Originally, all Unitarians were Christians who didn't believe in the Holy Trinity of God (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost). Instead, they believe in the unity, or single aspect, of God. Unitarianism eventually began to stress the importance of rational thinking, each person's direct relationship with God, and the humanity of Jesus.
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 fifteen hundreds in Transylvania and the middle of the sixteen hundreds in England. The religious authorities of the times saw these early Unitarians as heretics and often persecuted them.
Unitarianism flourished in the religious freedom of early America. By 1825 Unitarian ministers had formed a Unitarian denomination called the American Unitarian Association. Speaking out on issues such as peace, education reform, prison reform, orphanages, capital punishment, moderation in temperance, ministry to the poor, and the abolition of slavery, the AUA's liberal voice was soon heard throughout the country.
American Unitarianism went through many changes over the next 150 years, from the introduction of Transcendentalist thought in the middle of the eighteen hundreds 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 Unitarianism a more broad and flexible faith.
Unitarians have been very influential throughout American history, especially in politics and literature. 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.
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.
While Universalist beliefs have been proclaimed for thousands of years, starting with Origen in 200 CE and continuing through to James Relly in the sixteen hundreds, 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 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. Soon after, a softer approach to the idea of damnation became popular throughout the US in the mid to late eighteen hundreds, making the Universalist denomination less unique in its teachings. The denomination struggled for many years as membership waned.
Universalists also 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.
Unitarian Universalism Today
After growing increasingly theologically and ethically close, the Universalist and Unitarian denominations consolidated in 1961 to form the new religion of Unitarian Universalism. Unitarian Universalism no longer solely holds traditional Universalist or Unitarian beliefs, but does draw directly on its heritage for much of its inspiration and grounding.
Unitarian Universalist congregations and members are continue the long tradition of supporting justice causes, living our faith and practicing what we preach. Working for civil rights and combating oppression are essential parts of our spiritual journey. Our faith community has worked for justice for hundreds of years, from advocating for free speech and the free practice of religion as far back as the fifteen hundreds to helping to abolish slavery and supporting women’s rights beginning in the eighteen hundreds.
We continue to work for justice today in ways that resonate with our Principles, from protecting our environment to standing up for the full rights of bisexual, gay, lesbian, and transgender people. While we cannot always take action on every issue that arises, we do our best to make our congregations, our communities, our denomination, and our world a better place.