ORIGIN.—To find the Unitarian Church in its embryo stage one needs to go back as far as the sixteenth century, although even then the movement cannot be traced to any specific date or individual teacher. Peter Bod, the Transylvanian historian, writes about a league being formed, called "The United," or "Unitarians," about the time the Diet of Thorda in Transylvania passed an edict granting freedom of worship (1557). Various religious bodies formed this league, pledging toleration of one -another. They called themselves "Unitarians," not from a theological standpoint, but simply from their fraternal relationship, which embraced all branches of Christian believers.
Sharp dissensions soon arose, especially over the Trinity doctrine, and this resulted in those who considered that belief in the Trinity Was fundamental to Christian faith withdrawing from the league. The non-Trinitarians—those who believed in God as one instead of God in three persons—remained in the league, and their name stuck with them. Today the name Unitarian, retained by those who remained loyal to the league, has become a mark of the distinguishing faith of Unitarianism.
A LIBERALISTIC SYSTEM.—Unitarianism is known as a system of religion of certain individuals and churches whose Christianity is of the liberal type. During the seventeenth century "the Bible and the Bible only" was their rule of faith. Broadly speaking, they were still classified as a Biblical religion at the beginning of the nineteenth century. They accepted miracles, but rejected creeds, not as necessarily incredible, but non-Biblical, resting their "hopes on an external revelation, and attaching little importance to what it regarded as the uncertain influences and promises of 'natural religion.'" Then a "revised theology" took the lead, partly because of the "changed outlook on the world and human history, due to the development of scientific and historical knowledge during the nineteenth century." Now the "Unitarians no longer find the seat of authority only" within the pages of the Bible, "but in religious history and experience, interpreted by the reason and conscience of mankind."
AMERICAN UNITARIANISM (1825) .—Unitarianism in America is mainly of American origin, although it has naturally been influenced by contact with Unitarians on the European continent. . Dr. Joseph Priestly came to the United States in 1794, and shortly after established two Unitarian churches in Pennsylvania. A group of Dutch refugees established a church in New York in 1803. These three churches have done much in spreading Unitarianism in America. The oldest Pilgrim church in America, founded at Plymouth in 1620, voted itself to be Unitarian by a large majority vote in 1801.
The year 1825, is the date usually adopted as the beginning of organized Unitarianism in the United States, as at that time a society was formed, calling itself the American Unitarian Association. In 1865 the National, now the General, Conference of Unitarian and Other Christian Churches, was organized. This meets biennially. In 1894 the present preamble to their constitution was adopted, which puts Unitarians on record as deciding once and for all that within the Unitarian organization there should be absolute freedom of expression and thought.
Decentralization in the administration of denominational affairs has progressed, with the result that in 1943 seven regional organizations were set up, which included 97 per cent of all Unitarian churches. Also in 1943, the organized young people of the churches adopted the name "American Unitarian Youth," and had their first national meeting. The church headquarters are in Boston.
MYSTICAL ELEMENTS.—Unitarians emphasize spiritual religion as contrasted with all material expressions of it. Their principal thesis is that the communion of the human soul with God, the life of God within the spirit of man, is the core of all religions. Primarily, religion is an experience and an inner life, and all forms, creeds, ceremonies, and so forth, in which the religion expresses itself, are secondary. Thus, emphasis on the inner reality of religion is placed above all other things. All forms of worship and organization are subordinated to the religion of the spirit. From this standpoint their attitude on all religious questions can be seen.
No CREED OR DOCTRINAL TESTS.—Unitarians do not believe in having a creed. They believe that a fixed statement of belief obstructs faith—the consciousness of a growing life by the life of God within the human spirit. They have forms for admission into church membership, but they impose no doctrinal test. Although having no creed, Unitarians do have statements of faith, the most popular one being: "The fatherhood of God; the brotherhood of man; the leadership of Jesus; salvation by character; the progress of mankind onward and upward forever."
The constitution of their General Conference simply states: "These churches accept the religion of Jesus, holding in accordance with His teaching that practical religion is summed up in love to God and love to man." The object of the American Unitarian Association is "to diffuse the knowledge and promote the interests of pure religion. . . . The covenant most generally used in local churches reads: In the love of truth, and in the spirit of Jesus, we unite for the worship of God and the service of Man."
Unitarians modestly refrain from frequent usage of the name of God, more commonly speaking of God as Father. This term implies to them the overshadowing, transfusing spirit of God, which tempts and prompts men to develop and grow into the divine likeness, just as human fathers prompt their children to grow up in their likeness. As to a distinct personality of the divine fatherhood, they have no fixed statement—each individual is entitled to his own concept of the idea.
Unitarians do not believe in the deity of Jesus. They say He was the most divine and godlike man who ever lived, but that He was man only. Thus salvation becomes purely a human act, involving only human powers. Being evolutionists, they do not believe in a "fall." They cannot conceive of a real heaven or an actual hell, but stress the need of salvation from the "burning hells of ignorance and brutalness, and for the fair heavens of happiness and peace." Heaven and hell to them are conditions of the soul, whether in this world or the next. They believe in personal immortality. Salvation is attained only by character.
In the summer of 1938, the Unitarians were definitely eliminated from the general movement to unite all churches. At Utrecht, Holland, the World Council of Churches unanimously adopted a constitution with the declaration that it was a "fellowship of churches which accept our Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour." This threw the Unitarians into a unique position, for although they revere the memory of Jesus as a man, they do not believe in His divinity.
PLACE OF BIBLE.—The Bible is merely a humanbook to them. They reject the belief that it is God's Inspired and Infallible Word. They believe it was written for man, by man, being a human document only.
RITES AND ORDINANCES.—The rites of baptism and the Lord's supper are observed in some of the Unitarian churches, but no serious importance is attached to them. Baptism, or "consecration," as they prefer to call it, implies a consecration of life "to God and His truth, and to the service of your fellowmen." Spiritual regeneration is in no way connected with either baptism or the Lord's supper. Where the -latter is observed, the sacramental idea is entirely eliminated. They believe that in so far as the observance of the Lord's supper inspires a love of the character and the work of Jesus, it is good to observe.
Humanitarian and Educational Projects
Unitarians believe that the "one purpose of real religion is—not to prepare people for another life—but to inspire them to live this one as it ought to be lived." This is the reason why they have been conspicuous in enterprises for the improvement of general well-being. In 1943, through the War Service Council, Unitarians distributed more than two million copies of a pamphlet for servicemen, "Think on These Things."
The founder of the Perkins Institute for the Blind, in Boston, was a Unitarian, and to another Unitarian, credit should be given for starting the movement which resulted in more humane treatment in prisons, almshouses, and hospitals for the mentally ill. Margaret Fuller, a Unitarian, was the first woman advocate in the United States of the rights of women, and also conspicuous in this movement were such women as Susan B. Anthony, Julia Ward-Howe, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, all of the Unitarian faith.
Horace Mann, a Unitarian layman, was a pioneer in educational reform. Cyrus Peirce, a Unitarian minister, championed the cause of the normal schools, which otherwise might have failed or been postponed indefinitely. A Unitarian minister in Dublin, New Hampshire, is credited with opening the first free library in the United States.
In 1945 the work of the Unitarian Service Committee was expanded. Sample operations of this committee (at work in fifteen countries on five continents) were the medical clinic, Marseilles ; a medical mission to Italy to study mass malnutrition; a children's home, France; school kits and tools sent to Europe, besides seventeen thousand outfits of clothes for children; a continuous clothing collection; a drive for one hundred tons of canned food for Europe, distributed by service committee personnel to known persons among- the neediest.
PROGRESS AND PUBLICATIONS.—During 1945 the Unitarian Church both in the United States and abroad showed a marked increase in membership. The membership in 1944 was listed at 62,593, with 364 churches in the United States.
During 1945 their publications also increased. Their publishing organ, The Beacon Press, increased its output 33 per cent above 1944, and The Christian Register increased 20 per cent in circulation. Another periodical of the Unitarian Church is The Journal of Liberal Religion.
TRAINING OF MINISTRY.—There are three institutions where the Unitarian minister may receive his education: the divinity school of Harvard University, founded and endowed by Unitarians; the Meadville Theological School, Meadville, Pennsylvania; the Pacific Unitarian School for the Ministry, Berkeley, California.
SEPARATION BETWEEN TRINITARIANS AND UNITARIANS.—"The influences which resulted in the separation between the Trinitarian and the Unitarian wings of the Congregational body became manifest early in the eighteenth century, with the development of opposition to, or dissatisfaction with, the sterner tenets of Calvinism. The excesses connected with The Great Awakening, and the rigid theology of the Edwardses, and particularly of their successors, Hopkins and Emmons, contributed to this divergence. The selection in 18o5 of Henry Ware, a liberal, as professor of divinity at Harvard College, drew the lines between the two parties more clearly, and the college was now classed as avowedly Unitarian. Mutual exchange of pulpits still continued to a greater or less extent, and, while there was much discussion, there was no separate organization.
"In 1819 William Ellery Channing, in a famous sermon in Baltimore, set forth the Unitarian conception so forcibly that separation became inevitable. Then a difficulty arose, occasioned by the distinction between the church as an ecclesiastical body, and the society, in which the ownership of the property was vested. . . . A period of confusion and of legal strife existed until about 1840, when the line of demarcation became cornplete."—Religious Bodies, 1936, vol. 2, part I., (U.S, Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census.)
1 Eliot, Frederick May. Unitarians Believe. 25 Beacon Street, Boston: American Unitarian Assn.
2 The Encyclopaedia Britannica.
3 The Encyclopedia Americana.
4 The New International Encyclopedia.
5 Savage, Maxwell. Unitarian Answers. 25 Beacon Street, Boston: General Alliance. (Free.)