Unitarian Christianity

General Information

Unitarianism is a form of Christianity that asserts that God is one person, the Father, rather than three persons in one, as the doctrine of the Trinity holds. A number of religious groups in Transylvania, Poland, Great Britain, and North America have been designated as unitarian because of this belief. It has not been their only distinguishing mark, however, and at times not even the most important one. As significant has been their confidence in the reasoning and moral abilities of people - in contrast to traditions that emphasize original sin and human depravity - as well as an avoidance of dogma.

Modern Unitarianism dates to the period of the Protestant Reformation. A Unitarian movement has existed in Transylvania since the 1560s, when the leader was Francis David (1510 - 79). In Poland, Unitarianism flourished for a hundred years as the Minor Reformed Church until persecution forced (1660) its adherents into exile. The key figure in the Polish movement was Faustus Socinus (1539 - 1604). Isolated individual unitarians lived in England in the 1600s, most notably John Biddle, but Unitarianism developed as a formal movement in the 1700s, partly within the Church of England but mainly in dissenting circles.

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In America the religious liberalism that came to be known as Unitarianism appeared within the congregational churches in Massachusetts as a reaction against the revivalism of the Great Awakening (1740 - 43). The election (1805) of Henry Ware as Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard University touched off a controversy, as a result of which the liberals became a separate denomination. William Ellery Channing's sermon entitled "Unitarian Christianity" (1819) was an influential statement of their beliefs.

In 1838, Ralph Waldo Emerson's divinity school address declared that religious truth should be based on the authority of inner consciousness, not on external historical proofs. More conservative Unitarians were critical of Emerson and his followers, known as transcendentalists, fearing that such subjectivism would destroy the claim of Christianity to be a divinely revealed religion. Since the controversy over Transcendentalism, some within the denomination have always felt it important to maintain continuity with the Christian tradition, whereas others have found Christianity to be intellectually limited and emotionally restrictive.

In 1961 the Unitarians merged with the Universalists in the Unitarian Universalist Association, uniting two denominations with roughly parallel histories and a similar tradition of religious liberalism.

D W Howe, The Unitarian Conscience (1970); E M Wilbur, A History of Unitarianism (1945); C Wright, The Beginnings of Unitarianism in America (1955) and, as ed., A Stream of Light (1975)

Unitarian Universalist Association

Advanced Information

The Unitarian Universalist Association was formed in 1961 by consolidation of the American Unitarian Association (1825) and the Universalist Church of America (1793). At continental headquarters in Boston, the association carries on common activities, such as church extension, ministerial settlement, and preparation of educational materials, but it does not exercise hierarchical control. Its philosophy is one of religious liberalism, stressing the value of human freedom and rejecting dogmatic formulations. Humanitarian concerns are entrusted to a related organization, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. The denomination is connected with similar groups abroad through the International Association for Religious Freedom. It has 1,019 churches and lay - led fellowships in North America, with 145,250 adult members and 1,200 ordained clergy (1990).


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The origin of this ancient heresy, sometimes called antitrinitarianism, is to be found in the Arian controversy of the early fourth century when Arius, presbyter in the church at Alexandria, set forth the system of thought which bears his name. He denied the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity and asserted that there was a time when God was not the Father and Jesus Christ was not the Son. Because God foresaw the merit of Jesus the man, Christ was accorded a kind of divinity, but he was never of the same substance as the Father although he is worthy of worship. This early and rather high form of Unitarianism was condemned by the Council of Nicaea in 325 and by the Council of Constantinople in 381. Throughout the Middle Ages, Unitarianism in any form was regarded as heretical. It reappeared in a somewhat different guise in the writings of Michael Servetus and was accepted by some of the more radical of the Anabaptist groups.

It received a new impetus and theological foundation in the Socinianism of Laelius and Faustus Socinus and in the Racovian Catechism of 1605. Although they rejected the deity of Christ and the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, the Socinians held to a kind of supernaturalism and even insisted on the worship of Jesus Christ as a divine person, believing in his resurrection from the dead and his ascension. But his divine nature was the result of his perfect obedience. They denied the orthodox position on the fall of man and held that man still possesses a full freedom of the will. Thus the redeeming work of Christ is to be found in his life and teachings rather than in his vicarious death upon the cross.

With the coming of the Enlightenment and the appearance of deism, Unitarianism in the hands of Joseph Priestly and others became more rationalistic and less supernaturalistic in its outlook. Nature and right reason replaced the NT as the primary sources of religious authority, and what authority the Scriptures retained was the result of their agreement with the findings of reason.

Unitarianism came to New England as early as 1710, and by 1750 most of the Congregational ministers in and around Boston had ceased to regard the doctrine of the Trinity as an essential Christian belief. In 1788 King's Chapel, the first Anglican church in New England, became definitely Unitarian when its rector, with the consent of the congregation, deleted from the liturgy all mention of the Trinity. The triumph of Unitarianism in New England Congregationalism seemed complete with the election of Henry Ware, an avowed opponent of the Trinitarian position, to the Hollis chair of divinity at Harvard.

In the nineteenth century, under the impact of transcendentalism, Unitarianism became steadily more radical. Its later leaders such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Parker rejected those remaining supernatural elements which William Ellery Channing had seen fit to retain. Modern Unitarianism has become increasingly humanistic. Many members of the American Unitarian Association, founded in 1825, have come to the conclusion that their movement is not a part of the Christian church. In 1961 they merged with the Universalists.

C G Singer
(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

S H Fritchman, Together we Advance; J Orr, English Deism: Its Roots and Fruits; E M Wilbur, History of Unitarianism,; C Wright, Beginnings of Unitarianism in America.

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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