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Unitarian Universalist: Definition & History

Instructor: Lisa Millraney

Lisa has 27 years of experience treating speech, language, memory and swallowing disorders. She has a master's degree in speech pathology from Vanderbilt University.

The Unitarian Universalist Church boasts a long and storied history and openness to all. In this lesson, we will learn what its names mean, and where the faith originated.

What Is Unitarian? What is Universalist?

Connie was an accountant. After marrying and having a child, she took on a few freelance jobs to make some extra money for the family, and because she just loved working with numbers. One contract she accepted was keeping books for the local Unitarian Universalist congregation.

Curious about her new employer, she decided to read up on the background of this faith new to her. She found that Unitariansim and Universalism both date back to the earliest days of Christianity.

Unitarians were those who did not accept the concept of the Trinity, or that Jesus was one with God. They believed that Jesus was sent by God, but was not himself divine. The term 'unitarian' denotes their belief in God's oneness.

Universalists believed that God's love would triumph over all other things. They rejected the idea that any humans would be condemned to eternal damnation, and declared that all people would be saved. Their name included the word 'universal' denoting their belief in universal salvation.

Unitarians: Straight Out of Transylvania

As the Catholic Church developed and gained ascendancy, people who did not accept its interpretation of the Christian faith were forced underground, During the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s. Unitarians reemerged, mostly notably in the European kingdom of Transylvania. Connie, reading, was highly amused to find the legendary home of Dracula was in real life one of the earliest centers of religious tolerance. This openness was largely due to its king at the time, John Sigismund, who was a Unitarian and proclaimed all his subjects free to follow their own consciences in matters of faith.

Unitarianism was brought to America with some of the earliest settlers, and grew with the young country. From the 1700s into the 1800s, many of the independent congregational churches in the United States debated points of doctrine, and one of the chief among them was the doctrine of the Trinity. The splits led to the founding of the American Unitarian Association in 1825.

Several American presidents were either professed Unitarians or had Unitarian leanings. They included John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Millard Fillmore, Abraham Lincoln, and William Howard Taft. Other famous American Unitarians included author Herman Melville, poets Ralph Waldo Emerson and Emily Dickinson, and political activist Susan B. Anthony.

Universalists: The Redemption of All

The early Christian church accepted the concept that punishment for sinners would last for a given period of time, after which they would return to God's embrace. However, as later church leaders such as Augustine began to teach that hell was eternal, believers in universal salvation, like their kin who believed in a unitary God, went underground.

In the late 1700s in America, a number of ministers and teachers began to publicly proclaim the idea of universal salvation. The early Universalists were progressive and vehemently supported the freedom and worth of all people. Universalist congregations were the first to ordain women as ministers, and fought for the separation of church and state. They were strong opponents of slavery and welcomed free blacks and freed slaves into their churches on equal footing.

In their efforts to bring about a better world for all people, in the belief that God's love extended equally to everybody, Universalists found themselves working side by side with Unitarians. In the mid-1800s, Universalist minister Thomas Starr King was invited to preach in a Unitarian church, and was asked how he saw the two denominations. His wry reply was, '' Universalists believe that God is too good to damn people, and the Unitarians believe that people are too good to be damned by God.''

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