John Calvin, Protestant "Pope" and dictator of Geneva, Switzerland. The Unitarian movement, insisting on the oneness of God yet believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, Satan, eternal sin, fire and brimstone became a powerful influence in Poland at the end of the sixteenth century under the leadership of Faustus Socinus. Still later, unitarianism spread to England in the seventeenth century and took root in America in the eighteenth.
Also about this time, Universalism began to surface in England and later America. James Relly, a young British minister of a sizable group of Methodist preachers, including George Whitefield and John Wesley, wrote the book "Union," He began to preach the doctrine that it was unthinkable for a loving God to damn any person everlastingly to hell. One of these preachers, John Murray, was excommunicated from Methodism in 1760. He came to America, and Universalism became an organized church in the 1770s. Universalism flourished widely in New England and throughout the mid-west, making it the fifth largest denomination in America. Even the first chaplain of the U.S. Army was our John Murray. He was appointed by George Washington to the Rhode Island Regiments.
1777---John Murray had been preaching in private homes in Gloucester, and some of his followers were members of First Church of Christ, Congregational. In February 1777, 16 members of that church were cited to give reasons why they had been absenting themselves from services. They were eventually suspended, and this suspension gave impetus to the gathering of the new Universalist congregation. The decision to form the Independent Church of Christ was taken January 1, 1779, and John Murray preached the first sermon in the new building at its dedication December 25, 1780.
This establishes that Universalism developed out of Methodism. Then in America, Universalists were largely Congregational dissenters organizing their own independent Universalist churches free of any existing structured church. Meanwhile, unitarianism gradually infiltrated the Puritan Congregational Churches and happily maintained their local church identities. Unhappy with the preponderance of unitarians, the Trinitarians walked out and left their buildings to erect a new church next door or across the Common.
This Gloucester Universalist Church was the first American church to challenge the state tax support of churches. It won its suit in the state court of Massachusetts
1782---Judith Sargent Murray (1751-1820) stands as America's first and foremost greatest educational reformer for women. Within five years after membership into the Gloucester Universalist Church (1777), she commenced writing books and plays for women's rights advocating issues still being sought in the 1950's-2000. She stated the cause of her liberation and activism was the Universalist teachings of John Murray who expanded her horizons and had a profound effect upon her self-image. The knowledge of her immortality acted as a liberating force, supplying her a sense of autonomy and control over her life. Moreover, Universalism provided hope for her sex as it espoused the equality of the sexes based on scripture. John Murray's faith encouraged her to assume an active role in society.
1785---The first Universalist General Convention met in Oxford, Massachusetts.
Joseph Priestly, discoverer of oxygen and Unitarian minister, became the first Unitarian Universalist when he declared in the 1796 Philadelphia Convention of Universalists that though he was a Unitarian he was a Universalist as well. This declaration of Priestly horrified the Unitarians. Eventually it gradually led to having shocked the "hell" out of them.
1790---The Universalists in convention created The Articles of Faith. It was very Calvinist except for the emphasis on salvation of all souls.
1803---Universalism was distinctly trinitarian in belief. It developed a modified trinity as expressed in its Winchester Confession of Faith of that year.
Hosea Ballou, 1771-1852, American clergyman, profoundly commanding of Biblical text and scholarship, foremost among expositors of Universalism in the United States, b. Cheshire co., N.H. From 1818 until his death he was pastor of the Second Universalist Society in Boston. One of the founders of "The Universalist Magazine" (1819). He was its editor until 1828; from 1830 he edited the "Universalist Expositor." His works include "Notes on the Parables" (1804). In his brilliantly scholarly "A Treatise on the Atonement" (1805), he changed and developed Universalism bringing to it a distinctly unitarian theological position but maintained the Universalist spiritual bearings. He was the forerunner to his Unitarian protege William Ellery Channing who theologically followed Ballou; but Channing who believed in Salvation by Character held out for some form of punishment or retribution for sin.
In reference to the crucifixion, Ballou wrote, "The literal death of the man, Christ Jesus, is figurative, . . . the literal body of Jesus represented the whole letter of the law . . . The death of Jesusí body represented the death and destruction of the letter, when the spirit came forth, bursting the veil thereof, which is represented by resurrection of Jesus from the dead."
1811--- Maria Cook preached at a Universalist denominational assembly in New York. Maria Cook is a person every one of us should know, for she preached universal love and salvation at the beginning of the 19th century, one of our earliest, founding Universalists. But as the American democratic experience was not ready to accept women in this role, she was criticized. Rather than change her message or her calling, she identified the criticism as the oppression that it was. She was labeled as angry and declared insane. Effectively silenced, she died in retirement at the age of 56. She was a martyr to speaking the truth with power.
May 5, 1819, William Ellery Channing in the Baltimore Sermon at the ordination of Jared Sparks, later to become a president of Harvard University, states, "Jesus Christ is the only master of Christians, and whatever he taught, either during his personal ministry, or by his inspired Apostles, we regard as of divine authority, and profess to make the rule of our lives. This authority, which we give to the Scriptures, is a reason, we conceive, for studying them with peculiar care, and for inquiring anxiously into the principles of interpretation, by which their true meaning may be ascertained. The principles adopted by the class of Christians in whose name I speak, need to be explained, because they are often misunderstood." Hence Channing and the Unitarianism he represented was still staunchly and ardently Christian believing in Biblical inerrancy.
As one would expect, since each Universalist congregation grew and built each of its own church buildings free of any governmental relationships and at the same time paying taxes to support the state church, Ballou, as did other dissenters, called for church-state separation.
But since a large number of the Unitarians grew within the comfort of existing state supported Congregational parishes, Channing, as did a number of other Unitarian ministers, defended the relationship of church and state.
From the very beginning, Universalists including John Murray had the audacity to use reason to deny the clearly stated Biblical statements of the existence of Hell. They excluded chapters and verses of unacceptable passages about "Hell" and other passages which make God anything less than a loving father. They admittedly did not believe some parts of the Bible. On the other hand the Unitarians only questioned the existing interpretations of a few passages of the Bible which were used to promote the doctrine of the Trinity. As shown by William Ellery Channingís statements, he kept the entirety of the Bible intact believing the Bible to be Divine authority and without any errors.
By 1821, theologically, the Unitarians were breaking away from the Congregationalists and officially establish their own Christian organization. Through these years they differed from the Universalists as most Unitarians continued to believe along with the Congregationalists in Satan, eternal punishment in Hell for not only Adam's sin but also each person's own sins. Unitarians, living comfortably with the Congregationalists, were thoroughly Calvinistic Christians who differed only on the singular issue of the Trinity. Elimination of their belief in hell was a long slow process. From the beginning, the stronghold of American Unitarians was in New England where William Ellery Channing, Theodore Parker and Ralph Waldo Emerson were their acknowledged advanced thinkers.
Clearly, the Universalists were concerned with the rehabilitation of the soul in its transition from this sinful earth into the purity of Heaven where all persons shall spend eternity with God.Unitarians continued the belief in punishment and reward system of traditional Christianity though William Ellery Channing modified the salvation from the Puritan predestination to salvation by character---each person is punished in just retribution for his deeds, some will go to heaven and others to hell.
Universalism is a spiritually oriented religion. These early preachers command of Biblical text and scholarship gave them an outstanding strength in communicating with people whose earlier faith development was mostly or entirely Biblically based. Unitarianism only questioned the doctrine of the Trinity. They had nothing spiritual in their background except the Calvinism from which they came and later rejected. Simply denying an intellectual interpretation of the doctrine of the Trinity does not give water, milk or meat to a church. It is not food for the soul. So Unitarianism had no where to go but to a political social activism. Universalism principle of a loving fatherhood of God for ALL His children led to a religiously oriented social activism. The Biblical message of the universal dignity and worth of every person was the seed bed for Judith Sargent Murray and the women to follow her to expand their horizons and mature toward the fullness of the name Universalism.
1825---The American Unitarian Association was founded and incorporated.
June 14,1847--- "The Universalists are more human than we; they declare the Fatherhood of God and do not stick at the consequences. Everlasting Happiness to all men. I think they are the most human sect in the land." --- from a letter written by Unitarian minister Theodore Parker to the Rev.Samuel J. May of Lexington, June 14, 1847:
June 25, 1863---Olympia Brown was a pioneer. Her official ordination by the full authority of the Universalist Church denomination made her to be the very first woman minister in the U.S. who was fully recognized by a denomination.
There was an essential spirituality for the equality of men and women in the two religions of Universalism and Quakers. The Universalist stressed the equal relationship of men and women in the fatherhood of God who would condemn none of his children to an eternal hell. These Universalist beliefs gave a universal dignity and worth to every person irrespective of gender or religion. The Quakers were also universal in believing that everyone had direct communication with God "that within" or the "Inner Light" regardless of what they believe. This common spirituality spurred the women of each church, Universalist and Quaker, to be originators of the women rights activism.
With Judith Sargent Murray, Maria Clark, Olympia Brown and a multitude of other Universalist women, the early struggle for womenís rights began.
Then as Unitarianism gradually edged into that common spirituality born in Universalism and the Quakers. Unitarian women began to take up the campaign for womenís rights. Women of these three denominations courageously excelled on the nationwide scene.
1865--- The first National Conference of Unitarian Churches adopted the phrase "the Lord Jesus Christ" into the preamble to its Constitution.
1866---The Universalist Church of America was incorporated. It still retained the modified Trinitarian position.
1874---William James Potter's name was dropped from the 1874 list of Unitarian ministers on the grounds that Potter himself no longer considered himself a Christian.
In a broad sense, during these years of 1825-1925, the aristocracy of the Unitarian social classes made it possible for them to be great social reformers. Their wealth freed the reformers from the humdrum responsibilities of industry. The less endowed Universalists being largely rural and small town people led liberal religion in theological reforms.
1900----"A Prophet of a New Universalism" appeared in Clarence R. Skinner, the most important figure in Universalism in the first half of this century, advocated a religion of humanity which "lifts every individual and every aspect of culture into a unified whole," in which "races, creeds, science and beauty are integrated into harmony," in which "partial experience gives way to universal experience." In one of his last essays, Skinner foresaw a radical religion which would repudiate the exclusivism of historical religions and move forward from authoritarianism to freedom, from limited insight to an understanding of the unities and universals which lay at the heart of creative faith wherever found. He advocated a religion of humanity which "lifts every individual and every aspect of culture into a unified whole," in which "races, creeds, science and beauty are integrated into harmony," in which "partial experience gives way to universal experience. (David Loehr)
The ecumenical social activism of Universalist Clarence Skinner found expression in the Community Church movement, which essentially sought to transform religious congregations into nonsectarian agencies for transforming society itself.
This "new Universalism" developed theologically so rapidly into new interpretations, meanings, and insights that whole congregations and individuals were not prepared to investigate. Consequently, while believing the Universalist tenants, churches and congregants separated themselves to create their own comfort zones within the somewhat liberal Christian churches. The new Univeralism inadvertently produced the seeds for the decline in numbers of memberships. These leaders were like scouts who sometimes forged into the unknown so far ahead of the wagon train of pioneers that it required long hours or a few days for the main party to catch up. Some settlers, discouraged, went other ways or, frightened, turned back. Others simply stopped, would go no farther and built homes and farms on the spot. And so the wagon train began to diminish in numbers as did the Universalist Church. The more adventurous and willing souls continued to struggle onward.
About 1935-45---Clinton Lee Scott, a powerhouse of Universalist strength, wrote two small books "Parish Parables" and "Religion Can Make Sense." These greatly enhanced our Universalist thinking of that day. They were simply expressed but spiritually uplifting. They broadened our Universalist faith.
In the late 1940's---Fulfilling many of the innovations advocated by Clarence R. Skinner, Kenneth Patten with his parishioners of the Charles Street Meeting House, Boston MA, initiated study of world religions in church services. They created symbolic flags and objects of each religion to ornament the sanctuary as a reminder of their universality. Although considerable debate in Universalism occurred, even more developed in Unitarianism. Steadily, the Unitarians moved along with Universalism toward a more universal faith.
About 1948--- The Rev. Brainard Gibbons at the Rochester Universalist Church NY National Convention delivered the keynote address with the theme that the Universalist Church is no longer a Christian Church, and that our message is like new wine which cannot be put into the old bottles or the wine will spoil. Hence, the title of his address was "New Wine in Old Bottles." This sermon distressed Universalists and Unitarians alike. There was much debate followed by denunciations of the sermon within each denomination. But the Universalists, later, elected Brainard Gibbons to be President of the Universalist Church of America.
In the late 1940's, a nucleus of Universalist ministers at a Universalist General Convention formed a group called the "Humiliati." Their purpose along with a growing fellowship of friends was to take the mystique out of the sayings of Jesus when he said, "I am the light of the world," "I am the resurrection and the life," "I am the Son of God," or "I am the Son of Man." They proposed that all the biblical "I am's" was Jesus speaking universally as well as individually of each and every person. These Universalist ministers wore black suits with the Roman collar. Among other characteristics they used to identify themselves was the foreswearing of any sex life. Even though the celibacy of these virile young men soon lapsed, the message remained to make a significant mark for debate, argumentation, and change within Universalism and then Unitarianism. These Humiliati UNIVERSALIST ministers brought a new perspective to the teachings of Jesus.
During the late 1940 and 1950's, each of the two churches dropped its identification with Christian associations. Most of the churches had expanded and moved beyond Christianity into a universality as expressed and glimpsed upon by Judith Sargent Murray in the late 1700's.
1961 and years following---the denomination (Unitarian Universalist) at General Assembly enacted the Seven Principles of our church. 5 of these 7 principles are a rephrasing of the 1935 Universalist Affirmation of Faith which effectively made Universalism the cornerstone of our modern UU faith.
During these years of the 1935 to merger in 1960, Universalism and Unitarianism greatly changed and increased in liberalism. Universalism grew toward a broadening of inclusiveness of all religions and people toward fulfilling its name "Universal." Unitarianism rejected and discarded most old religious symbols such as God, the Bible, and placing primary emphasis upon human centered concerns. The pure reason of Secular Humanism became the driving force causing a decline in religious spirituality. As each denomination was changing in its respective ways, the close associations of the two caused an accretion or consolidation of the others various qualities and attributes. These characteristics are widely represented in individuals and the churches of today causing a great diversity of beliefs and practices such as UU Christians, UU Buddhists, UU Pagans, UU____, etc. The spirituality of these affiliate associations reaffirms the renewal and the continuation of time honored Universalist spirituality.
Universalism became more liberal because it was broadening or enlarging itself to become more universal 9;
(1) in the 1935 Avowal of faith,
(2) the Griswold Williams "Covenant,"
(3) the writings of Clinton Lee Scott,
(4) The sermon of Brainard Gibbons "New Wine in Old Bottles" and the denomination later acclaimed him by electing President of the Universalist Church of America.
(5) Ken Patton's acclaiming the universality of religion by incorporating the study of world religions into the church service.
(6) the Humiliati universalizing the statements of Jesus. Every single person is the "Light of the World," "the Way, the Truth, the Light." "the Son/Daughter of God," etc.
Unitarianism took a different tact in becoming liberal as a result of the Humanist and Atheist imput which was largely a rejection and to some degree negating or throwing out of traditional beliefs and terminology like the meaning of God, prayer, salvation, church, Jesus, etc.
Thusly, we find that from the time of Joseph Priestly, Hosea Ballou, and William Ellery Channing that there developed a congeniality of fellowship and beliefs amid the flurry of controversy. After years of discussion, in fits and jerks, slowly in some regions, churches, and individuals that Unitarianism while keeping its identity has graduated toward Universalist beliefs and Universalism while keeping its identity has graduated toward Unitarianism. As a result, a Council of Liberal Churches was formed in the 1940's for the two separate churches to consolidate overlapping services, programs, and publishing houses. Inspite of the fact that Unitarians are reluctant to recognize Universalist contributions, institutional consolidation of the two faiths was completed in 1961. The progress of religious merger is still in process. It is our hope the day will come when Universalists will be equally recognized in our own denomination with the Unitarians. Merger will then be fulfilled. That seed of Universalism seen by Judith Sargent Murray will have not only germinated but will become the blooming rose of our faith.
Since Universalism is such a great approach to UU religion, how did it come to be forgotten for so long?
When the Unitarians and Universalists combined, there was a difference in numbers and a difference in confidence. The Unitarians outnumbered the Universalists five to one. The Unitarians, as a group, were also better-educated than the Universalists, were more prosperous than the Universalists, and had seen their denomination grow in recent years while the Universalist denomination had shrunk. Universalists, as a group, were correspondingly discouraged. The Unitarians, after having surreptitiously baptized everything that is Universalist to be Unitarian, are confident that nothing distinctively Universalist can be of much value, and so they make little to no effort to learn about Universalism. Since the Unitarians have been in the driverís seat because of their numbers, Universalism has been suppressed and hopefully to be forgotten.
It should be reemphasized that since Unitarianism was fundamentally political social activism, their religion had no food for the soul; and at the time of merger, no money in their church coffers, they had and did confiscate everything Universalist and claimed that they had always so believed.
This author is overjoyed that a portion of the Universalist message has passed into the Unitarian philosophy. At the same time,it is troubling that very little of the spirituality of Universalism has been understood though a large number of the younger people and younger ministers are now beginning to understand that the UUChurch is and should be something more than an erudite League of Women Voters debate. There is a significant difference between (1)great scholarly discussions about values which may or may never be implemented and (2)a spiritual understanding and appreciation of these same values which would then be implemented with kindness and love. The first has generally been the aristocratic Unitarian view. The latter has been the common people, the workers, and farmers who organized and grew our Universalist faith.
Historically, the Unitarians have always looked with disdain upon the Universalists as "lower class," financially, intellectually, and occupationally.
Finally came the day when the Unitarians needed help to survive. So they turned to the Universalists. "The Rest of the Story" of abuse naturally followed---most recipients 'borrowers' of every kind come to resent their benefactors 'lenders.'
It is when we Universalists recall and list the abuses we have suffered as a minority within a minority church, that it sounds like rage. But below that apparent "rage" is a spiritual understanding of reality, and we remain within the UU framework.
"Blessed are the meek..., they that hunger and thirst for righteousness..., merciful..., the pure in heart..., the peacemakers..., and they that have been persecuted for righteousness sake..., and Blessed are ye when you are reproached and persecuted, and all manner of evil against you is said falsely."
And now is the day which many of our persecutors are coming to appreciate the benefactors. It is gradual. It is happening from within. But the day will come when not only the Universalist message but the Universalist message of love will prevail within our church and, we hope, further down the road, into the world!
So under this "rage" is compassion.
In conclusion, the Unitarians read their current Universalist beliefs into the writings of their forebearer, William Ellery Channing. This anachronism is a common fallacy of most if not all religious groups.
LET US REMEMBER THE PAST WITHOUT BEING HELD HOSTAGE BY IT. The past is never good enough for the future.