Unitarianism began in the Fifteenth Century as a Christian heresy, because Unitarians insisted that there was only one God and that Jesus was not His son. Unitarians were persecuted harshly and some were even burned at the stake. It was against the law to be a Unitarian in England until 1844. Some of the first churches in America were Unitarian, because Unitarians, like so many others, came here for religious freedom.
Because of this history, Unitarians are used to fighting for their rights and the rights of all other oppressed people. Social justice has always been, and still is, a major focus for Unitarians.
During the 18th century “Age of Enlightenment,” many freethinkers, scientists, artists, innovators and revolutionaries adopted Unitarianism. Named “Liberal Religion,” it became a tolerant, diverse and progressive faith for a new era.
Some famous Unitarians in the United States include John and Abigail Adams, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Susan B. Anthony, Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock, Pete Seeger and Christopher Reeve.
Universalism began as another persecuted heresy, because Universalists believed in “universal salvation.” God would never damn anyone to hell, they insisted, because He loved his creations too much. This meant that Jesus didn’t die for our sins, because He didn’t have to. Universalism was not very popular with orthodox religious authority, either. Tufts University was originally founded by Universalists.
In 1961, the Unitarian and Universalist denominations in the United States, seeing how much they had in common, merged to become the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). The UUA’s headquarters are in Boston, Massachusetts.
During the last several decades, UUs have been central to many important struggles for progressive change in the United States, including the Civil Rights movement, the peace movement, the fight for women’s rights, advocacy for immigrants, the poor and the homeless, and support for same-sex marriage. Unitarian Universalists marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma in 1965, and two of them were killed by local white supremacists. UUs were and are active proponents of universal voting rights, civil rights and gay and lesbian rights. The first legal same-sex marriage celebrated in a church in the United States was held at the Unitarian Universalist Arlington Street Church in Cambridge, MA on May 17, 2004.
Unitarian Universalism is structured by the rule of “congregational polity.” This means that each UU congregation is free to govern itself, choose who it hires and ordains as clergy, and emphasize the priorities and philosophy that best suits the needs and wishes of its members. Because of this, UU congregations are highly diverse, ranging from traditional churches to congregations that explore and incorporate different faith traditions–Buddhist, Quaker, or modern Pagan for example–to congregations that place rationality and humanism at the fore.
But this doesn’t mean that Unitarian Universalists can “just believe anything they want.” On the contrary: all UUs must agree to join philosophically and spiritually in covenant with their congregations and with all other UUs. A covenant is a voluntary commitment for mutual respect, support and assistance that comes from the deepest part of a person’s heart and soul. It is not something to take lightly. Covenant is what binds UUs together, as individual congregations and as a denomination. The denominational covenant is expressed in the following words:
We, The Member Congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, Covenant to Affirm and Promote:
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 independent web of all existence of which we are a part.
The Living Tradition We Share Draws from Many Sources:
Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life;
Words and deeds of prophetic men and women 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 and 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.
Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision. As free congregations we enter into this covenant, promising to one another our mutual trust and support.