UNITARIAN UNIVERSALISM TIMELINE
220-230: The Christian theologian Origen composed On the First Principles, a systematic theology that included the idea of apocatastasis, or the universal reconciliation of creation with God.
325: The Council of Nicea condemned Arius and made Trinitarianism the defining doctrine of Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christianity.
1553: Michael Servetus was burnt at the stake for his anti-Trinitarian views, with the approval of John Calvin.
1565: Anti-Trinitarians organized the Minor Reformed Church of Poland, also known as the Socinians after the exiled Italian theologian Fausto Sozzini.
1568: Transylvanian King John Sigismund, a recent convert to the Unitarian theology of Francis David, extended religious toleration to Lutherans, Catholics, Calvinists, and Unitarians in the Edict of Torda, inaugurating an unbroken tradition of Unitarianism in Transylvania.
1648: A synod of New England Puritan leaders issued the Cambridge Platform, which remains a foundational statement of congregational polity for Unitarian Universalists.
1648: Gerard Winstanley published a pamphlet espousing universal salvation, shortly before launching the Digger movement in the context of the English Civil War.
1774: The Essex Street Chapel was organized as the first avowedly Unitarian congregation in England.
1779: Universalists in Gloucester, Massachusetts, organized an independent congregation under the leadership of John Murray and began refusing to pay taxes for the support of the local parish church.
1785: King’s Chapel in Boston removed the Trinitarian and monarchical references from its prayer book, becoming the first avowedly Unitarian congregation in the United States.
1790: Universalists gathered in Philadelphia for their first nationwide convention.
1803: The New England Universalist General Convention approved the Winchester Profession, a basic statement of faith that also included a “liberty clause” allowing local congregations to craft their owns statements.
1805: Hosea Ballou published the first edition of A Treatise on Atonement, the most comprehensive early statement of Universalist theology.
1805: Harvard University appointed Henry Ware, Jr., as Hollis Professor, sparking a controversy that led to a schism between orthodox and Unitarian heirs of the Puritans.
1819: William Ellery Channing delivered an ordination sermon, “Unitarian Christianity” that quickly became the manifesto of the emerging denomination.
1825 (May 25): The American Unitarian Association was organized.
1838: Ralph Waldo Emerson preached a graduation address at Harvard Divinity School, later known as the Divinity School Address, that invited young ministers to “acquaint men at first with Deity” rather than relying on the doctrines of “historical Christianity.”
1847: With the support of several Universalist ministers, Andrew Jackson Davis emerged as a leader in a new Spiritualist movement that quickly attracted the support of thousands of Universalists.
1853: Antoinette Brown Blackwell was ordained by an independent congregation in South Butler, New York, becoming the first ordained woman in the United States; she transferred her ministerial credentials to Unitarianism in 1878.
1859: John Brown attempted to spark a slave insurrection by attacking a federal armory at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia; five of his six primary financial backers were prominent Unitarians.
1860: The Universalist denomination began ordaining women, among them Lydia Jenkins and Olympia Brown.
1865: The National Conference of Unitarian and other Christian Churches was organized as an association of congregations, temporarily superseding the American Unitarian Association as the primary denominational structure.
1870: The Free Religious Association was organized by Transcendentalists and “scientific theists” who found the National Conference to be too Christian in its orientation.
1887: Hajom Kissor Singh founded the Unitarian movement in the Khasi Hills region of northeast India.
1889: Joseph Jordan, who two years early had founded the First Universalist Church of Norfolk, Virginia, was ordained as the first African American Universalist minister.
1920: Egbert Ethelred Brown, a native of Jamaica and the first Black Unitarian minister, founded the Harlem Unitarian Church.
1933: A group dominate by philosophers and Unitarian ministers released the Humanist Manifesto, which proposed a nontheistic and scientific form of religion.
1937: Sophia Lyon Fahs began developing the New Beacon Series of religious education curricula, incorporating the child-centered pedagogy of John Dewey in such publications as Martin and Judy in Their Two Little Houses and From Long Ago and Many Lands.
1939: Martha and Waitstill Sharp traveled to Prague to assist Jews and others fleeing Nazi-occupied territory, laying the foundation for the Unitarian (later Unitarian Universalist) Service Committee.
1946: The Federal Council of Churches rejected a second membership application from the Universalist Church of America, on the grounds that Universalists held an essentially Unitarian view of Christ.
1946: Lon Ray Call and Munroe Husbands led a Unitarian denominational effort to plant lay-led “fellowships” in communities too small to support a traditional church; this led to the creation of over four hundred new congregations and contributed to rapid denominational growth over the next two decades.
1947: American Unitarian Association President Frederick May Eliot proposed the creation of a United Liberal Church of America, with the hope that Universalists, Quakers, Ethical Culturists, and liberal Jews would all take part.
1951: Toribio Quimada began a correspondence with a Universalist congregation in Wisconsin that led to the founding of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Philippines.
1953: The American Unitarian Youth and Universalist Youth Fellowship merged to form Liberal Religious Youth.
1956: The Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association formed a Joint Merger Commission to explore the possibility of church union.
1960: The consolidation of the American Unitarian Association and the Unitarian Church of America was approved at a joint assembly held in Boston; the founding assembly of the new denomination was held a year later.
1965: Unitarians James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo, both of them European American, were murdered by segregationists during their participation in voting rights demonstrations in Selma, Alabama.
1967: Arlington Street Church in Boston hosted an interfaith service in which draft cards were collected and, in several cases, publicly burned in protest of the Vietnam War.
1968: A newly formed Black Caucus persuaded the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly to commit one million dollars to the work of black empowerment; this commitment was renewed a year later but never paid in full.
1970: The UUA General Assembly passed resolutions endorsing the Equal Rights Amendment and condemning all discrimination against homosexuals and bisexuals.
1971: The UUA released About Your Sexuality, a pioneering sexual education curriculum that used child-centered pedagogies and explicit filmstrips to promote birth control, challenge gender norms, and (in a 1973 revision) affirm the naturalness of homosexuality and bisexuality.
1974: The Ministerial Sisterhood Unitarian Universalist was organized to support the rapidly growing community of female ministers.
1977: The General Assembly passed a Business Resolution on Women and Religion that called on Unitarian Universalists to eliminate sexist language and culture from all denominational activities.
1985: The UUA’s statement of Principles and Purposes was revised to list seven principles and five (later six) sources.
1995: The International Council of Unitarians and Universalists was organized in Essex, Massachusetts.
1997: The General Assembly passed a Business Resolution calling on Unitarian Universalists to “examine carefully their own conscious and unconscious racism as participants in a racist society” and on the UUA to “develop an ongoing process for the comprehensive institutionalization of anti-racism and multiculturalism.”
2001-2004: Unitarian Universalists Hillary and Julie Goodridge, with overwhelming support from their denomination, served as lead plaintiffs in the court case that legalized same-gender marriage in Massachusetts.
2011: Deborah Pope-Lance, delivering the annual Berry Street Essay to the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, called on her colleagues to acknowledge the harm caused by widespread patterns of clergy sexual misconduct.
2017: Peter Morales, the first Latino President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, resigned the presidency following widespread criticism about the lack of diversity in the denomination’s senior leadership.
Unitarian Universalism is a new religious tradition with a long history. [Image at right] The Unitarian Universalist Association was founded in 1961 through the consolidation of the American Unitarian Association (founded in 1825) and the Universalist Church of America (whose institutional history is generally dated to 1793). The theological traditions designated as “Unitarianism” and “Universalism” go back even further. Given the emphasis of this website on new religious movements, this history will briefly touch on those deep roots, then focus on the Unitarian Universalist Association.
Unitarianism is, arguably, the earliest form of Christianity. The New Testament presumes a unitary view of God. The Trinitarian doctrine defined at Nicea in 325 used nonbiblical language. The Protestant Reformation’s emphasis on sola scriptura thus reopened the debate. Though Luther and Calvin held fast to Trinitarianism, others questioned it. Michael Servetus was burned at the stake in Calvin’s Geneva for criticizing the Nicene formula, and within fifteen years non-Trinitarian churches were formed in both Poland and Transylvania. The doctrines of those churches migrated to Britain during the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Joseph Priestley carried the tradition from Britain to the fledgling United States, and then a large share of the Puritan churches of Massachusetts embraced Unitarianism. Unitarian Universalism retains strong ties to New England, and to Bostonian educational traditions.
For the first eighteen centuries of Christian history, the doctrine of universal salvation was a persistent theological undercurrent but never the basis for a distinct denomination. That changed with the creation of explicitly Universalist congregations in the United States in the 1770s and 1780s. Early Universalists were also fierce opponents of state support for religion, and in some cases close allies of the early labor movement.
In the United States, the Unitarian and Universalist denominations evolved in parallel throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Prodded by the Transcendentalist and Spiritualist movements, they gradually made room for members who believed in God but not in the special authority of Christian revelation. When twentieth century humanists began arguing that it was possible to be a good Unitarian or Universalist without believing in God at all, that was accepted with debate but no real threat of denominational division.
The UUA actually comes closer than either of its predecessors to having an individual founder, though that founder did not bring his vision to fruition. After being elected president of the American Unitarian Association in 1937, Frederick May Eliot [Image at right] began dreaming of a “Liberal Church of America” that would unite Unitarians, Universalists, Quakers, Ethical Culturists, and Reform Jews (Eliot). Ultimately, only the Universalists (who had recently been rebuffed by the Federal Council of Churches) were interested in Eliot’s vision (Cummins 1966). The two denominations’ youth organizations were especially enthusiastic about merger, and they came together as Liberal Religious Youth in 1953 (Arnason and Scott 2005). Their adult counterparts, less willing to discard institutional memories, chose the name “Unitarian Universalist” as a compromise between past and future (Ross 2001).
The new denomination was also shaped by another of Eliot’s initiatives, which was to sponsor lay-led “fellowships” in communities too small to support a full-fledged church. This low-cost method of church extension allowed the AUA to grow rapidly in the postwar decades (Bartlett 1960; Ulbrich 2008). Meanwhile, the Universalists, whose base was rural, were shrinking fast. After consolidation, many Universalist congregations closed or were absorbed by Unitarian neighbors. Nevertheless, the core ideas of Universalist theology, particularly its emphasis on love, are more cherished by UUs today than the anti-Trinitarianism of the Unitarians.
The Unitarian Universalist Association was born in 1961, following a two-year gestation. Legally it was a “consolidation” rather than a “merger,” to prevent court challenges. Overwhelming majorities in both denominations supported consolidation (Ross 2001). Donald Harrington captured their sense of enthusiasm in a sermon declaring that “What we have seen emerging in Unitarian Universalism in this century is nothing less than a new synthesis, the coalescence of a new consensus, a new world faith, formulated by and fitted for this great, new world age” (Harrington 1960). The UUA Constitution also articulated six “principles of a free faith:”
To strengthen one another in a free and disciplined search for truth as the foundation of our religious fellowship;
To cherish and spread the universal truths taught by the great prophets and teachers of humanity in every age and tradition, immemorially summarized in the Judeo-Christian heritage as love to God and love to man;
To affirm, defend and promote the supreme worth of every human personality, the dignity of man, and the use of the democratic method in human relationships;\
To implement our vision of one world by striving for a world community founded on ideals of brotherhood, justice and peace;
To serve the needs of member churches and fellowships, to organize new churches and fellowships, and to extend and strengthen liberal religion;
To encourage cooperation with men of good will in every land.
The one significant debate in the consolidation process involved the second principle, which expressed the complex relationship between Unitarian Universalism and its Christian past. Some preferred only a vague reference to “the great prophets and teachers of humanity;” others wanted language specifically about the teachings of Jesus or a definite affiliation with “our Judeo-Christian tradition.” The delegates compromised by changing “our” to “the.”
From the beginning, Unitarian Universalism had a strong social conscience. At the UUA’s first general assembly in 1961, the delegates voted to support legislation protecting migrant workers, increased funding for mental health services, the abolition of capital punishment, the complete integration of public schools, open housing laws, an end to the House Un-American Activities Committee, a nuclear test ban treaty “as an initial step” toward “total universal disarmament,” increased foreign aid for newly independent African states, increased funding for public education, and to oppose military intervention in Cuba (“Resolutions” 1970). Subsequent assemblies voted repeatedly to support abortion rights and population control, paving the way for more comprehensive statements supporting feminism and environmentalism by the 1970s. Unitarian Universalists were also early and consistent in opposing the Vietnam War and, somewhat later, in supporting people of diverse sexualities.
Racial justice was Unitarian Universalism’s top social justice priority throughout the 1960s. This was a bit paradoxical, as the overwhelming majority of Unitarian Universalists were white, and only a few congregations had achieved a significant degree of racial integration. Denominational hymnals and religious education curricula assumed white audiences. Throughout the 1960s, Unitarian Universalist children could expect to learn about Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam in Sunday school, but not about their own Black, Latinx, Native American, or Asian American neighbors. Despite the challenge of integrating their churches, Unitarian Universalists rarely hesitated to support integration in society at large. When Martin Luther King, Jr., invited the leaders of white denominations to join in a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, protesting the death of African American activist Jimmie Lee Jackson, forty Unitarian Universalist ministers were among the 450 who responded (a proportion one hundred times their share of the national population). Three of those ministers were assaulted by segregationists while in Selma. [Image at right] After one of the three, James Reeb, died from his injuries, hundreds more Unitarian Universalists (as well as activists of all religions) streamed to Selma. By the end of the month, protesters had marched to Montgomery, President Lyndon Johnson had publicly embraced their cause and their slogans, and one more white Unitarian Universalist, Viola Liuzzo, had given her life (Morrison-Reed 2014).
The events of Selma put Unitarian Universalism on the map as a predominantly white denomination that was unusually sympathetic to black liberation. Around the same time, many black freedom fighters began questioning the integrationist ideal. What was needed was a genuine redistribution of power, with blacks free to choose when to participate in historically white institutions and when to devote themselves to their own communities. For black members of mostly-white Unitarian Universalist congregations, this was a challenging and, for some, inspiring idea. In the wake of the urban riots of 1967, they organized a “black caucus” that soon evolved into a national organization. That caucus, with its white allies, brought a proposal to the 1968 General Assembly for a million dollars of funding, over four years, to be devoted to black power initiatives at the direction of a Black Affairs Council controlled by black Unitarian Universalists. Some prominent black Unitarian Universalists opposed this out of devotion to the integrationist ideal, as did the white minister of one of the most integrated congregations in the UUA. Nevertheless, delegates supported the proposal by a vote of 836 to 327. A year later, they reaffirmed the commitment. This vote overrode proposals from the UUA Board and took place only after Black Power activists and their white allies had staged a walkout (Morrison Reed 2018, Carpenter 2004).
The same assembly elected a new denominational president, Robert West, who soon announced that the denomination had accumulated an enormous debt as a result of the ambitious programs of his predecessor. By this time, denominational membership had begun a precipitous decline. West proposed to cut $1,000,000 from a denominational budget of $2,600,000. In this context, he asked that the commitment to the Black Affairs Council be spread over five years instead of four. This put the Council in a difficult spot, both because the wider Black Power movement was counting on Unitarian Universalist support and because their philosophy of power required them to confront white power structures with non-negotiable demands. The Black Affairs disaffiliated from the UUA, then succumbed to a bitter internal schism. By that time, many of the Unitarian Universalists who had been most inspired by Black Power had left the movement in frustrated disappointment. The few remaining Unitarian Universalists who were politically conservative also left at this time, accelerating the denomination’s decline.
Unitarian Universalism began the 1970s with its ideals and its finances badly bruised. The denominational coffers were partly replenished by the generosity of a single congregation, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock. That congregation, founded during the fellowship movement, received some North Sea oil and gas royalties from an early supporter, and these proved to be astonishingly lucrative. The denomination’s ideals were revived by the steadfast witness of its publishing house, Beacon Press, which took the bold step of publishing the leaked “Pentagon Papers,” exposing military malfeasance in Vietnam, in 1971. Unitarian Universalism also took some significant steps to align itself with the gay liberation movement that emerged after the Stonewall uprising of 1969. Beginning as early as 1957, Unitarian Universalist clergy had quietly performed same-sex marriages; after 1969 they began to do so openly or to come out of the closet if they were themselves gay or lesbian (Wilson 2011). The 1970 General Assembly voted to “urge all people immediately to bring an end to all discrimination against homosexuals, homosexuality, bisexuals, and bisexuality.” In 1971, the denomination released About Your Sexuality, a pathbreaking sexual education curriculum for children that quickly became a staple of Unitarian Universalist religious education, and it was revised two years later to include a strong affirmation of “Homosexual Life Styles” (Gibb 2003). Unitarian Universalist adults could learn about their gay and lesbian neighbors from The Invisible Minority, an hour-long filmstrip and audiotape that featured the faces and voices of dozens of gay and lesbian people. Activists organized a Gay Caucus in 1973 and immediately persuaded the denomination to establish an Office of Gay Concerns. The Welcoming Congregation program, created in 1989, helped congregations embrace new members who were LGBTQ, and the substantial majority of congregations chose to participate. Unitarian Universalists also mobilized politically in support of AIDS advocacy and research, marriage equality, and transgender rights.
The single most important factor transforming Unitarian Universalism in the 1970s and 1980s was the expanding leadership of women. Though the denomination had consistently supported abortion rights, it did not publicly embrace a broader feminist vision until 1970. By that time, both young and middle-aged women were streaming into seminary in unprecedented numbers. Both Unitarians and Universalists had ordained women for more than a century, but in 1969 there were fewer than forty ordained women and far fewer female senior ministers. Those numbers swelled to half of all Unitarian Universalist clergy by the end of the century, and more than two thirds today. Lay women, among them the hymnwriter Carolyn McDade and the activist Lucille Longview, argued that this change of leadership was inadequate: Unitarian Universalism also needed to transform its culture in line with radical feminism. They crafted a 1977 resolution on Women and Religion that urged all Unitarian Universalists to “examine carefully their own religious beliefs and the extent to which these beliefs influence sex-role stereotypes within their own families” and to “avoid sexist assumptions and language in the future.” This paved the way for the feminist rewriting of the denominations “Principles and Purposes” in 1985, for the creation of a goddess-oriented adult curriculum, Cakes for the Queen of Heaven in 1986, and for the rapid linguistic transformation of Unitarian Universalists hymns and worship (Malter 2016-2017).
By the middle of the 1980s, Unitarian Universalism reversed its membership decline and began growing slightly, though not as fast as the United States population as a whole. This was a significant achievement, given the ongoing numerical decline of mainline Protestantism. Growth was especially robust in culturally conservative parts of the country, suggesting that it was motivated partly by a reaction against the political power of the Religious Right. Today, the largest local congregation in the UUA is All Souls in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The theological diversity of the movement also increased in the last decades of the twentieth century. A denomination that had once been divided between its liberal Christian and humanist wings, with a smattering of Jewish-Christian blended families, came to provide a religious home to western Buddhists, Pagans, nature mystics, practitioners of queer spirituality, and (increasingly in the twenty-first century) liberal Muslims. To all these people, it offered diversity-affirming community, strong religious education (something notably lacking in many western Buddhist and pagan contexts), and a venue for activism.
For all its theological diversity and progressive idealism, UUism remained disproportionately white and professional class. Since opposition to racism predates many of UUism’s other justice commitments, this is a cause of vexation and soul-searching. The 1997 General Assembly passed a business resolution, “Toward an Anti-Racist Unitarian Universalist Association,” that “urge[d] Unitarian Universalists to examine carefully their own conscious and unconscious racism as participants in a racist society” and “to develop an ongoing process for the comprehensive institutionalization of anti-racism and multi-culturalism, understanding that whether or not a group becomes multi-racial, there is always the opportunity to become anti-racist.” The UUA became the first predominantly white denomination to elect a black president when it selected William Sinkford in 2001; Sinkford had been president of the denomination’s youth organization in the late 1960s, but had left Unitarian Universalism for several years in the wake of the empowerment controversy. His successor, Peter Morales, [Image at right] was the first Latino president, and he made immigration justice a centerpiece of his presidency. When Arizona passed a repressive immigration law a few years before the General Assembly scheduled for Phoenix in 2012, the denomination responded with a massive demonstration at an outdoor prison for immigrants.
Yet the top leadership of the denomination itself remained overwhelmingly white, even with black and brown presidents. At a March 2017 gathering for religious professionals of color, participants asked Morales pointed questions about the selection of a white man as the new head of the UUA’s Southern Region, a hire that maintained the all-white character of the regional leads. In the face of growing criticism, including the testimony of a Latina member of the UUA board who had applied for the job, Morales called for “more humility and less self-righteousness, more thoughtfulness and less hysteria.” These words intensified the criticism. Morales resigned just three months before the end of his second term as president. Religious educators responded to the situation by sponsoring “white supremacy teach-ins” in most congregations. The UUA board appointed a three-person co-presidency, [Image at right] all of them people of color, to fill out Morales’s term, as well as a Commission on Institutional Change to review past events and explores strategies for the future. The election of Susan Frederick-Gray (a white woman, as were both her opponents) as denominational president in June 2017 brought the period of intense crisis to an end, but the process of re-imagining the tradition’s relationship to whiteness continues at the time of this writing.
Unitarian Universalism has a strong sense of itself as a “noncreedal” religion. Members and leaders need not profess any specific doctrines or beliefs. This position was clarified over the course of the nineteenth century in both Unitarianism and Universalism, and strongly affirmed with the acceptance of religious humanism in the twentieth century. Today, it serves as a basis for the full inclusion of Jews, Buddhists, Pagans, Muslims, and others alongside the humanists and liberal Christians.
Unitarian Universalists have several texts that function somewhat similarly to the creeds and confessions of mainstream Christianity. Many congregations are bound together by a “covenant” consisting of promises that the congregants make to one another. Though each congregation is free to write its own covenant, or to do without one, many choose to use one of several standard covenants in widespread use, such as this one by James Vila Blake:
Love is the spirit of this church, and service its law.
This is our great covenant:
To dwell together in peace,
To seek the truth in love,
And to help one another.
Some covenants contain references to God; some congregations edit such references out of traditional covenants. Covenants are living documents that can be changed at any time, ordinarily by congregational vote.
The Unitarian Universalist Association as a whole is bound together by a list of seven “principles” and six “sources.”
The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in 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.
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 people 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 inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
Jewish and Christian teachings 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.
All of the principles and five of the sources were adopted in 1985 after a process intended to eliminate sexist language. The sixth source was added in 1995, in response to increasing numbers of pagans and environmentalists in Unitarian Universalist congregations. The principles and sources are not binding on either individuals or congregations, and members who disavow them face no formal repercussions. In 2006, speaking at the annual gathering of Unitarian Universalist ministers, former denominational president William Schulz explained that, as a result of his service as president of Amnesty International USA, he could no longer defend the inherent worth and dignity of torturers. Worth and dignity, he went on, are not inherent but “assigned” through a process of “pragmatic consensus” that is imperfect and ongoing. This statement was the basis for a lively conversation, not a heresy trial (Schulz 2013).
The principles are binding for the Association, taken as a whole, when it acts corporately. They guide choices about how to prioritize budgets and social witness. Statements on particular social issues appeal to the principles and sources for their ethical and theological grounding. Preachers often base sermons on them, and many Unitarian Universalists cite them when articulating their personal belief systems. Other Unitarian Universalists worry that this is evidence of “creeping creedalism” and urge that the principles are overdue for a revision, to keep them from gaining the authority that inheres in longevity. In 2009, when a revision was proposed largely on such grounds, it was rejected by General Assembly. More recently, delegates to General Assembly have considered two more specific revisions: one would change the “all people” in the first principle to “all beings,” another would add an eighth principle repudiating white supremacy and committing to counter all forms of oppression.
Even in the absence of a formal creed, there is widespread agreement about many things that go beyond the principles and sources. On a few occasions in UU history people have tried to list the affirmations and denials that would be widely accepted by UUs at that particular moment. In 1887, William Channing Gannett titled his list “Things Commonly Believed Among Us;” in 1975, David Johnson took a slightly different approach by writing an adult education curriculum entitled The Disagreements Which Unite Us (Johnson 1975).
Some widely shared agreements today include the value of the local congregation as a form of religious community; the celebration of religious, cultural, and sexual diversity; and the need for people to translate their religious values into social action. In keeping with the denominational name, virtually all Unitarian Universalists would deny the existence of a literal hell, though most would also disavow a literal heaven. Denial of the Trinity is almost universal but not quite: one small congregation identifies itself as both Trinitarian and Universalist; many clergy hold dual fellowship with various Protestant denominations; and a few individuals identify simultaneously as Unitarian Universalist and either Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox.
The political homogeneity of Unitarian Universalism is widely remarked. No one could be expelled from a Unitarian Universalist congregation for voting Republican, but most political conservatives feel distinctly unwelcome in Unitarian Universalist spaces. The overwhelming majority favors government action to reduce inequality and end discrimination, redistributive tax policies, international cooperation to address climate change, full marriage rights for people of all sexual identities, more open immigration policies, an end to mass incarceration, and abortion rights. But Unitarian Universalists do disagree about whether this political homogeneity is itself a problem!
A visitor to a UU worship service who was unable to hear or understand the words would likely assume they were in a Protestant Christian setting. Most services center on a sermon, usually about twenty minutes long, and include the singing of two or three hymns, an offering in which plates or baskets are passed through the congregation, an anthem by a volunteer or professional choir, and a prayer or meditation. About half of the hymns in widespread use were written by Unitarians, Universalists, or Unitarian Universalists, sometimes utilizing older hymn tunes. Most of the rest are edited versions of Protestant hymns, though the hymnal also includes popular, folk, and protest songs as well as adaptations of texts from other world religions. Many services include a “time for all ages” in which children are invited to the front to hear a story, after which they depart to attend religious education classes for the reminder of the service.
Two commonly used service elements are distinctively Unitarian Universalist. In the “chalice lighting,” [Image at right] a chalice containing either lamp oil, a candle, or an artificial flame is lit while words are spoken to open the service. This ritual, using the ancient archetypes of a drinking vessel and a flame, grew out of the work of the Unitarian Service Committee. Created in 1939, the Service Committee’s first task was helping Jewish and other refugees escape territories occupied by the Nazis. Artist Hans Deutsch created an image of a flaming chalice as a logo for the USC, and it was subsequently adopted as the primary visual symbol of the UUA. The ritual of lighting a physical chalice emerged after the visual image.
A second ritual, “candles of joy and concern,” [Image at right] is a beloved custom in many congregations with fewer than one hundred fifty members, but hard to enact in larger settings. In this ritual, individuals (usually about one tenth of the congregation) step forward to share a personal joy, sorrow, or milestone, while lighting a candle. This practice seems to have begun in the lay-led fellowships begun in the middle of the twentieth century, and some people regard it as a relic of “fellowship culture” that promotes intimacy but inhibits congregational growth. Indeed, participants sometimes speak at excessive length. On the other hand, many see it as a precious tool for deepening interpersonal connections. Some congregations compromise by having members light candles without speaking, or submit written text to be read aloud by the minister.
Just as the UU weekly service follows a Protestant pattern, the yearly cycle follows the Christian liturgical year as well as the rhythms of academic life. Most congregations celebrate Christmas with a children’s pageant and candle-lit Christmas Eve service, and Easter with an especially festive service and perhaps a modified communion ritual, or an Easter Egg hunt. Apart from a few explicitly Christian congregations, UU congregations tend not to observe Advent, Lent, Good Friday, or Pentecost. They often observe Kwanzaa and Passover, and there is a lively debate about whether this constitutes cultural appropriation if it is not directly initiated by Black or Jewish persons. Many congregations modify their services in some way during the summer months. Some shut down altogether; some offer only lay led services; some rely on guest preachers or hire a student as “summer minister.”
Just as there are two weekly service elements that are uniquely Unitarian Universalist, so there are two annual observances that are widespread. The Flower Communion, usually celebrated in the spring, derives from the ministry of Norbert and Maja Čapek. The Čapeks discovered Unitarianism in the United States and then founded a congregation in Prague in 1921. Two years later, Norbert introduced a ritual in which participants brought flowers to church, placed them in a single large vase, and subsequently selected different flowers to bring home. The congregation grew rapidly and became an important center of opposition to Nazism. In 1941, while Maya was raising funds in the United States, Norbert was arrested by the Gestapo; a year later he was sent to the Dachau concentration camp, where he was executed.
Water communion is typically celebrated on the first Sunday after the summer holiday. As with Flower Communion, participants are expected to bring some water with them to church, often taken from a special place. This is poured into a central vessel, and often saved for use in baby dedications. This practice originated with a “water ritual” (not communion) developed by feminists Lucille Longview and Carolyn McDade (Malter 2016-2017). As currently practiced, the ritual bears few marks of its feminist origin. It can serve as an occasion for people to share precious summer memories or parade their exotic vacation destinations before less privileged fellow congregants. To avoid the latter, some congregations ask participants to identify their water by its emotional significance rather than its physical origin.
Life cycle rituals in Unitarian Universalism generally reflect the movement’s Christian roots. New babies are welcomed to many congregations with “child dedications” that incorporate elements borrowed from Christian baptism, minus the language about original sin. “Coming of age” services are structured like confirmations, except that the teenaged participants articulate their personal theologies rather than affirming formal creeds. Marriages and funerals generally follow the Christian pattern.
For many Unitarian Universalists, the most important religious practice is advocacy for social and environmental justice. [Image at right] From the beginning of the nineteenth century, Unitarians and Universalists were over-represented in labor organizing, abolitionism, temperance activism, peace work, and utopian socialism. Members of the two traditions were among the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the League of Women Voters, and dozens of kindred organizations. Contemporary Unitarian Universalists are conspicuously devoted to marriage equality, transgender rights, immigration solidarity, fossil fuel divestment, opposition to mass incarceration, and efforts to uproot white supremacy both in the larger society and within Unitarian Universalism. Though each congregation has a distinct style of activism, many participate in the denomination’s Side with Love campaign, which encourages Unitarian Universalists to wear distinctive shirts or otherwise be visibly identifiable when they participate in demonstrations or lobbying efforts. The name Side with Love reflects both the Universalist heritage of emphasis on divine love and a characteristically Unitarian Universalist concern with the unintended effects of language. The campaign was originally called “Standing on the Side of Love,” after a contemporary hymn written by Jason Shelton, but changed the name after disability rights advocates pointed out that the image excludes persons who are unable to stand.
Unitarian Universalism proudly identifies congregational polity as a bedrock organizational commitment. This means that ultimate organizational authority is vested in the local congregation rather than the national association, though even the local congregation cannot override the free conscience of each individual. Only local congregations can ordain people to the Unitarian Universalist ministry.
Local congregations are thus the most important organizations within Unitarian Universalism. Many people have strong ties to their congregation and no connection to any other Unitarian Universalist institution. Collectively, the congregations hold more wealth than the Unitarian Universalist Association, much of it in the form of church buildings or (especially in New England) endowment funds. Most congregations are older than the UUA itself; some even predate the UUA’s predecessor denominations by as much as two centuries. (The first churches founded in Plymouth, Salem, Dorchester, and Boston, Massachusetts, are all now UU congregations.) Congregations are legally autonomous corporations, usually governed by elected boards.
As an “association of congregations,” the UUA is composed of member congregations, not individuals. In keeping with the fifth principle, most denominational leaders are elected by the Association’s annual General Assembly, to which each congregation sends two or more delegates depending on its size. Fellowshipped ministers and most religious educators also have voting rights. The president, who receives a full-time salary and functions as a chief executive, is elected to a single six-year term under the current bylaws. The president need not be ordained, but thus far all presidents have been. The moderator is elected to a six-year term, staggered with that of the president. Ordinarily a layperson, the moderator serves on a voluntary basis, chairing the UUA Board and presiding at General Assembly. The UUA board and many other denominational organizations utilize the system of “policy governance” developed by John Carver in the 1970s.
A few additional organizations operate independently of the UUA and serve Unitarian Universalism as a whole. The Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, Liberal Religious Educators Association, and Unitarian Universalist Ministers Network represent the major professional groups within the movement. UUSC. Seminaries. The UU Women’s Federation and Diverse and Revolutionary UU Multicultural Ministries are among the best known groups that organize UUs with specific identities. There are also organizations corresponding to the major theological currents within Unitarian Universalism.
Congregational polity is balanced by practices that give Unitarian Universalism a more cohesive feel than some other congregationalist traditions. Though ordination is offered by local congregations, “ministerial fellowship” is extended by the UUA only to individuals who have earned a Master of Divinity degree, completed a ministerial internship, and received approval from the denomination’s Ministerial Fellowship Committee. Though congregations are free to call ministers who do not have ministerial fellowship, in practice this is quite rare.
Currently the UUA is structured as a denomination within the United States. At the time of its founding, it also included Canadian congregations, which were organized in a subordinate Canadian Council. That council became independent in 2002. The Unitarian Universalist Church of the Philippines, however, remained as part of the UUA. Related denominations around the world participate in the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists.
By the standards of U.S. Protestantism, Unitarian Universalism has been remarkably free of schism or schism-threatening conflict. At the height of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy in the 1920s, Unitarians and Universalists experienced the more radical theological innovation of humanism and absorbed it with some harsh words but no real division. Likewise, when debate over sexuality engulfed mainline Protestantism in the 1980s, Unitarian Universalists realized that their strong consensus on the issue provided a growth opportunity, and LGTBQ persons have been over-represented in membership and leadership ever since.
At the time of this writing, the UUA is still working through the implications of a major controversy over hiring practices, discussed in the historical narrative above.
Currently, the substantial majority of adult Unitarian Universalists are converts to the tradition, though many are uncomfortable with the notion of conversion. The predominance of newcomers reflects both an abiding capacity to attract new adherents and a widespread failure to instill loyalty through religious education. On the other hand, not all UU parents see lifelong loyalty to UUism as a goal, and most express satisfaction with the way their children embody the broader values of the movement. Many adult converts felt forced out of their previous religious communities, either because of their (un)beliefs or their personal identities (especially sexual and gender identities). They may carry scars or resentments, sometimes directed at theologies or traditions that other UUs cherish. Some observers discern a hostility against Christianity that would not be considered acceptable if it were directed against any other tradition. On the other hand, UUs who identify with non-Christian traditions are often frustrated by the pervasive presence of Christian assumptions, liturgical practices, and hymns.
The minority who were raised Unitarian Universalist have some frustrations of their own. Many report that the culture of religious education and of youth gatherings is substantially different from that of the “adult” church. It is more emotional and embodied, more racially diverse (because of the presence of cross-racial and international adoptees, as well as children of multiracial families), more radical (as opposed to liberal) in its social justice commitments, and less reactive against traditional religiosity. They may regard this culture as more authentically Unitarian Universalist than the adult culture. People raised UU may report that their religious education did not instill in them a strong sense of UU identity, but instead encouraged them to sample and appropriate elements from other traditions. (In response to this criticism, RE has tilted toward more emphasis on UUism itself in recent decades.)
For the most part, older and convert UUs are eager to hear the perspectives of younger people raised in the tradition. At the General Assembly, large sections are designated for youth and young adult caucuses. When these caucuses formally take sides in debated issues (as they often do), their positions almost always carry the day. And at the 2018 GA, the president, executive vice president, and co-moderators were able to announce proudly that all had been raised UU and had participated in youth organizations. This had not been true for at least a quarter century. What’s more, all had been born after the founding of the UUA, another first. Perhaps this youthful yet ancient movement had come of age.
Image #1: Unitarian Universalist Logo.
Image #2: Frederick May Eliot, president of the American Unitarian Association.
Image #3: Selma Memorial to three Unitarian Universalist ministers assaulted by segregationists in Selma, Alabama.
Image #4: Unitarian Universalist president Peter Morales.
Image #5: The Unitarian Universalist board appointed three-person co-presidency following Peter Morales resignation from the presidency.
Image #6: The Flaming Chalice ceremony..
Image #7: The Flower Communion ceremony.
Image #8: Unitarian Universalist members holding a Black Lives Matter banner.
Image #9: Unitarian Universalist members holding Side with Love banners.
Arnason, Wayne, and Rebecca Scott. 2005. We Would Be One: A History of Unitarian Universalist Youth Movements. Boston: Skinner House.
Bartlett, Laile. 1960. Bright Galaxy: Ten Years of Unitarian Fellowships. Boston: Beacon.
Carpenter, Victor H. 2004. Long Challenge: The Empowerment Controversy (1967-1977). Chicago: Meadville Lombard.
Cummins, Robert. 1966. Excluded: The Story of the Federal Council of Churches and the Universalists. Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association.
Eliot, Frederick May. 1947. “The Message and Mission of Liberal Religion.” Christian Register, November:423-24, 436.
Gibb, Sarah. 2003. “In Context: A Study of the About Your Sexuality Curriculum and Its Times.” Harvard Divinity School M.Div. Senior Seminar Paper.
Harrington, Donald. 1960. “We Are That Faith!” Unitarian Register, Mid-Summer:3-6.
Johnson, David. 1975. The Disagreements Which Unite Us. Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association.
Malter, Natalie. 2016-2017. “’A View from the Pew’: Lucile Longview, Unitarian Universalism, and the 1977 Women and Religion Resolution.” Journal of Unitarian Universalist History 40:107-31.
Morrison-Reed, Mark. 2018. Revisiting the Empowerment Controversy: Black Power and Unitarian Universalism. Boston: Skinner House.
Morrison-Reed, Mark. 2014. The Selma Awakening: How the Civil Rights Movement Tested and Changed Unitarian Universalism. Boston: Skinner House.
“Resolutions Adopted by Unitarian Universalist Association.” 1961. Unitarian Universalist Register-Leader, Midsummer 1961:32-33.
Ross, Warren R. 2001. The Premise and the Promise: The Story of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Boston: Skinner House.
Schulz, William. 2013. What Torture Taught Me. Boston: Skinner House Books.
Ulbrich, Holley. 2008. The Fellowship Movement: A Growth Strategy and Its Legacy. Boston: Skinner House.
Wilson, Jeff. 2011/2012. “‘Which One of You Is the Bride?’ Unitarian Universalism and Same-Sex marriage in North America, 1957-1972.” Journal of Unitarian Universalist History 35:156-72.
Recommended Overview Texts
Buehrens, John. Universalists and Unitarians in America: A People’s History. 2011. Boston: Skinner House Books.
Buehrens, John, and Rebecca Ann Parker. 2010. A House for Hope: The Promise of Progressive Religion for the Twenty-first Century. Boston: Beacon Press.
Greenwood, Andrea, and Mark W. Harris. 2011. An Introduction to the Unitarian and Universalist Traditions. New York: Cambridge University Press.
McKanan, Dan, et al., eds. 2017. A Documentary History of Unitarian Universalism. Two Volumes. Boston: Skinner House Books.
Morales, Peter, ed. 2012. The Unitarian Universalist Pocket Guide. Fifth Edition. Boston: Skinner House Books.
Robinson, David. 1985. The Unitarians and the Universalists. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
28 January 2019